by Tania Thompson
Designing a Magical Set for "The Velveteen Rabbit"
Set designer Keith Mitchell is drawn to designing shows that are based on books—such as Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience, Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business and Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
For The Velveteen Rabbit, he found a lot of joy in making the magical world in which the story about the Boy and his stuffed velveteen rabbit doll unfolds. Although he didn't read the book as a child, he did as a teenager and also saw an animated film version of the story in the 1980s. It’s possible that rabbits are special to him because he grew up in the Conejo Valley—which means “rabbit” valley—and saw cottontail rabbits all the time.
We caught up with Mitchell while he was designing the set for The Velveteen Rabbit (May 24-June 9, 2019), Theatre for Young Audiences) and asked him about the inspiration for his designs and more.
What was the first play you remember seeing?
It was Tales From the Arabian Nights at the Indio Date Festival. It was outside and had live camels and I remember the genie disappearing in a puff of colored smoke.
When did you become a designer?
I think that happened at a very young age. I remember moving my parents’ furniture around when I was about 6 years old; I'd do that every time they’d leave me alone. I’d get on the floor and push the sofa around. But, I also made my own movies with friends and I think my favorite part was making the world of the story.
Do you find a lot of creative freedom in designing shows for young people?
Oh, there's a bit of radical freedom to be had designing for young audiences! There’s often a level of naturalism in adult plays that is rarely utilized in children’s shows. Adults should see what they’re missing! I would love to approach a play for adults the way I approach a children’s show. It would be exciting.
What draws you to the story of The Velveteen Rabbit?
I’m a fan of classic British children’s stories and the golden era of illustrations. I studied those things when I dreamt of being an artist and my favorite color palette comes from those old illustrations. I think the strength of The Velveteen Rabbit story is the power of a child’s imagination.
How did you go about designing the set?
The world of play, which is still where I go when I design, can be a very richly detailed emotional place. I remember spending a summer at my grandmother’s house and, to me, it was a place of pure adventure. But the river pirates were all in my head. As I designed this show, I thought about the wall in the Boy's garden as the edge of childhood. The gap in the wall leads to the woods and adulthood. The wall is broken by some unseen cataclysmic event. The woods are sort of vague, like adulthood from a child’s perspective, and maybe a little scary. The nursery feels very bright and safe, but its walls are made of scrim and when the lights are right it becomes transparent and can transport us to the world beyond. We also had to play with scale, since the toys are bigger than the Boy. I wanted to evoke the feeling that you have when you are looking at a blade of grass close up, or you close one eye to play with perspective, to make your toys look bigger than life.
What was your favorite childhood toy?
It was a little stuffed bear—his name was Rufus.