The Spirit in Which It Was Intended

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.

Chicago 2

Chicago – Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

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.


Hairspray – Directed by Paige Posey

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)

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Author:  Dennis Maulden

DENNIS C. MAULDEN, Resident Scenic Designer & Apprentice Administrator, began his association with Flat Rock Playhouse as an apprentice in 1967 and continued in the subsequent 11 years to become Equity Stage Manger and Scenic Artist and has been the Resident Scenic Designer since 1985. In 2000 he became a full-time staff member. In addition to designs at the Playhouse, Dennis enjoys portraiture and multimedia collages. In his career as a scene designer, Maulden has designed standard and classical repertory works, experimental projects, new plays, operas, and musicals in regional and university theatres as well as in New York. After receiving his BA degree in English/Education with a Minor in Theatre from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1970, he taught at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina for a number of years until launching his professional theatre career full-time. He then received his MFA degree from UNC-Greensboro in 1977 and is a member of United Scenic Artists, New York Local #829. As part of his teaching career, he has served as Head of Design Programs at University of Florida (1979-1983 and 1986-1988) and University of South Carolina (1988-1999) where he also served as Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance. Maulden received the Mortarboard Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of South Carolina in 1991. He has led the Playhouse in its development of residential technical, teaching, and administrative internships for university students and graduates. In his years as Scenic Designer at FRP, Dennis is thankful to have contributed to the physical and aesthetic growth of the Playhouse grounds, to the artistic production quality, and to the development of strong educational programs. Moreover, he feels particularly blessed to be a part of the Playhouse family.