Setting the Stage... In Process with Designer Carolyn Rapanos

July 21, 2016

This week we go behind-the-scenes with Carolyn Rapanos, Set & Costume designer of 'The Sunset Limited', now playing on our BMO Studio Stage. Set in a modern-day New York tenement, 'The Sunset Limited' is Cormac McCarthy's intense exploration of the aftermath of an attempted suicide. Configured with the audience on both sides of the stage, Carolyn's spacious and gritty architecture grounds the story in all its darkness, while simultaneously leaving room for the possibility of light.

Tell us a little about yourself as a designer. How’d you get started in theatre design?

I completely stumbled into theatre when I took a set design elective in my 3rd year studying English literature. I immediately fell in love with it.

What’s your favourite thing to look for as you go about creating?

There’s a real creative high in balancing what needs to be in a set. Designers do a lot of prep work figuring out what this is – the practical, functional needs, how the theatre space works best, what the themes of the play are, and what will look effective in style and composition. I love laying out all of these needs in front of me and exploring potential ways to balance them.

Nathan Schmidt & Carl Kennedy on stage for The Sunset Limited. Design & photo by Carolyn Rapanos.

Can you tell us a little about your process? Do you have certain rituals… is there a best part/ hardest part?

It starts with reading the play, researching it (especially its locations), and discussing it with the director. Early on, I work with lots of sketches but I also like to explore the basic shapes of my concepts in a 3D digital model. When the director and I have settled on a concept, I move on to building a scale model and drafting. I like to work on these simultaneously because they inform each other. As rehearsals start, we often discover more details to work out, especially in regards to props.

I love that early part but it’s also often the most challenging. I also really appreciate collaborating with the director and production team as many parts of designing can be quite solitary.

What’s the first thing that struck you about The Sunset Limited?

I was excited to read a play by Cormac McCarthy as I was only familiar with his novels! I think what left an immediate, strong impression with me is the painful contrast between the need for connection with others and the inability to make those connections.

The Sunset Limited set in miniature. Design, model, and photo by Carolyn Rapanos.

The play is full of huge ideas, set in a realistically cramped apartment. How do you merge realism with the big ideas, and is the setting, for you, a realistic place?

I feel that big, abstract ideas can be evoked by or grounded in very familiar, realistic imagery. In designing, I often want to emphasize this. The set for The Sunset Limited has very real elements but is not naturalistic in layout or in many details. It was important to connect the metaphors of the subway to the apartment setting as well as to create a sense of confinement. This was done with recognizable features such as the pipes, tiled columns, and metal framing/mesh.

In presenting the set design, I wanted to explain those real elements and how they are exaggerated or altered to emphasize what the subway represents. I also wanted to show how the set reflects the realities of Black’s life (functioning appliances, tight space, etc.) and explain how it would function in the play (the door being the only entrance/exit, the audience sitting on both sides to emphasize the intimacy of the play, etc.).

Black's apartment in The Sunset Limited. Design & photo by Carolyn Rapanos.

In the costume design, I wanted to show the characters in contrasting dark and light colours to emphasize McCarthy’s choice to label [the characters] Black and White. I also wanted to point out specific details... For example, we strengthened the connection to the subway by suggesting Black is a subway employee (Metropolitan Transport Authority logo on his sleeve)’s not actually mentioned what Black does for a living.

Costume rendering for Black, by Carolyn Rapanos.
Costume rendering for White, by Carolyn Rapanos.

Do you have a dream project on your bucket list?

I just want to continue designing for well-written, relevant plays with inspiring directors and teams!

Carolyn Rapanos is a set designer, based in Vancouver, BC. Recent designs include 'Common Grace' (Pacific Theatre), 'Mass Appeal' (Rosebud Theatre) and 'Freud's Last Session' (Pacific Theatre). She received a design ensemble TYA Jessie Award for her design work in 'Jack and the Bean' (Presentation House). She is also a Jessie award and Ovation award nominee. You can see her work at

Setting the Stage... In Process with Designer Carolyn Rapanos

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