Set Designing for Theatre, With Adam Koch [Explicit]
Adam Koch does more than design beautiful sets, he builds one-of-a-kind theatrical experiences that immerse wide-eyed audiences into other worlds. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to hear how Adam fuses his imagination and artistic talent to transform otherwise empty spaces – including rivers and fields – into large-scale theatrical masterpieces.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
Imagine being the person responsible for having to figure out how to sink a bunch of actors on a ship night after night after night. Or bringing to life a giant palace. Or taking an audience under the sea for an entire production. Well, that’s what Adam Koch does. And he’s on The Cultured Podcast today to tell us exactly how he does it.
Michelle Khouri 0:30
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri and together we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
50! 50 episodes old. Does anybody get that reference? Molly Shannon, SNL, it’s amazing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about look up “Molly Shannon 50 Years Old” on the interwebs. Because it’s ah-beautiful. But, you guys, I’m saying that for a reason. We’re literally 50 episodes old at The Cultured Podcast.That’s right, we have produced and released 50 episodes. (Michelle makes hilarious air horn sound effects with her mouth) We also have very special sound effects that we have now incorporated into the show. But this episode, we are talking to someone spectacular and that is Adam Koch.
But before we get to talking to the marvelous and spectacular set designer Adam, let me talk to you a little bit about what’s inspiring me this week. And it is a term that I coined with my friend Theresa Ward. Theresa Ward is a productivity and process champion and she owns a business called The Fiery Feather. She’s phenomenally talented. And she’s also a consultant for FRQNCY Media, my podcast production company. So, she’s really helped us maintain our culture and processes in that early stage startup zone.
But we were talking the other night, and this is both of our first summer as a small business. And summer can be a really intimidating time because it’s when everybody goes on vacation. It’s when things slow down for most businesses. And when you’re a scrappy startup that’s bootstrapping, it can be a very intimidating, scary time. And so we coined this phrase called slow flow. And slow flow is when you allow yourself to just be, when you stop the anxious vicious circles, the little anxiety monster that goes on in your brain that’s telling you “Oh my god, you might fail. Oh my god, what’s happening? Holy crap, this is never gonna work.” You shut that little fucker up. And you say, I’m gonna flow, fucker. I’m not going to be that person who self sabotages, right? I’m going to allow this, because more times than not, this is a time of opportunity. Those slow times allow you to work on your website. The slow times allow you to extend with things that you never got a chance to experiment with before. And they are times of growth, they’re just times of growth that don’t look the same as when you are back to back to back in meetings, or in our case productions. I love this concept of the slow flow. And ever since we came up with it, we’ve been texting each other like, “Okay, a few people cancelled meetings with us this week. Slow flow, slow flow.” And I love it because it’s a constant reminder that everything is exactly as it’s meant to be. And the only danger around us, especially in this cushy ass era of time, is the danger that we perceive. So what happens when we stop perceiving constant danger? Hmm. Something to nibble on? Mm hmm. Yes, quite.
Alright, y’all. Well, I’m gonna let you mull that over, but do it after our interview, because there’s a lot to mull over with Adam. So without further ado, the builder of dreams, the creator of fantasies…It’s Adam time.
Michelle Khouri 4:07
Welcome to the show, Adam.
Adam Koch 4:09
Thank you very much.
Michelle Khouri 4:10
So, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do. Let’s just set the stage. Pun intended.
Adam Koch 4:18
Absolutely. Well, my name is Adam Koch. And I’m a scenic designer or set designer for the theater, as well as the live event. And essentially anything else you need to design for that involves environmental space. You got to know me through my work down at Serenbe Playhouse in Atlanta, but I live in Brooklyn and design shows all over the world, all over this country primarily. And with a specialty, I guess, in the way that you have to follow your career a little bit. I mean, you follow your career follows you or something. But I guess I wound up in mostly a lot of musical theater.
Michelle Khouri 4:50
That’s amazing. So, is it vastly different to design for musical theater than it is to design for a play, for instance?
Adam Koch 5:01
Obviously, it comes down to the material from which you’re drawing out of. I mean, plays are just word-based, dialogue-based, and therefore sometimes can have a more restrained and contained kind of design, whereas music itself is so expressive, I mean, it is pure expression. And so the reason I guess I’m drawn artistically to musical theatre is because you have the chance to be as expressive as the music is in the design. So that’s why design for musicals sometimes can be a lot more expressive and colorful, and abstract, or suggestive, you know, all kinds of things that really wouldn’t work for play maybe.
Michelle Khouri 5:40
Right. Fascinating. So, you know, I’m really excited to have you on the show because we haven’t ventured behind the curtain, so to speak as much as we have ventured on the canvas or on the screen. So now we’re really talking about this incredibly important component to live performance. The first place I want to start is how you got led to set design. Was this something that was always a part of just the way you saw the world? Or did you fall into it as so many of us do with our careers?
Adam Koch 6:16
If I look back to my youth and childhood and just look at the activities that I was naturally, instantly drawn to without any knowledge about, you know, industry, or working, or college or training or anything like that… If I look back, essentially, I love making little models. I love music, I love dancing around, and obviously…not obviously…my mom and dad took me to the theater. And they were they’re very cultured people and very active in the arts where I grew up. And so I got to see theater. And you know, without knowing that it could be a career, I kind of just naturally was kind of expressing all the things that it would eventually take to be a set designer. I was a good draw painter and that kind of thing. I infamously rounded up all the kids in my neighborhood against their will and, you know, put on these plays, that they had to be in. And puppets, I love, love, love puppets, I still do. And so, to my surprise, thankfully, all those things combined, essentially, are what it takes to be a set designer,
Michelle Khouri 7:10
It is fascinating to think about, especially with these really interesting and unique careers from a set design perspective or something that incorporates so many aspects of your brain. I mean, you’re talking about engineering, and artistry, and like you said, sketching and also just a love of the theater and music and an understanding of music as expression. And, I mean, you have to have a brain..you mentioned abstract concepts, and expressive versus colorful versus abstraction. And so a mind that can also connect all these different dots, where we may not have realized there were dots to connect, right? So I always find it fascinating talking to somebody like you and all of these different artists and members of the cultured community who just seemed born for it, you know? And you think about this argument versus nature versus nurture, and how all of these little aspects of yourself, were slowly merging together to unite one day as a set designer.
Adam Koch 8:09
Absolutely. I think so many people have different kinds of interests, but not everyone gets a chance or is lucky enough to pinpoint the thing that will bring all those together, although I’m at a funeral here on earth and find that that collective of all of our talents should be or could be, but I know I feel I feel very lucky that I figured it out.
Michelle Khouri 8:29
Right. That’s a great point your parents did expose you to this world and via their own interest in the arts, you were able to explore your own. And that’s, I guess, where that nurture component comes in. I was the same. I only knew I loved theater, because my mom was like, “What do I do with this girl and all of her energy?
Adam Koch 8:50
All the energy!
Michelle Khouri 8:51
Throw her on a stage! And I was like, “Yas!” so you talked about sketching, I have seen some of your sketches that you develop as part of your process. And they’re so beautiful, like I would frame one of those. (laughs) To you, it’s just like, how am I…Where am I going to put this? You’re just like working things out in your brain? And I’m like, “Can I have a signed print? Please?” So when did you first start? Did it start with like you sketching buildings and exploring depths?
Adam Koch 9:21
Probably drawing was the first thing, I mean, back to childhood. That was the first thing in that way that someone acknowledged I was good at it. That seed of confidence when it comes to artwork was planted early. Thank goodness, so much of design work across the board has some kind of computer element nowadays. But at the end of the day, I still love to sketch it out first, just because my brain can figure it out. And now that I have a little momentum going in my life, I know that the directors and the creative teams I worked for and everyone gets excited by beautiful pencil or you know, hand drawn sketch, it’s just part of human nature. Same thing with scale models, people just love miniatures. So if you can present a drawing that looks, artistically rendered and modeled then people just get so excited.
Michelle Khouri 10:02
So let’s talk a little bit about the ins and outs. I always like to dig into what the process of creation is. So from ideation and conception to actual execution in this case. Is that a process that is the same every time? And does it look a specific way every time and is very repeatable? Or is it wildly different across the board?
Adam Koch 10:25
My gosh, I would say that, like the invisible underlying structure of how I go through each show is almost the same, although it looks very different on the outside, because, like I said, different titles, different scripts kind of have different styles and different flavors. You’re definitely able to develop the process in a way that feels tailored to that script. But ultimately, you know, the process from reading it to be inspired to sketching to the research to developing further into a model. I mean, it is kind of an internal recipe that I stick to, but it always looks different on the outside.
Michelle Khouri 10:59
So where does it first start? You know, obviously, the client comes to you. And is that client, usually the director of the production?
Adam Koch 11:07
Well, ultimately, in the theater world, the artistic director of the whole theater, if you’re talking about regional theater, or the producer of the show in the commercial sense, they’re going to hire the director. And usually the first thing they’re going to ask the director is, “Who do you want to design this?” and this is where designers do not have a chance to audition, so to speak, because the directors are going to say “I want Adam to do the set, I want Katherine to do the costumes, and I want Joey to do the lights.” Ideally, they get hired for the show, and they have an idea of the show. And they kind of bring to the table that people they think they will be right for it artistically, or people they know will be right for just in the scale of the project and someone they can trust.
Michelle Khouri 11:42
First of all, it sounds like once you form a good relationship and sort of artistic partnership with a director that you’re probably working with that director time and again.
Adam Koch 11:56
Ideally, yeah. I think in all areas of business or creative enterprises, like the best case scenario is you work with someone and they can’t wait to work with you again. If not again and again and again. You know, if you’re a designer, or anyone out there, and you find yourself working like one place, but never again or with one person, but never again, you should ask yourself right away, why isn’t this person calling me back immediately and be like, “I want you to be my designer,” or something like that. I can’t help but think about, essentially, the designer and director those kinds of relationships is kind of like a dating thing. And the first time you work with someone is kind of like the first day, and you’re kind of getting to know each other, and there’s a little back and forth, you know, slowly warming up. And then relationships I have with directors who we’ve been working together for years now, it’s like you’re a married couple and it’s “Yeah, yeah, I know you want for there, I can do this.” And then that, you know, you kind of have a secret language or unspoken languages, because you’re so close. And so trusting like a relationship that you can really finish each other’s sandwiches and sentences.
Michelle Khouri 12:56
Yeah and like every director has their, I mean ideally, has their particular flair, right? And has their particular preferences and ways of doing things. And so you also, I’m sure, get to a point with those repeat directors that you’re working with constantly that you just kind of know, okay, we talked about this vision. And I sort of know exactly what she means or he means when she or he says this,
Adam Koch 13:21
Just like in a romantic relationship, the fun of it is once you get going and you really know each other, and then you can have so much more fun with it. And it’s not about that first date nervousness so to speak. And you really have some momentum going together. It’s really, it’s really a pleasure.
Michelle Khouri 13:35
And I’m sure you can push and pull a little bit more and you can test each other’s limits and just like really explore because I just feel like creative partnerships where you are challenging each other in a kind, open way will yield some really spectacular results.
Adam Koch 13:49
Michelle Khouri 13:50
How many times have you worked with Brian Clowdus? Who is our Episode 2 guest and is the artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse.
Adam Koch 13:58
I think it’s been probably six shows now down at Serenbe Playhouse that we’ve worked on together.
Michelle Khouri 14:04
Wow, what have those shows been?
Adam Koch 14:07
Sleepy Hollow, Carousel, Miss Saigon, oh, Cabaret, Titanic…
Michelle Khouri 14:12
All of those productions are the ones that I’ve experienced of yours personally. And they’re just spectacular. In this case, in particular, your work with Serenbe is site-specific. And there’s so many different factors to consider. And so I really want to dive into what it’s like to design a whole world that you’re starting canvas is a wide open field, let’s say, or the bank of a river, you know,
Adam Koch 14:43
Michelle Khouri 14:43
Because I also think it’s really fascinating what you can do within the confines of a black box or something, you know, like an actual theater. But I guess that brings me to my first question, which is, which is more challenging, bringing a world to life within a theater, which will must have its own constraints or doing that outside in the middle of an open field, let’s say?
Adam Koch 15:05
You know, for ages and ages, theater that’s inside of any kind of traditional architectural theater, the building that’s designed to be a theater whether it’s proscemium, thrust, or black box, like you said, for ages, it’s always been the big question mark. That’s, you know, with the empty theater, the empty stage, what goes on the stage? And it really is a big question mark. But ultimately, for any kind of theater that’s architecturally set up already, meaning the stage is one place and the audience is the other place, that relationship is already defined. So the only question mark, really, although it’s still a big question mark, is what goes in the box? Ultimately, the stage is still one place and the audience is still one place, even if the rest of the theater is decorated, as well. But whereas in Serenbe, I mean, there is, as opposed to one question mark, for one box..it’s like there’s a million question marks all over the place up in the sky in the trees, it’s like, that is much scarier, because it’s not only set design, but now I’ve realized site design to as in like, the whole site of the where the audience is, where the parking is, the bathrooms, the bar. I mean, it’s like, you really have to plan out this whole little mini city that will also have a show that happens every night. So frighteningly, but also excitingly, to be able to say, okay, I think the audience could be here, or maybe they’re on both sides? You can you really get to devise how the audience experiences the show. From what angle? Are they far away or right up close? Are they being led to the woods by candlelight? It could be you know, any of the above.
Michelle Khouri 16:29
I imagine, you experience what writers often experience, which is that we stare at the blank page, and we’re like, “oh, man, this could be anything.” And then also like, “oh, man, this could be anything.”
Adam Koch 16:45
That’s a great way to put it.
Michelle Khouri 16:46
You know, and the writers block. So do you ever experience set designers block?
Adam Koch 16:52
Well, the good thing, I mean, in terms of Serenbe…a little bit. But that’s part of the process is it kind of has its ups and downs. The internal process of set design. But luckily, for someone like Brian Clowdus, he spells out some of the big bullet points from the beginning. And then I have to collect all those and bring it all together. For instance, Titanic he’s like “The set is going to be in the water and the audience will be on the bank.” And I’m like, alright, so the audience stage relationship is somewhat determined, we know that they’re going to be facing one way and the set will be facing the other way. And so once he kind of sets out those basic parameters, because he’s, you know, what he’s so good at is pairing the title, the script, with the right location. And Serenbe.
Michelle Khouri 17:32
You mentioned, this is the way that the stage is going to face, this is the way the actors are going to face, this is…which isn’t so obvious, because sometimes, like you said, the audience might be following the actors around or it could be a totally circular set. So what are some of the other bullet points you hope are covered before you go in?
Adam Koch 17:52
What I’ve noticed is that a great director, a good director, will have several great ideas about very important parts of the show. A bad director is going to have a lot of ideas that don’t have anything to do with important parts of the scripts like, “oh, would it be fun if someone ran across with a big pink piece of fabric during that transition” And I’m like, “well, that is great. But how does this help us solve the important plot point?” Brian is the first version. So he, right off the bat, audiences on one side, the set or whatever was going to be in the lake. Obviously, he’s like, the sinking sequence. I mean, sinking and the drowning all that that’s got to be numero uno, as far as like, what what this is all building to emotionally and technically, another one of his big bullet points or Titanic part of his vision, literally, you can, when you he talks, and you know, he looks up in the air, and you can see him like seeing his mind, which is always a clue. But he’s like, “I see a big chandelier that comes out of the water in the beginning, you know, submerges in the sinking, then rises again, you know.” So the chandelier was a big part of it for him. There was a first design of Titanic that no one will ever see because it wasn’t very good. And it was, actually, like, as if you were looking down the other way. It was like the longest way of the ship. Because in my mind, I was I don’t know, I don’t know what I was was thinking I was still figuring it out. You know, it was a big challenge. And I presented that to Brian, he’s like, “No, no, no, this is not right right. This is not how I see it.” And this is done. So finally, we ended up with what you saw, which is a very impressionistic, I will say, sideview of the ship, a cross section, if you will. And when I showed him that he was like, “Yes, yes, yes!” You know, because in his mind, you know, when you park in the woods, at Serenbe Farms, he wanted you to turn the corner and there it is…like the boat, it’s here. It’s Titanic, it’s undeniably the ship of dreams that we all see in our mind, as opposed to what I had first proposed as a very overly abstract, not clear what it is, like, you know, structure. It took us a little back and forth there to, you know, figure out the right flavor. But ultimately, he was absolutely right. And I’m really thankful for his direction.
Michelle Khouri 19:46
Right, exactly. So I’m curious about how you bring all these pieces of set design together. So I think Titanic or even I mean, Miss Saigon, is a good example. But I think Titanic is possibly the best example because there were so many literally moving pieces and parts, there were moving platforms, there was like, you know, the big chandelier on a pulley system, or whatever it was. You design this set. And then are you responsible for sourcing all the different pieces of that set and sort of connecting all the people responsible for making those pieces and parts work and happen?
Adam Koch 20:25
Well, just to make sure everyone knows how simple in a way that process really is…the closest cousin or, you know, parallel would be architecture. And you know, the architect is going to prepare the design plans, the model, the elevations, any and all information that someone would need to make a budget, price out and source all the materials from. And that gets handed over to, of course, equally talented, by the way, staff of carpenters. Well, there’s painters, all that kind of thing, prop people who are going to, you know, take those plans, take all those ideas and A. check through them and make sure that they’re feasible and doable and affordable. And then once that’s all true, then you know, take it and run with it and create sometimes their own sets of plans of how that’s going to be built. The big answers that gets handed off to people who are much more talented, I think, in different ways, of course, to bring it all to life.
Michelle Khouri 21:15
Right. So are you deeply involved throughout that whole process, though? And overseeing that process?
Adam Koch 21:23
Absolutely. I mean, again, like architecture, most of the time, I’m not in the city where it’s being built or constructed. So in this case, my associate designer, Stephen Royal, great guy, super talented, who helps me on every single project, the two of us are either on the phone or on email, you know, and trying to talk and walk everyone through their questions as best as we can from afar. A lot of times, they’ll fly you down, or you’ll take a train just to go visit the set being built, like midway through just to check in and make sure because, you know, seeing it in person is obviously a lot easier and more clear.
Michelle Khouri 21:59
That’s cool. So how many shows do you design a year?
Adam Koch 22:04
My dream is to do fewer, fewer shows, but bigger shows a year. Right now, I think I’m, you know, not everything’s a full set design, but probably about 24 projects, maybe 16 of those are a full-on, you know, full-stage musical. But again, no one should say that like it’s a badge of honor. Because isn’t it more impressive to be doing like fewer and fewer, like better and better work? So I’m trying to get that number down, as opposed to like, I’m doing 50 shows a year and no one ever sees me because I’m like, completely buried. I don’t think that’s very attractive.
Michelle Khouri 22:35
Oh, man. So what’s your favorite part about what you do?
Adam Koch 22:39
That’s a great question. Certainly nothing beats the creative high of that first time when you sit down, in musicals case, you read through the script, and listen to the music and let it wash over you. And there’s that first get-to-know-you period of the material is so exciting, because so many things are coming to mind and you go research. And again, back to drawing. Those first couple of days music where you’re sketching it out and getting to know it.
Michelle Khouri 23:03
That sounds amazing! It just like, it also just sounds like you’re reading all of these amazing musicals all year. You get to, like, bring them to life and immerse yourself in them. And to some people, that’s their personal nightmares. But to me, that’s literally my dream come true.
Adam Koch 23:26
Well, I will say and I am sure this is the case whether it’s with directing or acting or onstage or offstage in any facet…so I won’t say that it’s easy but it is certainly an absolute pleasure to design for good material. I mean, solid, beautiful scripts, beautiful scores. I love to do. I always joke that the worst scripts have the worst designs, because what am I supposed to do with this? It’s not a good script. It’s of course the set doesn’t look that good. I mean, you can kind of polish it a little bit. But you’ll never solve the problem of a bad script, even with the most beautiful design.
Michelle Khouri 24:00
Thank you so much, Adam. This was such a pleasure and so fascinating to peep into your world.
Adam Koch 24:06
Oh, yay! I hope so. It was a real pleasure.
Michelle Khouri 24:13
Oh Adam, he has my heart. I am in awe of his art form. It’s amazing. Adam is incredible. You can find him on the socials and you can find him online at adamkochassociates.com. We’ll have all the links in the show notes but of course. If you go to culturedpodcast.com and check out the website, look into Adam’s work and his sets that he has designed. They’re absolutely stunning. And we’ll see you next time. No, we’ll hear you and talk to you next time on The Cultured Podcast. Just kidding. Keep it classy. Keep it curious. keep it cultured.
Michelle Khouri 25:06
Visit CulturedPodcast.com for show notes and subscription. The Cultured Podcast is a production of my podcast production company FRQNCY Media. I’m the host Michelle Khouri. Enna Garkusha is our fabulous producer. Becca Godwin is our wonderful associate producer. Our sound engineers are Cooper Skinner and DonTae Hodge and we’re recording at Listen Up Audio in Atlanta, Georgia.