Carol MacVey & Molly Winstead
Director: Carol MacVey
Stage Manager: Marguerite Sugden
Scenic Design: Nic Wilson
Costume Design: Chelsea June
Lighting Design: Courtney Gaston
Sound Design: Mark Bruckner
E.C. Mabie Theatre
Budget for this Design Area
Comments by the Designer
Based on Jane Austen’s book by the same name, Northanger Abbey follows young, naïve Catherine Morland as she navigates the complexities of society and learns that everything is not as it seems. This first novel written by Austen was intended to be a parody of its gothic novel contemporaries, which lends it to moments of comedy and satire.
This new stage adaptation, written by director Carol MacVey and dramaturg Molly Winstead, uses the character of Jane Austen herself as the narrator and guide on this journey. Jane explains how Catherine often becomes absorbed in her fantasy gothic novels and projects those fantasies onto the world around her. The first act sees Catherine as she is surrounded by the whimsical fantasy of ballrooms and afternoon walks. The second half finds Catherine overtaken by her imaginings that her hosts live in a gothic abbey haunted by the ghost of the family’s mother. She is thrown into moments that look like they have materialized directly from her novels and Catherine must choose whether to indulge or disregard these fancies. Ultimately, her imagination gets away with her and its impact on the head of the household result in her expulsion from the estate. Catherine’s observations about the world and life’s expectations lead her to the conclusion that she is best served by making her own choices and not letting anyone else control her narrative.
The challenge with this script was to keep the playfulness of the parody while exploring Catherine’s mind’s eye, which was often mired in complicated emotions. Entering the story, I chose to keep the lighting fun and playful to represent Catherine’s excitement and joy. I used light pinks and ambers and soft textures to enhance the romanticism of the ballrooms of Bath and a bright blue sky to create the feeling of a sunny afternoon on a pleasant walk through the countryside.
As the story dipped into the gothic imaginings that Catherine projected onto the abbey, I chose to lean into the parody by creating unrealistically dramatic lighting. Using deep purples and blues, and low-lying fog effects, I brought the audience into the world as Catherine saw it: mysterious and dangerous. Light coming from odd angles and shadow play behind the arches of the abbey all added to the air of confusion, excitement, and mystery that Catherine was creating for herself. When she is finally discovered by the General, an abrupt lighting change that removes all otherworldly elements signals to the audience that it was all a young girl’s imagination.
Northanger Abbey was my first mainstage at the University of Iowa as a designer. I learned greatly from being involved in production and budget from the very beginning. My desire to have specific lighting in scenic elements increased my production costs quickly and it was a negation between wants, needs, and practicality; the candle light on the chandeliers was controlled over three circuits instead of five, allowing me to still create a realistic flicker, but sacrificing some of the organic movement. To compensate for the cost of flame-like flickering bulbs, the free-standing candelabras used traditional filaments with which I used a more complex lighting effect to achieve the candlelight effect. Low-lying fog became a negotiation on how we could most cost-effectively create the ambience, using dry ice to add creeping fog that dissipated quickly versus the expensive CO2 gas that would have lingered for a greater amount of time. All of these negotiations forced me to prioritize what the world needed against what would fit within the budget. This was a valuable experience in advocating for my needs as an artist while knowing when to release my desires for the needs of the show.
Copyright 2020 Courtney Gaston