Design (Working In The Theatre #317)

Design (Working In The Theatre #317)


A warm welcome to the American Theatre Wing’s
“Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 30th 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’ll learn something about how and why
these scenic, costume and lighting designers became professionals, and just how significant
their contributions are to the success of any theatrical production. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, let me introduce our moderator for
this afternoon, Tony Award-winning designer, Heidi Ettinger. (APPLAUSE) Thank you. I’d like to introduce our spectacular panel. Catherine Zuber, costume designer. Next to her is Skip Mercier and Anne Louizos
is right next to Skip, who’s a wonderful set designer. Next to her is Don Holder, a lighting designer,
and David Gallo, a wonderful set designer. So thank you all for coming. And I think I’d like to start with sort
of a controversial question, which is, is it true we learn more from our failures than
our successes? And if that’s been the case, can you think
of any, like, real bombs that you’ve done recently (LAUGHTER) or not so recently, in
which you’ve learned something pretty interesting? Yeah? Nnnnnah, everyone’s a little scared of this
one! Well, it’s hard to define “success.” Do you mean economic success? What success? Is it economic success or is it a popular
success or is it an artistic success? Well, so many shows that we do, sometimes
they’re economic successes and artistic failures, and also vice versa. I guess the other question is, which is the
most painful? The most painful is an artistic failure, I
think, even if it a critical or – well, chances are, if it’s an artistic failure,
it won’t be a critical success, but it may be an economic success. But I don’t think any of us are designers
to make money. I think we have a passion for the art and
craft of working in the theatre, and that’s why we’re there. If we can make a living, great. But I think it’s very – as I mature and
get older, artistic failures become more and more depressing and they really feel like
– they’re very draining. It’s not worth whatever money you’re making,
if you have to participate in that kind of experience. Because then you feel like you’re just there
earning a paycheck, and that’s not what we do. That’s not where we come from. That’s kind of against our principles. We do the work because we love the work and
we’re passionate about the work. And we love being a part of something bigger
than ourselves and contributing to the whole process. That’s a good answer! Are we speaking strictly about Broadway here,
too, or is there a definition? No, no. No, all kinds of – I mean, that’s where the financial question,
I guess, rears its head the most, you know. I mean, not to get too deep into it, but I’ve
been designing for a long time. I’ve done quite a number of shows, and I’ve
only had one show run more than a couple weeks. So it’s not like (LAUGHS) it’s hard to
relate! You know, ‘cause twenty-something shows
over the course of years, and you know, a show runs seven weeks and everybody’s all
bummed out. And you’re like, well, you know, in high
school we only ran three days, and then in regional theatre it ran a month, and then
Broadway it runs, you know, six weeks. You know, I got used to that pattern after
a while. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but it’s
true. But MILLIE’s been doing kind of well, so
I guess it’s, you know – again, just exploring the definition of what is, you know, successful. Well, frequently the artistic success is satisfaction
enough. Right. I mean, we’ve been involved in some shows
together – Mmm-hmm. In which they’ve been artistically very
satisfying, although commercially disastrous. Yeah, and it’s also, like, within the process. I think we all go into it putting our all. I don’t think any of us start with a cynical
attitude, like “Oh, this is gonna be – we’re just doing this for the money, and we don’t
care.” I think we all go in with open hearts, and
the anticipation that it’s going to be an artistic success. But then, somewhere along the line, there’s
that creeping feeling – it’s usually when we go into tech, where we just – all our
hopes are dashed, and you can kind of see that it’s a sinking ship. And that’s when it’s difficult. I think that’s when the pain begins, when
you really start to realize that all this effort that you’ve done – and it’s not
until that point. And I think that’s when it’s painful,
that realization. And I think we’ve all been there, in situations
where we just feel, like all those dreams and hopes for this project are just not going
to come to fruition. Plus, as an artist, you can’t do your best
work in those situations. Exactly. So you realize that, whatever work you do,
it’s not going to be up to the level that you want it to be, because we are collaborators,
and we can only do our part. And I think we would all agree that you do
your best work when you work with the best people on the best material. That if it falls short, then it’s difficult
to succeed. It’s difficult to sort of bring your work
to the level that you want it to be. And that’s extremely disappointing and discouraging,
when you’re sort of midway through the process. You want so badly for it to be good, and you
realize, you know, you can only take it so far. And I’ve been in that situation, like I’m
sure all of us have been. You’re talking about when you’re working
on Broadway? Or is this, like, on a smaller scale? Mainly on Broadway. I mean, you know, Broadway. Because on Broadway, you know, the amount
of commitment and the amount of time and the amount of energy, I think, surpasses any regional
or Off-Broadway project that I’ve ever done. And when you fail, you fail huge. (LAUGHTER) Right. And very publicly, too! Yeah, right! You’re right out there! And now, you’re in the middle of a microscope. I mean, you know, now that there’s chat
rooms and there’s call-in (PH) lists and everything else – Oh, yeah. Sort of watching your every move. So everything you do, and the projects you’re
involved with are in a fishbowl. And everybody’s judging, from the moment
you put your work out there. Yeah. And so, it’s hard. I actually find, because I’m kind of new
kid on the block and everything, even though I’ve worked in this business for twenty
years, but it’s the first year I’ve had two shows on Broadway, first time. Most of my work has been Off-Broadway, and
regionally, and the thing that I find frustrating – especially Off-Broadway – is you put
your heart and soul, like you said, Cathy, into what you do, and so few people come and
see it, you know? Because there are these small theatre companies,
and everyone’s really trying to be heard and seen in these little theatres, and there
are so many of them, in New York especially, that struggle. And you just want people to come see it. And often, they don’t have advertising budgets,
so it tends to be word-of-mouth, and a lot of times they’re limited runs and only so
many people can see them. So they may be artistic successes, but most
of the time, they fail economically. And also, isn’t it true that sometimes,
just you’re so financially limited – Oh, totally. That you become artistically sort of hog-tied
at the same time? Do you find that’s true, or is your imagination
released, the less money you have to play with? Well, you have to play with what you’ve
got, I think. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And sometimes, it forces
you to distill the most important things. I mean, there have been times when I’ve
done shows where the director says, “Okay, let’s spend all our money on this one thing!” You know, you decide what’s the most important
element on the set and you just sink your resources into that, and you make that the
centerpiece. Or you just come up with something very simple
and functional, but something that satisfies you as a designer. I also think, like, if you have a small budget,
it’s sort of fun to meet the challenge of how to serve the play, given limited resources. I’m working right now at New York Theatre
Workshop on this new play called THE BEARD OF AVON, which has, like, fifty Elizabethan
costumes in it, and we had a budget, I think, of twenty-five thousand dollars. So it’s sort of fun. It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. And I guess I sort of love a challenge that
way, and it’s sort of fun to see it kind of come together. And the actors are having fun, you know, we’re
having a good time working on this project. And I have to say, in terms of artistically,
I find it very satisfying. Personal finances are really shockingly poor
(LAUGHS), but it is artistically fulfilling. So sometimes I feel so privileged to work
in a discipline where you can have so much fun on what you love to do. And I think sometimes when you work on commercial
projects, that sort of buoyancy and exuberance starts to dissipate, because of the financial
considerations, [which] sort of make us all have to behave in a more serious manner. So sometimes we lose that sort of buoyancy,
in a way. And I think trying to keep that alive in a
commercial project is very important to its success. So, do you find yourself coming up with really
ingenious solutions to the “no money” problem? Yes, yeah. Is sometimes the work actually better because
there’s no money? Right, right. I mean, like, all of a sudden we decided we
needed somebody in a toga. So, you know, I went to Century 21 this morning
and bought a sheet for ten dollars, you know? (LAUGHTER) And it works great, and it’s
right, you know. It’s sort of things like that, where [you’re]
sort of coming up with solutions that are off-the-cuff. It has a great out-of-the-trunk kind of excitement. And I think the piece stays alive sometimes,
because of that. Less labored, basically, right. Yeah. And sometimes things, I think, can get over-produced. And also, sometimes there’s something organic
about feeling that it can have that sort of, “Oh, no, let’s cut this, but let’s bring
that in.” And when everything’s sort of pulled and
gathered together, it’s easier to do that. Sometimes when a lot of investment has been
made in something, you’re always so anxious, like, “Oh, I hope we spent this money wisely!” Right. You know, like, both of you are set designers. You know, you feel like, “Oh, you know,
the director is asking for the set piece, and it’s a huge part of the budget.” And maybe, sometimes, I know in the back of
your mind you may feel it’s not really the way to go, but you have to produce that. I know with costumes that happens. Sometimes you feel, you know, you hope that
this part of the budget, the percentage that’s being asked to go to a certain scene, and
you go, you know, in the back of your mind, you say, “Oh, I know this scene is going
to get cut, or this isn’t the way to go, but – ” So it’s all of those decisions. Yeah. Well, sometimes you can just stall it out. If you know it’s going to go anyway, you
can just kind of make it not happen. Right! Right, right. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know, one of the things I think about,
is the financial constraints of that. One of the things that I’ve found stimulating
is architectural restraints. I don’t know how specific we can get here,
you know, but like Manhattan Theatre Club having that Stage One, their mainstage theatre. It’s incredibly wide, it’s incredibly
deep, and it’s eleven feet high. It’s this really low thing. And the two things I’ve done in there, you
know, I was pleased with the results, just because I kind of felt that that pushed me
into at least a unique solution for such a, you know, funky space. Another theatre that I really like is the
second stage at Cincinnati Playhouse in Cincinnati. It’s a very unusual little theatre, but
the one thing that I did in there was one of the things that I’m, in many ways, the
most pleased with. Because, you know, all of the handicaps turned
into virtues. And talking about the money thing for a minute,
you know – I don’t mean to shift the topic away from, you know, lower budget stuff, but
I – you know, we’re talking about flops, I have to say – okay, I designed DANCE OF
THE VAMPIRES. I’m sorry! I apologize! (LAUGHTER) Everybody’s sorry! But I had to bring it up. And interesting, I’m the first person that
actually mentioned a show title here! Oh, I’ve got tons! Yeah, I don’t know if we’re going to go
there! But I’m talking about that, you know, that
was a situation where we talk about the smell of failure, where we had a tremendous amount
of money, but getting things done was hard in many ways. And again, not to get so particular, but the
shops just wouldn’t show, you know? Because they knew, you know, it’s not gonna
work. You know, I mean, they sort of sensed the
sense of failure. And so getting anything done, even though
we had the money, was problematic, because it was just this sort of treadmill of, you
know – I mean, in the scenery shop, you know, they make more money, they don’t show
up, you know what I mean? So getting things done in that one was particularly
difficult, because we already had that sense of failure. Well, and sometimes it comes so early that
you have to deliberately put yourself just into denial. We worked on THE RED SHOES together. Mmm-hmm. Right! Oh, yes! So you know exactly, yeah, right. Right, talk about total flops. We were total flops! Whoa! When do they forget, by the way? (DONALD LAUGHS) When do they forget? About the failures? They do forget! Well, of that magnitude. ‘Cause those two shows were pretty – Yeah, pretty massive failures. Artistically, commercially, every way. And in fact, in THE RED SHOES, so many people
got fired that the stagehands kept a little chart of dead ballerinas backstage. (LAUGHTER) It was really sad! Dead ballerinas! Yeah, right. Well, we had, first day of load-in, these
prop mushrooms showed up at VAMPIRES, and that’s when the house carpenter told all
his men to, like, keep February free. (LAUGHTER) He said, “There’s no way, you
know. You’re all going to be employed, you know,
for ten weeks then to pull it out.” Unfortunately, they usually know, you know. The stagehands do know. It’s weird, the things that they know. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s strange. And they not only know in that theatre, but
they know in all the theatres, because they all talk. Yeah, they do. Oh, yeah. Yes. Although, I don’t know. That’s not always true. I remember my first Broadway show, EASTERN
STANDARD, at the Golden. INTO THE WOODS was previewing at the Martin
Beck, and I remember the stagehands saying, “Yeah, that’s gonna be – they should
call it into the truck!” (LAUGHTER) And they were predicting the demise,
and of course, it was a huge critical success, anyway. So they’re not always right. Well, that’s true. When we did SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, they all
were saying, you know, “Line up the trucks, this show’ll be out of here!” But you had the worst reviews of all time
for that one, didn’t you? I mean, that was – But they were not the worst reviews — (LAUGHTER) The only reason I mention this is because,
when they closed, they reprinted all the bad reviews in Variety. Do you remember that? Oh, they were bad. It was great! It was like, you know, “Dear Critics, thanks
for the last — ” How long did it run? Oh, it was five years. And touring. It ran a long time, yeah. Yeah, touring. Everyone made a ton of money, so you know,
go figure! (CATHERINE LAUGHS) So they were like, you know – it was great
to see a little finger back at ‘em. Well, it’s true. And it’s certainly good to know that the
critics really can’t kill a show. I mean, they can try really hard, but frequently,
they can’t succeed. So that’s good to know. Let me ask the question that always comes
up about spectacle, and this whole concept that always gets bandied about, whether or
not the designers and their love of spectacle is what’s destroying the economics of Broadway
today. Whether it’s necessary, unnecessary, helpful,
not? Do we love spectacle? I do! I don’t know about you! (LAUGHS) Do you like it? I don’t know. Some shows tell me to go there, and a collaboration
may lead me there. But I don’t know if I like spectacle for
the sake of spectacle. Yeah, I agree with you. I don’t. I think if the show calls for it, then go
for it. But you know, I mean, there are many examples
where – I think shows can be successful and popular and can be very simply presented. You don’t think there’s an expectation
now? I think there is an expectation, but that
doesn’t mean that we all – Guaranteed success. Yeah. And I do think there’s an expectation. From my experience on several of the Broadway
musicals I’ve worked on, it was made pretty clear that that’s the mandate. Whether or not you agree with it as a designer,
you know, you don’t always prevail. Our job is to serve the piece or production. But I agree that spectacle isn’t always
– I mean it’s not necessarily a guarantee for anything. Yeah. And the truth is, people spend a hundred dollars
for a ticket, and there’s a certain expectation for the money that they spend. Exactly. To get their money’s worth. Yeah. I think the same thing. But you know what? I would argue that if it’s a compelling,
moving evening in the theatre, I don’t care what it look – you know, of course it counts
what it looks like. But ultimately that’s what has to be at
the core of any good piece, and I think if people come out moved or transformed or caused
to think in a different way or see the world differently, it doesn’t matter. They’ll think they got their money’s worth,
whether or not there was a spectacular visual display on stage, or not. I also think it’s a definition of the word
“spectacle,” because I think, you know, sometimes when you go to BAM, there’s beautiful
productions, let’s say by the director Robert Wilson, that aren’t classically spectacular,
but they’re beautifully designed. There’s an elegance to the design and a
simplicity. But the design is an important part of the
experience. The dominant part. The dominant part, yeah. Right. And a dominant part of that experience. And that’s what I think is important. I think design is a very important part of
the theatrical experience. It always has been, since the Greeks, you
know. It was always a key part. And to overlook that, or to feel it’s not
important or to dismiss it, I think, is a dangerous direction that theatre can go in
if we’re not careful. Yeah. Well, I agree. I don’t think that design should be underestimated
in the role that it plays onstage. Because many of the problems that are solved
with the script or with telling the story I think are often solved by the designers. I think designers can really help a play a
great deal. They help the directors a lot. I mean, I’ve worked with directors that,
you know, we collaborate. We talk through the play, we read through
the play. And you know, depending on who the director
is, some are very visual. Some directors, I’m sure, have a very strong
idea of what they want to see on stage, or they at least have a gut feeling and then
they talk to you about it. But it’s our job to interpret what it is
that they want and realize it. But often, they don’t think it through completely. They just have this feeling that they want
to convey on stage, and then I think designers – Well, yeah, because ultimately, the way a
show or a piece is interpreted is up to the way the designer presents. So in other words, we create the world in
which this piece is viewed. So the design is critical for sort of the
overall success or clarity of the production, as the director envisions it. Do you all have a preference? Do you feel happier when a director comes
in really being extremely specific about the visual world and what he wants, or a director
who comes in and has no clue at all? No clue. You would prefer no clue? Absolutely no clue. Really? Wow. How interesting! And if they come in with a love of the work
and get me to love the work, that’s my favorite place to start, because we come to the table
empty. And we explore it together and we find it
together and it will grow. Well, how do you start that exploration ball
going? Falling in love with the work. Just absolutely falling in love with the work,
and coming to the table – I attempt to come to the table as empty as possible. Which is really hard, because we’re so visual
that ideas and pictures and images come instantly. And I try very hard to keep them back. I think that where the joy in that comes for
me is that what happens on stage, what actually ends up on stage, ends up not necessarily
mine or the director’s. It ends up an experience that’s whole. And my success visually has been more with
those productions that end up whole, than when something is, “I have this great idea!” Especially when it’s mine! Really? Yeah. I find the whole line blurred. I mean, your first response confused me, but
then I realized what you mean by coming with nothing and then exploring it together. I mean, I always felt – you know I feel
like I’m only as successful as the director that I’m working with. You know, I mean, the best – I’ve just
been really fortunate to work with some great directors and some great pieces. So what I like is when they may come with
an idea or – one of the things I often say about what I do is I just give them right
back what they asked for. You know, a couple years ago, I did a revival
of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. And what Michael Mayer, the director, had
said was, “You know, I almost want to put it in the middle of President Street in Brooklyn.” So I did. I just, there was a street, you know, and
that was all it was, you know what I mean? And it was a relatively successful, you know,
production. But he came with at least that as his thought. Some directors, you know, as you say, I work
with Chris Ashley a lot. And he doesn’t come with specifics, but
you design the play together. And he doesn’t leave the meeting until he
knows, you know, what you’re [going to do]. You know, “Okay, in this scene we’re going
to have this, and in this scene we’re going to have that,” you know? And it’s very much designed together, you
know. But one of the most fascinating directors
for me is Marion McClinton who Don and I work with a great deal. And he comes with the most abstract passion
and idea, but it’s never particular. You know, wouldn’t you say? Yeah. Like what? Like, be specific. Well, I’m doing this Regina Taylor piece
[DROWNING CROW] for Manhattan Theatre Club, for the Biltmore, and it’s THE SEAGULL,
and it’s a relatively abstract piece. And the visual he came to me [with] was the
animated film, SPIRITED AWAY. I don’t know if you all have seen it. It’s a Japanese animated film, it’s a
brilliant movie. I saw it. Oh, right, yeah, yeah. You know, he said, “Yeah, that kind of sense.” Or JITNEY, when I did the August Wilson play
a couple years ago, that whole design just came from Marion and August and I talking
about a big window. So I interpreted that further as having no
walls, and it was just putting the whole of Pittsburgh, you know, on that stage. I mean, in many ways, Marion’s just the
most poetic [director]. You get poetic ideas, rather than specifics
from him, which is – I don’t know. What do you think? I don’t agree with that. I mean, there’s a tonality. He winds up articulating what he wants without
being literal or specific. I mean, it’s more [that] he kind of communicates
on an emotional level. Yeah. Not to feel “don’t”s (PH)— And he uses analogies, you know, based on
music or art or film or a play that he – I mean, that’s the way he communicates, by
sort of challenging you, and asking you, and imploring you to sort of look in this particular
direction, rather than giving you a specific idea. It’s true. And that sort of develops the seed for something
interesting. And that’s really what I like. I mean, you’re articulating that very well. That’s what I like. It’s coming to the table with the emotion,
rather than the visual. The minute you’re in a land of visual, you’re
in a land of choices. And for me, personally, what happens is, the
longer I can keep it emotional, the stronger my visual is. The visual gets stronger and stronger. Yeah, I – oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. Yeah, I just have a hard time – we’ve
all worked with people that come to the table with the idea or what they want, you know. And that’s harder. That’s much harder for me. ‘Cause I can do that. I know how to do that. But it’s not a place where I can grow and
they can grow, if we start there. Yeah. Right. Yeah, I’ve found out, over the years, I’ve
started understanding my process. And if I work with somebody new, I have to
explain to the director, “What it looks like is irrelevant for a really long time.” Do you know what I mean? And that’s a bit of a surprise for some
people. You know, “Well, you’re a designer. It’s really all about what it looks like.” But it’s like, “No, it’s not about [that]. And we’ll figure that out later. You know, what is it that we’re trying to
do here, trying to say, trying to be? And then ultimately, you know, I promise you’ll
have an idea of what it looks like before we open.” (LAUGHTER) But now, you know, we’re sort
of jammin’ up with the ideas. I’ve worked with Scott Schwartz a number
of times. He’s a young director, he’s directed BAT
BOY and he’s directed this production of GOLDA’S BALCONY that we’re doing now. And he’s a very visual director. He’s young, but he’s very smart, and he
sees – he’s a very good – he loves – he stages things very well. And he tends to bring things to meetings when
we first have them. We’ll talk about the play, but then he’ll
also bring disparate things. You know, art that he’s seen, various artists
that inspire him or that speak to him about a particular piece that we’re working on. And we just talk about the pictures, and we
just respond to pictures or articles. You know, there’s a number of materials
that he pulls from and that I pull from and we just show each other what we have in mind. And it’s interesting how we sometimes respond
to the same images together. And often, that’s a departure point for
us, where we see something in an image and that takes us to a place that may manifest
itself on stage or may not. But what’s hip is, the opposite end of that
– we were talking about failure earlier – when you get nothing! That’s when you fail, you know, and when
you’re working completely in a void, which I’ve [done]. That sounds really hard. Oh, you have no idea! Hopefully, you’ll never experience it. No. Yeah, but it does happen. You know what sometimes happens is, they’ll
go, “Oh, yeah, hire that designer ‘cause their work’s good, so I won’t have to
worry about the set.” Do you know what I mean? (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And that’s happened
to me. Like, “Well, yeah, he’s been around, so
at least I won’t have to worry about the scenery, ‘cause he’ll make it great.” Well, there is something worse that could
happen. What’s the worst that could happen? (HEIDI LAUGHS) Is that you’re designing in a void, and
halfway through the tech process, all of a sudden there’s a point of view – Oh! (LAUGHS) Oh! That’s got nothing to do with what you’ve
designed. I’ve been through that, too. That’s scary! Tell us all the names. I’m not saying! We can talk privately about all these productions. Yeah, if you turn the cameras off! This would be a very different conversation,
with no camera. (LAUGHTER) Something worse than that is the situation
where the director will actually bring in a sketch of a bad idea that they’ve had. Oh, I’ve never had that. And that’s really bad! That’s the time to quit. I know that there’s one – they bring in
a drawing, yeah? Yeah. Not good. But often, I find the phrase, like, “This
is a terrible idea, but” from directors is sometimes great, you know what I mean? That’s good. Yeah, yeah, that’s good. Because usually, it’s like, “No, actually,
it’s a great idea. You just said that for whatever reason.” So I do put a sketch. I know that apparently there’s a major designer
that first meeting says, “What do you think it should look like? You know, you draw it!” I think just for fun. (ANNA LAUGHS) I don’t know, and then this
director, you know – See what they come up with? Amusement? Well, I don’t know if you all collect the
doodles, keep your drawings. The director doodles? Yeah! But Michael Mayer doodles, and he’s actually,
without sort of telling you – I mean, I’ve watched him collaborate with Dave, and it’s
very interesting. He’s a little bit more visual and he actually
can articulate his ideas in a crude way, but a clear way, by sketching something. And it’s not like he’s telling Dave at
all how to design it, but he sees it, responds to it, he processes what he sees and he goes
in his own direction. But I’ve found, you know, he did that with
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, he had some interesting ideas, right? So he’s responsible! (LAUGHTER) No, he’s not! I mean, I’m not saying he’s responsible,
I’m saying that Michael couldn’t say, “Well, you know, I feel like it’s in sort
of this style.” He, you know, doodled some. He doesn’t doodle much, though. Chris Ashley and I will sit there with a pack
of paper and a bunch of pencils and draw back and forth. And he can’t draw at all, but he’s not
afraid to, you know. And that – Right. But sometimes, I think, from my outside perspective,
it’s not always a challenge or – Well, it’s just another way of communicating. Yeah. You’d never get a drawing out of Marion
McClinton. No. But you’d get a mix CD that he’d put together. Right. And you’d listen to all these tunes, and
you’d be like, “Oh, yeah, man, I get it,” you know. (DONALD NODS) Again, it’s just different
ways of communicating. Yeah. Depending on the artistry of the director,
as well. I mean, we’ve worked with Julie Taymor and
collaborated with her. Who can draw! Who can draw, beautifully! And Julie and I have done drawings together
that have ended up on stage. And there’s a joy in that, as well. But again, it’s about the collaboration. It’s where you’re coming from. It’s where the piece is coming from. And it’s a shared “where we’re going”
or “where we’re attempting to go.” Once that’s there, I don’t get nervous
about a director drawing at all. I get nervous when they draw better than me! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Yeah, I haven’t had that problem. But Tina Landau is a director I work with
quite a bit, who’s a painter, and not many people know that. And I discovered that after we had done several
shows together. And she never just brought that to the table. She usually comes with, “I want an empty
theatre. I don’t want anything. I don’t want a thing.” And it’s amazing how – we’ve done that
a few times. Well, what do you think the difference is
– or which is more satisfying artistically, to work at the not-for-profit world or the
for-profit world? I mean, are you allowed greater freedoms artistically
in the not-for-profit world, that there’s too much economics riding on the for-profit
to be able to take those kind of leaps? Or what? It’s frustrating, because on one hand, you
have artistic license. You get to get your hands dirty. You really get to get in there and do things. You’re much more involved in creating, you
know, just hands-on design work. But what I find frustrating is the economics
of it. Often, there is just not enough money to do
what the director wants to do. And I found, with AVENUE Q, Off-Broadway,
at the Vineyard Theatre, their budget was so small! And we had been – Jason Moore, the director,
and I were talking about all these wonderful ideas and things that could pop out of the
set and open up and spin around, and we were just letting our imaginations go crazy. And then when we presented it (LAUGHS) to
the artistic directors, they were like, “We can’t afford to this! You guys have designed a Broadway show. We can’t do this.” And it was kind of a devastating blow, because
the director was cut so short and so surprised by it, that at first we were just kind of
in a quandary as to what to do. And once we got over the initial shock of,
you know, this tiny budget for this show – I was never told what the budget was, that was
the other thing. I hate it when they do that! They won’t tell you! Yeah, I hate that. Yeah. They won’t tell you what the budget is,
for some reason. It was like, “Well, we’ll talk about it. Just let’s see what you come up with, and
then we’ll talk about it.” So we just went crazy. Right. And we had a great time, and then we had to
regroup and started thinking about what really matters to this show, and reconceived it completely. And basically came up with this Advent calendar
idea, where it’s just things pop out and open up. And simplified the way to tell the story,
and they were willing to go with that, even though they did go over budget ultimately. But maybe that was better, though. It was better! It was better, see? It was absolutely – no, that’s the thing
that I realized, is that limitations – you said, David, when you’re confined by the
space – I think it’s a great thing. Because if we’re allowed to design in a
vacuum, it’s really dangerous, because it’s such a collaborative art. Finding the essence, the visual essence of
a piece, is really important. Yeah. And every time I’ve been told, “No, you
can’t do this,” I get angry, but then I go, “Okay. I have to learn. I have to figure out what to do differently.” And you end up finding, like you said, the
essence of what it is about the design that you’re trying to communicate. And it always ends up better. Because I love what we came up with in the
end. Oh, I do, too. It’s a wonderful design. It works really well, and it never would have
been what I would have come up with by myself alone. Yeah, but you don’t want to say that, ‘cause
you know, then they’ll always say, every time you do a show, “Back to the drawing
board, cut it in half, and it’ll be better!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) That’s not always
the case. No, no, no. I actually don’t notice the distinction
of budgets between regional theatres and Broadway. It’s just more zeros on Broadway. Yeah, really! But it’s the truth! I mean, I think you all would agree that it’s
the same problems. You know, for the most part, the same situations. You have a little bit of leverage when you’re
remounting a show, because there’s at least a bit of a precedent, you know. But you used the phrase, and I bet inadvertently,
you said when you showed it to the staff at the Vineyard, they said, “Well, you’ve
designed a Broadway show,” dot dot dot. Then you designed it on Broadway, and you
didn’t have all the money to do all the things that you wanted to do, you know, I’m
guessing. You mean for Broadway? Yeah. I mean, then you did it on Broadway. We added a few more surprises. But the buckets of money that people think
you have on Broadway– No, no! Just, like, falling from the ceiling to do,
you know. No, this is a small Broadway show. And when you talk about spectacle? I think that’s an example of a show where
it’s really not spectacle. I mean, the design is not a spectacular design,
but it tells the story for the play. And I think the play is successful. I mean, right now it’s doing very well,
and the audiences seem to be responding to it, but I wouldn’t call that a spectacle. No, but it’s an enormously witty design,
and the wit of it really reinforces the intention of the piece. So in terms of an environment in which the
piece can really live and work, I think what you designed really accomplishes that. And I can’t imagine the piece working in
a different kind of environment. Oh. Okay. Yeah, so give yourself some credit! (LAUGHS) Well, I’m glad we didn’t have all the
spinning things that we started out with. Well, that’s the whole thing about putting
all your money in the basement, or on the mechanics. Yeah! Because I think there is this temptation to
make a lot of spinning things, and they’re almost never worth the money that they cost
in the end. Right. And sometimes they don’t spin! (LAUGHTER) Frequently, they don’t spin! Again, I’m not naming names! (HEIDI LAUGHS) It’s the scale of the event, as well. I mean, the scale of the event Off-Broadway
and in a regional theatre, often they want an enormous-scaled event in a tiny theatre. And so, the physical theatre itself dictates
so much. And I find that to be the biggest difficulty,
that they very often in regional theatre want a Broadway show. And I just say, “Hello! Have you looked at the theatre?” And that’s hard. That’s hard. And what gets harder is when they’re getting
you there because they think they’re going to get that if they get you. David was saying that a little earlier. It’s like, you know, they want David, so
they get every show they’ve ever thought of that he’s done! And they don’t realize, those were all in
collaborations with terrific people. And so, it’s – I’m not talking about – what I was saying
about that wasn’t institutions, it was directors, saying, you know, they want – yeah. The director, or the lack of collaboration. They think they get us, they get every collaboration
we’ve ever done. Like, I hire you, and I’m going to get a
Julie Taymor design. Well, no, you’re going to get a – Yeah. Hello! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, it’s not gonna – ‘cause we are
part of our – what comes in, you know, comes out. I love the collaboration. I mean, it’s my favorite part of what we
do. Is that why you’re doing this? Absolutely! Absolutely. Is that why you’re in the business, ‘cause
you enjoy that process? Yeah. I don’t like the business part of it. No, the business part is impossible. But I like the collaboration part of it. Is that true of all of us, do you think, that
that’s the enjoyment? Absolutely. That’s the pleasure? David looks a little – he’s like, “Hmm
…” I’m just trying to think what the best part
it. The collaboration, yeah, I think. I wouldn’t be able to set myself in a garret
somewhere with a bunch of canvases and paint, ‘cause I’d just be, “Now what?” You know what I mean? The artist, you know what I mean? I feel exactly the same way. It’s like, “What do you do?” Yeah. We get to cheat! You know, I don’t call myself an artist,
but I could. You know, we get to cheat, ‘cause there’s
the script, and there’s another person that you’re going to talk to, a group of people,
you know, that are going to help you create something. And then you’ll get all the credit if it’s
good. You know, it’s great. (LAUGHTER) And there’s a deadline, too. And there’s a ticking clock, which is really
good, because it makes you actually do something. Absolutely! (LAUGHS) And there’s the inevitable, “It’s going
to be over eventually!” Yes. You know, it’s going to end. You know, I don’t know. If I were to write a symphony, would it ever
end, you know? (LAUGHTER) There’s always shows – well,
some shows try not to open! Oh, you think? Longest preview period in history! Really? Which one? VAMPIRES! (LAUGHS) Oh, you have that on the brain! (LAUGHTER) We’ve forgotten about that! That’s over! Well, we started with failure! And it was a year, you know, took a year. Wow. Well, there is something very pleasant about
the rhythm of this business, in a way, because it takes you from the collaborative process,
which takes place in the studio and generating ideas, into this time in which you’re using
your tools to create the piece. And then, this intense period of tech and
production. And then, bang! It’s over. And there’s something very pleasant about
that. I really enjoy that kind of rhythm. Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, one of the most interesting things
is, I think, like with fine art, that it’s sort of the end goal is permanence. It’s to go through, you know, eternity with
whatever you produce. The wonderful thing about theatre is that
it’s, in a way, disposable, even if a show – Ephemeral! What? Pardon me? Ephemeral. (LAUGHS) It’s better than disposable. Ephemeral, yes, yes! That even, you know, if a show is a commercial
show and runs for fifteen years, there is a moment when it’s time to pack up and it
becomes memory. And I think that’s the wonderful thing. I think all of us have shows that we’ve
done in the past that are these wonderful memories of the experience of what it was,
of shows we’ve seen that we haven’t worked on. And I think that’s part of what makes it
so special, is that it’s fleeting and not permanent, for me. Is that the reason that we’re all primarily
doing theatre, as opposed to film or TV, do you think, because of that quality? Or most of us are here. You certainly do quite a bit of TV. I’ve done some TV. And haven’t you, too, Skip, done some TV? Yeah, I have, yeah. I like creating the world, and I find you
can’t do that in television and movies, quite. Yeah. Some movies, but generally, the idea of creating
an entire world as a microcosm in the space doesn’t happen in television in the same
way. And it’s also the theatricality. Even if you’re doing a project that is realistic,
there is a theatricality to that realism – Totally. That doesn’t always happen on film. Sometimes on film and television, but usually
not. Yeah. If I get a film script that lets me do that,
I love it if I can do that. I would do it on film, but film doesn’t
often demand it. Yeah, generally, they’re looking for kitchens
and bathrooms, in television. And really, that’s what it boils down to
is realistic, very realistic. They want them as real as possible. And the thing that’s wonderful about theatre
is that, it’s through your own personal lens that you get to create this world. And it’s colored with your personality,
even if it’s subtle or imperceptible. I’m sure that film designers and TV designers
feel differently about it. I personally just find it not very satisfying. Not satisfying? No, and it’s also very compartmentalized,
too. You’re in the art department. You’re never really a part of the world,
when it’s actually being filmed. You know, you’re on to the next set already. It’s not this collaborative world that it
is in the theatre. And you’re part of this whole – you’re
working towards the goal of having this on stage, and everyone’s there at the same
time. It’s a living thing. And film and TV, it’s so fractured, that
I just don’t find it personally satisfying. It’s just me. So, I’ve done a lot of kitchens, too. On stage, you mean? On stage or in film? No, in movies, you know, in TV. I used to do film and TV, you know, till my
theatre career took off. Which, when you say that to people, they think
you’re saying, you know, “Well, I used to work as a brain surgeon until my sanitation
worker career took off.” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But yeah, you know,
I was actually getting somewhere in the television world, a little bit, you know. And then quit a major production to do a small
theatre project, ‘cause my heart was always in the theatre. But you, Skip, have to admit, like, if I could
design movies like FOOL’S FIRE, I’d do movies all the time! Me, too! (LAUGHS) That was pretty amazing! You know, that was very theatrical. Yeah. It was brilliant. But I brought theatre into a lens, which was,
you know – and with a theatre director, with a theatre mentality, with the theatre. So that was part of the goal. Yeah, it was amazing. You know, you see that, you say, “Well,
if I could do that for the rest of my life!” But there are very few films that are like
that. And almost no TV is like that, right? Isn’t TV pretty much – Very, very real. Well, there was that wonderful English director,
Dennis Potter, who passed – I mean, he tried to do projects for television that were artistic
and very theatrical. But he’s passed on. The obscene part about the difference between
theatre and TV is the money! Oh, yeah! The money is so much more – it just pours
into TV and film, and you can make so much more money doing it than you do in theatre. It’s obscene, I think. It’s sick. I was making a week, back then, what I got
paid for an entire production. Yep. Every week, the check would come, and I’d
be like, “Well, you paid me already!” (LAUGHTER) And they’d be like, “No, this
is for this week.” I’m like, “No way!” You know, it was incredible. I know. And I quit as soon as a theatre project came
along, which was pretty stupid, you know? I know! (LAUGHS) I don’t think so. Man, I was pretty broke back then! (HE AND SKIP LAUGH) Isn’t the reality, though, I mean when we
work for not-for-profit situations, the designers usually end up subsidizing the theatres? The not-for-profit theatre is actually usually
– Going into debt. You actually go into debt. You lose money doing some of these jobs. I went into major debt, several times. Major debt, yeah, yeah. What do you do about that? And why? Why do we do that? (SIGHS) That’s a problem. I think it’s kind of a sickness that designers
have. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Well, because your
name is on the program, and it’s your work that’s up on stage, and you have a certain
standard that you want to, you know, uphold. And you know, it’s great to be able to simplify
and, you know, try to live within the parameters, but sometimes it’s just unrealistic. I don’t think people have a clue what it
takes to put things on stage sometimes, because you’d have a chair and a table, and that
would be it. So, yeah, I’ve gone into debt. I’m not proud of it, but I have. Fortunately, in some cases, when a show is
successful, like with AVENUE Q, when it moved, the producers were very generous, and they
reimbursed me. Did they? Yes, they did. That’s a – I have to say, I’ve never
heard of that happening, ever. Yeah. And actually, it was suggested to me by someone. They said, “You should ask them. You should tell them how much you spent.” It was, well, the producers were very – they
were curious about it, because they’d heard about it. They’d heard through the grapevine. They said, “Tell us how much you spent,
so we can reimburse you.” Were they involved beforehand? So they reimbursed me the ten thousand dollars
that I spent. Wow! Geez, wow. That’s real – that is unheard of I gotta make some phone calls! (LAUGHTER) Were they involved beforehand, though? No, not financially. I don’t think so, no. There was no connection? No, they were going to be the producers if
it was going to move. Okay. So that’s a slightly different, you know. No, and I could have easily lost it and never
gotten it back. But that is a whole separate topic. Like, you know, you do these not-for-profits,
but there are those dudes over there, you know? And they have first dibs, do you know what
I mean? Oh. And that creates a very unusual dynamic. And it’s a separate conversation. But who am I working for? The not-for-profit, or the guy with the Armani
suit? You know what I mean? Oh, no. I just felt like it was important to me. Well, an increasingly confused issue these
days. I mean, it’s just continues to go on and
on. Every show has got somebody, yeah, behind
it. Yeah. And the whole fee structure reflects it. Who knows what it really reflects? It’s really confusing, a lot of the time,
now. But don’t you find you end up paying assistants
that you never get reimbursed for? Oh, totally, totally. Because it’s just impossible to do it all
yourself. You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t physically do it. Yeah, I don’t know if any of us have not
done that! (LAUGHS) At the end of the year, the assistant
bill never meets what it was. No. So how is it possible to survive in the business
if you don’t do television, or you don’t do commercial theatre that’s actually successful? I mean, you can do commercial theatre, but
unless it runs, you’re usually in the hole there, too. My solution to that? Yeah? Do lots and lots of shows. That’s the only way, for me. As, you know, I say, having one that’s running,
I now know, “Oh! I get it! You know, if it runs, that’s great.” But the only way I’ve found financially
to survive is you have to do a ridiculous number of productions, because then you’re
sort of, you know, loading it up from the front, you know. And then you’re sharing assistants amongst
shows and things like that. But even that can get sort of out of control. And when I say that, I mean, fortunate in
that, even like when we were doing the August Wilson plays, the great thing about doing
one of those is you could end up doing it at ten different theatres, regional theatres. And at least, you know, you sort of sorted
it out and then it becomes a little easier each time you do it. And again, that’s just luck, you know, having
that. But you don’t get a whole new fee every
time it moves to a different regional theatre, do you? Or how does that work? It keeps change – I do, yeah. Everyone’s different, I guess. I try to, I don’t know – They try to reduce the amount, but – Yeah. Say no. Well, that’s a big bone of contention in
our negotiations with the League of American Theatre Producers, etc. Co-productions. About co-productions, and how a designer should
be compensated, based on the fact that he or she designed the production regionally,
and then it transfers somewhere else or transfers to Broadway. But I feel, as a lighting designer, that the
work pretty much has to be re-done, if you transfer it to another theatre. Because typically, the productions that we’ve
worked on, August Wilson plays, we go from a thrust to a proscenium to a modified thrust
to – so, from one totally different theatre to another. So I basically had to re-design the show each
time. And you still have to spend the time doing
the plot, hiring an assistant, in residency, in previews. So for me, I usually ask for another fee. And I don’t feel apologetic about that,
because it’s still the same amount of time and the same amount of effort involved. Yeah, I feel pretty much the same. I got – but with August still, you can kind
of get away with it. You know the show’s gonna go there, and
you can always say, “Well, then hire another scenic designer.” Well, that’s not gonna happen, because they
need your ground plan, they need your, you know. So you do have a little bit of leverage there. But you know, I think that our work is somehow
written off, in a way, or I think, underestimated. I mean, for example, there is a movement now,
where if you design a production in a regional theatre and that production transfers to Broadway,
typically the producer will request that the fee received at that regional theatre be deducted
from your Broadway fee. I mean, that’s standard practice right now. And to me, it’s a statement about, you know,
what we as designers contribute to these productions. And it’s not a particularly positive statement. (LAUGHTER) But that’s one of the things
that I think we’re all, our union is confronting, as you know. But not too successfully, thus far. Yeah. Thus far. Confronting them not too successfully. Yeah. Which I don’t understand. I don’t know why that would be a – I mean,
I think it’s clear that we all, designers, you know, work very hard, and we just need
to make a living like everybody else. And what we’re asking for is pretty reasonable,
I think. Yeah. Especially when you amortize what you’re
getting paid over the course of the weeks and weeks and weeks, again, of working on
a play. Yeah. You know what is interesting, too, is, yeah,
how long do you work on it? Do you know? Right. You know, you try to explain that to people
who don’t know anything about the business, you know. And they say, “Well, you know, not all of
you get overtime!” which is nonexistent. (ANNA LAUGHS) But if the show takes this long,
you know, this many weeks to do, that’s one thing. If it takes, you know, three years, it’s
the same fee, it’s the same everything. You keep on having to redo it, and it’s
all included, it’s all included. Well, if you ever actually try to figure it
out by the hour! Yeah, everybody does that once! (LAUGHTER AND SIGHS FROM THE PANEL) Well, you want to kill yourself! You’re getting about a quarter an hour. You look at these big Broadway musicals, particularly,
which take a year, year and a half, to do. And if you look at the fee, it’s just economic
suicide. And really, the only way to survive is if
you’re lucky enough to have something that runs and pays royalties and puts out road
companies of its own. Right. As a designer, you’re basically an investor
in these large musicals. Mmm-hmm. You really are. Because you’re devoting a lot of your own
self, your own time, free of charge, ultimately, or at a very low rate. Mmm-hmm. This looks like a good time to take a pause
and hear a few words about 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
from World War One, and World War Two, and our famous Stage Door Canteen, 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 and 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, Heidi Ettinger. Heidi? (APPLAUSE) Thank you. I’d like to bring up the subject of internal
collaboration, or designer to designer collaboration, and ask you what you think is important about
that, what disasters you’ve had, what triumphs, and how it all works. David? Disasters, again? (LAUGHTER) No, it doesn’t have to be! I said “triumphs”! You’re extraordinarily negative! I was trying to be positive! I think that, you know, designers, we are
our own, like, separate club, in a way. So the scenic designer, lighting designer,
costume designer, you know, sometimes sound, you know, all of that, we are a little different,
I suppose, than everybody else. So I don’t know. I guess there’s a little bit of a fellowship
to that. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with
this, but the thought being that what I like to do when I work on a show is meet with as
many people that are available as possible. I don’t if you all are the same way. You know, that the scenic designer, costume
designer, lighting designer, director, you know, [all meet] and then bring in the writer
at some point. But there’s no idea from any particular
person. I think that the diversity of ideas and thoughts
come from just about anybody, you know. Cross-disciplinary, I think, is what’s particularly
interesting. Ultimately, the lighting designer’s going
to light the show, obviously. But you know, I’ve had many, you know, great
thoughts and ideas come in – can come from just, you know, anywhere. So I think keeping the core group together
as often as possible is to me, you know, particularly interesting, if that answers the question. Yeah, I want to hear from Donald about some
of the problems he’s had in the past (LAUGHS), ‘cause I heard this. Well, I just think that the key to collaboration
with my fellow designers is communication. I think especially between the lighting and
set designer, a good relationship is important. I think the best set designers I’ve worked
with are the ones who are sensitive to, you know, what light can offer, how important
light is to the realization of their vision. And it’s my priority, really, to make – I
think I really start thinking about how I like the space, how I like the scenery. That’s one of the first sort of directions
I take. To me, the set really answers a lot of questions
I have about the production. I try to get involved as early as I can and
collaborate, talk to the director, be involved in early discussions. But ultimately, the set for me answers a huge
amount about how to approach a piece, how I approach it stylistically, how I carve out
the space, how the world is revealed. It defines a great deal for me. So early and regular – not always regular,
but good communication with a set designer is crucial for a lighting designer. And I think I would argue that for a set designer
to really have the set that they want on stage, it’s important for them to collaborate and
communicate with the lighting designer. And I’ve had situations where that hasn’t
happened. Ultimately, they’ve been pleasant. But I’ll give you one – I’m sure that
the people involved, they’re laughing about it now, so I can talk about it. (LAUGHTER) A couple years ago, I was working on a production
on – I don’t know if any of you have seen it – was CHAUCER IN ROME, at Lincoln Center. And I was very busy at the time. I was working on two Broadway projects, BELLS
ARE RINGING and KING HEDLEY. And right after that, I was going to Lincoln
Center to light CHAUCER IN ROME. So I was partially responsible for not keeping
open the lines of communication. There was a set designer, very talented set
designer, who was kind of new to that scene, the Lincoln Center big project scene. And he made an assumption that production
management was getting the information to me, and production management made the assumption
that I was getting information from the set designer. Anyway, two to three weeks or so before I
thought a light plot was due, or maybe even later than that, I got on the phone. And I said, “Well, who is the set designer? I haven’t heard from anybody. I haven’t heard from the director or the
set designer. Can you tell me who it is?” [I was talking to the Lincoln Center Production
Manager,] Jeff Hamlin. And Jeff said, “Oh, it’s this guy. Here’s his phone number.” And I said, “Well, I haven’t heard from
anybody. Is there anything I need to know about this
space? Like, is there a ceiling? Are there any challenges?” And he goes, “Well, there’s no ceiling,
but the entire floor is a mirror.” And I said, “Great.” Well, if you don’t know the Mitzi Newhouse,
it’s a thrust space. It’s essentially almost fully – well,
it’s three-quarter round, very steep seating. So for a lighting designer, having a completely
mirrored floor would be something you’d like to know about in advance. Because essentially, you know, light hits
the floor, it bounces off, it blinds the audience. (LAUGHTER) It creates huge challenges. So anyway, I had a periodic but rather extreme
reaction to that news. And so, my collaboration with the set designer
didn’t actually begin well. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Eventually, you
know, after much work and much – I tried to get some things changed, but at that point,
the set had been built. I mean, it was in the shop. It was under construction. So I didn’t have the opportunity to make
real changes or to really have any input at all into the design. I had to basically deal with it. And it was an extremely difficult process. But what was interesting is that after I got
over the initial shock, I wound up making choices – I decided, instead of resisting
the idea of a mirrored floor, I decided to use it to my advantage. And I came up with some interesting choices,
I felt, that ultimately excited me, benefited the production. And the end result was very positive, and
we’ve worked together since, and we laugh about it now. But it was an important lesson for me. I don’t think I would ever let time slip
by again, and never allow that situation to happen. So there’s an example. Did the light hit people in the eye? Yeah, initially. (ANNA LAUGHS) The entire – if you guys have
been to the Newhouse, everybody on the sides, the side seating, was completely blinded. (LAUGHTER) And so, I had to essentially re-hang
the entire light plot several times, change all the angles so that the – and you know,
the set, I felt really bad. I mean, I was always taught that there are
no problems, just solutions. Lincoln Center and the director were ready
– and the set designer was ready to sand down that mirrored floor. And I could see, you know, there was something
in me – I guess it’s a good thing – I said to myself, you know, “I don’t want
that to happen. I don’t want him to have to make that change,
because it’s central to his vision. So I think it’s my obligation to try to
make it work.” So I was very unpopular. I had to re-hang a lot of lights, make a lot
of changes. But ultimately, by finessing how the lights
were hung, where they were hung, it worked out. And I used a lot of – for example, there
was this big sort of Roman pediment, big wall, upstage, that framed the space. And I felt it would really attractive if it
were up-lit. And my first impulse was to have a trough
in the floor with lighting inside, but I said, “Well, that’s not possible, it’s too
late.” So I wound up down-lighting the mirror, and
putting the lights in the exact right sort of relationship to the wall, so the light
bounced off the mirror and up-lit the wall and had the same effect. Wow. So that was an example. Or there were a couple of ghostly, sort of
stylized expressionistic moments, where I literally lit people with the bounce off the
floor. So if somebody was fifteen feet up in the
air, and I wanted them up-lit, I got a very intense source and lit down at the floor at
just the right angle, so that I created a glow on people’s faces that way. So that’s what I mean. It was the kind of play that could accommodate
that type of lighting style, that kind of lighting approach. And it worked out fine in the end. But it was – people still, every time I
go to Lincoln Center, everybody jokes about it. (LAUGHTER) It’s kind of legendary, a legendary
moment. But you’re particularly good about keeping
in touch. That was – You were slipping! I slipped! I will be honest, I was too busy at that time,
and under a lot of stress, and I just sort of let it slip through the cracks and it was
a mistake. So I made a mistake – everybody was at fault,
really. I was at fault, the set designer was at fault,
the production manager was at fault. I’ll never blame the director, but you know,
I will take responsibility. You were saying you were too busy? I was too busy, yes. You’re too busy. You just finished teching three major Broadway
musicals, and we still had time to meet about a regional theatre production. So you’re not too busy now. Well, I learned my lesson. It was a mistake. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I try not to make
the same mistake twice. We learn to protect each other, too. I mean, we send each other – I’ve learned
not to rely on the production manager to send drawings, or assume that they’re, you know,
getting the information out. I do sets and clothes for most of the things
I do, so I only have to deal with a couple other designers, which is real handy. But what happens is that I send, always, the
lighting designer, the minute the drawings are done, because we’re doing this together! And if you’re waiting for that week, where
somebody’s forgetting to copy the plans to get the – you end up with the mirror
floor. Well, and I’ll just say one other thing,
that’s really important. I won’t mention the show, but a recent production,
brilliant set designer, he did not date his drawings, okay? The drawings had no dates and no title blocks
on them. And I got several revisions. So at two o’clock in the morning or whatever,
when I’m trying to design the show, I have this set of drawings, this set of drawings,
this set of drawings. None of them have dates! Whoa. No? I can’t call the guy up at three o’clock
in the morning. And why not? He deserves it! (LAUGHTER) Guess what I did? I took the wrong set! Oh, no. So then you show up at the theatre, and you
know, guess what? That wall moved downstage, you know, six inches
and that wall moved over and that thing got cut. I mean, I literally was – and that’s a
Broadway show. So, set designers, always put a date on your
drawings! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) All right. No reason to say the newest drawing’s the
right one. Whatever. (LAUGHTER) I mean, I’m just saying, a simple
thing like that, you think, what’s the big deal? It’s huge! I mean, I would never think, “Well, big
deal, the right date isn’t on the drawing,” but now I feel differently about it. And I’ve been through a lot in my career,
and now I want to make sure. I think every time I get a set of drawings,
I’m going to make sure that that’s the right revision, the right version. When I was an assistant designer, I felt that
half of my job was to destroy old documents. You know, you sneak into the scene shop and
rifle the drawers, and you know, (MIMES TOSSING THEM OVER HIS SHOULDER) “Old! Old!” Now, what do you think was the most important
aspects of all of your educations, that led to you become designers? Was the assistant process an important one? It was very important for me. Was it? Yeah! That’s where I really learned. I mean, I learned at NYU, you know, three
years of NYU. But you applied the practical aspects of what
you learned in, you know, a real situation. And dealing with the shops, and so much of
it is about – it’s political, too. You have to really talk to people and get
them to be on your side, and the shops have to deliver what you want to have them deliver. And it helps when you have good relationships
with them, because they give it that extra effort, to throw in a few extra things for
you that they initially said they couldn’t afford to do. But the assistant route has a downside, too,
yeah? I mean, it’s hard to get beyond that sometimes. Oh, it definitely is. I mean, as a matter of fact, I think that’s
why – for me, it took me a long time to make the transition from assisting to designing. I mean, I always designed little shows Off-Broadway,
you know, for no money. But because you’re seen as an assistant,
just, you know, I worked for some wonderful people, including you! (HEIDI LAUGHS) And I learned a great deal,
but it is a trap. It can be a trap, because you become someone’s
right hand, and they depend on you. And it’s a great steady income, as well. And it’s difficult to break out on your
own and design for no money and hope to get a good relationship with a few good directors
that are up-and-coming and hope that you can, you know, hitch onto their wagon and do well. So I finally decided I was not going to assist
any more, and that’s what forced me to work as a designer. I just said, “No.” Did you all go through a similar path? EVERYBODY ELSE (in unison)
No. No? Okay, what was it, then? (LAUGHS) I never assisted. I did in school, because it was part of the
program, but I never – And where were you at school? For grad school, at Yale. Before that, Berkeley. And I just was lucky. I think I was lucky, because I took the set
and costume union exams the same year, and Ming [Cho Lee], I remember his hands on my
throat at one time, saying, “Please don’t do that!” because he was afraid I was going
to fail one or the other. And I passed them both! And so people got to know my name pretty quickly,
and I got work right away. So I was lucky. I was very, very lucky. That is. So I never had to assist. Cathy, you started working right out of school,
too, right? Yeah, I worked right away. I never assisted. I assisted Santo Loquasto for a week, once. That was it! And that was because you went to Yale and
sort of made connections internally with your schoolmates? Yeah, I made connections. And then, when I moved to New York, I started
doing little shows. And I kept a low overhead. I lived in a dump for no money. (HEIDI LAUGHS) And so, I didn’t really need
to assist. And I think that I always felt, like, for
costumes, I have a very particular vision. It’s hard to assist for someone else, because
I would always feel I’d want to do things my way instead of being subservient and acknowledging
the views of the person I was supposed to be assisting. Especially if you don’t like their aesthetic. That can be kind of tough. Yeah. So I think I’m too opinionated, in terms
of my taste to really assist someone else. So I was lucky, where I didn’t need to do
that. But I think – and your question about what
do I think was the most important part of becoming a designer? And I also went to Yale, but I think it was
the years before going to Yale. It’s just sort of life experience. I went to art schools and traveled a lot. And I just think, just being open to the world
is one of the most important attributes to being a designer. Like, stepping away from sort of the bubble
of the aggravations of designing and the day-to-day frustrations and just, you know, going to
museums and seeing art shows and traveling and reading books. It’s like what you were saying about Marion
McClinton, when you work with him and the sort of research he gives you. That just sounds so wonderful to me. It sounds like someone that’s really engaged
in the world outside of theatre, someone that is open and exposed to ideas and inspiration
from outside sources. So for me, that’s just this sort of journey
away from the microcosm of theatre has helped me the most. That’s very wise. (CATHERINE LAUGHS) Absolutely. And how about you guys? Educational background, and so forth? Well, education. I’m actually doing this with a high school
diploma. That’s as far as I got (LAUGHS), as far
as degrees, you know. I did go to college for this, and didn’t
have a great experience in a lot of ways. I learned a lot of the technical stuff, though. You know, I mean, the drafting and the models
and all that were very, very helpful. The practical aspects of theatre were – it
was at SUNY Purchase – were very well, I think, taught. From a design question, you know, well, the
jury’s sort of out on that, I guess. That, again, was a long time ago. There’s a completely different faculty there
now, so, you know. That being said, I didn’t assist much at
first. Actually, the very first thing I did moved
to the Public and it was a big, big hit! So you know, I thought, “Oh, this is just
easy!” You know (LAUGHS), I got a Drama Desk nomination
and – you won that year, though! I lost. Did I? Yes! I’ve always hated you, ever since! (LAUGHTER) No, you got it for SECRET GARDEN,
it was the same year as SECRET GARDEN, which was, of course, much deserved. Oh, wow! That was a while ago. But yeah, that was a show that probably was,
you know, kind of a big deal, and that was neat. And I worked a great deal, but I think in
the way that Cathy said. You know, I was willing to live on absolutely
nothing. I mean, the poverty level was extraordinary,
to do my own thing. And I worked a lot. I worked in many, many different places. I did a little bit of assisting early on,
but for the most part, it was sort of doing my own thing. Then I started getting more and more big work,
like major, you know, regional theatres and that kind of thing, and so that was building. And then I stopped. And then I started working for John Arnone
again, who I had assisted, who I had built models for years before, and that was on [THE
WHO’S] TOMMY. So I started assisting again, but after having
worked, you know, regionally for quite some time. And working, you know, at Seattle Rep and,
you know, big places like that. And that was a great experience because, you
know, working with John and putting together TOMMY. And I wasn’t sort of the head assistant
on the Broadway [production], but I took over the show and did it in all the subsequent
productions. I learned all the people, learned the shops,
the producers, the managers. You know, I learned that end, so it was a
great education in that process of commercial theatre. So that when the first big commercial project
came my way, everybody knew me. You know, the producers already knew me and
management knew me and the shops all knew me. And so that, I thought it was terrific, you
know, because it wasn’t like – well, it was just a very different kind of an experience,
but it opened the doors, you know, to the next level. It’s a good feeling, actually. Because I realize now, with AVENUE Q on Broadway,
I’ve seen a lot of these guys for, like, fifteen years, from way back when. Right. And I feel like, I guess this is my career,
you know? Yeah. Suddenly you realize, I’ve actually been
doing it long enough that I’m part of this community. And it’s kind of a nice feeling. It’s cool. It’s hip. And you know, it’s right. You’re building your Broadway show – I
don’t know where it was built – but you’re going to a shop and you’re not some punk
that they’re going to, “Ah, we’ll just screw around.” Right. Yeah! (LAUGHS) Exactly! “Nobody’s ever heard of her, and she’s
never going to come around again. She just lucked out,” you know what I mean? (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Instead it was like,
“Oh, it’s you!” You know, “We know you.” Yeah, exactly. “You’ve been giving us a hard time for
fifteen years,” you know. And bringing them cookies, too, right? Oh, I wish I could do that a little more. You do? Always. I always do that. You don’t bring cookies? I’m terrible. Not always, no. (LAUGHTER) Krispy Kremes? No? I’ll bring them another good section (PH)
– (LAUGHTER) No, Krispy Kremes is the way to all of their
hearts. That’s stereotypical! Stagehand, doughnut, you know. But it’s true, you know? Some of these stereotypes are based in reality. The Krispy Kreme one is true. Well, I’ll have to give that some thought. Everybody loves Krispy Kremes. Not just stagehands! It’s true, not just stagehands. I’d like one right now! (LAUGHTER) So Donny, you have to tell us about
your background a little bit, please. Well, briefly, I have a little bit unusual
background. I have a degree in forestry, a Bachelor of
Science in forestry. (LAUGHTER) That beats my high school diploma! Wow! Wow, that’s weird! That’s better. And well, like any eighteen-year-old kid,
I was interested in a lot of things, including theatre. But also, the outdoors, I was big in Boy Scouts. And so, I went to the University of Maine,
got my degree in forestry, but of course I was very involved in theatre and music and
all kinds of things. And then I graduated, I went on tour for a
while with a rock and roll band. Eventually, I worked – Performing? No, as a stagehand – as a roadie. Tell the truth, Van Halen! What was the band? 1984 tour, come on, I saw them! No, 1980, 1980. Wow! And before moving lights! And then eventually I went to Yale, and I
got a degree in technical design and production, tech direction. And I studied with Jennifer Tipton there,
and made the really – I was embraced by Jennifer and the design program. They gave me a lot of opportunities to design,
mainly because I was very persistent about it. And I think when they started seeing my work,
that opened up a lot of eyes. And I got the encouragement and sort of the
nod and the support to move ahead as a lighting designer. I think that I spent a lot of my youth on
questioning myself, whether I actually had what it took to be a designer, even though
that’s what I always wanted to do. And so, I think I’ve wanted to be a lighting
designer really, if I admit it, since I was thirteen years old, ever since I started seeing
theatre as a kid. So, to be in the position that I’m in right
now, you know, it really is a dream. I feel incredibly fortunate. I did a little assisting. I assisted Jennifer Tipton a little bit. But I earned a lot of my money – because
when I was designing, I had very few design opportunities out of graduate school. I worked at a consulting firm, designing rigging
systems and dimming systems, and I went on tour with a lot of dance companies, modern
dance and Ballet Hispanico. And I learned a tremendous amount on the road,
trying to remount other people’s work on a daily basis. That was a huge education for me. But I have to say that graduate school, for
me, having a Bachelor of Science degree, going to graduate school and studying design with
someone like Jennifer was huge. It was life-changing, and it really kind of
propelled me. And then also, working after graduate school,
doing dance for years, and then regional theatre and Off-Broadway for years and years, by the
time I had my real break on Broadway, which was THE LION KING – I had done a few things
before that – but by the time I got THE LION KING, I was really ready for it. I had the confidence, and I think I had the
technical skills and I think I was at the point in my career where I just kind of approached
it like any other show. It was huge, and I had a relationship with
the director, Julie [Taymor]. I knew what I had to do to sort of work with
her. And it was very organic, and it felt really
comfortable, and that really propelled my career. You know, after I did THE LION KING, things
really happened in a huge way for me. And like I said, you know, every day I wake
up – I complain about being over-tired and overworked, but I really have nothing to complain
about. I’m very, very fortunate. Fantastic. So what projects are you all working on now,
and what have you just completed? That’s the next, and I think probably one
of the last questions, too. Want to start with you? Yes. Well, as I said, I’m working on THE BEARD
OF AVON. It’s a new play about how perhaps Shakespeare
wasn’t one man, that it was perhaps a groupist theory (PH) that were responsible for the
works of William Shakespeare, and it’s a comedy. Which means that – the great thing about
a comedy is that normally all the design things that are a problem, you can kind of indulge
in. Like, if it’s funny, it’s a good thing. Because a lot of times, especially in costumes,
you have to say, “Oh, no, that looks too funny.” You have to tone it down. But it’s a way to celebrate sort of the
insanity of certain eras in costume history. And I’m beginning to work on a musical with
Susan Schulman, HEARTLAND. And I’m also doing the Bill Irwin series
at Signature [Theatre Company], and we’re doing another piece, REGARD OF FLIGHT, and
that starts in a couple weeks. And there’s some other projects coming up
in the future, but that’s what’s happening right now. Great. And Skip? I opened WILDER at Playwrights Horizons on
Sunday – Great! Which is a new chamber musical, it’s pretty
terrific. And TIME OF YOUR LIFE, which I did at Steppenwolf
in Chicago, is now moving to Seattle Rep and A.C.T. And a couple new musical projects, FIVE COURSE
LOVE at GeVa. Our dance cards usually have five or six things
at the same time. That’s great! And Anne Louizos? Well, I’ve just come out of a very long
year of a number of shows. Like David said, you just take ‘em as they
come, and I took a lot of shows, so I’ve been very busy. And now, I’ve just opened GOLDA’S BALCONY
a week and a half ago at the Helen Hayes, and AVENUE Q just opened a month ago at the
Golden. And then I’m hoping to take a break, and
it looks like I might be able to. A couple of things have fallen through, but
there’s one little show I’m doing up at Lowell, Massachusetts, at Merrimack Rep, called
LOOKING OVER THE PRESIDENT’S SHOULDER. It’s a one-man show, directed by Seret Scott. And that’s it for me right now. And? I’ve had a really busy fall! (LAUGHTER) I worked with Dave on August Wilson’s
new play last summer, A GEM OF THE OCEAN. We did the THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE national
tour and the West End production. And then I did LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the
revival, in Florida and then on Broadway. And then THE BOY FROM OZ. And I’m now working on THE VIOLET HOUR,
which opens in a week. Or less than that? A week, yeah, a week from tomorrow. And I have other – I’m working on the
MOVIN’ OUT national tour soon, and an opera in Houston and some other projects. So I’m busy, and working on kind of a nice
variety of interesting things. It’s good to be done with all these Broadway
projects. It was a real, very stressful, but challenging
and exuberant time! (LAUGHTER) Okay, David? Oh, well, like you said, take a break. I’m actually trying to. I’m currently shopping for a Third World
country to move for – (LAUGHTER) I’m not kidding! I’m not kidding, for the latter part of
the winter. But until then, well, as we say, we’re doing
– Morocco! There’s got to be a tremendous amount of
water where I’m going! (LAUGHS) But – He’s a scuba diver. Yeah, I’m gonna get a little job. So we’re doing – what are we doing? Yeah, we did GEM OF THE OCEAN, which is coming
in in November, apparently, a new August Wilson play. And we’re doing – A.M. SUNDAY. A really interesting play called A.M. SUNDAY, at Center Stage in Baltimore, which
will be interesting. A very, very small play, actually, very quiet. And right now, I’m working on a play called
DROWNING CROW, which is a contemporary sort of stylized retelling of THE SEAGULL, which
is going to be at the Biltmore, when Manhattan Theatre Club will be the – after they’ve
sorted it out, you know, sorted out the Biltmore, we’re going to be in there with that. And his musical, but not for a little while. And there’s just some other stuff later
on down the line, so. Sounds busy! Sounds fantastic. We have, like, about another minute left,
I think. Does anyone – Then you go! Yeah, what about you? Oh, what am I doing? (LAUGHTER) Bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh! I’m doing – ooh, I have a minute! I’ll talk very fast. DINNER WITH DEMONS at Second Stage, which
is a monologue and cooking show, which is pretty entertaining. Jonathan Reynolds? With Jonathan. Yes! And then, I’m working on a musical with
Cathy, of A LITTLE PRINCESS, which I’m also producing. So we’re in the middle of trying to raise
money for that, which is not a whole lot of fun, I have to say! But it’s a wonderful show and that’s,
I think, going to go to the Ahmanson. So, being perfectly timed, I’d like to thank
this wonderful panel for being here this afternoon. This has been the American Theatre Wing’s
“Working in the Theatre” seminar, coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. Thank you! (APPLAUSE; MUSIC)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *