Commonwealth math and physics teacher Anna Moss sits in a chair in the Spongebob-themed set she designed.
Designing Ephemeral Worlds

By Jessica Tomer

The first theatrical production Anna Moss ’06 remembers seeing is King Stag, a fantastical dramatic comedy where the titular stags come to life through puppetry. "They were beautiful," she says, thinking back to a night twenty-two years ago. "They were on a fly system, so the stags could leap. They would be picked up as if they were dancing, and they would fly back down."

These days, when not teaching math or physics at Commonwealth, Anna is the one orchestrating flying set pieces—from a 1920s biplane to a pineapple under the sea—as a prolific scenic designer specializing in high school theater. And she approaches both roles with the same educator's ethos. 

Theater Kid in Training

After King Stag left its impression, Anna became a fixture in after-school theater programs at The Park School in her hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts. "It was just nice to make some friends and have something to do after school," she says. At around seven or eight years old, she made her debut in "little tiny plays" like The Mitten. A few years later, she enrolled in the school's summer camp, Creative Arts at Park (CAAP), intrigued, at first, by costume design. But weeks of sewing frills onto aprons for a musical with a chorus of housekeepers soon sapped its allure, and when set designer Mark Buchanan popped his head into the costume shop asking for volunteer painters, Anna was all too happy to oblige. That small request began fifteen years of mentorship and theater-tech training, as Mark worked at both CAAP and The Park School. In Anna's quest to become a CAAP counselor herself in high school, her set-design experience led her into "every single tech class": lights, design, crew. She honed her skills working on the camp's original musicals, like Come as You Are and Midvale Majestic—"not shows that people know, but they're very fun," she says. By twenty-seven years old, she was co-head of CAAP's set department.                    

Attending New York University meant stepping away from local theater, but once Anna graduated and returned to Boston, she soon found herself working on The Drowsy Chaperone with another CAAP connection, Ezra Flam. 

"He needed someone to build an airplane," Anna says, nonchalant about building an airplane in the way only seasoned set designers can be. She got her first crack at being lead set designer on Ezra's next show at Brookline High School, The Pajama Game, in 2012. They've collaborated on at least one production every year in the decade since, adding to a résumé that already boasts several of Anna's "bucket list shows," like Little Shop of Horrors. Turning a 120-square-foot stage into a decrepit downtown and flower shop that could also accommodate ninety-five cast members "was a really fun challenge." 9 to 5: The Musical was another favorite, with its Mondrian-inspired set: "I'm very proud of that show," she says, "because that was intensely not literal. It was just this wall of light boxes and different rectangles and colors in a way to give me a '70s feel without having to take up any space, because that was also a ninety-person cast." Chicago "was very simple but really beautiful," with a red-and- gold proscenium and Art Deco accents. And "Shrek was going to be good, but no one ever saw it. Damn you, COVID."

From Script to Stage

For the past nine years, Belmont High School, with its 700-seat auditorium, full scene workshop, and industry-standard light and sound equipment, has been Anna's homebase. As their Scenic Designer, she's tackled everything from Urinetown to Hamlet and, most recently, The SpongeBob Musical, a poppy production as vibrant as the fuchsia sea anemone and emerald green kelp waving across the stage. Though technically the Bikini Bottom made famous by the cartoon, Anna's set is more of an homage. "SpongeBob is a really recognizable IP [intellectual property]. Everyone knows what SpongeBob looks like. And I aggressively did not want to design in the style of SpongeBob," she says. No flowers in the sky. No black outlines to the set pieces. Rather, Anna designed a world that would be familiar to audiences but distinct enough to be artistically freeing—and feasible for a team of student builders.

"One of my goals is that every show looks different," she says. "I don't want shows to be identifiably mine." Having a recognizable style isn't inherently bad, she says; it's just not her, and it's not conducive to working with students, who should be able to recognize their handiwork on stage. Like her favorite set designer, David Korins (whose Broadway credits include blockbusters Hamilton, Beetlejuice, and Dear Evan Hansen), Anna adapts her sets to the material, taking "a piece of art"—a musical or a play—and translating it for a given audience at a given moment in time. "You are supposed to be somewhere totally different, transformative," she says. "When we did Laramie Project, it was supposed to feel like nowhere in New England, you know? It was supposed to feel big and open and gray and purple and mountainous. And when you walk in, I want you to immediately feel like, Oh, I'm not in Belmont."

A theatrical set with lookalike versions of coral, seaweed, and other underwater plant life in bright multicolored shades.

Anna's colorful take on Spongebob's world under the sea. 

Anna's process, at least with Ezra, starts about four months before the show opens, with the two of them "breezing through the script" and bouncing ideas off each other. "We identify what is absolutely necessary," Anna says, "and then [Ezra] talks through what he's imagining for the overall look for the show." For SpongeBob, he wanted to be "assaulted by colors." They often share a Pinterest or similar vision board, gathering ideas until their next meeting, when Anna shares her initial sketches with technical director Ian O'Malley. Together they talk about the space in "very broad strokes," Anna says. "Then I kind of go away and draw a lot," considering a litany of questions along the way: How would you build that? What's the look? What's the feel? Should the color palette be warm, cool, intense? How does it jibe with the costume designer's vision? And what does it all mean mathematically?

"Then it's just build, build, build the idea and edit as you go."

A Teacher In and Out of the Classroom

Anna's meticulously labeled blueprints ultimately find their way to student builders. They have Ian to help translate, but it's hard not to see Anna's work as a math and physics teacher reflected in her approach. "I want everything to be buildable by high schoolers," she says. "I want everyone to feel like they've got a hand on the ball."

Though it depends on the classes she teaches in a given year (usually a combination of Geometry, Algebra 2/Precalculus, and Physics), her set-design practice seeps into her work at Commonwealth as well. "I do try to bring my outside interests into the classroom when I
can, because I think it both humanizes me and allows students to see a little bit of why you might care about this math." She can introduce parabolas, for instance, via stage lights and mirrors or "talk about pars, which are a parabolic reflector, and why the focus of a parabola when we're graphing it is where you would put the light bulb in a parabolic mirror."

Simply being able to draw has been useful in the classroom, too, Anna says. "My diagrams are clear and accurate. And that sounds braggy, but...having clear and accurate diagrams makes a big difference, particularly in Physics I and in Geometry." Not every student learns spatially, able to imagine the shapes described in their math problems; her drawings help them understand.    

"It's funny, because I don't think of what I do [in theater] as being all that related to what I do at school," she says. "I guess I am constantly bringing it in," as the chief doer-of-trigonometry, amongst other things, on set. (Those portholes don't become perfectly round by themselves.) But both theater and teaching are "just part of things I enjoy doing," she says.

Beyond her lessons, Anna is particularly sympathetic as student actors slog through the long rehearsal days leading up to any Commonwealth show. ("Knowing what they're going through is, I think, a valuable thing.") And student advisees with a penchant for the performing arts benefit from Anna's deep knowledge of summer programs and local theaters. Of course, she designs sets for Commonwealth productions, too, including The Cherry Orchard and Our Town. Without a permanent performance space, sets can be particularly challenging at Commonwealth. But that's part of the fun. "I love seeing Commonwealth shows. I love seeing what they did. And I love that it's so student-run," she says. "What they do is remarkable."

Behind the Scenes

Much like the unassuming way she supports her students and colleagues at Commonwealth (managing Project Week and Senior Projects, designing and running trivia nights for admissions events, leading Hancock activities, gamely sitting down for alumni/ae magazine interviews...), Anna doesn't expect a curtain call or her name in lights. Like most of the people behind the scenes "because they like building stuff," she does the work for its own sake. But she does wish more people would "read the whole program," she says. "There's a ton of people working on these shows." And it would be nice, once in a while, for theatergoers to buy their tickets because of Aaron Rhyne (projection designer) rather than Aaron Tveit (actor with swooning fanbase).
"Sometimes you should go to the theater for things other than the music or the acting," Anna says. "You'll see movies for the cinematographer, sometimes, right? And I don't think people do that with theater enough." When you "divorce yourself from just watching the performance," you can appreciate the technical problem solving—and the person—behind each cue. 

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Jessica Tomer is the Director of Communications at Commonwealth. This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.