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How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre
By Derek McLane
By Eila Mell
Foreword by Ethan Hawke
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- Hardcover $45.00 $57.00 CAD
- ebook $21.99 $28.99 CAD
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Together with other leading set design and theatre talents, McLane invites us into the immersive and exhilarating experience of building the striking visual worlds that have brought so many of our favorite stories to life. Discover how designers generate innovative ideas, research period and place, solve staging challenges, and collaborate with directors, projectionists, costume designers, and other artists to capture the essence of a show in powerful scenic design.
With co-writer Eila Mell, McLane and contributors discuss Moulin Rouge!, Hamilton, Hadestown, Beautiful, and many more of the most iconic productions of our generation. Among the Broadway luminaries who contribute are John Lee Beatty, Danny Burstein, Cameron Crowe, Ethan Hawke, Moisés Kaufman, Carole King, Kenny Leon, Santo Loquasto, Kathleen Marshall, Lynn Nottage, David Rabe, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Wallace Shawn, John Leguizamo, and Robin Wagner.
Filled with personal sketches and photographs fromthe artists’ archives, this stunningly designed book is truly a behind-the-scenes journey that theatre fans will love.
the first time I experienced the power of set design I was twenty-one, about to make my Broadway debut in Chekhov’s The Seagull. The cast was a group of some of the most talented actors/artists I’d ever been near. We’d been working in an empty space with tape on the floor somewhere in midtown for over a month. On our first day of tech rehearsal, the cast was walked through the Lyceum Theater and up onto the stage, and we saw our set for the first time…
Jon Voight turned to me and said quietly, “We’re sunk.”
I was a kid, and I thought he was kidding.
“This is a set for an entirely different production of The Seagull. The one we’ve been rehearsing should feel like a Cassevetes movie. This feels like we are at the Moscow Art Theatre circa 1910.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s gonna be GREAT.”
It wasn’t. As brilliant as we’d all felt our production was in the rehearsal room, we never made the jump to the theater. Voight was right; we never had a chance. Something about our work seemed small, diminished by the grandness of the world we were inhabiting at the Lyceum Theater.
I learned quickly just how collaborative the performing arts are.… When all goes well, the acting, costumes, music, lighting, and writing become one entity—a theatrical event. And that event is held and positioned by the production design. The set is the ship—all the other elements of the production are the wind that must make that ship sail.
I didn’t meet Derek McLane until I was in my midthirties. He designed a production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly. The show was a tremendous event in the lives of those who worked on it, and Derek was the main reason for what felt like our tremendous success. Mike Nichols, who had directed the original production, even came backstage to sing Derek’s praises. He noted that he knew our production would work the second he saw the set. “They’re broke!” he said. “I thought they were rich! I had them eating off glass tables, living behind elegant glass walls. I didn’t get it. Of course—they’re broke. Much better!”
Sometimes a play needs a simple idea to hold it. Sometimes it demands a grand idea. That requirement depends on something invisible to most. Derek functions like a brilliant psychologist, studying the play and giving it the chance to not only function at its best but to accomplish heretofore unimaginable feats. He can fully envision the environment that would heighten the play’s strengths and diminish or hide its weaknesses.
The first play I directed, I asked him to design. The play, Things We Want by Jonathan Marc Sherman, was brand new, and that’s like sailing uncharted waters. The set was arrestingly simple: one room, white walls, one window. The simplicity of the set informed the staging—the lighting, the acting. The final image of Peter Dinklage holding a bonsai tree in the most average room in the world will be with me forever.
The next play we worked on together was the most ambitious and complicated piece I have ever attempted as a director: Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. The set was a living, breathing work of art. It should be in a museum. We dreamed it up over a period of years, letting one concept build into another, deepening and expanding the concept with every conversation. Until finally Derek conceived of an “attic in our mind.” Then he built it piece by piece. When the lights went up, the audience was invited into a dream state immediately. It was a magic trick. And, even better, it allowed the play to be heard—the actors to act, the music to sing.
The third play we did together was a punk rock modern adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. I believed then, as I do now, that to do that dangerous play as the author intended, the audience has to hate it! The work is the psychological equivalent of the gates of hell. We went for broke. The walls
were made of beer cans, the set a stage arrangement of eight doors that all functioned as terrifying musical instruments. We succeeded in our goal of alienating everyone in the audience—and I love to imagine Brecht laughing from the balcony, shouting, YES!
Ethan Hawke and Derek McLane discuss the set for A Lie of the Mind.
Detail and full set of A Lie of the Mind
I thought when I first started directing plays that the relationship with the actors would be my raison d’être, but I quickly saw there was no performance without the right set.
Derek always gets it right. Whether he is designing for Off-Broadway, Broadway, the Oscars, Shakespeare in the Park, or television productions, he sets the stage to succeed, supporting the actors, the text, and the audience. He is a brilliant listener and a quiet leader. He can be invisible, he can be a firework exploding, he can be both at the same time.
I’ve been acting on stage now for more than thirty years, and I’ve worked with some staggeringly talented set designers. It’s a hidden art because when it works best, you don’t even see it. It’s an art form that supports and cherishes others. I hope this book will invite you in to see and understand that, while in a theater, the set designer is your god.
so what does a set designer do? On the first day of graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, Ming Cho Lee looked at each of the ten of us who made up our incoming class and said, “We are the people who make pictures from words.” We all listened breathlessly as he paused and repeated his sentence: “We are the people who make pictures from words.” I still find that deeply inspiring, and a pretty good way to describe what we do as theatre designers. Over the years, I’ve evolved that statement to be something more like, “We are the people who make the visual world of the play”—to me, “pictures” sounds a bit too much like illustrating. We read a play and must create the visual world for it; we invent environments and spaces and decide, with the director, on the rules of that world. As I read a script, I often have a flood of images and feelings about the story, sometimes to the point where I’m distracted by my own thoughts. Sometimes I’ll stop and do a quick drawing, look up a painting or an image I’ve seen, or write down stray thoughts. Those first impressions while reading the script are super important and often fleeting. Hanging on to them through the inevitable crush of practical considerations that will follow is essential to creating an emotional design. While I am doing that early work, I imagine I am an audience member coming to see a play. I ask myself, what is the show I want to see? What does it look like?
From there comes the task of making that fleeting impression concrete. That may be the trickiest part of what a designer does. How do you take those first thoughts and turn them into a space and physical structure that can be created on a stage by other people? That is the skill I did not have when I was in college, the thing I went to graduate school to learn. I start by doing loads of drawings—scribbles, really. Most are just for me and are very crude, maybe not even decipherable to others, but they allow me to develop my idea or impression. From there, I make somewhat more finished drawings, which I typically hand over to an associate to develop. In addition to drawing, I build a scale model of the set (often many different versions), do all the drafting necessary for a scene shop to build the scenery from, create the color elevations, and choose the materials, fabrics, furniture, and props.
I stumbled into set design quite by accident. When I was a college freshman (I planned to be an archaeology major), a classmate asked if I would build a set, as I had some summer job experience doing house construction. Building that set introduced me to the idea of design. I met the set designer on that show and thought I’d like to design one myself. Luckily for me, there was no theatre program at Harvard but lots of productions, and I was able to design as many plays and musicals as I wanted, even though I had absolutely no skill at set design. I didn’t know how to draw a ground plan or draft the scenery. I was just making it up, partly by describing to the carpenters what I imagined. I designed a production of Guys and Dolls in one of the college’s dining halls. I was cognizant of the fact that my work was very crude, but I was exhilarated by the possibilities set design presented. Those early designs were all based on a single idea per show, which was great if the idea was good and terrible if it wasn’t. I couldn’t work in a period or design anything terribly specific or stylish because I didn’t know how to draw it. Still, I loved the process of manifesting an idea visually.
I happened to meet the designer Michael Yeargan, who was on the faculty at Yale. I asked his advice, and after looking at my work he said I should go to graduate school. He told me I needed to stop designing sets and spend all my time studying drawing. That advice was enough to get me into the Yale School of Drama, just barely: Ming Cho Lee, a brilliant and formidable designer, and chair of the department, told me that my drawing was marginal but if I promised to continue my drawing classes, he’d accept me. Meanwhile, back at college, I found the drawing classes overly theoretical—Harvard had a near-obsessive fear of teaching anything that might have a practical application—so I enrolled in the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and took studio art classes in the evenings.
Derek McLane looking at an early model of the Moulin Rouge! set with Brandon McNeel and Erica Hemminger
Yale School of Drama was the most intensely difficult experience I had been through. The amount of work seemed crushing at times, and the level of critique could be harsh—indeed, before graduate school, I had never really received face-to-face criticism. I spent much of my first year terrified and exhausted but also exhilarated, as I began to develop new muscles.
After I graduated in 1984, I moved to New York City and lived in a rarely heated commercial loft in Long Island City, Queens. I had a wood-burning stove and was often so broke that I found old furniture on the street to break up and burn for heat. I took my drafting examples to the studios of various working designers and found work as an assistant, something I did for several years. I did a stint for about a year as an assistant art director at The David Letterman Show on NBC, working at 30 Rockefeller Center. It was a glimpse into a world of fame, but the design work was not satisfying. One day, I got a call to design a set at Center Stage in Baltimore, a prestigious regional theatre.
This was the kind of work I had trained to do, and with some reluctance, I gave up the comfortable TV salary and set off on my freelance design career. Over the next six or seven years, I designed somewhere between ten and thirteen shows a year, all over the United States. I’d be on a plane fifty or sixty times a year, often designing in cities I felt I had no connection to. There was great freedom in that. The quantity of work and the fact that I felt anonymous in these towns let me experiment in bold ways. I’d try some outrageous ideas, and if they didn’t work out so well, I’d shrug and say to myself, “I guess I’ll never work in Tulsa again.” That was arrogant of me, but it was a period of real growth.
Eventually, I got married and started to have children, and I wanted to be home more. Despite all the work I’d done, I discovered that no one in New York had any idea who I was, so I started taking little jobs in Off-Off-Broadway theaters—this felt like a huge step down from the scale of work I’d been doing around the country. In 1994, at the age of thirty-six, I got my first Broadway show, What’s Wrong with This Picture?, a flop that played for nine days. I didn’t get my first Broadway musical until 2003, another flop. I was a late bloomer and my Broadway career began with a couple of duds. But I was lucky enough to continue to work, with some ebbs and flows, and I’ve continued to learn new skills. I’ve designed shows in the past few years that I didn’t have the tools to design ten years ago. Where this will lead me in the future is, of course, unknown. I can only hope that I will be fortunate enough to continue to work.
Derek sketching in his studio. His daughter Kathryn, who was studying drawing, is to the right.
For me, the dilemma of creating this book is that I am so keenly aware of the great work being done by so many of my contemporaries that writing a book focused solely on my own designs feels unjustified. I find really good work done by my peers both exhilarating and upsetting; it inspires me, but it also prompts me to take measure of all the ways I have fallen short. Sometimes, in the middle of watching something really great, I feel desperate to leave the theater and get back to my studio to work. My own design work is done in an unspoken dialogue with those other productions—the shows that excite me and make me want to appropriate an idea and the shows I hated and that serve as a warning of temptations to resist. What I aim to do here is to show some of my work and juxtapose it with the work of other designers who tackled similar problems or came up with similar solutions—often solutions superior to my own. To do this, I called on many of my friends—fellow designers, directors, and writers—and asked to include their work. Almost without exception, they contributed willingly and generously, and I am truly grateful that they did. Their work has influenced each and every one of my designs, which has traces, big or small, of their work. This cross-pollination between designs, between productions, can only happen where lots and lots of shows are happening simultaneously. It happens on Broadway.
I don’t profess to be particularly knowledgeable about the history of scenic design. I did not grow up going to Broadway plays, and by the time I started my professional career I had probably seen only ten Broadway shows and operas. My idea of the “classics” of set design comes largely from two books I had as a design student—American Set Design by Arnold Aronson and Designing and Painting for the Theatre by Lynn Pecktal—as well as a few theatre magazines. Yet these definitive works would have a profound influence on my early career, and the featured designs from the following shows would leave a lasting impression.
More than a hundred years after it was conceived, Appia’s design is among the most modern and arresting designs I’ve ever seen. I must have done four or five variations on this design, both in graduate school and in a few Shakespeare productions I designed early in my career. Sketch by Adolphe Appia
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1988
One of the first truly surreal sets I’d seen, Yeargan’s design featured a forest made of an upside-down Athens, complete with a beautiful, suspended Acropolis. As someone who has always loved the play, I was envious that Michael Yeargan, my teacher from Yale, had thought of something so clever, and I vowed to try always to think this boldly.
Guys and Dolls, 1950
Mielziner’s watercolors of a Times Square full of neon signs and gangsters make you wish that New York City existed. I didn’t see this design until after my inaugural design of the musical, when I was in college, and Mielziner’s work left me deeply humbled, cringing at the memory of what I’d done. Derek McLane’s sketch of Jo Mielziner’s design
Phantom of the Opera, 1986
Björnson’s Phantom is one of the most commercially successful designs ever—exquisitely executed lavishness. For many years, the skills Björnson showed off in this design felt like something beyond my reach.
A Chorus Line, 1975
Basically a wall of rotating mirrors and a white line on a black floor, this set might be the simplest and strongest ever designed for a musical. Robin became a friend and mentor, and he often talked about “cutting away the bullshit to get to the essence of the design,” something he definitely achieved with A Chorus Line.
Slave Ship, 1970
Lee developed an environmental, in-the-round design with a strong, confident ground plan. This design must have made the audience feel as if they were in the ship with the actors. Sketch by Eugene Lee
Sweeney Todd, 1979
This was the first show I saw on Broadway. I had taken a bus down from Boston with my roommate, a Sondheim aficionado. He had bought the cast album and we had the score memorized by the time we got to the theater. I was gobsmacked by the scale of the set. Sketch by Eugene Lee
Tristan und Isolde, 1967
Svoboda seemed to make an epic set entirely of tautly strung pieces of string and a few large tectonic shapes. My first attempt at a set made of string followed shortly after I saw Svoboda’s set, in a college production of Dark of the Moon. My set for that play caught the eye of the young and now famous opera director Peter Sellers, for whom I went on to design a few undergraduate productions at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge. I tried unsuccessfully to bring Svoboda to Harvard to give a guest lecture on theatre.
- On Sale
- Nov 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Running Press