When she came to Penn as a freshman, Sara Outing C’13 had already earmarked set design as “this thing I should check out,” she says, but she had no idea it would become a career. Yet here she is, four years after finishing her theatre arts major, working steadily around Philly—and now with a 2017 Barrymore Award nomination for Outstanding Scenic Design on her resume. (The Barrymore is Philly’s version of a Tony Award.)
“It’s been a very whirlwind process for me,” she says of her theatre career. “You latch onto one project and it catapults you to the next one and the next one.”
Outing’s first time designing a set, which turned out to be her favorite project while at Penn, came along as a freshman. She worked on a theatre arts production of The Good Times Are Killing Me—a show that featured in our story on theatre arts at Penn in 2011.
“I remember spending a lot of time in an empty classroom just scribbling all over the chalkboard until I came up with images I liked,” she says. Then she worked with Eric Baratta—a director, production manager and lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department—to create a 3D computer model and pick the right colors, textures and materials. The result blended imagery from the play’s source paintings with “what a streetscape from a child’s memory would feel like,” Outing says. “It was a very fast process from first read to the last touch of paint.”
From there, she designed sets for student productions of Children of Eden, Legally Blonde and Moonchildren. By the time she graduated, Outing had made a few connections in the local theatre scene. Those relationships—along with an apprenticeship at InterAct Theatre Company—helped her launch a career in set design.
While many designers hold graduate degrees in the craft, Outing is self-taught. She’s developed her own strategies. First she reads the script and avoids making any notes for at least a day. “I try to keep all of that just in my head,” she says, “and let any impressions or even misinterpretations take their course. That allows whatever is lurking in my head to take hold instead of cutting it off too early.”
After that incubation period, she re-reads the script and starts jotting down ideas. She avoids looking at photos from past productions for as long as possible. Music helps, too. If she thinks about a soundtrack rather than a script, that can lead to more inventive ideas. “It’s a trick I use to get away from literal imagery,” she says.
Outing’s design last year for How We Got On by Azuka Theatre netted her the Barrymore nomination. Set in the 1980s, the play follows three suburban teens who dream of hip-hop stardom. A narrator DJ “spins” their stories on stage.
“We tried to mimic the rhythm of the script,” Outing says, “which has a lot to do with emulating the record scratch—a lot of circular patterns.”
She maintains a busy design schedule. Her set for 2.5 Minute Ride by Theatre Horizon just left the stage (the show ran Oct. 6-29), and now she’s working on designs for a play called The Art of Swimming, which opens Dec. 6.
“I’ve finally started to feel comfortable in the scenic design world,” she says. “I’ve had a really fun time devising and collaborating, and I would love to occupy those spaces in Philly for as long as I can. I think this is a particularly exciting town for collaborative and devised work.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06