Old Globe’s Trio of Designing Women

It was one of those coincidences that is considered remarkable less because of what it is than because of what it says about the changing faces behind the scenes of American theater.

Certainly, it seemed to take Karen Gerson, Wendy Heffner and Lucy Peckham by surprise when it was brought to their attention that they make up the first all-female design team at the Old Globe, where they are working on the costumes, set, lights and sound for the West Coast premiere of “The Voice of the Prairie,” opening tonight at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

As Peckham, the sound designer who recently won a Dramalogue award for her work on “The Boiler Room,” said, “I hadn’t thought about it. Then when I did, I thought it was strange that it was a new thing.”

Although Peckham said it is unusual to be a female sound designer--"I have never met another one"--as the youngest member of the team, the 26-year-old is not accustomed to thinking in terms of the limitations that can result from sexual stereotypes.


Similarly, Heffner, the 32-year-old lighting designer, said, “I have never thought of myself as being an oddity in this field. You don’t generally think of that unless you have conflict, and I haven’t found that being a woman has inhibited me from getting employment.”

In contrast, it is Gerson, the set and costume designer who, at 46, brings perspective to the times that are a-changing.

“I started out very traditionally. I married a surgeon, had a baby a year afterwards. I was going to be a housewife. But I wasn’t happy. I hadn’t self-actualized. Then the women’s movement came along. I started exploring everything I was interested in. My family always won awards in art, and I thought that art wouldn’t be it, because it was so easy. Then someone said, ‘Did you ever consider designing for the theater?’ ”

Gerson, who had already achieved some success in acting and singing, took a portfolio of pictures of her paintings, sculpture and photography to Howard Bay, a teacher who had designed many Broadway sets including the one for “Man of La Mancha.” Bay was impressed enough to take her on, despite her absence of technical background.


She’s been working on sets and costumes ever since. Her marriage didn’t survive the “actualization,” but Gerson, an animated and vivacious woman, didn’t express any regrets.

“I think the women’s movement was the greatest thing that ever happened. It woke us up. Yes, I could have done more. But when it did happen, at least I did act.”

Sitting in the otherwise abandoned Cassius Carter, facing the rosy burlap and erosion cloth of Gerson’s prairie stage, Heffner and Peckham listened intently to Gerson, nodding often. While the generational experience was different, they smiled in recognition at the set and costume designer’s initial sense of disbelief that she would ever be able to make a career out of something she liked and that had come so easily to her.

Peckham, who plays 10 instruments, majored in music and theater. Because she was tapped to pick the music for a college production, she got the idea--many productions later--that she might want to do that for a living.

Similarly, when Heffner started out at Stanford, intending to be an electrical engineer like her father, she was chosen to run the lights for a college show. She enjoyed the experience so much she decided to take a drama course to get a better understanding of what she was doing. She worked on more shows, took more drama courses and then, at a certain point, she recalled, “I sat down and thought about what I had done with my career at Stanford and realized I was a drama major--no doubt about it.

“I initially liked it (lighting) because it satisfied my need for technical and mathematical elements. What I like about it now is how you can create such a variety of different moods . . . When you get the cues right, you’re diverting the audience’s attention, changing focus. When it’s just right it’s like a beautiful piece of music.”

Peckham then jumped in to tell about a particular scene in “Voice of the Prairie” in which Heffner had asked the director, Tom Bullard, which character he wanted the audience to feel for. Then with a switch of the lights, she said the focus of the scene reversed.

For one designer to lavish praise on another in this conversation is not unusual. There are two themes they all express in explaining why they love their work. One is the individual challenges of their particular mediums. For Heffner, it is finding the focus and mood; for Peckham it is finding the instrument that best expresses the spirit of the work--in “Voice of the Prairie” she said it is a fiddle, and for Gerson, it is the psychology behind the choice of clothes the characters wear and the kind of environment they live in.


All of these elements are given full play in John Olive’s imaginative, time- and space-tripping story about a Midwest farmer and storyteller.

But the other thing they love is the collaborative element of the theater. “This is a very supportive designer group,” Gerson said. “I always felt that this was an important sound and lighting show, and I wanted to build something that wasn’t too busy to support it.”

“In the neurotic process of theater, I am at my worst when I am putting levels on the board on my own in a darkened theater,” Peckham said. “When I see the other elements of getting actors and designers and you’re just trouble-shooting to get it all to work together, that’s the ultimate high. And that’s worth all the essential trauma I go through in the beginning.”

Their mutual support does not end with one another. Peckham extended the discussion to one of her sound operators, who is also a woman, saying, “She never thought about sound design before and now she’s doing to design a show in college. I think that’s great.”