It occurs to me that many people do not know or understand the co-creative process. I am a person with a pretty healthy ego, and I like receiving compliments as well as anyone. But I’m tied so closely to the people with whom I work — my friends and colleagues — that I feel a certain amount of pain or embarrassment when I have to accept a compliment without acknowledging everyone else’s endeavor. I used to demur and try to explain why I should not be singled out. Finally, I learned to simply say “thank you” and accept the compliment in the generous spirit in which it was intended.
But in my mind and heart, I can remember director Paige Posey, taking my scenery on our slip stages and working her magic with Amy Jones to achieve an incredibly creative flow and seamless movement with actors from scene to scene in huge musicals like West Side Story, South Pacific, or Children of Eden. I recall Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s passion in guiding me through her brilliant conception of Chicago in an old, deserted Vaudeville house, replete with its re-visualized and abstracted Vaudevillian scenery. Vincent Marini often has amazing visions of what he’s looking for in a production that he explains to me in one way and that I deliver in another. He then takes my designs and massages them with suggestions until we’re both happy with the result. Once he commits to the design that I come up with, he makes the design work brilliantly from beat to beat in the show. The magic can occur because the visual world sprang from a tiny seed that he planted at the beginning of the process. Lisa K. Bryant has already conveyed her excitement about preserving the classic perfection of My Fair Lady‘s script and music while presenting them with a nod to contemporary production aesthetics.
The work all starts with a script, of course, and then a director. Marcia Milgrom Dodge may have suggested an old Vaudeville milieu for Chicago, but I came up with a decaying theatre papered in a crumbling montage of headlines about murder in the Windy City. And that doesn’t begin to cover all the musical numbers occurring in the Vaudeville context. Pretty immediately, I am submerged in a sea of possibilities, working with my assistant as well as with other designers to craft a piece of theatre that will ultimately result in one unified vision. It requires huge confidence and simultaneous self-doubt to relinquish ones ego and consider the merits of other voices. But that’s what makes the art so complex and nuanced.
By the time the designs have been completed for scenery, costumes, lights, and sound, a new creative process ensues. An entire cadre of carpenters, painters, electricians, props designers and artisans, stitchers and drapers, sound technicians, and stage managers join directors, choreographers, music directors, musicians, and casts to proceed steadily in the same direction — the realization of that initial vision of a director and the design team. I count on the people I work with to make my ideas better that I could have imagined, and they do, almost invariably. They employ their analytical skills and myriad talents to tackle all the individual parts and reassemble them into a beautiful and meaningful whole.
Of course, like other designers, I feel strongly about my contributions to a production. Each new endeavor possesses its own specific set of challenges. Sometimes people ask which shows are my favorites. It’s hard to say. As my dear friend and costume designer, Bridget Bartlett, used to say, “The one I’m doing is always my favorite.” And she remains, of course, correct. Beyond my own enthusiasm, however, part of my design job is to get other people as excited and invested in the project as I am. When that happens and people compliment me, I hope they realize that they are complimenting an entire creative team.
Ultimately, the praise that means the most to me personally as a scene designer is a compliment that describes the effect my designs have on a person’s understanding of the play — or at least an understanding of the poetic world in which the play can exist, whether it’s a messy lived-in apartment, a New York barrio, or a “fantastic” arena. Having spent my life with music and art and language and dance, with conflict and joy and passion, I find myself fulfilled each time any of those things can speak meaningfully to the world we’re creating art for.
(PS The English teacher in me begs you to pardon the preposition at the end of the sentence. In this case it’s just part of the art, not a grammatical mistake!! dcm)