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How Unconventional Designer Deirdre Brennan Turns a Manhattan Townhouse Into 1904 Dublin Year After Year

Deirdre Brennan has worked with the Irish Repertory Theatre for over two decades, and she and her jaw-dropping attention to detail return for the third annual production of the Rep’s immersive The Dead, 1904. The interior designer is responsible for transforming a townhouse at 991 Fifth Avenue (owned by the American Irish Historical Society) into both a stage and an early 20th-century home for the adaptation of James Joyce’s short story about a Christmas party, which returns to for the third consecutive year. Directed by Ciarán O`Reilly, the show will run through January 13, 2019. We spoke to Brennan about the show, her work, and what a theatrical interior designer does.

How did you go about transforming this Fifth Avenue townhouse for the The Dead, 1904,?
DB: Step one was to walk through the townhouse with director Ciarán O’Reilly and get his vision for the show. I got a sense of what we would be able to use that was already there, and then think about how to flesh it out. One of the ways that we wanted to make people feel like they were in Dublin in 1904 once they walked through those doors, was to put up curtains, so people weren’t looking out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We put up these rich, dark green velvet curtains that just envelop you.

Deirdre Brennan
Deirdre Brennan Hannah Vine

Do you pay a lot of attention to granular details like the color and texture of the curtains?
DB: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I researched was how the Irish would have decorated for Christmas during that era. We made garlands with real holly and ivy, and used things that they would have actually used back then.

With a show like The Dead, 1904, which is immersive, do you have to be conscious of the fact that audience members can approach the set and props at such close proximity?
DB: Everything that we used, we were conscious of people being able to come up close to them. The writer, Jean Hanff Korelitz, loves antiques. She spent a year collecting all the china, silverware, and glassware that are used in the show. By the time I came along, she had already amassed this huge collection of beautiful props. When you sit down at the table for dinner during the show, it’s so richly filled.

How did you become attached to The Dead, 1904?
DB: I’ve worked with Irish Repertory Theatre for the last 20 years. When Ciarán [O’Reilly] asked me if I wanted to decorate the set, I jumped at the chance. It’s a favorite story of mine, and just the idea—staging it in a townhouse in New York—was so tempting. Interestingly enough, years ago when I was in Dublin, I happened to pass the original townhouse that this story was set in.

What is your background?
DB: In set decorating. My first show with Irish Rep was The Importance of Being Earnest in the early 1990s and I’ve worked with them ever since.

Can you explain to me what a set decorator does?
DB: Usually I work with the production designer, who draws and designs the set, and then I collaborate with the director to fill everything out—hang all the pictures, buy the fabrics, search for the furniture…etc. And you make sure it’s all coordinated and fits in the period. In addition to that, you take care of all the hand props that the actors use.

It sounds so similar to interior designing. What made you choose theatre over being an interior designer?
DB: Because it’s more of a collaborative effort—you work with the directors, writers, designers, and actors. You all come together to create a mood and a feeling. And also, because of the story. These plays and stories take you other worlds.

The American Irish Historical Society is located at 991 Fifth Avenue, New York. For more information, visit IrishRep.org.

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