“I have all these friends frantically, crazily planning their weddings, and I think, Oh, if only they’d taken my class! ” says Sandra Goldmark, assistant professor of professional practice in the theatre department. “You have to know where you’re going but be flexible along the way; you have a budget, a timeline, opening night, actors, costumes, lines—it’s a show.” She laughs, but the willowy 35-year-old Brooklyn native stands by the analogy.

After graduating from Harvard in American history and literature, Goldmark spent a year in Buenos Aires working for an amusement park and wondering desperately what to do with her life. Then she remembered how much she’d enjoyed painting scenery in high school.

At Yale drama school, she came to understand that theatre was as much wedding as story, and set design partook in the action rather than simply serving as backdrop. “My professor Ming Cho Lee called it the difference between presentation and representation,” she says. “With representation you’re describing where this play takes place. With presentation you’re creating the space where the these emotional moments can happen.”

For her many off- and off-off-Broadway productions, Goldmark has favored a few evocative, shape-shifting elements over a roomful of realistic and immovable objects. In last year’s Crossing Brooklyn, an award-winning musical by the Transport Group for whom she is resident designer, a Brooklyn schoolteacher is suffering from aftershocks of 9/11. Goldmark hung bungee cords in different positions to evoke the vertical grooves of the World Trade Center towers, the woman’s imprisonment inside her fears, and the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which she has yet to cross since the attacks.

“The challenge of design today is to keep things fluid,” Goldmark explains. “The way people write the scene changes are boom, boom, boom—instantaneous. And that’s what people seeing movies are prepared to watch. Plus, you don’t have a lot of money to build a lot of things.” Those are the practical considerations. As for the artistic ones, Goldmark wants her sets to “work hand in hand with the play’s point of view,” she says, and if they can change form they’re more likely to.

At a meeting on a late afternoon in December for the Senior Thesis Festival in March—one of various projects she has championed in which student designers try out their ideas in real spaces—Goldmark helps a production team align their vision with what’s possible. The students want the stage to eventually disappear into darkness: a good idea for 4:48 Psychosis, the bleak mindscape British playwright Sarah Kane wrote not long before committing suicide, in 1999. But rolling out a black floor during a miniscule pause between scenes? “I think you need less literal ways to go to black,” Goldmark advises.

“I’m always pushing them to do that double dance,” she later confides, “where ideas bubble up and at the same time you seek clarity.”

-by Apollinaire Scherr, photograph by Dorothy Hong