Over her oven, Clare Floyd DeVries affixed a "Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop" sign. She's a far cry from the cannibal baker in Sweeney Todd, it's just a souvenir from one of the many sets she's designed.
"I do actually make meat pies," she laughs. "Probably not the same kind though."
DeVries is one of Dallas' award-winning designers, who's earned a reputation for the detailed, elaborate sets she's created for nearly every theater in town. She's currently an artistic company member at Kitchen Dog Theater, where you can see her most recent design work in Gidion's Knot, a new play by Johanna Adams opening Thursday April 3, about the school system and freedom of expression.
"For Gidion's Knot, we wanted to achieve uber realism," she says. "So the set is a replica of a classroom, but everything is purposeful, so paying attention to the details will pay off in this one."
A professional architect, DeVries hadn't given the show's design a second thought until she and her husband were attending a community theater production and she began to nitpick the set. "Of all the things that were wrong with the show, the set was the worst," she says. "So I thought, I could do this."
This was early 2000 and with decades of architecture behind her and no theater experience to speak of, she made a few phone calls that eventually led to a meeting with WaterTower Theatre's Terry Martin. DeVries figured she'd need a few sketches to demonstrate her interest, so she plotted hypothetical sets for a few Shakespeare plays and then two designs of Waiting for Godot.
"I'd done a few tile show room displays with vignettes like,'Your Dream Kitchen,' so I had a little bit of background in presentational design," she says. "His previous designer didn't have construction design skills, so I guess he figured even if I turned out to be a stinko designer, I would be able to explain to the shop how to make the set."
He let me read a few scripts, with no promises. She presented design ideas and Martin hired her for two shows. When she walked into her first production meetings, she was hooked.
"I came from a world where people wanted the most building for their dollar," she says. "But these were people who wanted to create art and collaborate. When I walked out the door that night, I realized I wanted to keep playing in this world. The next day I called every theater in town."
She earned more jobs with each design, working everywhere from Fort Worth's Circle Theatre to the Trinity Shakespeare Festival to Shakespeare Dallas. There was one year when DeVries designed 14 shows in 12 months. What started as a passion project quickly became her full-time job.
"Clare is always one of my go-to designers at Kitchen Dog. She is highly collaborative , uniquely creative and detail focused," says Tina Parker, co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog. "Her sets not only serve the purpose of the production but also enhance playgoer's experience of any particular play- be it the smell and feel of real grass under foot in Detroit or the Joseph Cornell- inspired shadow box set of Hazard County, that illustrated the multiple locations, without the cumbersome task of changing the set every few minutes."
DeVries loves both the process and the product and perhaps what makes her a successful designer is her thoughtful approach to the storytelling.
"I think set design has made me a better architect," DeVries says. "When I was working on commercial real estate design, what was always missing for me was the story. At heart, I'm an illustrator and I've always needed the story."
To bring the play to life, the little choices are key for DeVries.
"I really like the moments when the sets become a character in the show," she says. "When you're designing a house for example, it's a biography of the character who lives there. You have to psychoanalyze them and really get into their head."
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For her design of Kitchen Dog's 2009 play Slasher, she played on the dark comedic elements by creating a set that resembled a midway fun house, with sideshow banners and blinking lights. It set immediately set the mood for the play, signaling to the audience that they'd left the streets of Dallas and entered another world.
When she was designing Richard III, the actor in the title role was in a wheelchair. What could've been a challenge was just another layer of storytelling for DeVries. To signal the king's exclusion, she'd have other characters go up stairs, leaving him at the bottom.
"I get to add another layer to the story," she says. "I feel very lucky to be part of the theater process. I can't believe there was ever a time when I didn't do this."
See her work in Gidion's Knot at Kitchen Dog Theater, 3120 McKinney Ave, April 3-26. Tickets start at $15.