When director Sam Pinkleton is asked what the play You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz is about, he has a very straightforward answer: “It's about a guy who turns into a scarecrow.” Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of hay involved. And wheat. Because a scarecrow always needs to be in a wheat field.
Pinkleton (a Tony-nominated choreographer for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) wanted that transformation to happen in full view of the audience, instead of it happening metaphorically or out of sight. “I said to Noah very early on, ‘He's gonna really turn into a scarecrow in front of our eyes. And we're gonna go to a wheat field,’” Pinkleton recalls. “And Noah was like, ‘What? How are we gonna do that?’ But he wrote it, and my job is to make what he wrote come alive in the most vivid way possible.” He then adds, with a certain degree of glee, “I think we took it quite a bit farther than Noah might have initially expected.
You Will Get Sick may have a surreal concept, and an in-your-face title, but it got a critical rave in the New York Times and other publications. It currently runs Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre until December 11.
You Will Get Sick follows a young man called #1 (played by Daniel K. Isaac of Billions on Showtime) who discovers that he is dying. He hires a woman (played by Tony winner Linda Lavin) to tell his loved ones that he is sick. His illness, which is never named, is visualized in the play by Isaac physically turning into a scarecrow, in full view of the audience. Hay even falls from the sky.
“To me, it's a play about how we all have bodies, and those bodies do really surprising fucked up things that can be terrifying and confusing,” explains Pinkleton. “I've had a lot of young people who are close to me die quite tragically, or get sick quite tragically. I find sickness and death, particularly when it comes unexpectedly, to be really hard to talk about. And, this is a play that is about how hard it is to talk about illness.” The play was written before COVID-19, but Pinkleton says that audiences have interpreted it to be about the pandemic or the AIDS crisis.
Imaginative metaphors aside, You Will Get Sick was also challenging from a design perspective. The play has many locations: a classroom, a restaurant, a hospital room, and it culminates at a wheat field. The team behind You Will Get Sick had to figure out how they were going to get to all of those locations in one play.
This next section contains many spoilers, so read at your own risk.
The set for You Will Get Sick can be divided into two parts: the city where #1 lives, which then literally falls away to reveal a wheat field. For the first part, the team decided to go for a “less is more approach,” says set designer Kimie Nishikawa, of the design collective dots. “It was more about how do we make sure that we're in the city, and we illustrate his isolation and loneliness? And also, this container can hold all these other environments at the same time.” Nishikawa is used to working on plays with out-there concepts: She designed the world premiere of Ain’t No Mo' at the Public Theater and The Headlands at Lincoln Center Theater.
The team settled on a box, painted with black semi-gloss paint, to give it a “cold plasticky sterile” feel. And the box is also tiled, which allows for actors to quickly disappear or reappear within a scene, or for the illusions, designed by Skylar Fox, to pop in and out. Those magic tricks added to the surreal, unmoored atmosphere of the play and allowed the audience to actually see Isaac turn into a scarecrow.
“When you first look at the set, it looks like it has this tiled pattern, but some of those tiles actually are doors. So they pop out, and in the darkness, you can't really see it all,” says Nishikawa. Minimal props were used to denote the different locations, but having it all be in one environment meant that the play's momentum was never broken.
But the most challenging part of You Will Get Sick, the one that had Nishikawa spending hours in front of her set models troubleshooting, was the wheat field. The final moments of the play takes place in a field of grain. Diaz’s script did not contain much direction for how to make it happen logistically, just the stage directions: “The world folds in on itself. The Big City becomes a field of wheat.”
The team knew they wanted to do a coup de théâtre-style reveal. “There was a moment where we were like, maybe the wheat comes out of the sky,” recalls Pinkleton.
The only problem was the Laura Pels Theatre did not have a fly space or wings, meaning that the team couldn’t lower any set pieces from above or hide any set pieces on the side of the stage—it all just had to live on the stage. So to make everything fit, Nishikawa designed the wheat field to be 12 feet deep, while the sterile cube was eight-by-eight. The cube was separated from the wheat field by a black wall. Nishikawa then had to figure out how to have the wall disappear to reveal the wheat field. She discovered how to pull it off by accident.
“I was playing with the model. I work in a half-inch scale model, and I was just moving the pieces around and trying to figure it out,” she recalls. “And I had this wall. And the wall just fell, because I hadn't glued it down properly. And I thought, 'Oh, great. That's such an amazing move!'”
So in the show, the cube splits apart and moves to the side of the stage, while the black wall slowly falls to the floor, leading to a reveal that has had audiences gasping in surprise and applauding mid-show. As for the wheat field, it spanned the entire length of the stage. And it was real wheat that was treated so it would be fireproof. “You can't get that texture of wheat unless it's real,” says Nishikawa. “It was funny. We were told by the shop [Hudson Scenic] that because of the season, it's right before fall when we needed it, there really wasn't any real wheat available. They just bought all they could find from across the country.”
For Pinkleton, that transition from the suffocating world of the city to the expansive world of the wheat field was supposed to be a contrast for the characters and the audience, as well. “The thing that #1 wants is to go home. But the other thing that he wants is to be able to breathe,” says Pinkleton. “And so the wheatfield is vastness. It’s expanse. It's the place where you can breathe.” Pinkleton then remarks, “If I could have my way, we would just tear down the lobby. And when the audience came out of the theatre, they would just be in a giant wheat field.” He then adds, dryly, “We couldn't afford that.”
But for Nishikawa, as a designer, the limitations can be a useful exercise in ingenuity: “I'm grateful for limitations because it really forces you to think. You can't have the easy way out, you can't rely on your tricks, you'd have to really dig into the script and your process. And take your time.”
See more of the You Will Get Sick set below.