As part of our “Fellows Friday” series, we focus on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges. Visit us each Friday to meet a new Pew Fellow and to learn more about his or her artistic practice.
This week, we speak to Matt Saunders, a multidisciplinary theater artist whose practice is rooted in set design. A founding member and associate artistic director of theater company New Paradise Laboratories, Saunders recently performed in and designed the set for NPL’s Fringe Festival show, The Adults. An onstage shower, central video screen, and giant taxidermied bear backlit by moonlight comprised what The Philadelphia Inquirer called “a Phillip Johnson-style modernist dream.”
When did you know you were going to be an artist?
My mother is an amazing artist. She can draw and paint, but she is at her core a genuine American folk artist. She makes gorgeous quilts, exquisite doll clothes, birdhouses, jewelry, etc. I grew up with that and, whether I knew it at the time, was quite influenced and inspired by her—I certainly am now as an adult.
I always excelled in art classes as a child. I drew constantly, even when I wasn’t supposed to (such as in math class). I knew I was going to be a set designer in the 10th grade when I was acting in our high school production of Robin Hood, playing the protagonist’s best friend, Will Scarlett. In the script, Scarlett is supposed to be perched in the fork of a tree, spouting wisecracks down to the rest of the Merry Men. My high school was a small country school in Virginia, not without funds, but also not flush. We used the same poorly painted forest backdrop for any and every show that took place in the woods, this Robin Hood included. That was it. That was the set.
I decided that I needed that tree. I had to have that tree, because Will Scarlett didn’t make sense to me without that perch, that scenic location and object. So I stayed after school for rehearsals, then stayed after rehearsals and converted a 10-foot A-frame stepladder into a movable, climbable papier-mâché tree. It was awesome. I designed the set for every subsequent production until I graduated.
If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?
Hamlet, or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major.
What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?
I work mostly from home. My wife and I bought a house in Fishtown twelve years ago and we’ve put a lot of work into it over the years. One major renovation was the third floor bedroom, where we knocked the ceiling out, exposing the unused vertical space of the previously-hidden vaulted ceiling. This room is our studio. It is where I do the majority of my design work: sketching, model making, drafting, etcetera. My wife is a massage therapist and sees her clients here as well. It’s a popular room in our house, “the studio.” Our dog Roy and our daughter Ione hang out there a lot, too. When I’m working, Roy can often be found curled up on the pull-out couch, and Ione at the small table working on a project of her own. When I’m working alone, I’m surrounded by my research photos, sketches, “in progress” models, as well as Ione’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Ione has even taken to designing her own sets—I’ve given her a couple of model boxes and random model pieces and furniture. She will play and design for hours. It’s cliché, of course, but the lack of inhibition and freedom of her creativity is inspiring to me. The studio is equal parts my work and hers. Her spirit of play keeps me company.
How does residing in this region contribute to your artistic practice?
Living in Philadelphia is a major part of who I am, both as an artist and a person. I am very connected to this city, and love it deeply for all its good and all its bad. I was only twenty-one years old when I relocated here—unsure of who I really was, and who I would become. Philly has guided me. I met my wife here, found myself as an artist here, and am at home here. My work with New Paradise Laboratories, Headlong, Pig Iron, The Wilma and Theatre Exile has shaped my aesthetic, and informed my goals and ambition(s) as an artist in the performing arts. Philadelphia has a great reputation as a leading city for theater and performing arts. I would like to think that I play a small but continuing role in that reputation.
Do you think about your legacy and, if so, how does your thinking about it affect your practice?
I have only recently begun to think about things that resemble “legacy.” I’m not preoccupied by it, but I have noticed thoughts like this creeping in on occasion. Mostly, it has to do with my daughter. I want her to be proud of me. I think we’ve all had that feeling on some level, that feeling of wanting others to be proud or appreciative. For me, for the longest time it was (and still is I suppose) my parents. Then, of course, my wife. Now, it’s all about my daughter. And it’s so very different from wanting your parents to be proud. Really, everything I do is for her, in the hope that she thinks I’m cool.
I also want my students to be proud of me. I think so highly of them—sometimes, I’m honestly so impressed that I feel underqualified to teach them, a common feeling for any educator that cares deeply and wants to inspire. A couple of weeks ago we were in tech rehearsals for New Paradise Laboratories’ The Adults. I had hired a former student of mine, Fernando Maldonado, to be my assistant projection designer. On one of the dinner breaks, the two of us took a walk with NPL’s artistic director, Whit MacLaughlin.
It was a beautiful evening, and the three of us walked and talked about the work we were doing together. I was quite struck by the moment. I found it moving. Whit is my mentor; I met him when I was even younger than Fernando. And there we were, three generations of theater artists, if you will. My hope in terms of legacy is that I can be half as inspiring and helpful as those that have guided me.