“Sometimes the best magic in theatre is the simplest,” award-winning scenic designer Dane Laffrey tells Playbill from his set for Broadway’s Once on This Island. Its simplicity has been creating major buzz.
Laffrey’s immersive design plunges audiences into the post-disaster world of Haiti immediately upon entering the Circle in the Square Theatre—complete with mounds of sand strewn with trash, a flowing water installation, and more. Laffrey took Playbill on a live tour on his set to spill the secrets behind his design—where he creatively hid speakers for the in-the-round production, how many pounds of sand were hauled in (over five tons!), and how they got a real truck into the below-ground space, plus where to spot shrines to each of Island’s gods.
“The first thing [director] Michael [Arden] ever said to me about [this show] was ‘I have this idea about the music and I think it’s about found instrumentals and a makeshift sound. It’s heavily vocal and feels like you’ve just picked up after some disaster,’” Laffrey recalls. “So I said, ‘If that’s the case, we have to have an environment that can accommodate that.’”
Thanks to Laffrey and the company’s improvised pre-show in which the cast of characters inhabits daily life on the island, the scene feels like one of vivacity not despair.
“This is not a population of people wallowing,” says Laffrey of the Haitian people who inspired him and Arden. “With the pre-show you feel that energy. It’s being reconstructed and it’s being live in and it’s devastated, not devastating.”
In fact, it was a visit to Port-au-Prince, Haiti one year ago that “totally altered the course of what we were doing,” says Laffrey, who up until that point had relied on internet images and press photos for his research. “[That place] is so much more than what any camera could possible capture. It’s epic-looking, really colorful, really just grounded.” Together with costume designer Clint Ramos, Laffrey set out to evoke the vibrant, yet makeshift aura.
But the show also travels to the wealthier side of the island, and Laffrey’s set unfolds like a puzzle box. No-frills garden tarps pull back the sand in a moment of surprise that causes audiences to gasp each night. But it’s Laffrey’s vision and craft that makes simplicity astonishing.
Watch the livestream above for a close-up look at the details that infuse the Once on This Island set with authenticity, plus the homage to the original company of the show.