Students say goodbye to set

Josephine Cooper, a sophomore performing arts major, stood in the kitchen of the Will & Grace set in Emerson’s Iwasaki Library and, as she pretended to use the sink, flashed a smile for a photo.

 Cooper was one of nearly 80 Emerson students and faculty members who stepped behind the glass-enclosed sitcom set for a tour on Oct. 25, as part of Emerson’s goodbye before the set is removed on Nov. 5. The original set designers will fly to Boston, pack up the apartment, and set it up again on the second floor of Emerson’s new Los Angeles center, according to Kevin Bright, the founding director of the program.

The set has been in the library since 2008, when Max Mutchnick, the co-creator and executive producer of the show, who graduated from Emerson in 1987, donated it to the college.

Andrew Tiedemann, the college’s vice president for communications and marketing, said Emerson decided to move the set in an attempt to free up more space in the library. It currently occupies 600 of the library’s 22,000 square feet. 

Bright announced the move in an interview with the Beacon last week.

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“It’s no secret there is a problem with library space,” said Bright. “And we had a large undedicated space for [the set], so really it’s a win-win situation.” 

Cooper said she was sad to see the Will & Grace apartment go. 

“That set was one of the reasons I came to Emerson,” said Cooper. “When I found out it was leaving, I was so upset. I’ll have to go to the LA program.”

During the tours, Emerson students and faculty members were transported into the living space of characters Will Truman and Grace Adler, best friends from college who lived together in New York City. He was a gay lawyer, and she was an interior designer. Will & Grace ran for eight seasons on NBC, from 1998 to 2006, earning 83 Emmy nominations and 16 awards. 

 Cate Hirschbiel, the library’s coordinator of outreach and reference librarian, led the 15-minute tours of the set, which were staggered in six groups of 13 people each. Tour-goers peered into the refrigerator, slumped on the blue couch, and ran their fingers along the faux-marble of the fireplace.

 “Today, we’re going to focus on some of the things that you can only see from this side of the glass,” Hirschbiel said during a tour. She gave a brief history of the set and how it came into Emerson’s possession. 

“Instead of boxing it up in some warehouse in LA, [Mutchnick] thought it would be much more interesting to have it set up in a more Smithsonian-style exhibit,” said Hirschbiel. “He thought, ‘Why not bring the set here, where it can be an inspiration to students.’”

Ruby Scalera, a senior journalism major, said she has worked in the Iwasaki library since her freshman year, but is happy to see the set go. 

“The set takes up space, and it’s cheesy in its own right,” said Scalera, “but it’s a reminder of the success of Emerson graduates and how strong and supportive the alumni network is. That being said, it’s going to be great to have more space.”

Robert Fleming, executive director of the library, said he’s worked there since 1983. He gave Hirschbiel background information he learned from John Jay, Will & Grace’s continuity director, and Chris Farwood, head of the art department, when they came to assemble the set in 2008. 

“The installation was a complex process,” said Fleming. 

The original walls of the set—or flats—were 14 feet high, but the walls in the space at Emerson are 10 feet high, so to fit everything inside, the movers had to cut the flats into pieces and haul them up the service stairwell, said Fleming. After the bones of the apartment were reconstructed, he said it took a week for the props and decorations to be carefully placed.

As students on the tours moved around the back of the blue couch, they got a better view of the scene behind the windows—brick buildings on a residential New York City street. Attendees snapped selfies and shots from new angles, without the glare of the glass that surrounds the set. 

“The backdrop is hand-painted,” Hirschbiel said during the tour, “something of a lost art these days. Most shows now use digital photography.”

On the black leather coffee table, there’s a dish with mail in it. Every piece of mail is addressed to either Truman or Adler, at 30 Rockefeller Place, New York, New York. This is something the director did for the actors, Hirschbiel said in the tour, to give their characters authenticity.

To give the apartment a genuine feel, the continuity director instructed Emerson to leave a roll of paper towel hanging in the kitchen and to keep the door of the apartment slightly ajar, Hirschbiel said in the tour.

“People can imagine that Jack is about to bound through the door any minute,” said Hirschbiel, referring to a supporting character in the show, “or the characters are going to spill something in the kitchen and need to wipe it up.”

After Hirschbiel finished giving the tours, some wandered around the set for a few minutes, capturing moments in a space that hasn’t been open to tours for faculty and students since its installation in 2008, according to Fleming. Other than for courses in television set design and stage management, the floors of Will and Grace’s apartment haven’t been trodden upon, said Fleming.

Beginning on Nov. 5, the space that currently houses the Will & Grace apartment will be a blank slate, said Fleming. 

“The moving crew will be photographing, cataloguing, and then wrapping things to put in crates,” Fleming said. “In a way, I’m sad to see it go,” he said. “We had something unique. A one-of-a-kind that no one else had. That part appealed to me. But on the downside, the library has struggled to provide enough study seats.”

 Fleming said when the group comes on site to begin packing up the apartment, they will cover the glass encasement with paper. This will allow them to work without disturbances, but Fleming said it will serve a double purpose.

Fleming said he hopes to use this as a “scratch pad” where students can suggest ideas for the space. 

“We might invite students who are really engaged in design,” he said, “to be involved in a more in-depth exploration of the space later in the fall semester.”