People Where They Are is, at its core, a story about people from very different backgrounds coming together in the shared space of the Highlander Folk School and finding strength in learning about each other’s differences and most importantly, their unexpected similarities. The scenic design utilizes elements of the historic school to visually represent these themes. Images from the Highlander center in Monteagle showed that in the early days, the chairs were all mismatched, pulled together from whatever they could find. We’ve used this idea to help reinforce the diverse backgrounds of the people in this room. Another important part of the Highlander school since its conception has been its remote location. The school has always been tucked away into nature, in large part for the protection the woods offer.
In our play, the woods also become a point of connection for these characters. They are brought together by their shared connection to their homelands. In homage to this, we’ve surrounded the audience with nature in the form of window light boxes. A trip to Highlander’s current location in New Market, TN offered the true key to capturing this play and Highlander’s ethos. Their meeting room bears a striking resemblance to the Carousel Theatre —partially in the architecture, but more importantly in its circular shape. At Highlander they do workshops in a circle; it creates total equality. In the end, the biggest influence on the scenic design was paying tribute to these similar spaces; it is a celebration of the Carousel and of Highlander. There was no other option for us than to put it in the round. We want the audience to feel like they are in the room and in these workshops with the characters so the audience feels the need to take these skills and ideas out into their communities and make change just like our characters.
Then, about half-way through our design process, an administrative building at Highlander was burned down. The idea of constant threat that felt like it was left in the period in which our play is set suddenly made itself very modern. We wanted to include this part of Highlander’s story into our set by singeing the edges and bottom of our set, making the space like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Attacks like this have happened before and they will probably happen again, but as Myles Horton, Highlander’s founder, said “Highlander is not a place; it’s an idea.”