Ask Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay how many sets they’ve designed for the local theater, and they’ll respond that they don’t really know. At last count a couple years ago, it was around 50, but they’ve stopped keeping track. That’s understandable. As two of Atlanta’s best and busiest behind-the-scenes creatives, they’re in constant work mode, sometimes designing sets for as many as three openings in a month.
But it’s not just the number of designs that’s impressive. A Curley-Clay set is instantly recognizable in its level of detail and also for its many layers of history, character and narrative. When I ask them about their set for Cowgirls, a musical-comedy now playing at Horizon Theatre, they casually mention an aspect of the story that they’ve taken into account in their design — the dive bar where the action is set was once run by a man but is now being run by his daughter. That needs to show up in the set, they tell me: her aesthetic and character will be layered on top of his. It’s a level of insight and attention that just seems second-nature to them, but has astounded viewers.
It’s not unusual for a show featuring one of their sets to end with audience members wandering on stage after curtain calls to get a closer look or to take some selfies for Facebook and Instagram. The opening sentence of a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution review put it this way: “If only every show could be as terrific as the sets that Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay design for them.”
“I like something that has a really good, deep story to it,” says Isabel, 34, of the working method of the identical twin sisters and collaborators. “When there’s something in the script that you can latch onto, you can really get the story into the scenery.”
Isabel and Moriah grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts. Their father ran the health center at University of Massachusetts and their mother was a gallerist and sculptress. Although they say they went to a lot of theater in Boston and New York growing up, it wasn’t until they were in college that they began to contemplate theater design as a career. “We took a set design class with a roommate who was an actor,” says Moriah. “Well, we went to NYU, so they’re all actors. But she was convinced we needed to do this.”
Although their original ambitions were vaguely related to going pre-law (Isabel) and pre-med (Moriah), the talented sisters found their niche with theater design and soon switched fields, eventually attending the MFA program at Brandeis University together. During their education, their parents had moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where their father now runs the health center at the university, and Isabel and Moriah moved to the region to stay close to them.
They began designing in the Atlanta area around 2007. Their first designs were for Marietta’s former Theatre in the Square, but their practice quickly expanded to include regular shows for Horizon Theatre, Aurora Theatre, Actor’s Express and True Colors. They originally moved to the Athens area, but they eventually settled in the small town of Statham, east of Lawrenceville, where they live with their four cats. Although their set designs are meticulous, detail-oriented creations in which every visual aspect has been carefully considered for its resonance to observers, the Curley-Clays joke that their own home is often anything but. “We have a studio, and it’s usually covered from floor to ceiling,” says Isabel.
The Curley-Clays, who are consummate collectors (midcentury modern is one recent obsession), often see their things migrate onto the sets they create. When the characters in the Actor’s Express comedy Maple and Vine sat down at a ’50s breakfast table or turned on a kitchen lamp, they were actually using vintage objects from the twins’ collection. “Our furniture migrates,” says Moriah. “We tend to collect cool things like that, but we end up putting them on stage. It’s not why we buy those things, it just happens.”
Their design process typically begins with studying a script and researching, a process which can involve anything and everything from hanging out at a Waffle House (as they did for the Horizon show Waffle Palace) to scouring through books of period photographs (as they did for Theatrical Outfit’s Dividing the Estate). The research becomes sketches, sketches become drafts, and drafts eventually become a scale model and paint elevations.
Curiously, the twins still work with handmade three-dimensional paper and cut-cardboard scale models even though the trend in the theater is decidedly towards computer-generated renderings nowadays. “It helps us make sure what we’ve drafted and designed will actually work,” says Moriah.
And when asked if they ever disagree or argue about elements of their designs, the twins laugh and say it happens all the time. They occasionally work independently but feel that collaboration is the way to go. “We end up working on each others’ stuff anyway,” says Isabel. “We literally go and draw on each others’ stuff. At some point, if we’re in the same room, it ends up becoming collaborative anyway, so why fight it?”