There's barely 24 hours left until the first preview performance of Proof at Theater on the Edge, and Samantha DiGeorge is doing the windows. I'm watching as she stands on the covered porch of a brick-walled Chicago home, painstakingly spritzing the century-old panes. She doesn't carry cleanser in her spray bottle, but watery brownish-yellow acrylic paint, with which she's simulating decades of dirty rain. And though the wooden floor and ceiling above and below her are authentic (save for the cunningly crafted cutouts to accommodate lighting fixtures), the 1,300 weathered bricks surrounding her are actually hand-worked slices of styrofoam that she individually placed and airbrushed.
These are just a few of the seemingly infinite layers of realistic detail that scenic designer DiGeorge has lavished on her latest labor of love, which supports David Auburn's award-winning dramedy about math and mental illness through the end of March. Sam's hyper-realistic sets helped the company she co-founded with her husband/producer/director Marco DiGeorge earn our pick for "Best New Theater Company of 2017," and any experienced designer would be proud to claim them in their portfolio. So imagine my surprise when DiGeorge told me (while she and set builder Christopher Ivers applied finishing touches) that not only is she entirely self-taught, but her subtly surreal junk shop for 2016's American Buffalo was the first theatrical set she'd ever designed in her entire life.
Before diving headlong into set design, DiGeorge spent a dozen years in the corporate world of banking. She had no prior experience or education in art, aside from being an obsessive decorator for Halloween. "I was always a very curious person, and into researching. Growing up, if my radio broke I'd take it apart and fix it. I like to figure things out in my own way," says DiGeorge. "I have it in my head what it's supposed to look like, but because I've never studied I don't know what techniques are out there. Really it's just trial and error."
Those experimental efforts have included a theme park-quality texture effect DiGeorge created on those aforementioned foam bricks, which she accomplished inexpensively with a hot air gun.
DiGeorge's self-education has also taken her into some unexpected subjects: "I've had to learn building codes, I've had to learn woodworking ... I've had to research what plants I can use to withstand certain weather." A mother of four with a shock of blue hair, a Deathly Hallows tattoo and a love of unicorns ("the dark ones, not the fluffy kind"), DiGeorge is refreshingly down-to-earth for a scenic savant, but she also exudes an empowering (or slightly intimidating) sense of self-confidence: "I go off of instinct, and feel like I absolutely can figure it out. It's not to say that it's not challenging, but I'm gonna do it, and it's going to be at the highest level."
According to Marco DiGeorge, the majority of Theater on the Edge's production budgets go into Sam's sets, with the rest mostly directed towards royalties and actor stipends. But without any major grant support, DiGeorge has become a skilled scavenger of estate sales, garage sales and antique shops as far away as Virginia, with an assist from the Offer Up app. "When I go purchase things, people will say, 'It's not in that great of condition, I need to clean it up.' I'm like, 'Don't touch it!'"
DiGeorge also credits kismet for her creative success, saying that "every show has its little piece of magic in it for me, and it's something I don't look for, but it reveals itself to me." A fridge she found for Superior Donuts had a "superior" label inside; the prop book "Phillip" read in Orphans features a protagonist by the same name. "I feel like I get these little things that the universe just gives to me, which makes it extra special," she says, acknowledging that while the audience may be unaware of such Easter eggs, they influence the cast. "It may seem like a nuance that's not a big deal, but for us it is."
That unconscious influence must have been in effect at the following evening's preview, because after years of experiencing unsatisfying minimalist productions of Proof, I finally enjoyed the play. That's due in large part to Marco DiGeorge's cinematic direction, as well as the intense onstage energy between Megan Raitano and her castmates Allan Whitehead, Elaitheia Quinn and Barry Wright. But without the grounding of Samantha DiGeorge's set, I would have struggled to sustain my suspended disbelief through the story's Lifetime Movie-worthy moments. So save a round of applause for the grimy windows, because the best supporting performer at Theater on the Edge never gets to take a bow.