Inside SOUTHERN GOTHIC: Designing for a Hyper-Realistic Space

Inside SOUTHERN GOTHIC: Designing for a Hyper-Realistic Space

Pictured: Vintage games remind the audience that, while not seen in the show, the evening’s hosts do have young children. Photo courtesy of Windy City Playhouse. 

In this 4-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Windy City Playhouse’s SOUTHERN GOTHIC through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past INSIDE articles, click here.

By Eleanor Kahn, Properties Designer

I don’t think anyone really knows how many things are in a house until you move. Not only are there the things that you see and use on a daily basis, but you discover boxes of memories and drawers of random objects you probably didn’t remember you had. All these things are part of your world and fill your space with identity and life. When I was asked to furnish an entire house that was our set for Southern Gothic, I knew it would be quite a feat! I had just recently moved and was highly aware of the quantity of things one would have to acquire to make the set feel like it belonged to a family who had been residing there for several years. I was excited to take on the challenge of creating a hyper-realistic space.

The immersive nature of Southern Gothic has allowed me to explore design at a different level. The audience is inside of this home with our actors; there is no separation. They are given agency to pick up items in the room and open drawers. This is a level of detail you don’t often get to in a more traditional context. We set out in looking for authentic objects, not just for specific moments in the show, but authentic objects that breathe life into these people’s space. They’ve lived there for more than a decade — so how do we see that when we walk into the house? Answer: lots of shopping!

The audience will be invited to explore the nooks and crannies to find period gems like doilies, pipes, and books. 

I’ve been scouring the internet and scavenger hunting in theater storage spaces and thrift stores. You can spend an entire day doing all of these things and still find nothing. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process. But, when you find an amazing thing at an amazing price, it’s a highly satisfying experience. I started with the broader strokes of the interior when I began. When shopping on a budget, you don’t always have the luxury of going to a store and purchasing the perfect item, so it’s helpful for me to start with large pieces. The big-ticket furniture items inform and sculpt what the smaller details are. If I find a great couch that we can afford, how do its textures and colors play with the other furniture in the room? One of the most exciting finds I’ve had on this show so far has been an 8-seater dining room table and chairs from Craigslist. The color on the seats matched the wall paint, and the wood tones exist in harmony with the architecture of the space. It was a magical find! This, of course, doesn’t happen all the time, but with patience, persistence, and resources, the right object almost always reveals itself. I will be continuing to layer on detail after detail up until we open and am looking forward to creating a rich world for both our actors and audience.

Performances of SOUTHERN GOTHIC start February 7th. For more information visit

Eleanor Kahn is a Chicago-based theater artist, specializing in scenic and properties design. She’s worked with companies including The House, The Hypocrites, Definition, Lifeline, The Gift, Oracle, Firebrand, Steep, Stage Left, the Greenhouse, and Filament. She holds an MFA in scenic design from Boston University and a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Iowa State University. Southern Gothic marks Eleanor’s Windy City Playhouse debut.

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