Designing for More People in the Palace

By Sean Riley

Rendering by Sean Riley
[ID: A blueprint-style drawing of a section of San Francisco City Hall with two red ropes attached from corners of the ceiling to a single dance figure below.]

Sean Riley interviewed by Rowena Richie

Rowena Richie: “Sunny Jim” Rolph is the San Francisco mayor responsible for christening City Hall “The People’s Palace” when it opened in 1915. The expression referred to its intended purpose: it was not a palace for kings and queens, but for ‘the people.’ Tell me about your set design for Zaccho Dance Theatre’s upcoming performance, The People’s Palace.

Sean Riley: I guess we start with the building itself which is the essence of site specific work. Basically we’re making a piece of time-based art in conversation with this locale. This is different and distinct from what we would think of as traditional theater where the proscenium is a blank frame in which we create a world inside, and you can move it and plug it in somewhere else and have a similar experience. But in site specific work we’re talking about making the work specifically in conversation with that locale which can only happen in that place. So in this case, the building itself, City Hall, is that locale, right? So, in terms of my approach there are two pathways: there’s what the space is, and there’s what the space means. They are different ways of unpacking the building.

Architecture is an emotion machine. It’s designed to evoke, to provoke a set of reactions from us as humans. When we walk into a building, we get a feeling. With this space, where we have the huge vaulted ceilings, the tool that’s evoking that emotion is so powerful that you can’t help but notice it and be affected by it, but also notice that it is affecting you. There’s not a lot of subtlety in this beaux arts style. This style is specifically designed to inspire, to overwhelm, to impose. So, I look at the building in terms of what it is to understand what makes this building stand up. The different ways that force is managed within the architecture actually has an effect on how we feel. But also because in this specific kind of work we plan to use these spaces in unorthodox ways.

RR: This kind of work meaning site specific aerial work?

SR: Yeah, I certainly have done other kinds of site specific work, but I’m talking about doing aerial which is, you know, a wide umbrella of a term. Sometimes it involves ropes. Sometimes it just involves being in a place where humans can’t normally get to — unique access. It’s really all about drawing attention. In this context with Joanna, aerial is not just a trick, not only circus and spectacle. It is very carefully thought out to inhabit and embody the space in a unique way that’s positioned to draw attention to certain aspects that are aligned with the message of the piece.

RR: Tell me more. How do you as a set designer ‘draw attention to certain aspects that are aligned with the message of the piece?’

SR: I start to tease apart specific elements [of the building] and try to figure out okay, so how does this emotion machine work? Like what are actually the moving parts here? And that’s where I’ve started to find elements that I can play with.

RR: For example?


A Black aerial dance figure in a white tank top and pants, suspended in a seated position from the dome of a Beaux Arts building.
Rendering by Sean Riley
[ID: A rendering of a Black aerial dancer with black hair pulled back, wearing a white tank top and pants, suspended in a seated position by a rope from the oculus of a Beaux Arts style dome.]

SR: Throughout the building, there are these busts, busts of previous mayors and other figures. And all these busts are presented on these funny plinths. It’s like a box, you know, like a four foot high by two foot by two foot box that the bust sits upon. And what that plinth means is here is an object worthy of your attention, right? So I have latched onto that shape of the plinth as a method within the context of this building, of calling attention to an object worthy of consideration and of appreciation. I’ve recreated these plinths without the bust on top as performance props. And then, because of the limited surface area on the top, right, you just follow the poetry of it. There’s all kinds of other vocabulary about the limitation of space, the confinement of that tiny plinth for human beings to dance on. And that leads to movement. It leads to storyline. It leads to all sorts of things.

RR: Are there any obvious “elephants in the room” that need to be addressed?

SR: In this space, there certainly are. The reason this piece needs to exist is the essential disconnect between what the building is today and what it purports to be, and the architectural style and the intention of that architectural style. There’s a disconnect in what this building is — our political and social center — and what it represents or what we hope it represents. What it strives to represent is inclusion, a governmental system that upholds all of the best ideals of our American style of government, which we profess to be equality and equal consideration and access.

RR: Yes, and yet.…

SR: And yet I think we all would agree that it’s a complicated history in this country, so unpacking what this building means is a complicated thing. I think it’s really important to note that it’s a gorgeous building. It is Joanna’s position, and mine as well, that unpacking and trying to understand and comment on this building’s architecture doesn’t take away from that fact. But the truth is that this beaux arts style has elements of Baroque and Rococo and is strongly influenced by Europe, and in turn back to Rome, and back to Greece. It’s got these classical shapes and forms and it’s no mistake that it was chosen because of its association with these classical societies and these classical seats of power. It was designed to place American society and American power in this inherited lineage of the great societies of the world, right? It’s all about what this architectural style uplifts and supports. And what it lifts up and supports is a vision of what is relevant and good in a society. And this particular vision of what is relevant and good in society is patriarchy and capitalism and essentially, white supremacy.

RR: And essentially, white supremacy.

SR: Yeah. The roots of this style are part of the foundation of what it means to fabricate whiteness. What it means to build an identity of whiteness. And it does so by reaching out and borrowing history from other places that for better or for worse, or truthfully or untruthfully, were identified in the minds of the people that chose this style as flourishing whiteness. I think it’s fair to say that indigenous cultures were not considered and are not considered. We see this colonial style in plantation architecture, right? We see it in all sorts of places attempting to identify with whiteness, and trying to transplant that into this space in this country.

I must acknowledge that as a cisgender white man in today’s climate of identity politics, it’s very difficult to separate the speaker from the message. Of course, I have invisible biases like anybody else that I can’t always perfectly see. But I have been really lucky to work with amazing artists. Joanna is really one of my north stars. I’ve learned a lot about how to talk about this subject and how to see things more clearly. And I’ve also learned how to have a voice and that it is okay for me to have a voice within the subject matter. As a cisgender white man, for me to talk about white supremacy is not only possible, but important.

RR: Absolutely, yeah.

SR: So now perhaps after that whole bit, you can see more clearly why I preface that by saying that this is an amazing piece of architecture, and it’s beautiful, and I love it. This is not, for Joanna, and certainly not for me, a criticism of the architecture as it sits. This is a contextual understanding of it, right? This is something that informs the way we’re moving forward. So the piece is not in any way designed to slam the things but rather further complicate it. This building is supposed to be for everyone. And I think it’s clear going through that building that not everyone is represented. So one of the things we really focused on — the elephant in the room — are these four rather large medallions in the ceiling. They have a relief carved within them representing the virtues liberty, learning, strength and equality. They’ve compiled images of lots of different symbols like you’d have on the back of the dollar bill. All this different symbolism. But they’re clearly not representative of the full breadth of our society.

RR: In other words, the moniker “the people’s palace” didn’t really mean all the people.

SR: Yeah, in my words, I think this piece could be described as an intervention to add back and showcase the missing elements of society that have not had representation or a voice within this space.

Two aerial dance figures perform in the balcony of a Beaux Arts style building secured by ropes around their waists.
Rendering by Sean Riley
[ID: A rendering of two aerial dance figures secured by ropes around their waists. One is a Black figure wearing a white tank top and pants seated on a ledge. The other is an olive skinned figure wearing a black leotard and plum tights facing a large arched window with a raised leg and outstretched arm.]

RR: What’s another example of an element you’re reimagining?

SR: So the medallions — I forget exactly how Joanna put it, she said something like, ‘The strength medallion is a half naked man with a sword.’ Like a really muscular white guy sitting down with a big sword. This is the vision of strength that we are presented with. And I think the vision of strength that Joanna would like to present, that she lives through her life and presents in her art and that we would like to present here, is something more nuanced. It’s the strength of caring and trust and respect. This is the strength of a society. This is the strength of an interrelated group of people inhabiting a piece of geography. The strength of that society lies in so much more than a sword.

RR: What’s it like to work with Joanna?

SR: A masterclass in how to be a person on the earth is how I feel about the privilege of being around and working with Joanna Haigood. She creates art with a fierce bravery but without anger. How to separate those things is one of the magic tricks that she does so well. I have benefited from learning a tiny bit of that.

RR: Do you have any sense of what her secret is?

SR: Love, just love. An enormous bottomless pit of love. An enormous supply of love that governs what she does. She wrestles with subjects and realities that are oftentimes deeply disturbing and uncomfortable and she does so, without the bitterness that would be so understandable and forgivable. She manages to find this way to present a subject without any hint of an attack, but also never avoiding hard truths. Without having a blameful attacking component to it really opens the door for healing. There are lots of people, particularly these days, in recent times, calling attention to wrongs and highlighting aspects of our history in our society that could be better, and that’s great, and they can be better and we should be looking at that. But Joanna does it in a way that makes a very, very large roof that even those who might feel alienated from the message can stand under. She holds space so that we can all come together to acknowledge and find a different way.

RR: Obviously, The People’s Palace, the performance, is ephemeral. What trace do you want it to leave behind?

SR: The same as always, to touch hearts and minds. The reason we do theater in the first place is to affect someone. I know that sounds like a platitude, but this time based thing we do exists for a moment and it exists in collaboration with an audience member. That transformation within the audience member is actually the object that I’m crafting. And in terms of Joanna’s always leading with love, I hope that we will leave with a feeling that is warm and good, even though not everything we saw is easy to see. That there’s hope in it. This is an important, timely message. And it’s an important place for it to be happening. I think there’s power in this. In City Hall, this big governmental organization being the venue for this message to happen. This is right where the change needs to happen. This is like the bullseye.

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of In Dance.

Sean Riley creates unique striking environments and apparatus for time based art. He is a founding member and co-director of Cirque Mechanics, the host of television series Worlds Toughest Fixes and Speed, and a longtime collaborator on the construction of the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 year clock. Awards and nominations in design include: 6 Izzies, TBA awards, Bay Area Critics Circle, and an Isadora Duncan Sustained Achievement Award in scenic design. Riley studied Theater at UCSC and lives in British Columbia.