Design (Working In The Theatre #312)


(APPLAUSE) A warm welcome to the American
Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 31st 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 discussion
is with stage designers. We learn about how and why these scenic, costume, lighting and
sound designers became professionals and just how significant and important their contributions
are to the success of any theatrical production. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. Now, let me introduce our moderator for this seminar,
the distinguished critic, professor and editor of “The Best Plays” book series, and a
member of the Wing’s Advisory Committee, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. Jeffrey? (APPLAUSE)
Thank you, Isabelle, thank you. In the beginning of Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE,
he talks about illusion and truth, the appearance of illusion and the actual truth. With us
today, we have a group of stage magicians. Although they don’t pull rabbits out of
their hats – maybe sometimes they feel like they pull rabbits out of their hats – what
they show us is truth wrapped in the pleasant disguise of illusion and the illusions of
truth. I want to introduce them to you today. To
my far right is Suzy Benzinger, costume designer. Next is Rui Rita, lighting designer. Next
is David Meschter, sound designer and composer. To my immediate left is Beverly Emmons, lighting
designer. To her immediate left is David Rockwell, who’s a scenic designer and an architect.
And to his immediate left is Adrianne Lobel, who is a scenic designer and now, a producer.
So first, we’ll start with Suzy Benzinger. Now, Suzy, you’ve gotten the job. (LAUGHTER
FROM THE PANEL) You’ve been hired as the costume designer. What’s the first thing
that you do? How do you approach the job? Well, for me – I think every designer works
differently, but for me, after I read the script and have a very sort of brief chat
with the director, ‘cause I like to know what they’re thinking, I read the script
again. And I actually work in color first. I mean, I think a lot of different designers
work in form or things, but generally, I read the script and I think color. It’s the first
thing that comes to me naturally, is to think color. And then I go from there.
I mean, that’s generally my first feeling, is I go through color, and then I go through
color with the director. And do they see it in their mind like that? And sometimes, some
directors, it sort of takes them back a bit, ‘cause that’s not how they’re thinking.
They’re thinking character or something. But I generally think color. And then, once
I get that plot down, then everything else very easily sort of moves from there. From
the color, for me, is really the foundation of design.
Adrianne Lobel, how does that work for you in scenic design? Are you interacting with
the director? How do you interact with producers, as well, by the way? Do you tell yourself
what to do? (LAUGHS) It’s two different subjects! (LAUGHTER)
It’s too big! We could spend the next hour talking about it! It is a response. You read
the script. You listen to the music. I don’t think in color. I think that comes later.
I tend to do very rough sketches for a period of time, and overlays. So it’s almost like
being in a fog, and then, as you draw, the fog clears. And I get ideas from drawing.
It’s very rare that I just have an intellectual concept immediately. It can happen. I mean,
every project is different, and sometimes, that dream thing happens where you wake up
in the morning, and you say, “Ah ha! I know what it’s going to be!”
But usually, you know, even if it’s just giving myself time to think, it is a process
of layering through the murk. And it’s very rough. You know, as you draw more finely,
the ideas become clearer. It really is that connected. And in doing that, it gives a director
an in, at different phases of my thinking. I can allow a director to see fairly rough
sketches and have some input at that point. That’s how it works for me.
Beverly Emmons, you’re a lighting designer with more than thirty credits on Broadway.
How does that process work for you, in the design process? How does that process unfold,
the visualization of it? I mean, in your own head, in your mind, thinking about it.
Right. Lighting designers – there’s an idea, especially in the academic world of
theatre, that at the beginning, all the designers and the directors arrive in a room and commune.
And that doesn’t happen. (LAUGHTER) Lighting designers are usually hired after the director
and the scenic designer have already started to flesh out the universe of the piece. And
I read a script very quickly, just to say, “Oh, yeah, okay, it’s one of those, it’s
got this, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.” Just so that I know, okay, sort of what we’re dealing
with. Because I don’t want to imagine it. I want to find my way into their imaginings,
because they’re already way ahead of me. And the life of the play is already, in part,
determined by their explorations and work. And at that point, it triggers off either
a very clear kind of image that I couldn’t begin to put into words, but I sort of see
something. And then there’s back and forth between, “Well, how might I make that, given
the context of time, money, equipment, real estate?” Because if the scenic designer
has filled the air with scenery, oh, well, that’s very nice, you know, but there’s
no room for my stuff. In which case, some of those limitations, in fact, set the style.
They’re not limitations that are bad, necessarily. They’re just part of the structure. I just
say, “Well, okay. I mean, that sets the tone of it.” So it’s that back and forth
I like your word “fog,” because I find the moment of sitting down at a drafting table,
big bare piece of paper – sometimes, there’s a scenic drawing underneath it, but there’s
a big bare [piece of paper] – and you can calm yourself by saying, “Well, I know one
thing.” Right.
“I know where the center line is.” (LAUGHTER) Specifics are very important.
So I put that in the middle of the paper. Right.
And then I know the next thing. What’s on the center line? I know the next thing, and
that’s where the proscenium is inevitably going to sit. So you work from what’s known
to what’s unknown, slowly working out and fleshing out the details.
Yeah. Having some specifics at the beginning, so it isn’t all just a big mush is very
helpful, like the size of the proscenium. Yeah.
I think a very important aspect of designing anything, and it comes with the sketching
process for me, is deciding what the scale of the human being is in the volume of space.
So if you start with the proscenium opening, if you just keep drawing that box over and
over and over again, then whatever decision you make, even if it’s rough, starts to
be a decision you can pull information from. So are you working, in your mind, in front
elevation, in a way, in the beginning? Yeah, yeah, at the beginning. Not always,
but that’s the general approach. How do you do it?
Well, fog’s a good word. (LAUGHTER) What really compels me to be involved in theatre
is the storytelling nature of it, and the scenic designer’s ability to connect emotionally
with a story. And in fact, as an architect, one would assume that sort of our interest
in theatre would be in static stage pictures, but it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the
fact that theatre is this sort of unbelievably powerful communal celebration where everyone
comes together, and you’re telling these stories in real time, and things can transition.
So what we do is, I tend to immerse myself in the project, the period of the project,
the storytelling. And I remember, on HAIRSPRAY, with Jack O’Brien,
I had a room this big [INDICATES THE WHOLE TV STUDIO], filled with enough sketches for
THE RING CYCLE. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it was just an extraordinary amount of ideas. And
we looked at it and talked about it, and he kind of looked at everything, and Jerry Mitchell
was there. And he put his arm around me, and he said, “Now, let’s talk about the four
things that will make you fall in love with the protagonist the most, and let’s talk
about storytelling and the way the scenic design extends that.”
Rui Rita, you have an ongoing relationship with some directors,
and you have an ongoing relationship with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I believe.
Isn’t that correct? That’s correct.
And how does that work for you, as a designer? How does that allow you to develop your own
sort of visual vocabulary, you know, a creative palette?
It helps me tremendously as a designer. It helps me even more as a person, I think, because
we find ourselves going from show to show, having quick relationships with people, working
very intimately with fellow designers and collaborating, and then you move on to your
next project. And there’s always that sense of coming together for a very intense emotional
period, and then that goodbye which many of us, myself included, tend to make that as
quick as possible, and out the door! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL)
So it helps me more as a person, having those relationships, because I know that I’ll
see these people again. I know that there’s a comfort level there. For instance, on ENCHANTED
APRIL, we’ve all done many, many, many shows together, all of the design team and the director.
So when there were issues, as there always are, in producing any production, particularly
commercial theatre, there’s sort of an automatic sense of comfort. And there’s no looking
over your back, you know, there’s just a very, very sort of pleasing experience.
When you say “issues,” what do you mean? Do you mean particular creative issues or
do you mean the personality issues that arise when creators get into a room together?
Yes, all of the above! (LAUGHTER) All of the above.
Pretty much all of that. I mean, as with anything that we create, everyone has opinions, and
it is a collaboration. That’s what we bring to the table, and everyone has an agenda.
And you know, getting everybody onto the same agenda is part of, you know, the joy of the
“fog.” I love the “fog”! This seminar could be nicknamed “The Fog.”
The resonant image! Particularly since I do some of my best thinking
in the shower in the morning. Yes, me, too!
And it’s so clear, you know, when I’m first approaching a show.
Yeah. And I think about the style first, and that
sort of, you know, when you don’t need something really in front of you, when it’s all up
here [POINTS TO HIS HEAD]. Yeah. Well, it’s a decision-making process,
and I think students are very afraid of that. They think they have to know it all to begin
with, and they go from A to Z, and it becomes very frustrating. And a design process is
about learning how you get from A to Z. Right.
You can’t actually really take any risks, any designers, without trust among the team.
That’s what’s interesting about what you said, that, you know, so the lighting designer
may be brought in after some decisions are made. Well, if you’re not sitting down talking
about how it’s all going to work together, then it’s very hard to take any risks, it
seems to me, and do anything interesting, without a real level of trust between everyone.
Yeah. You have to really feel that you can be stupid with these people.
Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Everyone should be able to say what they want.
But it’s also, what we do collectively is a non-verbal process. Words give you clues,
but visual images give you clues. And I think, again, the academic world has such a literary
and verbal base to it. And what we do is not verbal. And I know that one of the things
about working with a director again is now we both know what we mean by those words,
because those very words will be a vocabulary that will develop between the two of you or
the four of you or whatever the team is. It’s that aspect.
I had a director at a production meeting show me the picture of a sand dune, ripples, sand
dune, and we were doing a TWELFTH NIGHT. And he said, “This is it. This is what I want
to communicate to you.” I thought, “What is he talking about? It’s a sand dune!”
(LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But I don’t say right away, “I don’t understand you!”
Oh, my God, no! I would nod wisely, of course. (LAUGHTER) “Wonderful image, beautiful,
yes!” (LAUGHTER) And then wait for a while, just wait, and listen.
And sure enough, talking to the scenic designer, I heard him aside, talking about all the stuff
he wanted on the floor. And I said, “Oh, he wants to see the ripples in the sand dune!
He likes the idea of floor texture!” And there was no way he could say that to me,
and he shouldn’t feel he has to. In many cases, the words come afterwards,
to post-rationalize what the image is. (LAUGHTER) Exactly.
But I think it is important – I mean, I think in my acquaintance, designers are extremely
articulate. And I think that we are visual artists. But I think it’s very important
to be able to put your ideas into words and your concept into words. It’s also a help
in decision-making process. Well, I want to shift for just a moment, because
we’re talking a lot about visual images, and we’re talking about costumes and color
and light and scenic ideas. We have a sound designer with us, which we don’t often have
(LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), a sound designer and a composer, David Meschter, who has a
broad spectrum of work, most recently on Broadway with the sound design – and did you [do]
composition for MEDEA as well? No. The composition of the sound score was
by Mel Mercier. Okay, but you were the sound designer.
The sound designer for the piece. And you know, this is a different kind of
element. This plays into the visual imagery. It supports the text. But could you tell us
a little bit about how you feel the sound designer weaves into that whole process?
Well, it’s actually different for every production, because sound design means different
things to different people. For some people, sound design, if they’re bringing a sound
designer into a project, they would want that person to handle all of the aspects of the
sound, any sound effects, any composed music or other kinds of music that would be brought
into it. Others see a sound designer as someone who is going to help the actors to be heard
and maybe not much more. In the situation with MEDEA, that piece came
to me with the sound score already intact, and the composer had very specific ideas of
how he wanted his sound score to appear and move in the piece. So he and I sat down with
that and discussed the architecture. Also, this piece had to tour, so we had to discuss
not only what would work at the Harvey Theatre at BAM where we were first working, but it
also had to be able to be done on tour, in spaces where they were using all rented equipment.
So he and I sat down for a while, and also, with Deborah Warner, the director, and kind
of mapped out the sounds. She was familiar with his sound score. I was not so familiar
with it yet. So we sat down and discussed the different types of sounds, how they were
going to be used. And Mel helped me understand how he was using
the sound to support what was happening on stage. And then, I helped flesh it out, as
far as what equipment was going to be necessary, and where things could be hung, and what we
could do at the Majestic, but couldn’t do at the Wilbur in Boston, and things like that.
Sure. Well then, how does it work – you’ve also worked with Ping Chong, Meredith Monk,
right? Merce Cunningham, is that right? Several years of Merce Cunningham.
Yes. Yeah, yeah. So you’ve been an integral part of a team,
and this sort of goes back to that thing we were talking about a moment ago, that we often
think of as the artistic home, you know, the artistic group that we work with. How has
that worked for you, and how do you sort of develop a sound design for that kind of work?
That’s a different sort of thing than theatre. Yeah, yeah.
But I think it plays into it. Yeah. Well, again, I have to say it’s different
for every project. For instance, I started off with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company,
and in many ways, that spoiled me for my entire career! (LAUGHS) Because when I first started
working with them, I had imagine that artists who have been doing the kind of extreme work
they had done all their lives, they would have to be these incredibly egotistical, maniacal
people that would say, “Well, if you don’t understand what we’re doing, well, that’s
your problem!” But nothing could have been further from the truth. They just do what
they do, and if you like it, that’s marvelous, and if not, well, we’re going to do it tomorrow
someplace else anyway. (LAUGHTER) And that was really my first work in professional
sound in theatre, and I had total free rein to do anything. Basically, the musicians did
not want to fight the spaces they were performing in, they wanted to use them. And my job was
to put as many channels of sound around the theatre as I could. And even for them, the
quality of the sound, of the speakers, was not important, because if one sounded pretty
bad, that might be interesting to them (LAUGHS), particularly David Tudor. He used to want
me to hook up the speakers that hadn’t been used in seven to ten years. (LAUGHTER)
But then, say, working with Ping Chong, it’s quite different. Ping also is very good about
inviting the designers for a lot of input, but he has some very specific ideas about
his piece, when he brings it into the theatre, and is open to other ideas, but he has a very
clear map as to the kinds of things he wants. And as I try to fulfill them, sometimes I
think what he’s asking for, either I’m not connecting with or I don’t think it’s
right and I’ll discuss it with him and he can be very open to things. Other times, he’ll
say, “Well, that’s a good idea, but I want to run my cue there.” Okay, fine.
Suzy, I’m looking at your credits on Broadway, and your recent credits on Broadway. You’re
the costume designer for MOVIN’ OUT, and you did SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and there was
one other that slips out of my mind right this moment –
SAIGON? MISS SAIGON, right. It’s almost as if you
provide the color and imagery for an entire generation, kind of a baby boom generation
of costume designer. (LAUGHS) How did that ever happen?
You never thought about that! I didn’t mean to, no, absolutely not!
But I was looking at your credits, it just occurred to me that there’s this sort of
throughline. Because MOVIN’ OUT is very much about, you know, the 1960’s and 70’s
played through Billy Joel’s music. And MISS SAIGON, of course we know, it’s all about
Vietnam. Of course, right.
And then SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was a major important cultural influence in the 1970’s.
What I’m interested in, though, are the nuts and bolts as well. You know, what do
you have to do when you’re designing the costumes, when you’re dealing with SATURDAY
NIGHT FEVER, in order to get that imagery across? And then, what has to be different
in MOVIN’ OUT, which is just, the movement is everywhere. You know, the bodies have to
be able to move with the costumes. The costumes have to move with the bodies. How does that
work, you know, in putting that design together? Well, luckily, you know, over the years, I
had worked with Theoni Aldredge for like eight years, so I, you know, had done a lot of musicals
with dance, and I guess that’s sort of the throughline, probably, in all those shows,
is that the dance was really important. And you know, movement. And you know, I think
with all those shows, basically the dancers have to feel as though they’re in character,
that they are characters, but they have to be able to dance. But I didn’t want the
clothes to look like dance clothes, you know? I didn’t want that whole feeling, you know,
either with it. They had to tell a story. I mean, the funny thing was, someone said
to me the other day about working with Twyla [Tharp], like you know, ‘cause I was really
not very familiar with – I had seen some of her dance concerts, but I wasn’t really
all that familiar with her style. And they said, “What was it like to work with her?”
And like, what the first meetings were, discussing dance. And I said, “You know, we never discussed
dance.” Ever. Never talked about dance, once. I mean, we talked about the characters
and the story, but never once discussed actually what they were doing in the clothes. But after
seeing some of her pieces in the past, I knew that everything had to be danceable, that
there was no question that everything had to be.
So probably, the throughline with all those shows is that everything had to be – Nick
Hytner worked very closely with Bob Avian in making sure that everything in SAIGON was
about movement and space. And I think all those shows probably have that kind of throughline,
actually, you know. So I guess my start really is making the dancers feel like they’re
not in dance costumes. That they can do anything they want, you know, without feeling constricted.
But yet, they still have to tell a story, you know, ‘cause you’re sitting in the
audience, you want to know what the story’s about.
Adrianne, you’re the current designer for, and producer of, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD.
And as I look at some of your credits, I see, you know, a variety of styles that you have
used. I mean, there’s sort of the whimsical quality of A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD. And
it was interesting that you mentioned how, you know, human beings fit into the picture.
It’s a very human perspective in that, human dimension to A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD. But
then when we look at, say, PASSION, and I guess you collaborated with Beverly Emmons
on that – Mmm-hmm.
How did you sort of shift style like that? There’s a very different kind of look about
that. Often, we find that artists have a kind of – and I used the word earlier – a visual
vocabulary. And I love the term. Do you feel that you have that?
Style is a dangerous word, and I don’t think any of us would want to feel that we have
a “style.” I think we would all like to feel that we respond to a text or a piece
of music in a completely fresh, but personal, way. I think if you wanted to give my work
a definition, it would be that I’m a minimalist, that I don’t believe that anything should
be on stage that isn’t helping to tell the story, even in an abstract way.
To go back to the subject of collaborating with people that you trust, it’s very important,
because it does segue into the producing aspect of FROG AND TOAD. When you have worked with
the same group of people many, many times, there is this unspoken understanding. For
example, I have done so much work with Jim Ingalls, the lighting designer. And when I
know that he’s designing a piece, it gives me a great leeway to be as minimal as I really
want to be. It means I can have one drop that is painted as a translucency, with some opacity,
maybe, on the back, with translucent dyes, and that he will get forty-five looks out
of it. And that I don’t need sixteen drops, I just need that one.
And what was wonderful about producing is that I was able to call upon these people
that I’ve worked with so many times. It was really a no-brainer. I mean, I think that
that’s a big difference between regular producers who say, “Well, who had the last
big hit? Let’s hire that person,” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) to really putting together
a group of people to make a show together, people whose vision you understand and who
you want to work with. It was very satisfying on that level.
But I would say, in answer to your question, every show is different. And I think there’s
a danger in sort of sticking to a style. I mean, I did DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, too, which
is total realism. I’ve done some super-real – did STREET SCENE in Houston –
Sure. Movie realism! And then PASSION was completely
abstract, and the dance work I’ve done for Mark Morris has been, you know, either cartoony
or abstract or – I think that’s what important is telling the story, is movement in space,
is volume, is allowing room for the lighting designer to do their work.
What was interesting about FROG AND TOAD, I thought, visually was how it seemed inspired
by the drawings, but wasn’t slavishly reproducing them.
Right. And in doing that, it captured some of the
spirit, and it kind of clarified what the spirit of the pieces were.
Uh-huh. Well, that was a scary and wonderful process for me, because yes, I agree with
you. I made a very conscious decision in FROG AND TOAD not to – I’ve seen illustrators
do set design, and it’s never very satisfying for me. It’s like you take the drawing and
you stick it on stage. And it ends up looking goofy, because the line becomes very large,
and the shape becomes grotesque. So I pulled back from doing that. The illustrations became
much more clean and architectural. It was about scale, you know. Here’s a person
and there’s a flower this big [INDICATES A HUGE FLOWER], so they’re instantly tiny.
But it also was about how do you cut up the space with these flat things? You know, Toad’s
house has a roof and then a plane behind it. So it isn’t just a flat plane, there’s
some space for some volume and some light to happen. The same thing with all the drops.
I really used very kind of nineteenth century old theatre technique.
Jeffrey, when you have the show, you’ve got the show, when do you all come together?
At what point do you all come together in the show?
At what point? It’s sort of different in each.
As the process begins, when do you begin to meet as a group?
(LAUGHS) At techs! First preview, usually. (LAUGHTER)
It’s always techs! (LAUGHS) Everyone’s really busy.
Or dress. Yeah.
Well, that’s a question that’s of interest to me when we start thinking about this element
of collaboration, how the collaboration process works. You know, everybody gets together and
sort of you say, okay we just get together in tech –
Nobody ever gets together! Right, right.
But we say – Like Beverly Emmons is a lighting designer,
she sort of has to do her color palette in front of a roomful of people, start mixing
it at the same time, you know? Or do you have a little theatre where you get to play those
games, you know? No, no, no, no, no!
We wish! None of that.
No, lighting designers do their work in the eye of the hurricane.
There’s a couple of meetings where you look at the plan and sections.
There are a couple of meetings. (SUZY LAUGHS) Sometimes, it’s the first –
I thought it was all totally flash (PH). Sometimes they look at the model!
Sometimes there’s a first meeting. At least we see each other the first day of rehearsal.
But the economics of the thing – I mean, obviously, in order to rehearse the play,
the director and the scenic designer have to know what they’re doing, because they’ve
got to put the tape on the floor, right? And the director has to know where the table and
chair is, because they’re going to [block and] so forth.
What I would like to know isn’t known yet, isn’t knowable yet. Because I want that
moment when the two characters are sitting, one is sitting and one is standing and this
is the most important moment of the play, and I want to make sure that both sides of
their faces are lit so that the intensity is going between them. But I don’t know
where they’re going to sit, and neither does the director. So the process of the rehearsal,
of finding the life of the play in the actors and the cast, hasn’t happened yet. And the
lighting plot has to be finished before the first day of rehearsal.
So I’m imagining things that are unknowable yet, and therefore part of the professionalism
is to put enough stuff up there, enough possibilities, a whole palette. I call it a palette, like
a painter has a palette of a bunch of colors. He doesn’t know – he’s gonna mix ‘em,
right? So he squeezes a little of this, a little of that, a little of that. That’s
what a light plot is for me, it’s a bunch of possibilities that you then use as you
paint through, moment by moment, in the technicals. Lighting designers are really on the hot seat
Yeah! (LAUGHS) It’s like someone watching you do the rough
sketches. Yeah, it’s a horror.
I would never want that many people watching me do the rough sketches! (LAUGHTER)
Oh, never! It seems like as technology gets bigger and
bigger, too, the plot due date keeps getting earlier and earlier. So we have to make these
decisions earlier and earlier. It’s no longer really possible to wait until the last minute.
But I would suspect sound is more like what we do, because again, there’s no words – when
the director says, “I want a dog barking outside the door,” to take a literal example.
I’ve then seen a director in the middle of tech turn around and say, “Oh, I think
it should be a bigger dog.” Yes! (LAUGHTER)
And all you’re talking about is the bark! Right, right. And also, unfortunately, it
seems that sound is brought in well after too many other decisions are made.
Right, speaking of real estate! Right!
And speakers. Real estate and speakers. And I often have
to, you know, chase the producers down to get contacts for the set designer, so I can
figure out, you know, can I get speakers in the set?
Right. That’s always professional (PH)! Because usually, by the time I meet everybody,
everything’s being constructed, and it’s like, “You want to put a hole in what?!”
You know, “You can’t do that!” That’s right.
Whereas, if we could have gotten together earlier, you know, some compromises could
have been made where everyone could have been happy, and I could get speakers in the set.
So I end up – and often a sound designer isn’t brought in until way later. And then
(LAUGHS) all the monies have been spent on wonderful sets and costumes and lighting!
(LAUGHTER) And what’s wrong with that?
Sound designer? Sound!
(CUPS HIS HAND TO HIS EAR) What’s that you say? (LAUGHTER)
(ALSO CUPS HIS HAND TO HIS EAR) How much by the pound (PH)? (LAUGHTER) One of the problems
is that the better a sound design is, unless it’s big and fancy, with lots of sound effects,
the better it is, the more transparent it is. So I did a production of Meredith Monk’s
ATLAS. And I was actually running the console, and during one of the intermissions, two elderly
women were passing the console, and one says to the other, “Oh, this is where all the
lighting is done!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And I said, “Excuse me for overhearing,
but actually, this is the sound console.” And she said, “Sound? Do you mean amplification?”
I said, “Well, yes.” And she was very upset. “Well, I didn’t hear any amplification!”
And they left. Right.
And she didn’t realize that she had paid me the highest compliment I could have gotten.
(LAUGHTER) She thought I was just some, you know, person just yanking her chain. But you
know, I was very pleased with that. (LAUGHS) Well, whenever we talk about design, technology
keeps popping up. There’s computer-assisted design, for scenic design. Beverly, I’d
like to come back to you again. You know, you’ve had a long career. How has the technology
changed over the course of your career, in good ways and bad ways? How has it affected
what’s going [on]? Oh, it’s been wonderful! This has been the
moment of lighting, in really the past fifty years. It’s leaps and bounds. I initially
worked on Broadway shows when they were still DC current in the theatre, and they were all
manual boards. At the same time, in touring around the country with dance companies, every
college auditorium you walked into had a different version of the current electronic, whatever
it is. And as designers, we sort of prided ourselves at being able to speak the language
of whatever board we suddenly found ourselves dealing with, in order to speed up the process
with the operator. But then, there was basically – it was an honest competition, and one
particular style of console was a clear winner. And I’m talking about the computers that
drive the lights, that need a vocabulary, because the best kind of lighting is sometimes
done as fast as you can talk with an operator going bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh, as fast as
they can punch the buttons, because they’re dancing it and you’re painting it while
they’re dancing, you know? (MURMURS OF APPRECIATION FROM THE PANEL) And you’re just that little
bit behind them, “Now I need the backlights up there, and now the blue, and now this,
and bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh! Record it, go to the next.”
And that speed of console, in the old days, a director would say, “Can we go back?”
and the assistant’s job was to figure out what dimmers should have been on, so that
the guys can set it back, and that would take ten minutes. Now the director says in a rehearsal,
“Can we go back and do that again?” Boom! You’re back. So we’ve gotten very used
to a real stream-of-consciousness about lighting and that’s wonderful.
Ah-ah-ah-ah! Not so fast! Just as we got out of that – nicely done! – then moving lights
came in, thank you rock-and-roll, who had enough money to develop these.
Right. And with moving lights now, instead of it
just being on and off, and you’ve stuck a color in it physically, so that’s it,
and you’ve aimed it, and that’s it, now it’s just on and off. Now every piece of
equipment has ten or twelve attributes that you can suggest. It could be a little over
there, it could be a little over there, a little bigger, a little smaller, dimmer or
brighter, this color – oh, a little more green!
And therefore, the time – and this can only be done live. So the time in the theatre is
sometimes just ticking away, and you feel, “Oh, I’ve almost got it!” and there
are fifty people standing there at high salaries like this [LEANS MISERABLY ON HER HAND; RUI
LAUGHS], waiting for you, because everyone’s urgent to solve things. And this technology
is extraordinary and beautiful. But man, the time it takes!
So I mean, some of the most successful – like NOISE/FUNK, that Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
did, which was really the big move of the moving lights into the Broadway context. First
of all, there are two lighting designers. Jules would do all morning physical work,
and the afternoon rehearsal. Peggy would come in at four or five o’clock. They would take
the evening rehearsal together, and then Peggy and the programmer would be up all night.
(MURMURS OF APPRECIATION FROM THE PANEL) They would be programming all night, and they did
this for three or four weeks. So, the idea of working all night, you got rid of that
a long time ago, with community theatre! We don’t do that anymore! (LAUGHTER FROM THE
PANEL) And now it just – the hours, and the economic implication of those hours is
huge. And the design aesthetic is also a challenge.
At the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I also teach an internship, with usually anywhere
from ten to twenty young lighting designers. And what I find to be their biggest challenge
coming out of these schools is that many of these schools have all of this equipment,
have the moving lights, have so much. And the challenge is, getting them to turn things
off instead of turning things on. (LAUGHS) Right, right.
When, you know, years ago, before all of this technology, you know, it was just trying to
get the money to put the light where you needed it. You know, get as many lights as you could
for the specific moments. Now, there are so many lights, because they need to be hung
very early on. The temptation is to, if there’s an issue, just turn it on and fill it in.
And then you start canceling out your picture. So many lights on that it’s just completely
wiping out your picture. And with young designers, that’s what I find most of the time, you’re
telling them, “No, take things out. Take things out. Clear up your vision.”
Right, yes. There’s inherently nothing interesting about
technology. Right.
And the technology is there to serve storytelling. To help ideas.
And you know, one of the things we find in every walk of design, in architecture and
– thinking about, for instance, in HAIRSPRAY, one of the things Jack wanted was the specific
sort of eccentricity of John Waters’ point of view. So we went back and looked at this
kind of almost baroque American sensibility, where he took the ordinary and celebrated
it, and kind of excess, together with the demand that the show move seamlessly and have
eighteen different locations. And the technology, for instance, the Lite-Brite
wall, which came out of playing with a little Lite-Brite set, couldn’t have been – the
notion was to create a kind of low-tech/high-tech thing, that didn’t have high enough resolution
to sort of signal “technology,” that had the same kind of, you know, early 1960’s,
we were in love with the space program, we were in love with new materials. So that sort
of magic, without losing the innocence. And that’s where the challenge is. And then,
you know, we worked with Ken Posner and had sixteen million different color options, and
actually made models. We made little models with Lite-Brites, with the pegs in it, to
try and take it out of the technological realm, into the physical.
And I’ve got to say, the thing that amazes me most about work in the theatre is the amazing
passion and the amazing craftsmanship at every single level, down to the last stagehand.
They’re so good. And it’s just the amount of craft, and the
amount of care about craft. There was recently an article in the Times about the Milan furniture
show, talking about technology and craftsmanship. And theatre seems like one of the most – I
mean, I just feel so blessed to collaborate with people who are so passionate about what
they do and have such amazing skills and then come together to tell the same story. And
technology is a filter to do that, but if it becomes the goal, then it’s sort of distancing.
You’re there saying, “Wow, well, that’s an interesting – you know.” You don’t
want to say, “That was an interesting move.” You want to say, “That move – you know,
what was the feeling?” It’s a handmade art form. Still. It’s
one of the few left. Yeah, it’s the last refuge of the handmade.
I mean, where else is an armorer going to get any work these days? (LAUGHTER) I just
want to say a big plug for the stagehands. Our guys – and I’ve worked around the
world – our guys are the best in the world. And they are such professionals at dealing
– and constantly, themselves, upgrading their knowledge of these technical matters.
On shows with moving lights, they are doing brain surgery, every night, fixing those lights
and keeping them moving, keeping them working. It’s just – they’re terrific.
Yeah. You feel like you’re in such great hands.
Yeah, yeah. We were in previews for two weeks in Seattle,
and great stage manager, great crew. I went back to New York, and they said, “You know,
there seem to be no glitches. It seems to just be going well.” So I went back out
opening night. Two minutes into the show, the entire show ground to a halt. (GROANS
FROM THE PANEL) Nothing moved! (LAUGHS) Including my back! There was no way to get out of (PH)
my seat! (LAUGHTER) And at that moment, I realized, there is human error. You know,
the fact of the matter is, it’s live theatre. Part of the thrill is it’s being reproduced
each night in front of you. Yes.
It’s not a mechanized process. Right. That’s right, that’s right.
So – go ahead, I’m sorry, David. I was just going to say that a lighting designer
friend of mine and I have a mock argument that we like to continue. And one time, he
was saying to me, “Now, Dave, when is sound design going to become as sophisticated with
computers as lighting design has been for, oh, these past ten or fifteen years?” And
my response to him was, “Well, um, what do you think the status of computerized lighting
design in theatre would be if performers reflected light differently each night, depending upon
how they were feeling?” And he went, “Oh … yeah.” (LAUGHTER)
Well, now, another sort of nut-and-bolt question that comes up from time to time, ‘cause
we’re thinking about, you know, working in the theatre, how do we get to work in the
theatre? You know, what happens when we’re working in the theatre? And one of the questions
that arises for me with designers is, you know, actors can audition for roles. Directors
presumably can show their reviews or get people to come in and see their work and that sort
of thing. But I actually heard Eugene Lee, who is a very talented, very experienced scenic
designer say a couple of years ago that he met with the producers of RAGTIME and then,
after he met with them, they asked him for some designs.
Mmm-hmm. They asked to see some drawings! Now, this
is Eugene Lee, who probably has hundreds of productions that he’s designed.
That’s what the architectural world is like. How do you do that? Do you have to design?
They’re not supposed to. (LAUGHS) Not supposed to!
Do you have to audition? David? Well, I think everything’s an audition,
to some extent. But you know, I think the way to get the conversation is to talk about
the project. To do sketches, I think, before you’re working on the project is a little
bit like “Name That Tune.” I mean, if you could design it without really meeting
with the director and talking to everyone, then it really wouldn’t be much of a challenge,
if it was just a matter of kind of whipping off an image. But I think, you know, our experience
has been that you sit with a director and you sit with the producers and you talk about
it. And ultimately, it’s a leap of faith. It’s a belief that there’s a relationship
and that there’s an understanding of the material and that there’s a willingness
to work together. So it doesn’t seem like “auditioning” is the right way to sort
of think about it, it’s more like building a relationship.
I once – When you get back, when you go to that first
meeting, you’ve got the production, what’s the pecking order? Who has the first say about
what’s being done? Is there a hierarchy in the room, when you
have those first design meetings? Oh, sure, there is. Absolutely.
Those first production meetings? How does that work?
How does it work? Adrianne?
Uh … This is when you’re not being the producer.
This is when you’re being the designer. (LAUGHTER)
Yes. Well, I don’t know that there is a pecking order. I mean, the people I like to
work with the most are collaborators who – directors who hire their collaborators – and I guess,
that’s the pecking order, is who hires who – who have asked certain people to work
with them because they trust them. And then they pretty much leave them alone. I mean,
they talk about what they think about the piece, and you know, how it connects to world
politics, or you know, what the story is and why it’s important to do it at this point.
And then they kind of leave you alone. And then they also know how to put everybody’s
work together at the end. That’s what a really good collaborative director knows how
to do. It’s the way I enjoy it. I mean, I don’t like working with directors who
say, “This is my vision! And you’re here to see my vision through!” That doesn’t
interest me much. Maybe there’s a shift. Maybe there’s a
shift that’s coming with the new generation of directors. You know, maybe the hierarchies
are breaking down to some extent. Suzy, what’s your experience been with that sort of thing?
Well, you always work off your director, of course. But I mean, I find as far as the pecking
order goes, of course the set designer, you know, we work off of “What are they going
for?” You know, “What’s their look?” And then, you know. I mean, our work, what
we do, costume design is not technology driven. You know, I mean, everyone was talking about
the different computers and things like that, but I guarantee you, we make costumes the
same way my grandmother made costumes. (LAUGHTER) You know, I would say as far as the pecking
order on these things, I mean, you hope that there doesn’t feel like a pecking order,
you know? I mean, the wonderful thing is when you feel like you’re all together working
on something. I mean, that’s really – I mean, that’s the goal, you know? But when
it comes down to it, there definitely is a pecking order. And we’ve all worked on shows
– well, I hope not too many! – where we have been in those circumstances where maybe
we don’t all get along. Or maybe our vision doesn’t meld, which is a learning experience
in itself. I mean, I’ve found in some of those experiences where I don’t get along
with a set designer, or you know, things shift a bit during – you find out there’s a
pecking order pretty quick! I think that when you’re in tech, it’s
more important that there’s someone who is in charge.
Right. I think when you’re in collaborative meetings,
at the beginning, it is – You hope that it’s –
There’s more equality. Yeah, I’ve learned, actually, working with
Jules Fisher, as an assistant to him – and he said this right at the beginning – he
said, “We do not comment about anybody else’s department, because if we do it, they have
a right to comment about us!” (LAUGHTER) So in a way, if one is talking, one talks
to the director, and let them solve, is it because the shoes are red or is it because
the color I’m putting on them is red or is it because it’s against a gray background?
You know, the reasons for any particular visual jarring.
We’d all have six different ideas, and I think in terms of hierarchy, I certainly don’t
ever allow myself to even think about, “Why is that wall that color?” That’s not my
business. That’s already been decided. My work is to include that red wall and its color
in the whole work of the thing. So in that sense, it is a hierarchy. Those decisions
were made at a certain level, and then my job is to assist it.
Unless, Beverly, you know, the set designer’s sitting next to you and says, “Beverly,
is that color of the wall getting in your way? I mean, should we tone it down?”
(LAUGHS) Quick! Yeah, quick, please! Well, in that sense, that’s the right initiation
of the question, because then the two of us can say, “Well, no, I sort of like it, but
maybe, you know, it isn’t working for you and we can figure out what color would be
better on it,” yeah. Mmm-hmm.
There’s also those wonderful times where someone else, for instance William Ivey Long
on HAIRSPRAY took the Necco Wafer color idea. (ADRIANNE LAUGHS) You know, we had the candies.
And he came back, and I did not realize there were so many potential Necco Wafer combinations!
I mean, it’s just phenomenal when the collaboration becomes bouncing the ping-pong ball back and
forth, and you’re actually exchanging ideas and the idea gets richer and better.
Yeah. Based on everyone’s take on it.
That’s the most fun. That’s the most fun.
When it’s a surprise. That’s the most fun, when you can have that
kind of collaboration. I mean, the way theatre is now, it’s difficult sometimes, ‘cause
it’s true, like sometimes you only meet in techs.
Right. And then you’re looking at the set that
has somehow changed color, but oh, they didn’t get that messenger piece of the wall to you.
Uh-oh! Sorry! You know. Right, right. Well, one of the things – often,
costume designers, I don’t see any color choices. They’re supposed to get them to
you, but you never do, partly because it’s the reality of their lives, they’ve got
to shop for some things. (SOTTO VOCE) I resent that! (LAUGHS)
So they have a rough idea, but there’s no way to actually send samples. But once, I
had the experience creating a show that was a musical. The music was fairly complete.
Sitting at my drafting board, actually I started with color. Often I don’t, but in that case,
I sat there and I pulled out all the pieces (PH), this and that and this and that, listening
to the music. And I got a big fat envelope from the costume designer, and I opened it
up, and all the same colors fell out! (MURMURS OF APPRECIATION FROM THE PANEL) And I thought,
“Okay!” (LAUGHS) “Now we’re talking!”
Well, who gets hired? Who’s the first person to get hired? Have you ever been hired as
a team? Have you been part of a team that got hired?
I think the set designer gets hired first. Yeah.
And I’m often asked, you know, who I think would be a great this or that or the other
thing. So I think, in terms of pecking order, it’s the director, set designer.
Right. And then, after the set designer.
I think costumes and lighting are kind of equal.
If you look at your Playbill, actually, it’s in a very specific order.
Sure! (LAUGHTER) Sound –
Sound? Way down!
And there’s a reason for that. And Rui says, there’s a reason for that!
(LAUGHTER) It’s in all of our contracts, (LAUGHTER)
the truth be told. And sound gets hired by the general manager,
unless the director knows you particularly? The musical director?
Yeses on all counts. Usually, it’s the director. Unless it’s a situation where the show has
– there’s been several times where the show has actually gotten into tech before
anyone realized they needed sound design. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And those are the
calls I hate the most, you know, because now I have to come in and I have to make it work.
Now, really, all the money has been spent! And you know, if I need to use wireless microphones,
they say, “Well, those are too expensive!” But it doesn’t pay to use bargain wireless
microphones, because they are guaranteed to work in rehearsal and not during performance.
(LAUGHTER) So you don’t get to charge them extra for
coming in at the last minute, then, huh? Because they’ve already spent all the money?
You can try, but you know! Yeah, often I feel I’m brought in too late, and it’s more
of an after-thought, once they realize, you know, how things are working. And sometimes,
it just takes the realization of how they want to use the set to realize, “Well, if
we’re going to have this quiet conversation happen way upstage in that room, well, we’re
going to have to have microphones.” And then, if we’ve waited as late as tech, now
there’s not time to go and install things. And you know, I have people running around
in the catwalks during rehearsals, making people mad, but – (LAUGHS)
We’re also trying to, as we think about working in the theatre and how to get work
in the theatre, I wonder how you think students today, young designers today should approach
their craft. I mean, it’s something that may seem sort of a no-brainer to all of you
who are very accomplished in your field, but it’s something that, you know, the people
sitting with us today and the people who will be watching this later want to know. How does
one get work, and how does one keep getting work? We talked about that a little bit, but
should you go to a training program? Rui, I know you teach. You’re saying you mentor.
Speaking specifically about the Williamstown internship, what I do is, I’ll choose a
book for them to read before the summer. And my favorite book to give them is “Kitchen
Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, which has absolutely nothing to do with lighting.
It has everything to do with passion and dedication and having something to talk about at those
initial design meetings, because it is all about verbal skills, as Adrianne was saying.
You know, it’s all about being able to communicate, particularly with lighting, because you can’t
show them sketches. You can’t show them photos, really, ‘cause that doesn’t really
reflect what the lighting is. It’s all about your relationship with the director. It’s
the director, it’s the director, you know? And sort of driving that home. And keeping
true to your image and your ideas, but ultimately servicing the needs of the play and the director.
And, you know, speaking of that collaboration versus hierarchy, you do need a little bit
of hierarchy. You do need an arbiter at some point, because we’ve all done those productions
where everyone is in love with everything that you do, and you think, (SNIFFS) “This
can’t possibly be true!” (LAUGHTER) And certainly, you walk away, and it’s not necessarily
your best work. It needs an editor. Yeah.
So, explaining all of that. Do you have agents? Do you have agents to
get jobs for you? Agents don’t get jobs! (LAUGHS)
Are there special agents? No, agents don’t get jobs for us.
You wish. No. They negotiate the contracts, though, yeah.
No? Well, how do you get the job? Well, I think there’s a couple of levels.
If you want to become a designer in the theatre, certainly there are great design programs
to apply to. But a more philosophical thing I want to say is that the great thing about
what we do is that we can use everything in the world. We need to look at paintings, we
need to go to movies, we need to see a lot of theatre to make sure we’re really that
interested. There’s music. I mean, you just need to be very well informed on many, many
subjects. So you have to be an interesting person, to start with. I also think you have
to be an artist, of some kind. You know, whether that means a poet or a writer or someone who
knows how to draw, there needs to be a strong artistic vision to begin with. And then, you
know, I think then the rest – You have to love it.
You have to love it! And you have to be really interested in the world, and you have to be
really interested in how the world looks. And you have to be very interested in your
own view of the world and know that the way you see things is very important, that your
own individual way of seeing things is something to express.
You know, I was recently talking to a bunch of architecture students, giving a two hour
talk on architecture. And all they cared about was the last five minutes about HAIRSPRAY.
(LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I mean, the sort of love of theatre. And what occurred to me
is – Tell us what you mean by “the last” – not
– The last five minutes of the talk.
Okay. The talk was on a bunch of projects, but at
the end I talked about theatre, which, to a group of architecture students, I assumed
would be interesting but not crucial. And what was fascinating to me is how much they
were interested in the fact that that was my personal passion, and that it was about
crossing boundaries. It was kind of going from one profession to another profession.
And it was amazing to see these students starting to imagine, you know, that those boundaries
are sort of arbitrary, if you have a passion for it. And I think it’s interesting for
theatre to be this vital art form that attracts new people, because it is a fantastic thing
to work in. I was mentioning, I went to an architecture
conference in Venice, which was with, you know, all of the sort of major architects
in the world. And I loved it when one of them leaned over to me and said, “Can you get
house seats to HAIRSPRAY?” (LAUGHTER) You know, there is a kind of magic, and it’s
a wonderful thing to do. Beverly, I know you’ve been a mentor and
a teacher. How do you think that students should be approaching – particularly lighting
design students – do they have to get a little box and put some lights in it? (LAUGHS)
Can’t do that! Doesn’t work! Doesn’t work, doesn’t work. I’m also working with
the American College Theatre Festival. Oh! That’s a great program.
So I’m seeing the results of winners and so forth. And one of the things that I’m
sort of railing against is an idea in academic theatre that you can put a light plot up on
the wall and the designer can stand beside it – the way a scenic designer can stand
beside a model, yeah, fine! But you can’t see just – where the lights are put in the
space has nothing to do with how you mix them and how you’ve made them. And then they’re
encouraged to bring these plots – Well, it’s a problem with the models, too,
sometimes. True! But then they give you these photographs
– thank you, Rui! – that have nothing to do with anything. Because the physical
fact of light affecting the chemistry of film does not reflect what you actually see up
there, it’s an approximation. And it’s only moment by moment, and lighting moves.
So all the things Adrianne said, yes, you have to look how light behaves. Try and figure
out why is it doing that? What is it about that? This one game that we all play teaching
is to do some very specific painters and say, “Okay, let’s set up this scene. Let’s
get a girl to sit in a chair, and now, make the light look like the painter.” Lighting
designers have to do it and do it and do it and do it. Otherwise, the image I use is,
talking about lighting is like talking about Northern Tibetan cooking, right? (RUI LAUGHS)
I mean, unless you and I can bite a taste, we have no idea how a discussion of this flavor
or that flavor might change. It’s just, words don’t go there.
You have to do every bit of lighting that you can get your hands on. And then, you have
to make sure people see it. And my interest is always to focus on the director or the
choreographer and to say, “What is this work? How do I reveal it? How do I understand
it and let the audience in on it?” And therefore, have the choreographer or director feel my
support and my interest in what they’re making.
Excellent. Well, that’s a good place for us to take a brief pause, while Isabelle Stevenson
will tell us about the excellent works of the American Theatre Wing.
Before we get back to the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar
on Design, I would like to remind you that these seminars are only one of the many year-round
programs that the Wing undertakes. You are probably familiar with the American Theatre
Wing’s Tony Awards, given for achievement of excellence in the Broadway theatre. We
also have an important grants program, providing aid to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres.
We have expanded our scholarships, to promising students to pursue studies in the theatre
arts. And we offer a comprehensive guide to careers in the theatre to those seriously
interested in entering the profession. As a long-established charity, dating back
to World War One, and World War Two, and our famous Stage Door Canteens, all of our programs
are designed to reward and promote excellence in the theatre. We just love to introduce
young people and their families to theatre and the magic it unfolds. We take pride in
the work we do, remain grateful to our members and everyone else whose contributions help
make possible the dynamic programs of the American Theatre Wing. Our work is so important
to the theatre and the community, and we are proud to be a part of this exciting industry.
Now let’s return to our panel on Design, and our moderator, Jeffrey Jenkins Jeffrey
(SIC; OF COURSE, SHE MEANS “JEFFREY ERIC JENKINS”). But I would like to, before we
do that, make a point that this panel and the panelists on the stage today make the
theatre possible. Without them, there would be no theatre. So now, Jeffrey, you can take
it from there. Thank you, Isabelle. Welcome back. (APPLAUSE)
Thank you. When we last spoke, we were talking about how to get started as a designer, how
we get going. What do you do first? What kind of training do you need? And I wanted to start
with Suzy Benzinger again, and ask Suzy, how did you get your start as a costume designer?
You’re the resident costume designer in our little collaboration here today.
Well, let’s see. I went to college for it. Where?
Stony Brook, out on Long Island. And after the second year, my parents received my report
card. (LAUGHTER) My mother said, “Well, we see you’re getting all A’s in your
theatre courses, and you’re not attending your other classes.” (LAUGHTER) And I said,
“Well, you know, next semester, I think I’ll be able to.” And she said, “You
know, your father and I had an idea. How about if you take a year off and you work in the
theatre for a year? Then you’ll be able to figure out, is this really what you want
to do? Is this, you know, your life?” So I went to Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo,
which at the time, brought in all the shows. They rehearsed them in New York and brought
the shows there. Now it’s different, but at the time, they used to hire the designers
in New York and bring the packaged things out, but they were all premieres in Buffalo.
And so, my first year there, I was the Resident Assistant. I first assisted Tennessee Williams
on one of the first things I ever did there. And then the designers started floating in,
and I got to assist Pat Zipprodt and Florence Klotz.
Wow. I mean, it was amazing. The last designer
who came in was Jane Greenwood. And Jane said, (IMITATES HER VOICE; ADRIANNE LAUGHS) “Do
you know, what are you doing, darling, after this season is over?” And I said, “I don’t
know. I guess I’ll go back to school.” And she said, “Well, you know, I’m doing
this little production in New York, if you have any time.” And that’s all I had to
hear, you know?” (LAUGHTER) Oh, my God! And my parents were not really thrilled with
the idea. But Jane invited me to live at her home, with her husband, Ben Edwards, the set
designer, the most elegant man on the face of the earth. And I lived with them and I
worked with her. And she said, “You know, but you’ve got
to get a range if you want to be a designer.” And so, I worked out of Brooks-Van Horn with
her, and every time a new designer would come in, she’d make sure I became their assistant.
So I was the luckiest girl on the face of the earth, because I think now, I assisted
Raoul Pene Du Bois and Miles White and Pat Zipprodt, and really, all those designers
were my teachers. They were my professors. So I got to learn color from Willa Kim. And
I got to learn, you know, line from Miles White. And so, I had the most incredible professors
on the face of the earth, and that’s how I learned. And that’s how I started.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
I was in the right place! Because no other costume shop works like that now. Because
in those days, designers didn’t automatically get assistants. You know, if you were having
your clothes made at Brooks-Van Horn, then the assistant there was your assistant, who
was in the costume shop. So I never had to interview for a job. You know, Raoul Pene
Du Bois walked in and they said, “Here. Here she is!” Like her or not, you know?
And so, it was wonderful. How does it work now? Do you designers have
apprentices? Do you find talented young students? Do people bang on your door and say, “I
want to run errands”? How does that work? Adrianne?
Students call a lot from universities, looking for work. Sometimes they call and say, “I’ll
volunteer,” which is really very smart. And then there are just people who are professional
assistants, who you hire to do some of the more difficult drafting.
Rui, you, I guess, probably pick up some help from the interns –
From my pool, yeah. Or my mafia, (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), as they’ve also been called.
But Williamstown has meant a lot to me over the years, and it gave me a lot of my beginnings
and I feel like giving back a lot to the – Did you study design in school?
I studied at Boston University, and I had gone to Williamstown as a Master Electrician
one year. This was Nikos Psacharopoulos’ last season. And during that year, I was a
master electrician, but I also assisted a director/lighting designer, Peter Hunt, who
was a fantastic lighting designer and a great teacher. But I did one show with Peter, and
then the following season, Peter was going to take over for Nikos, after Nikos passed
away, as part of a triumvirate. And he called me, and we had a long discussion about the
light plot, you know. And at the end, I said, “Well, I’m not
really sure if I can come back this summer. You know, I’m graduating. I’m thinking
about applying for the New York City Opera internship.” Thinking about it, I hadn’t
even actually applied. And Peter said, “No, no, I really want you to come back. What if
I gave you a show?” And I’m thinking (LAUGHTER), “A show? To design a show?!” I thought,
“Great! It would be an honor to design a show in the Other Stage.” It’s a little
97-seat house, which was where they do the more experimental work.
So I think about it for thirty seconds, and I say, “Sure, absolutely. I’d love to
do a show. And sign me up for the summer, I’ll be there. I’ll do it, I’ll be your
resident assistant.” I show up, and I walk into the [theatre], down the hallway, and
the callboards are up. And I walk past the callboard, and under the first mainstage is
my name as lighting designer. (LAUGHTER) How in the world?! (LAUGHTER) And that season,
I not only ended up doing that show, I ended up doing two other – so three mainstage
shows that season. Now, David Meschter, to be a sound designer,
must one first have a huge stereo system (LAUGHTER), when you’re a teenager, in your bedroom?
Who told you about my stereo system? (LAUGHTER) We have our sources!
Yes, I had a rather large stereo system, with several tape decks, and I had always been
interested in sound. I had initially gone to Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, for
my freshman year. And to make a long story short, I had pneumonia during that time a
little bit, so that my semester was messed up. And most of my friends were electrical
engineers, and they knew that before they got to the school, so I felt like every semester
that passed, if I didn’t define my future, I was limiting my future. And my parents also
suggested that I take some time off. As my father put it, “If I’m going to help you
pay for school, I’d rather you know what you want to get out of it, so we can buy what
you want!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And in that time, I realized that I wanted
to somehow mix music and communications, because both those are very strong drives in me. And
I started researching schools, and I ended up finding American University in D.C. had
a very new audio program. And when I went down there to interview, I met the man who
designed the program. And I ended up going there. They had very, very little equipment,
but I got an immediate sense from this gentleman that he was going to be a very important person
to help me get out of school what I [needed], even though I don’t know what I need.
So they had a new Audio Technology program there, which was probably only in its third
year then. And then walking past his office one day – Remayo Sanyan (PH) was the designer
of the program, a northern Italian, and he says (IMITATES HIM), “Ah, David! Want to
go to Europe?” I said, “Uh … sure. What’s up?” And he said, “Here!” and he handed
me a piece of paper and it had David Tudor’s name and phone number on it. And I was, “I
– I can’t call – I know who David Tudor is, I can’t call him!” But I called, and
as it turned out, I happened to reach Mr. Tudor in a twenty-minute window when he should
not have been home, he should have been in Manhattan.
And I explained who I was and he said they were looking for a new sound person at the
Cunningham company. So he invited me to the performances to see – I said, “Well, what
does the job entail?” Because I knew the name John Cage, but I didn’t know the name
Merce Cunningham. I think modern dance is a secret art in the United States. You have
to seek it out, and when you do you can fall in love with it, but you don’t get exposed
to it until you seek it out. So in any case, I went to the performance,
and by the end of the day, they were saying things like, “Well, you have to watch this
console, because if this leg is loose, the transformer’s loose.” And a week and a
half later, I was packing for a domestic and European tour and finding a sublet for my
apartment. And no one had ever paid me to do any kind of sound before! So that how I
– (LAUGHS) You know, that’s interesting. There’s
sort of a throughline in what I hear all three of you saying. And this is something I think
Adrianne touched on earlier, and that is, being open to new experiences and taking on
new experiences as they come. And in the case of each of the three of you, I heard you say,
“Yes” to what was presented to you. Not “How much am I going to be paid? How is
this going to affect my career? How is this going to build my career?” but “This is
an opportunity. Yes.” (GENERAL AGREEMENT, PANEL NODS)
And I want to ask David Rockwell about how architecture, how being an architect has influenced
and has informed your work as a theatre designer. You know, when I think back to your ROCKY
HORROR SHOW designs, which were so amazing and inventive, with the theatre seats that
flipped, inside and out, and the la-BOR-atory that, you know, drops from the ceiling! You
put the “labor” back in laboratory! (LAUGHTER) But you know, how does being an architect
influence that? Well, my interest in theatre actually preceded
my interest in architecture, in that my mother was a dancer in vaudeville and my family was
very similar in sort of function to the family in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. (LAUGHTER) The local
community productions – we lived on the Jersey shore. And putting together theatre
for me – I had four brothers, and I found that doing theatre was a chance to create
this magical alternative reality out of nothing. You’d sort of go into this auditorium – I
actually recently looked at some of the flats that I helped paint as a kid, from THE KING
AND I, which I remembered being so glorious. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And they were essentially
four by eight canvas with a little gold paint on them. You know, the memory was of this
magical place that was created. And then we moved to Guadalajara, Mexico,
when I was ten. And I found my love of theatre sort of morphed into a love of public spaces.
And the marketplaces and the color in Mexico were so inherently theatrical. And then, went
to architecture school because it seemed like there was a lot of cast-in-place concrete
happening in Mexico and intense color, and I was interested in it. But I found I always
gravitated back towards theatre. And second year, I was in New York, and I
had seen DRACULA, Edward Gorey’s DRACULA, lit by Roger Morgan. And I was stunned by
it. I just thought it was so beautiful! I went to Roger Morgan’s studio, called him
up and I said, “I’d like to work for you, and I’ll do it for two weeks for free, and
if it works out, why don’t you hire me?” He was just getting ready to do CRUCIFER OF
BLOOD, I believe. So I worked for him for two weeks. I fell in love with him. He was
the most amazing mentor. And I took a semester off, and actually loved
theatre so much that I decided to transfer to London for a year from Syracuse, which
was not a center of great theatre at the time. Although they had a great theatre program,
but I really found going to theatre was such an important part of engaging me. And over
in London, I gravitated toward theatre. Finished architecture school. And it was really just
fate. I designed a restaurant that became very successful, four years out of school.
I wasn’t a great employee. I was a better employer, so I figured, you know, “I did
this restaurant, it worked well,” and I went into business for myself.
And it was about five or six years ago that I was having lunch with Jules Fisher, who’s
a very close friend and we spend a lot of time together. And I was sketching, ‘cause
I go to the theatre two or three times a week and always sketch and design. And he said,
“You know, David, your level of interest when you talk about theatre is so amazing.
Why don’t you try doing something in the theatre?”
So in a sense, I think my teachers were – the first show I ever saw was FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,
which is one of the reasons why I’m interested in doing it now. I saw it standing room only.
And I’ve got to say, the unfolding of Boris Aronson’s environment was just mesmerizing.
And you didn’t need to know anything about Anatevka for this to tell that story. So I
guess my teachers were the great productions that I saw and the kind of analysis. So I
just took a chance. And with ROCKY HORROR, when I met with Chris
Ashley about ROCKY HORROR, I had never seen the movie. So I rented the movie. Part of
living in Mexico for eight years was, pop culture was new to me, so it was a new tape.
And I rented the movie and watched it, and I said, “I have no idea what everyone’s
carrying on about! This is the most peculiar thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” (LAUGHTER)
And then I went to see the show in a movie theatre with an audience, and realized, it’s
about the interaction. And then Chris Ashley spoke to me about, you know, the real show
is about creating yourself in your own image. And for my first theatre experience, it seemed
like a perfect chance, so it was – It almost sounds as though your architecture
work is influenced by theatre more than your theatre work is influenced by architecture.
Is that [right]? I think that’s probably true. We’re working
on an airport in Vegas, and we’re now going to bring in a choreographer (GASPS FROM THE
PANEL) to deal – You are so lucky! (LAUGHS)
To deal with movement. Because you know, once you deal with getting the baggage there, somehow
moving through the space wants to feel wonderful. Fabulous!
Brilliant. It’s a great idea.
It’s a great idea. Now, we’ve talked a lot about relationships,
about the collaborations with the directors. We haven’t said much about producers, we’ll
let that go for now. But what about the relationships that you have with the performers? Now, Suzy,
certainly, you have more interaction with the performers.
(LAUGHS) We were just talking about that, yes!
Oh, yeah? I wish I had taken my psychology courses.
(LAUGHTER) I hate to say it, sometimes it’s ninety percent of the job, depending on the
piece. And it’s different. I mean, I was saying I’ve done some films for Woody Allen,
and when you’re doing those films, you’re getting actors and you’re with them for
like an hour, and then they’re on camera. I mean, you really have very little time with
them. And so, in those instances, you try to get right to the heart of the matter and
try to get through their whole [thing], what their image is, and get to the character in
a very quick manner. In theatre, it’s, of course, different,
because you have much more time. But it really is [psychology], that’s so much of our job.
It is so much of our job, to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel like they look
good, that they can move in something or dance in something. It really is.
Well, how does that work for the other design elements? How does that work for you, Adrianne?
Do you have an interaction with the performers? How does that [work]? What are the challenges?
With the performers? Not as much as costume designers do, which is one of the reasons
I’m not a costume designer, (LAUGHTER) ‘cause I don’t think I’d be very good at that!
That’s smart! Very smart. But I did flash on when I did ANNE FRANK,
the cast had been in a rehearsal room for how[ever long], three weeks, four weeks. And
they came on to the set for the first time – we were in Boston. And Linda Lavin, who
played – oh, I can’t remember the name of the character now (SHE MEANS MRS. VAN DAAN),
the sort of larger-than-life wife who kind of takes over the place, who has the coat
– just sat down and started to weep. And Austin Pendleton was in it, too, and they
all just started to, you know, hold on to each other and weep. And I thought, “Okay,
well, I got this right!” (LAUGHTER) Because it was a character that they had been missing
in a rehearsal room. I mean, suddenly they were stuck in the Annex.
How about you, David Meschter? In sound design, how does that come into play, with the performers?
Are you dealing with them in a live sense? Yeah.
And then you’re dealing with them often, I would think, in some kind of recorded sense.
Yes, sometimes, too. No, it’s the psychology, I would say ninety percent also, in my field,
and it still surprises me sometimes. But no, I have to, particularly in a situation where
performers are going to wear wireless microphones, some people get very nervous about it. And
I usually wire people myself, so they get a sense that the person who is putting the
microphone on them is also, you know, someone really plugged into making things sound good
for them. Not that other people couldn’t do it, but there are some artists that, “Oh,
no, Dave has to come and do it! No, no, you can’t do it!”
But no, it is important to have a good relationship with the performers, particularly in a sense
where if we’re also sending sound back to the stage for monitors, making sure that people
don’t have to ask for more monitor level, but that they’re comfortable. So even when
I know the monitors are fine, I’ll ask, because they need to know that there is a
voice out there in the dark that is paying attention to how they’re feeling. And if
they’re more relaxed, they don’t need the monitors as much, because when the performers
are uptight and still trying to put a piece together and a mistake is made, it’s much
easier to point at the technology as causing the problem than, you know, a person.
Sure. So if people are calmed down a bit, it actually
flows a little easier. Well, now, Rui and Beverly, you’re lighting
designers, and you almost have to have the actors there and have to interact with the
actors to some extent, the performers to some extent, when you’re, you know, doing tech
and working with that. And I know that there are some designers who don’t want to do
any tech work without, you know, bodies moving in space, which producers sometimes balk at.
(DAVID MESCHTER LAUGHS) What is the challenge there for you?
Well, bodies moving in space and interacting with the actors, that’s the difference.
There is comfort in the darkness, in the back of the house, and I usually do run through
the filter of the director in dealing with the actors. But there are moments when you
do need to interact, and a specific moment that I was just thinking of was doing MANDRAKE
ROOT with Lynn Redgrave. At the end of the first act, she bares herself from the waist
up. And it’s a very particular moment. And the lighting is very key, and we had many,
many discussions about the angle and exactly how much we see, what we don’t see, what
the revealing is and what the emotion is. So we had many, many discussions.
We did the production at the Long Wharf in New Haven, and that last final moment was
successful. We did the production then at the San Jose Rep in California, and we got
to that moment. It was essentially a remount, so the show was in the computer and we ran
to that moment, and we stopped and we said, “Are we ready to do it?” and we said,
“Yes, we’re ready,” so we continued. She took her jacket off and nothing happened.
The lights are on, there’s no blackout. (LAUGHTER) Nothing happened!
And the stage manager was new and thought that she didn’t have to call the final blackout!
(LAUGHS) So she finally stood out there and she waited and waited and waited and turned
around to us and said, “Are you gonna turn the lights off?!” (LAUGHTER) So yeah, there
is interaction. (LAUGHTER) I’d like to know, where do you get the fabrics
for costumes today? Where do you get the fabric for costumes?
We get the fabrics pretty much in the same places that have been in New York for so many
years. Like Brooks Brothers?
The fabrics, we go to like B&J, we go to Art Max, we go to, you know, the same stores that
have existed for – and a lot of these stores, the grandsons are now running them. There’s
generations of families there. It’s changing a little bit, because Egyptians are now moving
in and Indians moving in to the fabric business. It used to be very much a different sort of
business. Do they specialize in fabrics for the theatre?
No, there are very few of those companies left that specialize in [that], ‘cause I
don’t know what theatre fabrics are any more, you know? I mean, it used to be, like
when I first came, you know, the sort of fabric that you saw in kids’ dance recitals. You
know, lots of fluorescent tones and satins and things like that. But I think we go to
the same fabric stores that everyone else does. We always wish we’d get a discount,
because we buy a lot. We don’t. (LAUGHTER) Like, it costs us more. They see us coming,
and they’re, you know, it costs us more. Well, you know, cost is something that we
should talk about for a moment or two, because if you want to do a Broadway musical, ten
million bucks to start with, probably. I’m guessing that FROG AND TOAD is a lot less
than that. It was a lot less than that, and it’s because
we did it in a great regional theatre first. Sure.
And moved the entire physical production from Minneapolis.
At Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. So we got a three million dollar set for two
hundred thousand dollars, which is really the way to do it at this point.
Wow. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) That’s an amazing figure. Now, how do costs affect the way you
do things? Beverly? I’d like to tie in with something we talked
about before, about the actors, too. Because increasingly – I don’t know, Rui, if you’re
run into this – there’s gotten to be a fantasy out there that there’s a way of
eliminating the tech. Or, “Oh, it isn’t nice for the actors to stand there. It’s
such hard work. Can’t we just do this on the bare stage?” Of course, good actors
know how to use that time. They’re handling their props. The director is finally leaving
them alone, because he’s worried about the light cues, so they have a chance to work.
But there’s pressure out there to do what’s called “pre-techs.” We have pre-techs,
ay-yi-yi! Or “dry tech,” yeah.
Dry tech. And dry tech. Dry tech used to happen after
the cues were written and we could just go through things quickly. But now the pre-tech
idea, I’ve had stage managers say, “Well, could you put the cues in my book the weekend
before the tech?” And I say, “Well, you probably know where cue one is going to happen,
and you probably know where the blackouts are going to happen. But in between, I don’t
know yet.” House to half. (LAUGHS)
“We’re going to create it as we go along.” Yeah. And one needs to – especially the
lighting designers have to paint in the context. There’s pressure, technological pressure,
to think it all up on your bedroom, you know. Bring it in on a disk and slip it into the
[computer] – no, no. And the way you get actors to understand the process is to talk
about how beautiful they’re going to be if they could give you a chance to do that
for them. But there’s a lot of current pressure, and it’s because of time which always equals
money, “Can we do this some way without this process”?
And most shows have to tour, in order to be economically viable.
Yes, right. And the other thing – And we all know that, like, ANGELS IN AMERICA
never made its money back until it had been on tour for quite a while.
It’s not understood that when you take a show from one theatre to another, adjustments
have to be made. Producers think you just plug it in and it plays like a video, and
every space is different. Yeah, each theatre is different.
And how much of the cost labor is. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you know, one of the things
you talked about in materials is, one way, I guess, to deal with budget is find materials
from different sources. We were pressured on the hair curtain for HAIRSPRAY, which is
seven miles of red rubber tubing, to find an inexpensive material that would do that.
And we found it. What we didn’t expect is a lighting designer was then going to say,
“Well, is it going to melt together when it’s up in the [flies]?”, you know? So
we had to test that. But by not going to necessarily the first instinct about what the material
would be, but try to do some research on inexpensive materials, you can get the effect without
that particular cost. I think the worst problem with finances in
the theatre now is that all of us, in order to survive, have to do too many projects.
And it’s one of the reasons we never get into a room together. And it would just be
so wonderful if you did three things a year! I mean, the results would be extraordinary.
Well, you know, we could continue this conversation for hours, and I’d like to do that. (LAUGHTER
FROM THE PANEL) Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time for this program. This has been
the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar, coming to you from
the Graduate Center of City University at New York. Thank you for joining us. (APPLAUSE)

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