Designer draws on ‘Babylon 5’ experience for ‘Silent Sky’

Designer John Iacovelli brings steam punk, starry skies to play about female astronomer.

April 7, 2011

A few years ago, Phylicia Rashad posed a question to scenic designer John Iacovelli that he’d never been asked before. The veteran actress was directing a play for a change, and she came at the project from a refreshing angle, Iacovelli recalls

Rashad was mounting August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” a play that features a wise old woman. “She looked at the model I’d done and said, ‘Well, you know, it’s not very feminine, is it?'” Iacovelli chuckled at the memory. “I’d never really thought of my work as being masculine or feminine up to that point.”

The question inspired him to look at certain work differently, said the veteran TV, movie and theatrical scenic designer (he’s best known as the visual wizard responsible for the look of the sci-fi series “Babylon 5”), who has come up with a simple yet ingenious and thematically appropriate set for Lauren Gunderon’s “Silent Sky.” It makes its world premiere this weekend on South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage.

“Just the other night (Anne Justine D’Zmura, the play’s director) and I were talking about the set, and she remarked on how feminine it is,” Iacovelli said as he stood over a small set model. “I didn’t consciously intend this, but it looks like a kind of womb in a way.”

Iacovelli has come up with a set that’s a series of concentric rings, circular shapes and curving openings swathed mostly in a soothing hue of deep blue.

The approach works on many levels.

Like Gunderson’s “Emilie,” seen in 2009 at SCR, “Silent Sky” is a story based on the life of a brilliant yet unsung female scientist.

Henrietta Leavitt (Monette Magrath) is a Massachusetts pastor’s daughter who leaves her family to take a tedious job at Harvard University. She works under Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919. Henrietta and other women perform a task considered too menial for men: mapping the night sky by studying detailed photographic plates of heavenly bodies captured by Harvard’s large telescope. Pickering’s women were paid less than clerical wages: between 25 and 50 cents an hour.

“These are the women that this play is about,” Iacovelli said, holding up a black-and-white photo of Pickering and his “harem,” as he called his female assistants. “You can see the seriousness, the severity of them. They were very buttoned-down women. But they were extremely good at their jobs. This photo was one of our leaping-off images.”


Rejecting early concepts that called for multiple turntables, a large telescope and other features, Iacovelli’s final design is much more elemental.

“We talked about stuff like a big telescope. But there’s a wonderful description in the script that the observatory just sort of folds away very easily. We thought, ‘Well, let’s get away from a strictly 19th-century concept of the space and make it more of an open dance space.’ Anne comes form a dance background, so that worked well for her.”

But Iacovelli didn’t completely abandon his attraction to Victorian things and his gift for fantastical touches. He describes the wheeled light tables that the women do their work on as “a touch of steam punk.”

“I remember seeing old light tables that looked like this,” Iacovelli said as we toured his under-construction set in SCR’s scenic shop. “I wanted them to have a certain serious look. They bent over these for hours on end, looking at pinpoints of light that were no bigger than specks of dust.”

The tables appear simultaneously scientific and Victorian, like a prop from an episode of “Wild, Wild West.”

From the audience, the set looks mysterious and metaphysical. It’s the perfect canvas for the play’s greatest effect: a spray of stars in a night-time sky that appears on an upstage scrim.

“It’s a tricky color to illuminate,” said lighting designer York Kennedy of the set’s midnight blue fabrics and surfaces as Iacovelli nodded. “It can eat up a lot of light. But when everything is right, it’s gorgeous.”

Iacovelli is one of the few working scenic designers who spends roughly equal time in theater, television and film (he teaches at UC Davis as well). He says he draws knowledge from one world to help him solve problems in the others.

“What I love about the theater is I’m not a slave to realism like I am in TV and film. On screen, the camera does not forgive anything. If it looks even slightly fake, you’re done. That’s why theater is so refreshing.

“I can remember working on a show here years ago, and we spent hours figuring out how to place a single chair in the perfect position. And that day on “Babylon 5” I think I had done six sets – dressed them and shot them and was finished with them.

“What I realize now is that in theater, this deep investigation into moment-by-moment things allows me in film and TV to make decisions quickly and confidently. I know instantly what’s needed and I know exactly what to do.”

Source: Designer draws on ‘Babylon 5’ experience for ‘Silent Sky’ (Orange County Register)
Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins at

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