Q & A: Erica Zaffarano

With more than 35 years of experience designing for theater, film and, television, Erica Zaffarano is no stranger to bringing the imaginary world of actors and storytellers to screens and stages across the country. Currently, Zaffarano is based in Minneapolis, working as a freelance scenic designer. At the time of our conversation, Zaffarano was simultaneously designing “Urinetown” at Macalester College, “The Realistic Jonses” at Rochester Reparatory Theatre, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” at Iowa State University, and “Pump Boys and Dinettes” for Troupe America.


How do you typically describe your line of work for people who may not be familiar with theatre?

Crazy, no {laughs}. I call myself a designer, a designer-collaborator.., I think as a scenic designer, you’re also a scenic artist, you’re also part carpenter, perhaps part welder. You should ideally know how an actor or director will use what you’re designing… I like to say a set of mine doesn’t come alive until an actor steps on it. What does it for me is when the lights come into play and the actors step on and make it alive, that’s what I’m excited about.


When you are starting the design for a new project, do you typically follow one process, or is it different for every theatre, every director?

Well it’s very different for every theatre and director because sometimes you have a show where you have to do a lot of research, and when it’s a show that’s created from the fantasy of your mind and has no specific time or place, it’s a whole different thing. Now, I work a lot with John Ferguson [of] Theatre Forever, and his type of theatre is a real collaborative effort. The actors are often part of the writing team and they are very instrumental in how things work and look, so everything is quite different. If I don’t know a director, I often will first talk with him or her, and ask them if there are certain things they really need to see or have like entrances and exits and if there is a time period or a color palate that they prefer. And then based on what they say, I take off from there.


In what ways is set design for the stage different from designing for movies, television, or even interior design?

In interior design, the client is up close and personal with what you’ve done. You have to be precise in your delivery. In film and television, it’s the same way actually, because the camera can have a real close-up on what you do. Although they are looking more at the actor in front, you still have to be fairly precise. But theatre–what I say as a scenic artist is if you can stand back 10 feet and squint, if it looks good, then the audience will probably think it looks good too. There’s a lot more leeway in theatre because the audience is so far away, comparatively. I like to work fast and I like to work big. I like this big canvas that I have as a set designer.


How is your career different from what you expected or envisioned when you were first starting out?

I’m not sure what I expected. I think that I was in this for the fun and the adventure. It has allowed me to travel various places and meet so many different people. …When I was in Los Angeles I envisioned having large amounts of money, being able to do whatever I want, travel where I wanted, and I was able to. It’s different in that I decided to have children and I decided I wanted a more sane climate for them and to move back to the Midwest. You sacrifice a little for what’s more important. And so the sacrifice, if it is that, is the financial aspect, but the satisfaction is huge. I love everything, the film, the television, but I really enjoy the opening night of a show and again, working with so many diverse people.


What advice do you have for students who might be interested in a career similar to yours?

I would say it’s a passion, and if you have that passion, if you don’t mind a kind of hard-scrabble life, a very active life, if you like to laugh, if you like research, if you like working with people, it’s a great career. It won’t make you necessarily famous, but it will keep you young… And it will make every day a new adventure.