Design (Working In The Theatre #299)

(APPLAUSE) A warm welcome to The American
Theater Wing’s Seminars on “Working In The Theatre.” Now, in their 29th year coming
to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. These seminars offer
a rare opportunity to explore with the panelists the realities of working in the theatre. This panel is on stage designers. We will
learn how and why these designers became professionals, how they work, how they train, and their reason
for being in the theatre. We hope that you will enjoy and learn from today’s experiences.
I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the Board of The American Theater Wing. And now
let me introduce our moderator for the seminar. The distinguished President of the Rodgers
& Hammerstein Organization, and an active member of the board of directors of The American
Theater Wing, Mr. Theodore Chapin. (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle. Thank you.
Carrying on the tradition of distinguished, we have a panel of distinguished designers
here today, and I’d like to introduce them to you. Starting from my right, costume designer,
David Woolard. Robert Jones, costume and set designer. William Ivey Long, costume designer.
Tony Walton, costume and scenery designer. Ken Billington, lighting designer. And Thomas
Lynch, scenery designer. I’m sure there are some crossovers we’ll get to in the
conversation. But I thought I’d start by asking a question,
when you decided to make the theatre into your profession, was being a designer and
the kind of designer that you are now the focus that you had first? Well, I—Should I jump right in? Jump in. I’m the kid who in school turned the lights
on and off in the school play. But it was the fourth grade play, believe it or not,
and I thought it was so cool turning the lights on and off for the fourth grade play, I decided
right then and there I wanted to be a lighting designer. That’s great. And here we are a number of years later, I’m
doing it, and they pay me now to turn the lights on and off. (LAUGHTER) Sort of. Sort of. Yeah, sometimes. Sort of. So, you
know, I don’t know that I– I can’t design scenery. I can’t design costumes. If you
saw me sketch, you would all die. So, I just think I did something, I liked it and followed
it. I remembered recently that I had—as I put
something together in the little model that I was doing for a play, I had this sense memory
of being about eight years old and putting a diorama together in a cigar box. I don’t
know whether you remember doing that for, say, the third grade class. And I was very
pleased with my results at age eight and putting—and putting together this diorama which is a little
bit what I do now in terms of making space. But then later, I thought that I would go
on into architecture, and when I was in school in the mid-70s, that seemed like not a great
time to be an architect. And I then had by then gotten involved in theatre, and thought,
“Oh, no, this is a lot more fun.” So I stuck with that. That’s great. Pretty much the same as Thomas. I thought
I’d like to be an architect, and then realized I didn’t really want to do that, because I
had toy theatres, model theatres, all that sort of thing that you do as a child and puppets,
all those sort of things. And then—But I thought, “No, what I really
want to be is an architect. I want to design buildings.” And then actually what I realized
was that I was interested in buildings and architecture, not that I wanted to design
them. So, and actually being a designer, that’s one of the really good things, ‘cuz we draw
upon all those resources all the time. I don’t know, you know? Because I’m a set designer
as well. I walk around looking at buildings, and I
constantly have sort of a mental notebook of things. And then years later, something’ll
arrive and pop up on the set and I’ll realize that I saw it four years before on a building,
in a house or, you know, an office or whatever, somewhere else. But being an architect was
not a good thing, pretty similar to what you were saying. Right. And one also about architecture, because
I didn’t work as a—as a scrub boy down in the blueprint room of an office in college,
the point where you start on a project and the point where it’s completed is so long,
it’s a very, very long process. And with theatre, you get the pleasure rather fast.
If it’s three months or six months or nine months or a year, whatever, it’s rather
a fast completion. And you don’t have to get the plumbing right,
huh? (LAUGHTER) That’s right.
(OVERTALK) You can get the plumbing wrong for a point. And then if no one likes it, it all gets pulled
down anyway, so temporary architecture. So, did you want to be an actor, William? No, I wanted to be an architect. This is so
boring. (LAUGHTER) I– (UNINTEL). I did. I wanted to make– Earlier than the fourth grade,
I made little houses of tree trunks, tree roots and trunks and everything. And I would
make imaginary people which is very telling, Isabelle, of my future life. But I would make up stories, and write plays.
But then I wanted to be an architect, and I went to school for architecture. And then
I went to Yale Drama School, studied Ming Cho Lee. And I realized that I couldn’t
really use the slide rule. And that was a setback. And then Ming sort of captivated
all of us, and we all wanted to be Ming Cho Lee. And then I came to New York, and I was terrible
at it. So, I started making frocks, as Tony calls ‘em. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL) But sometimes
my costumes are so big, I’m told, they feel like they’re wearing a house. Or they feel
like it’s architecture. Architectural costumes. It’s sort of back to the architecture there. It is all that, though. I mean, I like Ken
started in school, in elementary school, and just I loved the way that you could create
a world, a place that was from your imagination and just put it out there. And other people
would come over and play in it. And I thought that was a really great thing to do. And then
later on, I debated if I really wanted to do this, and I thought, oh, well, maybe I’ll
become a psychologist, and that’s actually where I was heading. And costume design really
does everything, because you are a psychologist. You are a psychologist, yeah. I mean it’s a fitting room. It’s not a
sofa. That’s the only difference. It’s the classic thing of 25 percent design,
75 percent applied psychology. Exactly. That’s the by-word, yeah, and it never changes. I just want to give Tony an opportunity to
answer, and then we’ll go on. Oh, I wish I had gone in as logical a way
as everybody here had. But I was planning to be a doctor. My dad was a surgeon, and
I just assumed that was where I was headed. And the medically related subjects were the
ones I did least well in at school, so I got shifted to a classics remove in which I was
even worse. So, to get me out of the way, the classics teacher sent me off to an art
school in Oxford. And why he sent me, I have really no idea. I think I did the Debating
Society posters, but I hadn’t done much else. (LAUGHTER) Anyway, after I went to the art school, neither
the art school, nor the college was ever quite sure where I was. If I wasn’t at one, I
was just assumed to be at the other. So, I had some spare time, and I put on some marionette
shows (UNINTEL). And they became– starting out with Gilbert & Sullivan, and then through
finally my big item was Mozart’s MAGIC FLUTE. About the size of this poster. And of course, on that scale, you can do pretty
fancy lighting, as you know, and I was doing– building the marionettes and making the costumes,
and doing the scenery and singing the part of Papa (UNINTEL). One stop shopping. A fine artist, a very fine, fine artist called
John Piper’s (PH) who is English. Hmmm, he’s wonderful. A very distinguished artist who had done the
sets and costumes for I think all but one of the Benjamin Britain operas, and happened
to be at one of these performances of MAGIC FLUTE and marionettes. And he looked like
a medieval figure. He was gaunt, very impressive. And he came backstage and said, “Which one
is Walton?” And I went… And he said, “You should do this.” And I said, “What is
this?” (LAUGHTER) And it turned out he was a visiting teacher
at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and so he sent me there. And to kind of pay
my way there, I became an assistant designer at Wimbledon Repertory Theatre just near the
tennis courts, and the two experiences were so completely opposite that that was in a
way the best education I ever had. The Slade School was totally idealistic, didn’t
even teach you how to do a ground plan or stitch anything. And the Wimbledon Repertory
Theatre was banging the same old bits of scenery into new shapes and slapping a different color
on every week. So, and trying to mesh those two experiences was the best education I got,
I think. If you—If you couldn’t paint it, you didn’t
design it. That’s right. Yeah. (LAUGHTER) It’s interesting that the whole notion of
the imagination and how do you take the imagination that you all obviously expressed at an early
age and on and translate some craft into it. What kind of training did you have? And when
did the dioramas become drafted or— In terms of the dioramas, I actually spent
a great deal of time in my childhood/adolescence and then finally in college drawing and painting.
It was– I did a double major in college and painting was one of them. And that training
and visualization and being able to put on paper either something that was in my mind
or something that I was simply looking at and being very careful about how to get that
clearly on paper or on canvass or on the etching plate which I happen to like weirdly enough.
I happen to like the process of etching. I don’t know why. Printmaking was a very good
favorite of mine. You have to do it backwards, right? You have to do it backwards, and it’s labor
intensive, and it’s very technical. And actually it might be the technical side of
that which appeals to my technical nature as well. In any case, I had spent a good deal
of time honing those visual skills of visual representation. I had also, like I said, I
had been quite serious about architecture, and had spent time working in an office. And
it wasn’t just blueprinting. It was doing model building and so forth, so I had learned
some actual skills there. And I had begun to see how you transfer form of ground plan
and elevation, section, all of those things that seem sort of boring, how those get put
together into form and what that form might mean. With that, that did go pretty far into design
for the theatre. Only on the visual side. That had really nothing to do with the storytelling
side which was another one of my interests which was literature and that was that I had
spent also in college, my other major was an English major and that had to do a lot
with interest in basically in stories. And— And they’re all part of telling stories. That’s right.
(OVERTALK) Yeah. And that storytelling and how to do
that on stage in spaces. I always say that my design often one design to another isn’t
particularly recognizable. There’s not a Tom Lynch—style particularly, because I
always feel like whatever I do is supporting what the writer’s trying to do. So, what
I feel like I’m trying to do is make a context, an emotional context for whatever story it
is and whether it’s one set where something happens or whether it’s many sets that have
to transfer through space and time. It’s about supporting the story. So it was a marriage
of those two things for me. I think for all of us, that’s probably exactly how it’s
gone. Do any of you feel that there is a William
Ivey Long style or a David Woolard style or— I think there is a style. I know we all say
we don’t want to be pigeon-holed, we don’t think we have style. But I think we do, because
I find again and again I set up to do a design and exactly what Tom was saying, I totally
agree, and then by the end of it, if I were to put, say, six or seven designs in a line
and look at them, there’s always a little line that runs through. Even though we don’t
like to say we’ve got a style, I think we all do. I really do. (UNINTEL) try to avoid having a style, the
more your limitations kind of force one on you. Whatever your drawbacks are end up being
what your style inevitably turns up. People assume William has a style. They assume I have a style, right. Yes. But I’m gonna– I remember, this is just
going to encourage him. But John Simon once– You know how we memorize our bad reviews. Oh yes. No! Don’t you know? You’re not supposed to
read them. (OVERTALK) I read every one of them. I memorize them.
Read them backwards. I etch them. (LAUGHTER) He once wrote, and this was years ago, and
I have never disappointed him, I think, he said, “William Ivey Long hovers. The costumes
by William Ivey Long hover between taste and travesty.” And I think that can be on my
tombstone. (LAUGHTER) How everything hovers between taste… So that’s the style. It
hovers between taste and travesty. Other than that, I don’t think so. I like a certain red.
Tony and I fight over the color red all the time. Mine is a blue red. Tony’s is (UNINTEL)
red. Well, then it’s always my problem to make
it look like the red that you want. (UNINTEL). That’s right. Held out in the sunlight (UNINTEL) lighting
change. You can always tell who’s connected with
the show, ‘cuz Tony has a red and I have another red. But to be fair, for example, in SIX DEGREES
OF SEPARATION at Lincoln Center, Greg Mosher who was then in command said, “William would
probably not be appropriate on account of his taste versus travesty.” (LAUGHTER) The
attendant tendencies. And these were all supposed to be real people in real clothes, and not
costumes. And we all said, “But William can do that.” And they all said, “No,
no.” And he indeed proved he could and frequently does, yes. So, Tony (UNINTEL). Well, you know, I was coming with style, we
all work all over the place, you know. Like we all do Broadway shows. We do Off-Broadway
shows, opera. Tony does film. I do television. Spectaculars. Las Vegas acts. And they’re
all so wildly different. You know making Shirley McLain look good on stage at Caesar’s Palace
is very different than trying to do FIDDLER ON THE ROOF on Broadway or making The Rockettes
do something. So that makes us work harder to come up with
a style for where we’re working, and it makes me think a lot. There’s nothing that
comes easy. And I just can’t say, “Oh, I know how to do this.” I do know how to
do it, but you stop and say, “Well, wait a minute, I have to deal with the blonde hair
on this person for backlight and—“ So, it’s the style has to change I think for
where you’re working, even though we all do have a style. I just contradicted everything. I want to talk a little bit about collaboration,
‘cuz what’s going on here is sort of the sense of collaboration. And there are members
of this panel who have worked together from time to time. I’ve worked with all of them.
(OVERTALK) Maybe just one thing to add about style. Because
of what tends to get reproduced, you see designs for the theatre by Chagall (PH) or Picasso
or famous painters who have worked in the theatre, and they’re of course designed
in the style of Chagall or Picasso. And so there’s a kind of a s— Which is why they’re asked to do those particular
pieces. That’s right. And so people assume that
that’s kind of a necessary part of what we do. But I think that we’ve gathered from
all of us at least that it’s the last thing we want of ourselves. We want to try to be
the eyes of the author, if we can, via the sensibility of the director. And sometimes,
even though we’re all visual people, I know in my case, in order to try and avoid my own
personal taste or style leaking in too strongly, I try initially to read the script as if it’s
a radio play. I try to keep all imagery out until I have a chance to meet with the director
or the author or both. And because if you have a rush of images and
they don’t happen to jibe with the image that your director may have, then it’s sometimes
harder to let go of something you fell in love with when you first read the script than
it is to just wait and let whatever the director (UNINTEL). Or, Tony, along the same line, if you come
in too strong in a first or second meeting with a director with a visual idea, the director
may be so cowed. “Oh my goodness, Tony Walton who’s so fabulous at visualizing things
may have this idea, and of course, I have to go with that.” And he’s not thinking
quite— Yeah, that’s right. Clearly enough yet on his own about the visual. Yeah. And he will accede to that, and then find
that there are problems with what he wants to do, and then you’re in a little bit of
a mess. (UNINTEL). It’s a very slow process, and— You have to give the— (UNINTEL) you’re all are trying slowly— You have to give a— Towards the same— Room for that, right. It’s only happened to me twice in my career,
but where I met with the director and the author and was so totally opposite for what
they were thinking I didn’t take the job, because I just said I probably could have
done it, but it was just so against what I thought the play was about. And you know,
I can’t—I can’t— (OVERTALK) The good clue is their body language. In the
meeting, you know? I mean, we, costume designers, of course, live on body language. Or we should.
(LAUGHTER) And the language of everything. And some meetings just become– You can watch
if they react to you, and they end up sort of falling sort of like this and taking their
glasses down. Anything but dealing with you, ‘cuz they can tell they hate you. And the
same thing as I watch myself contort to them, and that’s usually a good rule of thumb.
If you’re contorted totally at the end of the meeting, don’t do it. Then you know you should go away from there.
(OVERTALK) Absolutely. Watch your contortions and watch
their contortions. But I imagine part of the fun would be if
you have an idea that is different than the director’s, you want to win the director
over to your idea. Life is too short. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL) That’s about collaboration as
well, because I think that we bring– I mean as far as style and whatnot, (UNINTEL) we
all have our own histories that we, no matter what, we’re gonna bring to the table. And
not that you want to, as Tom was saying, you know, plow them over with this idea of yours,
but you also do want to bring something informative, so that you can be a part of the growing nature
of that or the collaboration of that, rather than just this is what we’re going to do,
I feel. It’s similar for an actor, though, really.
How much of this is me and how much of this is not me. And we’re all doing the same
thing. We’re all trying to find what is special about this particular creature that
we’re working and the things that appear to work best and the ones where you can hardly
figure out who came up with what. It’s the classic question. People often
ask the question of a designer, “Who came up with that idea?” Yeah. And when you can say, “I don’t know.”
I always think that’s a really good sign of collaboration.
(OVERTALK) Politically, a good answer, yes. “What?
So, I think it was the director.” (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL). Oh, I’m sure. I don’t know if a lot of our audience– we
work on new projects all the time, and when we get the script, there is no ground plan
in the back of it. There are no– And sometimes there is not even description other than there’s
a door up center and a staircase. And not so much me because I do lights, but we have
to conceive what the space is going to be, what it’s gonna look like. Then it’s published
that way. And when it’s done in community theatre or colleges or around the world, they
always sort of open the script to the back and look at the picture and the ground plan
and say, “Oh, there’s a door down right.” And the door down right might be the simple
reason that was the only way to get to the dressing rooms in that theatre. Yeah. It’s also interesting, sorry, that the scenic
descriptions and maybe the costume descriptions, I’m not sure, in, say, the French’s acting
editions are generally speaking not written by the author. They’re usually written by
the production’s stage manager in between— After the fact. After the fact. They just describe what the
production looked like. And that’s in—I’ve worked a few times with David Rabe who has
never put a stage direction of any sort in his script, first script. But by the time
they’re published, there’s a full description of the environment and space (UNINTEL). And it’s also pretty interesting with musicals
where it’s not one environment, but many between whatever it is, five, ten, 15, 20
places, and how you get from one to another. By the time that’s published, it seems in
the published form as if there’s a very logical way that those have gone. Those of
course reflect how that original production ended up after a lot of constructive torture. Anyone reading that script thinking, “Oh,
well, they’ve just designed along, you know (UNINTEL).” Well, it’s when they’re staging it, and
they don’t have any scene change music and they say, “How did they get from Scene I
to Scene II?” Well, the lights went from left to right or whatever it was. But it’s
a— Well, the crazy example is reading the first
draft of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION that Tony and I worked on. And it was written as a screenplay,
and of course it was later turned into film. And there was no place. Remember? No time,
no place. No time of day. And Tony and Gerry— Well, there were a lot of descriptions within
the dialogue of what– I think as I remember there were about 35 requirements of different
places, a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen. But it went like that, that, that. Central Park. Yes. And you thought to yourself, “Wait a minute.”
(LAUGHTER) Movie theatre. On and on. Yes. So, Tony and Gerry worked that out and tried
to– And a lot of it was still worked out in the rehearsal when people would just all
of a sudden stand up in the audience. Yes. And start talking, because that was not a
place. That was sort of tangential. Right. We had this kind of– just one of those
lucky events that– As William said, there were all these different locations, and we
feared that we’d be sitting there all night waiting for the kitchen to come trucking on.
(LAUGHTER) And the tree gobo coming. Yes. And I had many sleepless nights about
it, and then finally asked Gerry if we could just start with nothing. Yeah, just start. If we could just see what can you not do without.
And you know, he said, “All I know is I need a place to sit down.” (LAUGHTER) So,
we started with one sofa. And we didn’t get much beyond that. We ended up with two sofas. Oh, you had two sofas. (UNINTEL) in a kind of a red circus ring stage.
And one of the problems was what are we gonna do about entrances and exits. And I’d just
been working on Tommy Tune’s production of GRAND HOTEL. And in the rehearsal period
of that, which was done in a derelict old ballroom just off Broadway, the cast sat around
the stage on benches until the moment came for them to become involved in the action.
And it was very interesting, because you could also see them watching the other actors before
they came in to take on their own scene. So just because I’d been watching that,
I said to Gerry, “What about if we do that? How about if all of our cast sit in the front
row or the front two rows of the theatre, and they have programs as if they’re members
of the audience?” As I remembered, he and John Guare were horrified at this idea. But
because Gerry is a fine director, he woke me up in the middle of the night a few nights
later and said, “I got it! I can just see the detective stand up and say, ‘Do you
want to press charges?’ and if they say no, he can sit right down. He doesn’t have
to even get on the stage.” And of course, then he took that and ran with it. But sometimes the physical nature of a production
can come from something as peculiar as that. We need to move like an express train. How
can we get the actors to be in the action at the speed of light. There’s no time for
them to open a door. So, that was where we started on that production. That’s a wonderfully trusting story of two
people, I mean, you know, a director and a designer who are obviously willing to listen
to each other. Yes. So, you were pushing each other. And they really did just start without a finished
play. And that was sort of what [was] sort of extraordinary to me. Yeah. So, I just started making collages thinking,
“Well, on this page is something he’ll use maybe.” (LAUGHTER) Well, one of the things that was kind of interesting
in terms of the collaboration, I said, “The only thing that I sort of know, and this is
only a gut feeling, is that this is all happening out of red. That the circus ring is a very,
very powerful red.” And William went “Oh my god!” as he usually
does whenever we start. “What am I gonna do? What can I possibly use?” (UNINTEL). This is his script, not mine. So, yes. Do your reds work together? No! No! (UNINTEL). No, they have an attack when they meet each
other. It’s horrid. So, we got a big piece of carpet of this particular
red and the lighting designer, Paul Gallow (PH), joined us. This is before rehearsals
had started. And we went to one of the theatres that we were working in, and laid the carpet
down and put different color lights on it. And William just threw fabrics. I threw fabric. Ah! Ooh! Ooh! Also there was a painting mentioned in
the script that was a Kandinsky (PH). And so— Double-sided. Double-sided. Double-sided and famous now.
A double-sided Kandinsky, and I sort of took sort of– In the end, when in doubt, go back
to the Kandinsky and pull a color out, ‘cuz it’s pretty much worked. When you design a set for the theatre, do
you design it for a large theatre or a small theatre? Do you have to, before it goes in,
decide what size theatre that you’re going into? Ideally, you have to know, but many times
you don’t. And that’s very tough. What happens with the costumes? Difference
in a large theatre or small theatre? Sometimes it’s– You’re really designing
where the director is sitting in the tenth row. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL). And the level of
detail I think these days– the cinema is– there’s a symbiotic relationship between
films and the stage that’s creeping in more and more I think. And so the more real a detail
that the director and playwright can see– It used to be that for a big house—
(OVERTALK) The perfect trim right around here. The bar has been raised on that. The bar really
has been raised on that about what we’re seeing as real. And we’re seeing it—we’re
needing to see real. Our eyes are needing to see real. More real than when even I started out. Right. ‘Cuz you could put like a nice piece of
black rickrack around here, and you’d see that collar better if it was a big, old house.
So but now it’s different. I think the same is true with props as well.
Don’t you find that? Yes. Uh-uh (Aff). Tony, that any kind off prop you have on stage,
you can’t have just any old chair or just any old ash tray or just any old, tiny, little
piece of something. We’ve gotten so attuned to looking rather closely at exactly what
that is that it has to be quite exact. And also, funnily enough, actors have become more
and more and more demanding. Yeah, they won’t work with a prop that doesn’t
look exactly right, yeah. Even if we can’t see it, the audience. The
actor has a very real need, and I respect that. It’s their work. They have a very
real need to have the thing, very telling to them in the moment as well. And more and more they want it— Why do you think that’s happened? Sorry. I was saying more and more they need it in
the rehearsal room too. (UNINTEL). Yeah, I think it’s because of their TV—
(OVERTALK) That’s the problem. You know, you can rehearse
for six weeks on not quite the right furniture and get into the theatre- And then it throws them— You always go back to some tatty old sofa
that they’ve had in rehearsal and recover it and make it work or whatever. I think that’s it because of both their
TV and movie work— Yeah. Where they’re so used to having the very— A touch of everything, yeah. And it’s very
important. The very thing. And it’s very, very important. But then there’s also that comfort level
that the actors like. Bebe Neuwirth, we did CHICAGO. And Bebe– every time she comes back
to the show, which gloriously she does from time to time, we drag out the same old chair
that she did that chair ballet with, and it was spray painted in the alley. And it’s
worn-off in the center, so you see the brown. And every time, people go, “Oh, well, can’t
you—?” “No!” She won’t have it touched. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL) from the superstition.
But that’s literally the first rehearsal chair that she used. And it’s brought back. But some of that comes from the director.
And that was Fosse. And I as you know worked a lot with Fosse, and he particularly in film,
but sometimes in theatre too was very insistent, having been a performer himself, that everything
that you provide for the performer should be supportive of what they need to be thinking
at any given moment. If they open a drawer and there’s a piece
of mail in there, it has to be a piece of mail addressed to that character with a message
that would be appropriate. Nobody of course can see it except for the actor. But it was
crucial to him that you took that kind of detail. And in some instances, I don’t know
if you do the same thing, but in movies, I do try to do things that will make an actor
feel something about the nature of his role. For example, Albert Finney in “Murder On
The Orient Express” as Inspector Poirot, I had not only monogrammed cufflinks and a
cane, but I made him a ring out of a bullet casing, because he was supposedly injured
in the hip in the First World War. And this was a reminder that he should limp. If the
ring– if you make it out of— That’s great. A brass bullet casing, it leaves a rather
nasty little green ring. (LAUGHTER) So, he was always conscious that he was wounded when
he was— Well, our colleague, Santo Loquasto (PH) who’s
not with us at the moment, but I’ll tell a good, little tale on him. He always, when
there’s a hallway leading to the stage– I know most of you probably do this too. But
I always go backstage to see Santo’s sets, because once you get near the stage, he starts
the carpeting, so you can feel that feel. And there are pictures on the wall that only
the actors can see, and of course that’s just delicious for them. They love that. Yeah. But, you know, going back to what you were
saying about size of the theatre, in the world of lighting, the bigger the room, the brighter
the lighting. So in a small 99-seat theatre, you can put a light at a very low level, and
everybody can see everything. If I did that in a Broadway theatre, nobody would see anything.
And then you get into the 2000-seat theatres, I’d be fired. So, even though, it may be the same play in
the same surroundings, the lighting just keeps going up and up and up and brighter. So, I
know when we work at Radio City, when we do the shows there, the production table where
we light the show from is in the tenth row. And the director’s always saying, “Well,
make it a little bit darker.” And I always get the director up, walk him a half a city
block back and say, “There are 3000 people sitting behind us.” And he’ll say, “Oh,
it’s not bright enough.” So, you have to be very aware, I do at least, of the size
of the venues you’re playing. (UNINTEL). Has it been lighting designers
who have caused Broadway theatres to hang trusses? No— There are now many– You know you look at
the beautiful ornate— Yeah, the front of house lights— You know what it is? It’s the public. It’s
the public. If you look back at Joel Melziner’s (PH) original light plot from GUYS & DOLLS,
out front, total out front, there were 24 500 watt lights lighting all of GUYS & DOLLS
and three follow-spots. From the front of the house. From the front. In front of the proscenium.
On a typical musical now, 250 lights out front would– There are 575, but the light’s been
redesigned. But that many lights, plus the three follow-spots, and I still get notes
that it isn’t bright enough. And the audience— What is that? It goes right into sound, I think. Television
and conscience. And also hearing. And our awareness of the world around us has
changed. Before we had television, and then before we had concerts, people would go to
the theatre, and they would accept that. Now, they won’t. They’re used to– If you watch
a television show, the old Ed Sullivan Show from the 50s, they rarely did a camera cut.
You know? You’d see somebody doing whatever they were doing, and the camera stayed on
‘em. Now, you watch a variety show today, there’s 20 cuts in that one song. It’s
the same thing that I think that has happened to us, is we’ve just had to compensate for
the audience not seeing as well. And then— Or hearing as well. And not hearing as well. And they always— And not wanting to work quite as hard. Not work as hard. Right. I mean, and so the laugh, you know, if you
can’t see it, you can’t hear it. And though we laugh at that— I think it’s true.
(OVERTALK) Absolutely true. It’s really bad when you’re doing a flop
comedy. Yes. When the comedy, when nobody’s laughing
at the bad jokes, the lighting just gets brighter and brighter. (LAUGHTER) Yeah.
(OVERTALK) And the sound goes up and up. And change the dress. Change the dress, and then how many sofas?
How many sofas have you see me color red? (UNINTEL). And then toilet—toilet flushes.
When you hear toilet flushes, you know it’s a flop. (LAUGHTER) So— But do you anticipate that? Do you just like
eat the lights up and– Well, you just start down here, because you
know that— You’ve gotta (UNINTEL). Two weeks from now you’re gonna be up there.
So, if you start there, you don’t have any place to go. Is it fair to say that something else that
has happened, though, is that many more productions now are thrust out into the audience to some
degree, so you literally cannot light them from behind the proscenium. Right. So, you need more equipment out front just
to get people out on the forestage. Everyone wants to see a film. They come to
the theatre, and want to see a movie. It’s a movie mentality. And they want everything to move quickly,
quickly. Get their clothes on. Tadata. What do you mean it takes a minute to change? Be
in seconds, seconds, seconds. And the scenery has to dance and the choreography. And that has to do with plays as well as musicals. Oh yeah, everything has to be a film. Cut
in, cut out. Most new plays that I get, and we all get
new plays all the time, it’s very rare that I get a new play that is a single-set play.
Whenever I do, I go, “Allelujia, here’s a single-set play. Here’s a room.” Normally,
it’s many, many places, and it’s because our writers are, I think, very— They write for TV and movies. Uh-uh (Aff). They’re very, very accustomed
to telling a story through many locations, and having their characters move through many
locations. And therefore, we need to see many locations. I think it might be our fault too. I was gonna say, it’s slightly our fault
in being so clever. Well, no, I mean I think we encourage it. That we can actually do it, that we can actually
go through the gyrations to make that happen. Yeah. For instance with SIX DEGREES, making all
of those needs evaporate was a very, very good thing, because it meant that we could
focus on that story. Right. Another example of something from around that
same time that I did was Wendy Wasserstein’s HEIDI CHRONICLES which was I think 14 not-repeating
locations. And that story really had– Each of the scenes within that story just went
right there, stayed there for seven minutes, went to the next one, stayed for ten minutes,
went to the next, stayed for six minutes, and they really had to be in those locations
or they didn’t make sense. So, the need to get to those locations was
extreme, and we got there by a lot of stagecraft. And the costumes, you know, I remember Joan
Allen having to do a costume change in something like 30 seconds on a moving platform that
was moving at five feet a second and a screen was coming in and projections were happening.
And then 15 seconds later, there she was in a new costume. And the poor girl, you thought,
“Wait a minute, is this— And then she has to talk too. (LAUGHTER) “Is this acting?” Right. “Is this acting
or is it a trapeze act?” (LAUGHTER) You know? It’s pushing the actor as well as
the designers to a point you kind of question finally. But it is also a kind of liberation that’s
happened for the playwright, the day you don’t feel obliged to— To go for unity. To go for a single-setting, yeah. And it’s
produced– SIX DEGREES is a good example. It’s produced
very imaginative ways of playwrighting. But don’t you think dramaturges could very
clearly explain the difference between a musical being done today and, say, GUYS & DOLLS, where
they were in one production number, so that the drop could come in and they could change
the scenery. And then it would go up, then there’d be a full stage number and then
drop down. And that’s the way the musical was written. And now, they’re written with— Seamlessly. All is possible. So, I think that could be
traced. On the original New York production of Tom
Stoppard’s THE REAL THING, Mike Nichol’s who directed it was very keen that it shouldn’t–
The London production was somewhat stylized, a lot of black screens. And Mike felt that
the New York audience needed to know more about these British characters, and therefore,
their environment needed to tell us more about them.
So, there were a large number of scene changes. I think it was about 11. And he said, “The only caution I have to
give you is that none of these are in one, they’re all full sets, and I don’t want
to wait more than four seconds between each.” (LAUGHTER) So, we had a lot of things revolving
and— But you solved it.
(OVERTALK) But actually, Tony, what is odd about that,
it was rather– that was thrilling. Your results were thrilling, and it worked very well. And
also with Wendy’s play, finally what was there on stage, it worked. The play I think
was served very, very well, and the writing I think was served very, very well. So— Yeah. But you do feel that thing for the actor
where all these things are turning and twisting. And we had one actor, Ken Welch (PH), who
just forever went through the walls. (LAUGHTER) Great. Trying to find himself in the right room.
(UNINTEL). So you see these as things that inspire your
imagination to accomplish this. They’re challenges. Uh-uh (Aff). They’re challenges, they’re challenges,
yeah. Oh, we love solving them. Susan Strohman (PH)
is always throwing dresses at me that have to change mid-dance into another dress. (UNINTEL)
color. William and I are doing a show right now called
THOU SHALL NOT. And one of the things that William has had happen is that there is an
entire wig change like in a second on stage that we don’t see. That you don’t see. She has a stroke, poor
Deb (UNINTEL). And within a second, and we don’t see it.
An entire– She’s completely changed. I still haven’t figured out how that happens. I’m not gonna tell you. (LAUGHTER) And it’s not done with lighting. I wanted to ask about when you as a designer
create something that is completely fanciful, that is your– I mean obviously you talked
about the architecture inspiring a set and stuff like that, ‘cuz I confessed that the
first set that I ever saw that just blew me away as something that was a complete world
of its of its own was the original production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE
FORUM. And I remember saying to Tony, you know, “There’s
something weird about this, ‘cuz it’s sort of the street and yet there’s nothing.
And the buildings don’t look right. They all look like they’re sort of wrong and
the costumes are sort of mohair, but they sort of look like a– They don’t know what
they are.” And suddenly I was absolutely captivated,
‘cuz it all seemed like a world of complete fantasy. Is that something which is fun to
do? Do you get opportunities to do that? Or was that a one-shot? Well, it came about through my getting peculiarly
scrambled, because the original director was Jerry Robbins and then he left in pre-production.
And George Abbott (PH) came in just shortly before rehearsals, but he had been planning
to go on vacation. So, I met him in order to just be interviewed, and he accepted me
for the job. And then I said, “What? Should I send you
things? Or can I bring you stuff down to Florida?” He was going to Florida to golf and dance.
He was very big on, as you probably know, ballroom dancing. And he said, “No, no,
I’m gonna be on my vacation.” And I said, “Well, could I send you stuff to get some
feedback?” He said, “No, no, it’s my vacation.” He was 70 then, and I thought
the oldest person I ever expected to work with, and as probably most of you know at
105 he was still working. And at the opening night of DAMN YANKEES when
a journalist said, “What’s been the biggest change in the theatre since you started out?”
he said, “Oh, electricity I think.” (LAUGHTER) At any rate, he had been at it long enough
to know that he didn’t want to waste a lot of time with his designer. And so I didn’t
really have anybody to speak to. And I said, “Well, when will you see the—“ He said,
“I’ll see it on the first day of rehearsal when the rest of the company does. It’ll
be good for me.” (UNINTEL). (LAUGHTER) So, I asked Hal Prince about it. He was the
producer. And he said, “I don’t know. You’re kind of on your own.” And so I just tried
to imagine. I’d been going a certain route with Jerry Robbins, and then I tried to imagine
what the kind of baggy pants George Abbott version might be like. But it was my first
Broadway musical. I’d done a couple Off-Broadway, but this was my first sort of big chance.
So, I thought I would be stupid to put in at least the Seven Hills of Rome and everything
else that would really make an impression. And so on one hand, I was doing this little
sloppy, cardboard, knockabout burlesque thing which I thought would be right for Abbott.
And on the other I was making this, to me, rather impressive mini-model with all these
buildings and just strictly to impress. And because Abbott wasn’t available, I asked
Mike Nichols who was then in NICHOLS & MAY ON BROADWAY, an evening with Mike Nichols
and Elaine May, whatever it was, because he was clearly the kind of guiding force of their
extraordinary routines. And he came and he looked at these two things for the longest
time. I was just in agony. He didn’t say anything for the longest time, and he kept going back
to this very detailed one. And he would just quickly look at this little rubbishy thing.
And then finally he got up, and he walked over to the rubbishy thing, and he said, “You
know that doesn’t remind me of anything. I bet that’s right.” (LAUGHTER) And sometimes that is a really good signal,
if you sort of discover en route that what you’re doing doesn’t particularly remind
you of anything you’ve done before or anybody else has done. Then maybe it just belongs
to this particular piece. And that’s very lucky, if that happens. Did you have a similar circumstance when you
took over SEUSSICAL. There’s a world that had to be created? Aren’t you evil? Well, no! You are so mean! (LAUGHTER) Next subject. Well, we should pass on that. Okay, okay. David. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL). Don’t put me right after that. Right after the mention of SEUSSICAL. You know as Tony was saying about working
with the directors, I’ve done a great number of shows with Hal Prince, and Hal Prince totally
lets his designers go forward. He’ll throw some ideas out. I know when we did SWEENEY
TODD, he threw Eugene and I a picture of the light coming through windows at Penn Station.
He said, “Go think about this, guys.” And out of that came the set for SWEENEY TODD.
He knows what he needs and if there’s any specifics. But I always find that sort of
thrilling that they will take it– And then there’s many meetings after that and you
go through all that. But that first impression that he says that’s why he hired us is to
come up with some very clear ideas and our concept of the shows. And that has always
been sort of thrilling for me. He also says it’s hard for him to work on
the material itself until he has a visual metaphor for the show. That whatever the designers
bring him gives him his sense of direction on what– You know, to whatever degree he
may have shaped that himself, it gives him something to start working on for the piece
itself. How broad can those metaphors be? I mean I
know that BELLS ARE RINGING was clearly television, 50s television. Right. Which was kind of– you know, that’s sort
of what you’re talking about. Here it is. But how broad I mean a category? Can it be
an art– Can it be an artist? You said earlier that Chagall. Can that be one of those metaphors?
Or is that something else? It’s so tricky, because they still want
to have buttons, if you see them buttoning. They still wanna have, you know, shoes, and–
For clothing, you get really caught in those metaphors. Damn you for the (UNINTEL).
(OVERTALK) Yes, William, you’re right. You really get caught the stronger the— But it’s a little bit different for scenery,
because you can be broader with a metaphorical space or a metaphorical idea that human beings,
and we still think they might be human beings in those clothes with the buttons, can exist
in— You can also be pretty reductive, but you
can’t be that much with costumes— (OVERTALK) The closer it gets to your mouth, the more
realistic it has to be. That’s right. Right around here, I think. With scenery you actually be reductive or
minimalist or even go slightly counter to what’s happening with costumes. But the more that happens, the more we focus
then onto the actor and their character. Right. Everyone starts honing in on all that detail,
so it’s over to the costume designer to solve that– And you get notes about (UNINTEL). Exactly. (LAUGHTER) You know though is it fair to say that there
is still a bit of a difference, though, between stage costumes and movie costumes in that— Less and less I feel. Yes, it has. But you don’t— For a movie, you’re very
seldom aware of the full silhouette. You’re much more conscious of that— Exactly. In fact, don’t— But you can in the theatre tell something
about a character with a full sort of— Well, you get the whole game. Yeah. You have the shoes, the socks, all the way
up to the hat and the perfume. In the film— The shoes are very few and far between on
film. Yes. (LAUGHTER) They always like to wear their old, scuffy
things until they know— Absolutely. That they’re gonna be in the shot. In film, you start with the earrings. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. (UNINTEL). And for all the craftsmen that are here, the
better you do your job, the least it’s seen by the audience. You hope, yeah, yeah. And I think it’s very interesting. Lillian
Gish said that she stopped working on the stage when they stopped having footlights.
She said that was the only way to really light a person from the ground up. Do you still
feel that way? I use footlights all the time. And I’m one
of the few designers that uses ‘em all the time. Even on CHICAGO, I have ‘em. Yeah, (UNINTEL). I have like four shows out now with footlights.
They’re great for besides making actors look good, they’re great for making the
scenery look good, if you have a painted show, if you have a painted show. Well, they also bring the energy to the performer.
They warm them up. (OVERTALK) And it’s theatrical. Literally they’re curtain-warmers. How do you use the lights? You say you still
do. Use them? I put them up usually always I–
Here we go with style. In the same three colors, pink, lavender and blue. Because the pink
can make the ladies look lovely. The lavender can probably make the scenery look good, and
the blue in case you get into trouble. So– (LAUGHTER) Then you can mix all of them. And they work. I used to work with Mary Martin
a lot, and the first show I did with her, she walked on stage, and as she made her entrance,
the footlights came up. And she walked on stage, walked dead center and looked at me
and said, “Thank you, Ken.” And she knew that footlights, they erase a lot of shadows
under the chin. Yeah. Sometimes they’re good for making people
not fall off the edge of the stage, too. I mean there’s not a—
(OVERTALK) I think there’s even more than that. That
is true. And they do help the scenery a lot. It takes a lot of wrinkles out of a lot of
drops. But there’s also a relationship between the audience and what’s happening on stage,
that that footlight look is so kind of theatrey and thri– You think, “Oh my god, I’m
in a theatre now. I’m not just in a place with some old light hanging around.” It
feels very warm. It usually makes for an inviting moment. And it is actually a very useful,
old convention that we have. I love doing curtain-warmers which is what
you see when you walk into the theatre (UNINTEL) putting footlights in. And I’ve done it
on a few shows where that’s all they’re used for, in fact, is the curtain-warmers,
because isn’t that what we think curtains look like? You know? And if you can make the
people look good, that’s even better. Is this something you’ve brought back? Did
they go out of fashion entirely? (OVERTALK) Well, you could go to any new performing arts
center, they all—when you wanna put footlights on, they have to start drilling into their
beautiful, concrete front of the stage. So— But it was also as the stage began to thrust
out more. Had you put footlights, members of the audience are looking into the footlights–
In fact, actually I had worked with Lillian Gish in 1972, I think, on UNCLE VANYA in which
because it was in the Circle In The Square, there couldn’t be any footlights, and she
was a little unhappy about it, as I said. She was also unhappy that she wasn’t playing
Yelena in her twenties (UNINTEL). (LAUGHTER) She had a wonderfully selective memory, I
must say. When she came to her first costume fitting, she said, “This is going to be
very strange for me, because you see, I’ve always designed my own costumes. No, no, wait,
wait. Not in “Birth Of A Nation.” My mother designed those.” (LAUGHTER) She was enchanting. And you know we also have to deal with those
personalities. I mean when I worked with Ethel Merman, Ethel Merman had in her contract the
color pink that had to be in the follow-spot to make her look good. She was right. Now the color pink that she liked was closer
to magenta and made her look grotesque, but it took a lot of cajoling to get her to try
the pink that I wanted to use, because those old broads knew a lot about the theatre and
they knew how to make themselves look good. And I think that came from years of doing
stock and touring and all of that. If they didn’t bring their gels– I know Tallulah
Bankhead used to store her own gelatins. She traveled with her gels. For the color so when she could play there.
So— It’s a great idea. “Here are my gels.”
Coming into the theatre, “Where’s my dressing room, and here are my lights.” “Here are my gels.” Did you ever have a leading lady who had in
her contract that every time she set foot on stage, the lighting had to increase by
three points? Oh, oh, I’ve done that a few times. Yes. Well, that’s actually been in the contract— Oh, I didn’t know it was in the contract. And it works! And it was a wonderfully old
English performer. Who was that? Dame Cecily Courtnage (PH). And she had that
in her contract. And in fact, the reviews said every time she sets foot on stage, the
whole stage seems to light up. (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE) Oh, lovely, lovely! That’s great! That’s great! I don’t think John Simon wrote that. It’s like magic. Oh, I did a show with Claudette Colbert, and
we were– It was a terrible play, but we were doing it. And she spent a lot of time in a
wheelchair at a desk. And we walked into the theatre one day, and it was always Miss Colbert
and Mr. Billington. And she came in and she had her dresser who had been with her for
50 years. And she came and she sat the desk, and she said, “Mr. Billington, would you
put the lighting as we have it when I sit at the desk?” And I said, “Well, certainly.”
And I put the light cue in. And she turned to her dresser who handed her
a mirror this big, and she sat at the desk and went like that, looked. And she said,
“Very good, Mr. Billington.” And she went back to her dressing room. (LAUGHTER) Oh! That’s wonderfully. Do you find costume designers that you have
to cajole occasionally a reluctant actress? Oh! What? (LAUGHTER) All the time! I have to get back (UNINTEL).
(OVERTALK) Yes, you do! Cajole? I wouldn’t gajo—cajo—ca–
Oh, you really– That could be an entire seminar right there. Yes, it’s parenting, isn’t it? It’s nannying— Well, a lot of times, they have a perception
of what they feel makes them look their best, and I think that— They’re not always right though. A lot of times they are right, but sometimes— And then you have to listen when they’re
right. Oh, you always have to listen—
(OVERTALK) Oh, you always have to listen, because there’s
something in there. Even if they’re wrong. But it’s based on something. There’s something. It’s based on something
and you have to find— Their mothers saying their ears were too big. Exactly. Well, it’s at its worst when you do contemporary
clothes, because then personal taste comes into it. “I’d never wear that. I never
wear that color. I wouldn’t do this.” That’s an oxymoron. When it’s a period piece, they’re almost
sort of willing. They trust the designer more I think. Right, because they— They think, “Well, you know better, so you’ll
make me look good anyway.” Whereas when it’s a contemporary things, they’ve got
far more to say and it’s much more difficult. One of your fellow designers told us that
when she had people come, even the chorus girls, for a fitting, she had silk underwear
for them to put on that they’re to make them feel that there was something very special
about being in the theatre. The acting and the theatre. Is this Theoni (PH), I think? Who was it? Was it Theoni I think. Yup. I think it might have been Theoni. Yes, we learn from her. I try to have them
there too. (LAUGHTER) Yes, and producers so want to do that too. Yeah, exactly. (LAUGHTER) But we do it. We do. Does it work? Of course it works. Of course it works. (LAUGHTER)
And you have apples and you know grapes and water and— Oh, absolutely.
(OVERTALK) (UNINTEL). Performers are very vulnerable, particularly
at their first fitting, because it’s the first time that they see themselves as this
character in the mirror. And as the guys say, it is you do really have to function somewhat
as a nanny, as some sort of guide to help them through the shock of this. It’s very
different for dancers, because most dancers are pretty amazing-looking to begin with.
And they’re used to being told what to do. So, they tend to be thrilled with no matter
what you put on them, and they always look great. So (UNINTEL). There are two points. One, I mean, it’s
not often that you’re saying, “Hello, how are you? Take off your clothes.” (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL). Well. And then they go, “Hmmm.” The other thing is that when you’re in a
fitting, when you’re dealing with the actor or the actress, they’re also looking at
the mirror and who knows what they’re looking at. I mean they may be looking at very different
things. I’ve had conversations with actors in fittings about the fact that are we talking
about the fact that or are we talking about the character. And to help them make that
distinction as well. I know that that’s a very important thing to deal with. I mean
as you were saying, “My mother told me my ear lobes were too big.” Or whatever, or
“You have to cover this up, and—“ If you can find the thing that makes them
comfortable, that’s the magic moment. I remember Jacqueline Bisset on a movie we were
working on saying, “Everybody in Hollywood is always appalled at the size of my shoulders.
What are we gonna do about my shoulders?” (LAUGHTER) I said, “Could we start out by
celebrating them?” And then she burst into tears. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL). That’s what I would do. Yeah, she just– So, we did. We celebrated
them, and we showed them off (UNINTEL). Oh good. Great. But you are really the foundation for the
actors. It begins in front of the mirror in the fitting
room. In the underwear, the silk underwear. But do you show actors sketches before they’re
even built? Oh absolutely. Oh, you want their input. Oh
yes. Oh— (OVERTALK) Good actors tend to be really smart about
costuming. Absolutely, they’ve studied the characters
probably as long as you have, if not longer. Yes. I think one of the most rewarding things is
I’ve done a lot of work at The Royal Shakespeare Company where we have sometimes like an 18
week rehearsal period which is joyous, because you can– I mean often I haven’t designed
the costumes till halfway through that. They’ve been rehearsing for eight or nine weeks. They
know exactly who they are. They know that character inside-out. And they help design
the costume, you know? And you get the best costume, because you’re
designing for that character and they know that character, rather than as often happens
with a short rehearsal period, the costumes have to be designed, ‘cuz they have to have
been started. And the actors arrive, and they’re presented with this thing that’s half-built
and it doesn’t work. But you still (UNINTEL) the actor at your
peril. It doesn’t work. Yeah, you’re absolutely
right, yeah. Must be included. All right, well, I think we’re gonna take
a little break now, and then we’ll come back after everybody stretches, and we’ll
have a few more conversations and questions perhaps. (APPLAUSE) (MUSIC) This is CUNY TV, the City University
of New York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome back to The American Theater Wing’s
“Working In The Theatre Seminar On Designers.” Before returning to it, I would like to emphasize
that even though these seminars and the annual TONY Awards given for excellence in theatre
are the most visible of our activities, they’re only a small part of the work we do for the
community. As a long-established charity, we serve both
theatre and the community with our year-around programming. The Wing works to develop new
audiences for theatre and for a broadening of young minds. We bring the magic of theatre
to those who otherwise would not know its power. Programs for students include Introduction
To Broadway which in its ten-year history has enabled almost 100,000 high school students
to come to the theatre, many for the first time. The Wing also introduces young people to theatre
by bringing professionals into schools for workshops as a part of our Theatre In School
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We take pride in the work we do, and remain so grateful to our members and everyone whose
contributions make the work at The American Theater Wing possible. Our work strengthens the community and it
strengthens the community, the theatre and the community. And we are proud to be a part
of this very great effort. And now I would like to go back to our moderator, Ted Chapin.
(APPLAUSE) Thank you. I wanted to start this section–
I don’t want to pit one side against the other. But I want to ask the costume and set
designers when– Obviously part of what you have to deal with with the lighting designer
is the expectation of illuminating that which you have designed. But what expectations do
you have of a lighting designer? They better make it look good. (LAUGHTER) Well, they’re always ruining my color palette.
(LAUGHTER) Sometimes they save the day.
(OVERTALK) But the first thing— Oh, across the— It’s the only seriously gigantic new thing
that’s happened to theatre in god knows how many thousand years, so we should be seriously
grateful for it. But the thing that surprises me is how a lighting designer in addition
to making what we do selectively visible in the way that you dream it might happen is
that they can also liter– I’ve seen it happen where they can literally make chunks
of a show better than they have been. There was an instance on a musical a few years
ago where there was a wonderful production number that got a pretty good response every
night, and then the lighting designer decided to have a go at it and put a series of cues
in throughout the number that heightened the excitement radically step by step through
the number until literally after he’d worked one afternoon on this, this number got a standing,
screaming response and was then the number that was used on the TONY Award show and was
the sort of icon for this show. And, Tony, I do think that I know, because
Ken does this very well, that numbers, that musical numbers particularly really can be
engineered. Yes. They can be simply engineered to deliver by
their lighting. Right. And it’s such a you would think subtle thing
for an audience to be perceiving, but it’s not. It’s a really visceral thing. Uh-uh (Aff). And it can really get your heart rate going. Absolutely, yes. Do choreographers have a tendency to understand
that or do you have to do— Some do and some don’t. You know they always
want to focus on something that maybe doesn’t need to be focused on. They’re so worried
about the handkerchief in the pocket, you know, when you make that—or not isolating
enough or all that. But they have spent so long up here and in the studio coming up with
whatever that number is in the same way they work with the orchestrator and the dance music
arranger and the scenic and the costume designer. I get to it last. You know? The scenic and costume have been working on
it for a long time, not that I haven’t. But all of a sudden, we are now sitting in
a theatre, and we have one hour to do a number. And everyone else has spent months on it,
and they’ve had six weeks in the rehearsal hall. And I now get one hour to finish the
number, and you hope you don’t destroy the number. But many times, I will also talk to the orchestrator,
because he’ll say, you know, “If you give me a little something here, that will motivate
the light changing” or “You give me a harp gliss (PH) then I can do down with the
lights” all to orchestrate this entire piece to being interesting. And you’re also— And helping the show work. And you’re also dealing with making the
costumes be what they need to be and making the scenery— Right. I mean look as whatever it’s going to be.
And it might be a very changeable kind of thing. It’s not that it has to look good,
but that it might look one thing or then another thing or then another thing, as well as the
musical dance piece that you’re dealing with. Do you actually sketch with lighting in mind
or do you sketch— I do. I do very much. And I taught a little
bit. Last year, I assisted Ming Cho Lee teaching up at Yale. I’m gonna be doing the same
thing. I’m gonna be teaching this spring at NYU a bit. And with students, I am always
trying to say, “You know one thing you must be very, very, very interested in in designing
your scenery is what it might look like with light and how that light’s gonna get to
it, from where, because if the light can’t get to it, it’s not gonna look that good.” That solid ceiling. “That solid ceiling is not gonna help you.”
And also how the space might be informed by whatever kind of light. And I often do actually
kind of just crumby little, quick light sketches. Nothing elaborate. But little light sketches. But your sketches have a lot of lighting in
them. I try—Well, actually the magical Ming Cho
Lee who you’ve both mentioned than whom there is nobody more wonderfully rather disapproves
of working on black paper, and teaches his students not to. He says it’s like Elvis painting. Yeah. (LAUGHTER) But it’s not. It really helps with light. But in fact, what you’re doing in the theatre
is you’re selecting what the audience is going to see out of the darkness. So, I think
for me I find it very often, if it’s an appropriate kind of show to do that with,
start out with a dark background and gradually bring it to light. Or even to take a sketch what you have of
a scene or a photograph of a model. Photography’s gotten so slick now. I’m sure you do this
all the time. That you take digitals of the model and then do stuff with it. And then
take a piece of trace, and just do little, quick lighting sketches over those photographs
or those original sketches just to get a sense of what might happen—
(OVERTALK) I like them. I love seeing what the set designer
was thinking. You know I used to work a lot with Oliver Smith. And Oliver Smith used to
show all the lighting in his sketches. And I would sit there. And when he presented it
to everybody, this is what it better look like, you know. (LAUGHTER) And if he had the
sunlight coming from stage right, I’d better have the sunlight coming from stage right
and not stage left. I always find it helpful. I don’t want it
to totally tell me how to design the show, but I always think a little bit of light in
there is always good for everybody. It also makes it a more interesting picture. And do you find more and more that you’re
invited to meetings with the director and designer at a much earlier stage than you
at one time might have been? ‘Cuz I really enjoy that. I’m actually through– It depends who you
work with. I have done shows where I’ve been hired first. And then the rest of the
team has been brought in. I’ve done a lot of shows– When I work with David Mitchell
a lot, I’m there from his first meeting with everybody. Yeah, I really value that sort of thing. I
enjoy that a lot,‘cuz actually I’ll design a set around the lighting sometimes. And I like that, because we’re all in it
together. You know? I always think when you walk out of the theatre at the end of the
evening, you should come out having said it’s a great show. You shouldn’t come out saying,
“God, the show was good, and that scenery and the—“ You have to come out having
had the perfect theatrical experience. I love getting reviews. And John Simon has paper-bagged
over my head a few times, but I just— (UNINTEL) John Simon— You know? I think no review is the good review.
When they review the play, and they say the play worked, I think then I did my job well.
I mean it doesn’t help me in the publicity department, but it helps me as an artist think,
“I did okay.” I remember as a student being constantly told
by a wonderfully British designer called Jocelyn Herbert (PH) who always said (STATIC) if the
show begins, if there was a curtain in a production, if it goes out and the audience applaud the
set, you’ve gone too far. Yes. Right. And that was drummed into us all the time. I wanted to ask you, William, in CONTACT there’s
a yellow dress. Now, I imagine that when you designed that yellow dress, you wanted it
to look right. It was a different yellow when I first designed
it. (LAUGHTER) Well, it didn’t have— The wrong yellow. (LAUGHTER) Didn’t it have little sparkly things in it
by the end? I had to fight back on that one. There were 13 yellow dresses. Nine yellow dresses, all different shapes
and sizes, and all different cuts. And colors? And colors. Different shades of yellow. I began the process with the fabulous Deborah
Yates who came from nowhere into all of our lives, and I was the one who had to break
the news to her that you have to wear yellow. Well, tears before bread time, you know, ‘cuz
she was a blond. And blonds don’t normally wake up and say, “I’m gonna put yellow
on.” ‘Cuz it conflicts with the hair? Well, it bounces onto the face. The yellow
is a tricky color for most of ‘em. And it was very important to the writer. The writer because? And the director because it was a totemic
thing in their head that this girl was in yellow. Wear yellow. That this character was a girl in yellow. In yellow. This iconic girl. So, that was built into it. So after the tears,
I took her to Barbara Matera’s (PH), and we put layer on layer of yellow on her until
she started– I watched her body language. And when she finally smiled, I realized that
was the right yellow. That was all very well and good, and we made the first, you know–
#1 out of nine. And we took the– Lois Greenfeld’s (PH) photographs and it’s on the buses and,
you know, taxis and everything is fine. That’s #1. That’s #1. But then you get on stage and
the lighting is this close. It’s right like– What is that? Nine feet? Six feet, something
like this. Fourteen. Well! Well, in the Mitzi-Newhouse, it was only about
a foot above her. A foot above, exactly. So, a foot away is
like a million megawatts of color. So, of course, that yellow became pure white in about
a second. And then I had to– And you know they want it (SNAP) like that. So, I just
cut off the outer layer with scissors in the corner. More tears. (LAUGHTER) And underneath,
there was a bounce layer that was a richer, deeper yellow. And she went back out. As I
said, more tears and, you know, “What are you doing to me?” And all of a sudden, we were getting closer
to the yellow instantly. And that proceeded. And I kept making dress after dress of different
yellows, because you would– it was a very saturated production. And when she would go
off-stage and wear this yellow, it was horrifying to her, because it was not the right color.
It was only when it was on stage under those saturated lights that we got the right yellow
for her complexion and for the (UNINTEL). The other thing with William was that it seems
to me that that dress– It was a very important dress, ‘cuz it was a centerpiece of that
show. And we worked on many things on the show, and that girl has an incredible amount
of very difficult dance to do. So that dance, the way that lighting can engineer a number,
those costumes and that costume are engineered, literally engineered for dance. That she can
be lifted. That it can then fall correctly. Oh, there’s more substructure to that dress. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Than you even want to know about. But finally,
the final dress #9 which is the one that we’re still adapting actually to each actress, I
shift it slightly to their body, but I found a fabric that had appliqués called crinkle–
cracked ice. Cracked ice on a slinky jersey. And the cracked ice catches the light and
sends it off. So, it has more magic. It also scrapes her partners dreadfully, so we had
to add long-sleeved shirts for several of the lifts. But it’s wonderfully for the
lights. And you bought lots of material, so you can
keep building the dress. That’s right, that’s right. We have lots
and lots. But there’s tears from the partners, because it scrapes them, you know, if they
slide their body. But now they wear long-sleeved shirts when they’re partnering certain moves.
So that was me– So, not only did I increase the saturation of the yellow to deal with
the lighting, but I also added sparkle to the fabric to help give a better palette for
the light. And it’s just a simple yellow dress, and
who would have known. Nothing. Nothing. But that show is such a great collaboration
with you and lighting and everything, because even throughout the show the yellow dress
becomes magic, and then comes— And then it goes away. And then it goes away. Uh-uh (Aff). And that’s all the lighting, and that— Yup, yup. That’s just a brilliant collaboration. So, it comes and goes. That’s great. We— Good choices Good question, finally? Good question. You gotta— Finally. We have some questions. We’ll see
how good these are from the audience now. QUESTION
Good afternoon. My name is Vick Spearer (PH). I’m a retired drama teacher from Queens.
Can I thank you all for making this one of the most enjoyable afternoons I’ve ever
had in my life. (APPLAUSE) Oh, thank you.
QUESTION My question is directed toward David. Were
the costumes in ROCKY HORROR SHOW described by the author or director or are they yours? As we’ve been saying it’s a collaboration.
And Christopher Ashley, the director of this show and I worked very much on bringing the
show to a modern viewpoint. This show is not saddled, but also brings with it what everyone’s
imagination of “Rocky” is from the movie that everyone has seen 20,000 times. And so
we wanted to respect that, and bring part of that to it. But more was about taking the
germ, the seed of that and bringing it forward and bringing it into the modern day. David, I wanted to ask also the set designer
was David Rockwell who I don’t believe had ever designed a set before. He’s a wonderfully
interior designer. Yes. Did he have specific ideas about the costumes
or was he— No, actually not. I mean it was very much–
he was creating the environment and did brilliant work I think on making that more than theatre.
It’s a space. It’s a ride that you’re going on in that piece. And that’s why the
whole thing flips over, the stage flips over. But as far as getting into the world of it,
I mean, he is establishing the world of the red that we’re using in that show and several
of the qualities of the blackness and where that world is sitting and how the people will
be seen on it. But as far as, oh, well, I think that the lab should all be set up this
way and you should be doing this with the costumes, that was not really what David was
interested in. Okay, another question?
QUESTION Hi, my name is Kim Corbett (PH). And this
audience question is When doing a Broadway show when are you hired and by whom. Name anyone. It can be the director who want– The general
manager calls up and negotiates your money. But it could be the director who would like
you. It could be the scenic designer. It could be the producer. It could be the general manager.
It could be the author who has a relationship with you that you’re part of a team. We
all have directors and designers we work with all the time. We change, but that happens
a lot. And that’s how you get the job. And then once you’re there, the money part
of it is handled by the general manager and your agent or attorney. And you’re hired–
I’ve been hired three weeks in advance, and I’ve been hired three years in advance. And you are essentially hired by the producer,
the– It’s the producer who is doing the hiring, even— But— But that’s— It’s the director— But it’s the director who’s making the
choice. Let us all make this very clear. There is
only one boss in the Broadway theatre world. When you’re working on the stage. And it is the director. Right. Film is different. It’s the producer there. Right. But on Broadway, it’s the director. And
you stray at your peril. But when you have a costume design that you
give to your director and it’s going to be very expensive to make and it doesn’t
fit into the budget, who tells you— Oh, tish tish. (LAUGHTER) (UNINTEL) the producer. They’re not gonna make the poor manager
do it. So easily said. Next question. I’m not doing well with you, William. Yes,
next question. QUESTION
Hi, my name is Melonie Smock (PH) and my colleagues Kim Corbett and Ken Armour (PH) have kind
of a group question for the entire panel which is do any of you need an assistant. (LAUGHTER) You know actually the assistant question if
I could jump in on that, after school I worked as an assistant for a few years to various
people including Santo and including Robin Wagner. And it was a– Working as an assistant
is a very different experience than being in school, and it’s a hugely beneficial
training experience, I think. It’s the first time that you’re around shows with big resources,
and you learn how those shows get done. And you learn what becomes important and what
isn’t important; whereas how a molding on the edge of a table might be very, very, very
important in a small, Off-Broadway house or a regional theatre where you’re right up
close to a stage, that’s not gonna be important when you have $500,000 worth of scenery moving
around so fast you can’t even see the table come and go. It’s more important about getting
the stuff to move. And these are things you don’t learn really until you’re out of
school and working as an assistant. So, I think all of us always need assistants. I
think we can all say yes on that one. I want to add how do you get to be an assistant. Well, is it, Kim, is that right? (UNINTEL) 22 actually. Melonie. Melonie, sorry. Yeah, really. To be an assistant,
I think you just call. I remember I called— Resumes. Over and over and over, and finally, he just
gave in. He said okay. Bombard people with letters and phone calls,
yeah. Right. Also, the intern system, if they’re free,
that’s the best. (LAUGHTER) What is the intern— Then you see if it works, and then you— Yeah, an intern for the summer or an intern
on a show, if you can figure out how to do it for— How do you get that? College (UNINTEL). I get two or three resumes a day, and I talk
to everybody. And sometimes I like the person or whatever. They have something they can
give me. Or it happens to be they got to my office the day I need somebody. Yeah. Yeah, sometimes (UNINTEL). Often, it is literally that. Just the right time. But sending your resume to you— Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. But are we assuming that these are people
who have been to school, to drama school? Some have, some have. Not always. Last year, I had a high school intern. I’m trying to save you guys from a lot of
resumes. That’s how I started. Why not? Yeah, it is not always— Democracy. Sometimes it’s been three years worth of
graduate school, and those are people you’re seeing. And sometimes not. And it depends.
Skill levels can come from anywhere. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to college.
I went from high school to being an assistant on Broadway. How I did that? God only knows.
But I avoided that six years of spending a lot of money to go to school. So I learned
by working on 30 Broadway shows as an assistant, and I— Wow. There’s nothing like that. You know, (UNINTEL). Learning curve.
(OVERTALK) Hands-on. Yeah. But now is there a school for lighters, designers? Sure, there’s a great number. There’s
Yale, Carnegie Mellon, NYU. UCLA. Northwestern. Northwestern’s very good for lighting. Yeah, really they have facilities, and they
teach there. And they put— And they allow the students, I think, importantly
in those schools and many others that you just mentioned, they allow the students to
be working with directors and with actors and with set designers or costume designers
or vice versa on stage finally, working on a production. And that’s very valuable as
a student to be able to have work realized. Right. That’s quite a valuable thing. Yeah, you know, often they just do it in the
studio. You know? They sit and they draw the pretty pictures, and say, “I’m gonna light
it this way.” But they never get to turn a light on the red dress or the yellow dress
to see what the light really will do to the red dress or the yellow dress or the green
dress in the environment that’s been created for the play. And schools that permit you
to do that are really great. One more question.
QUESTION My name is Kenneth Armour. And this question
is directed to everyone. How do you manage to create sets and lighting to work in multiple
theatres for a road tour? With great difficulty. Yeah. (LAUGHTER) It’s very hard. Yeah. You need assistants. (LAUGHTER) It’s easier if it is a show that has been
playing, that is an established New York show. Then everyone knows what the needs are exactly.
And then you can pare it down to go on the road. It’s when you are going the other
route, you’re touring and then coming in. The thing to know about the road, 29 feet
of depth is it. If you want a road show— You have to go for the worst-case theatre
depth. Most of them are many, many times larger than that. But you have to go for the worst
one. And in fact, most Broadway houses, 29 or 30
feet of depth is about what we’ve got. Yes. So, often, the road houses funnily enough
are bigger than the Broadway houses. Uh-uh (Aff). But you do have to go for a minimum. We’re so spoiled (UNINTEL). Exactly. Well, I always say the Saint James Theatre
which I believe is 28 feet 6 inches— Where THE PRODUCERS are playing right now. Where THE PRODUCERS— but where the biggest
musicals in the history of the theatre have played in 29 feet of depth which some people
have bigger living rooms. But one of the real problems with that and
trying to make it work for a number of out of town theatres is if you’re starting out
at a gigantic theatre. The show that I was working on not long ago started out at The
Dallas Music Fair which I think is a 5000, 6000 feet theatre and was going to end via
various other stops at a conventional Broadway stage. It’s not just a design problem. It’s a
problem of how are you going to be arresting to 6000 people. How broad are your gestures
gonna be? How loud is the sound gonna have to be? And is that going to make a different
show, when you’re actually creating the show first time out? And how hard is it gonna
be to bring that down to the size [of] the more intimate show that it needs to be in
a more conventional Broadway musical. Whereas if it starts in a conventional house
and then lands unhappily for two weeks in the 5000 seat house, you think, “Well, I’m
glad I’m not there for those two weeks.” (LAUGHTER) And then it moves on somewhere
else. Well, I always think that people who see the
show in the 5000 feet theatre are used to seeing shows in the 5000 seat theatre. So,
they don’t know about the— But it isn’t just about the audience. It’s
about the show you make, because you make the show for the audience you’ve got. And
I worked on a show, a Tommy Tune musical, that didn’t arrive in New York, ‘cuz he
broke his ankle. But it got seriously damaged by playing very large. It was an intimate
show, and it started out in an intimate theatre. (UNINTEL) east was, that way. And it went bigger and bigger and bigger,
and it just destroyed its essential nature. And it’s a very tricky thing that. I’ve had a similar problem, but in reverse,
‘cuz I’m doing a show here which originated in London and we brought it over to Broadway.
And it was designed for a very large theatre. It was at The National Theatre. And then it
went from there into the West End where we had to reduce it. And now bringing it over
here, we’ve got to reduce it even more, because the depth thing. Right. And we needed twice the depth that we’ve
actually got. But everyone said to me, “But the show’s got to be exactly the same. We
don’t wanna change it.” (LAUGHTER) And we’ve hung onto that. But interestingly,
I had to break the proscenium line. So we built out through the proscenium. We took
away two rows of seats. We had huge arguments with producers, but we won that battle. But
ironically, the show’s now better than it’s ever been, because it’s in the audience’s
face. Yeah. So that’s one example, and it’s worked
in our favor. And that’s rare, but it has. That’s great. Well, I think it’s time
to wrap this up. We could go on all afternoon, but I would like to thank the panel. Oh, I have so many more questions to ask. Well, you have to wait till next time, Isabelle.
But anyways, I’d like to thank the panel very much. And thank you all for being here.
This is The American Theater Wing Seminars, “Working In The Theatre.” This was on
Designers. (APPLAUSE) (MUSIC)

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