How Scenic Design Team Dots Made a Tree Grow in Appropriate | Playbill

Photo Features How Scenic Design Team Dots Made a Tree Grow in Appropriate

The artists behind dots—Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Kimie Nishikawa, and Andrew Moerdyk—are currently up for two Tony Awards. So far this year, they've designed seven shows.

Kimie Nishikawa, Andrew Moerdyk, and Santiago Orjuela-Laverde of dots Heather Gershonowitz

“A South African, Japanese, and a Colombian in the same room. We always say, like, that sounds like the first bit of a joke,” says set designer Santiago Orjuela-Laverde. It’s not a joke, but it is the makeup of the set designers behind dots, a collective that has taken over New York theatre. Dots (which is stylized with a lowercase d) is relatively new to the world of theatre. They formed in 2020. But in just four years, they’ve become ubiquitous in the industry.

Made up of Orjuela-Laverde, Kimie Nishikawa, and Andrew Moerdyk, dots is currently nominated for two Tony Awards for Scenic Design of a Play, for Appropriate and An Enemy of the People. Their work can also currently be seen in five Off-Broadway shows, including the new Dave Malloy musical Three Houses and Lucy Kirkwood's The Welkin. And, they have two upcoming Broadway shows: Oh, Mary! (which they also designed Off-Broadway) and the starry Romeo & Juliet revival. And they’re designing an opera next season. It’s, in short, a very busy time.

“To be honest, I sometimes forget that we got nominated,” says Nishikawa. I then remind her that they were actually nominated twice, to which she sheepishly responds, “Oh right, thank you. It feels weird to even say it.”

It’s been a fast and furious journey for dots, which first formed in 2020 when three friends, who met at New York University, got together. All of them were having a tough time in the industry as new designers: Their work had dried up because of the pandemic, the design fees were not enough to live on Off-Broadway, and America’s immigration process was a labyrinth. All three artists hail from different countries and are working in America on visas—they wanted to make a living in the U.S. doing theatre but found the challenges overwhelming.

Set rendering for An Enemy of the People Courtesy of dots

None of them can pinpoint whose idea it was to come together, but Moerdyk recalls: “We asked ourselves why we were subscribing to the status quo of working competitively, largely in isolation, and quickly realized that pooling our strengths felt like a more sustainable and healthy way to work. Of course, we knew that this would mean a new kind of model for the way theatre designers work, which felt very daunting and scary, but also exciting as we emerged from the pandemic—which was an unprecedented event of its own.”

They settled on the name dots, because, as Moerdyk says, “We became excited about the idea of how single dots come together to create beautiful and intricate images, which really spoke to our shared belief that the value of the whole is worth more than the sum of the individual parts. We also wanted a name that did not reference our personal identities in any way.”

Similar to an architectural firm, dots takes the individual fees they receive from shows and pools them, paying out the designers and their assistants a consistent salary. This is widely different from the typical way designers are paid in theatre—because they’re freelancers, designers are paid a flat fee per project, which can be inconsistent because it depends on how many shows they’re working on and the size of the show. Design fees can range—an Off-Broadway show can garner a few thousand dollars, while a Broadway play with a single set pays $13,707 (plus an additional weekly rate of around $417-$496 depending on the size of the project). Being a collective gives the three designers a stability that is rarely found for the theatre industry’s artists, who are mostly freelancers.

But how do three people work consistently and harmoniously together? What happens when they disagree or when they come up against a challenge? Well, dots has given Playbill a deep dive into their design process for the Tony-nominated play Appropriate. In the play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which has eight Tony nominations including Best Revival of a Play, a white family gathers in their father’s plantation home in Arkansas, only to discover some dark family secrets. The house had to go through a journey, of being structurally sound and then slowly decaying over time.

Read more below for dots’ thoughts on designing Appropriate. Spoilers abound.

Set rendering for Appropriate Courtesy of dots

Act One

The Lafayette family reunite in their father's home, which is filled to the brim, hoarder like, with objects. 

Kimie Nishikawa: Thankfully, none of us saw the other versions [of Appropriate]. So I think that was good—we just were starting from a blank slate…I remember in our initial conversations with [director Lila Neugebauer] that making it feel like time has passed is essential. So, I think we started off by saying we can't start from a really decrepit house; the house has to still feel beautiful. It is old, but it can't feel trashed because then we won't have anywhere to go. So, the contrast was, first, important to us.

...Two years ago, when we first started talking about it, we had this idea of: What if there was a whole new set, so that we could just totally flip it? And then it's a whole new, totally destroyed house. And not worry about having it put back together. But, of course, we don't have the time or space or money to do that.

Set rendering for Appropriate Courtesy of dots

Act Two

The Lafayette family has cleaned up the house in preparation for an estate sale.

Santiago Orjuela-Laverde: One of the biggest challenges in this production is like, yeah, the epilogue [more on that shortly]. But during the intermission, that changed the shape of the house from being super full of things and then being organized for the estate sale. That's a massive change. The first time that we did it in the Hayes Theater [where Appropriate first opened in December before transferring in March to the Belasco Theatre] and [intermission was] 45 minutes. It was crazy. But we learned so much about it, and we optimized movement—we made the books light, put things together. It's such an interesting choreography, it's like a little dance of cleaning. And now they do it so fast. It's insane. I think they're even under 15 minutes.

Set rendering for Appropriate Courtesty of dots


In the last 10 minutes of the play, the Lafayette family abandons their house. The audience then sees (in a series of quick scenes separated by blackouts), the house slowly fall apart—a chandelier falls, a rock comes in through a window, wood pieces fall away—until finally, at the end, there’s a fully-grown tree in the living room. 

Nishikawa: Lila actually initially had this idea that it should flood—like, what is the most exciting visual transformation? A flood. Unfortunately, we really couldn't afford it. And then Lila was like, “What if a tree grew?” Then from there, we took it as, okay, how do we really make nature take over this architecture? And it was looking at the resources that we had. And the time we had...The Hayes, they don't have wings. They have a fly space. That [house] set, it's really, from wall to wall, full. There's no upstage space…But we knew that we had a fly rail. So nothing can really come out from the floor. Everything had to come down from above. And then, it was really being careful of how much room we had…The set model really helped us figure that out.

Orjuela-Laverde: We were really thinking: What kind of tree? What is this style of tree? It's completely different if we have a giant massive tree that's, like, hundreds of years old. And we always talked about this tree that is almost, like, a very thin vine trying to climb to get some sun.

Nishikawa: We wanted it to feel, like, 30 to 40 years tops; not like centuries have gone by. There was this perfect research image that we found of a splendidly vine-y tree.

Moerdyk: The size, shape, and color of the leaves were based on a real invasive vine in the south of Arkansas, so getting the scenic vines to feel as real and believable as possible required a bunch of horticultural research. A fun detail is that you can see the back of the vines and their roots and tendrils growing outside of the windows from the top of the show and then are eventually confronted with the front of the vines and the surfaces of the leaves in the epilogue.

Michael Esper Joan Marcus

Moerdyk: We really tested the duration and sequencing of each vignette beat by beat in order to find the best pacing for the frantic arch of the epilogue and almost treated its own mini show-within-a-show. We also auditioned many effects (many different chandelier sizes! How far to throw a brick through the window? Is it a mouse or a rat or raccoon?). The moments that didn’t make it into the final event that I was particularly sad to let go of was our trapped bird flying in the lobby of the house.

Orjuela-Laverde: The final image is such a collaboration. There is such a choreography with the stage hands moving everything around. We needed Bray [Poor] and Will [Pickens]’ sound to help us hide the actual movements. But also the lights [by Jane Cox] do such an amazing work to blind the audience—because in the Hayes, it's harder to get a blackout (the Belasco's a little bit easier). But we just learned by doing it. And that was, literally, everybody in the room during tech, like, ‘Okay, let's try it again.'

Photos: Appropriate at Broadway's Belasco Theatre

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