Setting the Stage


Art director and scenic designer Nick Nocera ’07 creates the backdrops for hit television shows

Nick Nocera got his big break in show business in eighth grade, when he was not cast in the Williston winter play. The sports-averse day student from Northampton had been looking for an alternative to athletics. Acting, it turned out, was not his thing. But technical theater was, as he discovered when he took up art teacher Amy Putnam’s offer to help create the show’s sets. “I just really loved doing it,” recalls Nocera, now a scenic designer and art director based in New York City. “There was team building. I was learning tangible carpentry skills. I was learning to paint. I was learning the specific language of the theater—stagecraft—which I just found fascinating.”

In his work today—which has included developing the sets for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons, as well as for the Hulu series The Path and the forthcoming HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True—Nocera works closely with teams of artists to conceive, design, and manage the process of bringing an imagined world to life. “When you talk about sets, you talk about stories,” he says. “You are telling a story about what the show is, in the scenery.” As an example, he cites The Daily Show, the satirical Comedy Central program whose set purposely evokes the serious look of a traditional news show. “The set is the straight man,” he explains. “The jokes are juxtaposed against this very serious background and very professional setting. You need to approach scenery like that. It needs to have a technical purpose, but it also needs to have a purpose that advances the narrative of what the show is.”

To better achieve that, Nocera develops a detailed backstory for any space he is trying to depict, even if that space is fictional. If he’s designing a room, he asks himself where it’s located, who built it and when, what construction techniques and materials they used. “If you ground this stuff in research and reality and history, it gives people triggers to cue them into feeling a certain way about it,” he says. And that psychological response is what helps the audience escape into the story.
Nocera, who earned his BFA in scenic design and theatre design/technology at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, still marvels at the power of theater when he’s on a soundstage, looking at the exposed back of the set with its scrap wood, wires, and rigging. “Then you walk through a door, and it’s incredible,” he says. “You are transported into this place that you’ve built and created. And it feels so real and so wonderful.”

He is quick to give credit to the talented artists who build and decorate what he calls this “giant collaborative piece of artwork.” Indeed, he says, that team dynamic is one of the reasons he loves what he does. “It goes back to the same thing I felt when I did technical theater at Williston. That’s where I found my friends. And that’s where I found people I could collaborate with. It was something special there, and I was so lucky that I got to experience and be a part of that.”