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This Designer Is Making Some of the Most Innovative Theater Sets in Town

Scene designer Julia Hayes Welch has built sets that include a working kitchen, a bus stop and an island beach

By Gwendolyn Elliott August 17, 2018

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This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the September 2018 issue. Read more from the Fall Arts Preview feature story hereClick here to subscribe.

So much of the theater experience is in the details and behind the scenes: the angle of lighting on a prop, the timing of an entrance. It’s here you’ll find freelance scenic designer Julia Hayes Welch at work, considering the best approach to her next project. At the moment, that involves what’s for dinner.

“Right now, I’m working on Skylight,” she said during a recent phone call, referring to David Hare’s 1995 play about star-crossed lovers that opens ACT–A Contemporary Theatre’s 2018–2019 season this month. “The actors cook dinner together on stage—boiling pasta, sautéing onions—and then [they] eat it, so I have to design a working kitchen.”

It’s a technical challenge, but she’s the woman for it. In the past year alone, Welch, who teaches in the theater department at Pacific Lutheran University and at the University of Washington (where she received her MFA in scenic design), has designed an exploding multimedia set for ArtsWest (An Octoroon); an island beach, complete with sand, seagrasses and working raised garden beds for Onward Ho! Productions (Big Rock); a dismal bus stop of unfulfilled dreams for Seattle Public Theater (Ironbound); and a live action set based on a beloved book and animated film for Book-It Repertory (Howl’s Moving Castle).

“The thing I like about a set is that it can hold a metaphor or poetic gesture that you can’t get as readily from film or TV. When I design a set, I’m looking for a mood or feeling that captures the heart of a story, to balance the realism with some poetry,” Welch says.

By all indications, Seattle’s theater world enthusiastically subscribes to such a vision; Welch’s drama dance card is filled clear through April 2019, with eight local productions down the pike. “[Julia] never fails to bring her keen intelligence, care of story, collaborative spirit and incredible imagination to the table…and God love her, a sense of ‘Let’s do this,’” says Seattle Public Theater co-artistic director Kelly Kitchens. “She says ‘yes’ with a spark in her eye.”

Welch on stage this season:
Skylight, 9/7–9/30; acttheatre.org 
Arms and the Man, 10/23–11/18; seattleshakespeare.org 
My Ántonia, 11/29–12/30; book-it.org

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