Ashley Ann Woods is a freelance scenic designer and painter in the greater Chicago area. Favorite credits include Miss Holmes (Lifeline Theatre), La Havana Madrid (Teatro Vista), Posh (Steep), Peter and the Starcatcher (Metropolis), Heathers: the Musical and The Full Monty (Kokandy Productions), Desperate Dolls (Strawdog Theatre), Forgotten Future (Collaboraction), as well as shows with Pride Films & Plays, Jackalope, 20% Theatre Chicago, and The Side Project among others. Ashley is also the Managing Director for 20% Theatre Chicago, a Company Member with Collaboraction Theatre Co and an Ensemble Member with Strawdog. www.ashleyannwoods.com
In this 4-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Kokandy Productions’ BONNIE & CLYDE through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past INSIDE articles, click here.
By Ashley Ann Woods
Here’s a fun fact: when the stock market crashed in 1929, it was barely a blip on the radar for the average American living in the south. Their predominantly agricultural economy had been struggling since the end of the Great War. Droves of tenant farmers were making their way to the cities in search of opportunities in factories and landing in the outlying areas, squatting on undeveloped land and creating makeshift communities of families trying to scrape by on every penny they can bring home. When the Barrows arrived in West Dallas they first lived under their wagon until they acquired a tent, which was home for years until Henry Barrow gathered enough wood and supplies to build his family a house, which was really more of a cramped shed. They were the lucky ones – they had walls and a roof – because soon Mother Nature was about to strike. Far more concerning than the stock market problems of the north were the whipping winds and debilitating sandstorms of the Dust Bowl.
This is the world from which Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker could not escape. If there is sympathy to be found for two such notorious outlaws, it’s this: that they were promised the American Dream but were caught in a time and place with nothing but dead ends. To fully understand their motivations, we need to understand their surroundings, and that’s where my job begins.
In my earliest conversations with Director Spencer Neiman, we talked about how to show this all-encompassing desolation. There’s a sexiness and glamour in the legend of Bonnie and Clyde and a certain panache that accompanies the idea of a musical; but, the realities of their short lives and even shorter criminal reign are far from either. So how do we navigate that middle ground? How do we create something that is both true to the history and serves the written show?
My process always starts with research. The pictorial collection of this era is vast and honest and heart-breaking and gorgeous. Picture after picture shows families getting by on what they have, what they can find and what they can carry. There are homes that resemble a blanket fort more than anything we’d call a house. Siding is whatever collection of sheet metal or scraps of lumber they can find. Parents with their six or seven kids living in less square footage than my living room. Broken windows covered with a blanket sacrificed from a bed. Spare and mismatched pieces of furniture. And my favorite: the frame of a car half-buried in the sand whose siding was probably scrapped and sold for pennies, and the sheer force of wind and dust stripped the rest.
Step two is asking the question: how do we serve the needs of the play? The story of Bonnie and Clyde takes place in…the whole of the South and Midwest. Historically they travelled north to Minnesota, east to Kentucky, west to New Mexico and of course always came home south to Texas with stops everywhere between. Musically, we hit nine locations in the first song alone. Throughout the next two acts we are in banks, churches, diners, a beauty shop, the homes of both the Barrows and Parkers, a couple different jails, the sheriff’s office, a courtroom, and of course the many roads travelled and the many hideouts found by Clyde and Bonnie. Did I mention our stage is roughly 700 square feet?
We’ve embraced the collage-like compositions found in the research to create our world, offering a variety of abstract areas that can transform into each of the locations in our story while allowing easy movement between them. As the people of the Depression era used what they could find to build a home, we are using found and collected elements to build our environment; though, ours is rooted in functional design and artistic style as opposed to survival. While we watch Clyde and Bonnie attempt to better their circumstances, it’s done in front of a backdrop portraying the very poverty they are striving to escape.
And then, of course, we have to a get a car onstage. I’ll let you come see how we figured that one out…
Kokandy Productions BONNIE & CLYDE runs August 27th – October 15th. For more information visit kokandyproductions.com.