They've Got the Look
A conversation with three designers—Peter Kaczorowski, Thomas Lynch and Martin Pakledinaz—at the top of their game
By Misha Berson
When I think back to my earliest experiences of theatre, I find myself summoning indelible visual images and captivating stage pictures. Yet as a theatre critic, I confess that over the years I've focused most on analyzing a show's script, acting and directorial interpretation, and much less on decoding its look—unless, of course, the production is major eye candy, and "the look" is both the medium and the message.
What comes so intuitively to designers and to viewers of strong visual sensibility can take the rest of us patrons and critics a while to grasp—namely, that, in overt and subliminal ways, costuming, lighting and scenic choices "carry the audience into that other region where the ideal play takes place," as the visionary American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones once put it.
So how does one become more design-literate? By opening one's eyes and trying to see theatre entire, as a full complement of expressive elements. Thanks to the vividness, the specificity and sheer beauty of their work, leading American design artists Peter Kaczorowski, Martin Pakledinaz and Thomas Lynch have been among my unofficial tutors.
Recently, when the three New Yorkers came to Seattle to work on the Seattle Opera's acclaimed arboreal vision of the Ring Cycle, which premiered in 2000 and 2001, I got a chance to ask some simmering questions about how such accomplished designers approach their work in contemporary theatre (they also design often for the opera and ballet), and to hear their thoughts on collaborating with other theatre artists.
All three of these men are in their professional prime, and a full listing of their awards and credits would run very, very long. But here are just a few highlights:
Scenic designer Thomas Lynch created the settings for the current Broadway musicals Contact and The Music Man (for which he received one of his two Tony award nominations). He has also worked extensively in opera, and his regional theatre designs include many shows at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Chicago's Goodman Theatre, California's La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum.
Martin Pakledinaz snapped up a 2000 Tony for his playful, Crayola-bright costumes in Broadway's hit Kiss Me, Kate revival. His other credits encompass productions at the New York City Ballet, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre and New York's Metropolitan Opera, among many other institutions.
This year, Peter Kaczorowski won a Tony for lighting The Producers, and he's illuminated major productions at New York's Lincoln Center and Manhattan Theatre Club, Princeton's McCarter Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Connecticut's Hartford Stage, and other theatres and opera houses around the country.
These artists are close-knit colleagues who've worked together in various combinations on many occasions. As a threesome, they first collaborated in 1989, with director Stephen Wadsworth and choreographer Mark Morris, on a vigorous resurrection of Christoph Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice at Seattle Opera. They also teamed with Wadsworth on the Ring and a resplendent period regional-theatre staging of Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance.
What surfaced often in our lengthy conversation was their abiding goal of using design as a reinforcement and extension of good storytelling in a play, an opera, a musical, a ballet. Another frequent point was the importance of being part of an ensemble effort—the sense that, at its best, design is not a separate wing of theatre, but a product of vital collaboration.
But the first thing I wanted to hear about, as we gathered one morning in a small Seattle Opera conference room, were the formative experiences that had turned these men into prolific professionals at the top of their game.
Martin Pakledinaz: Our mutual friend Emily Mann had wanted to get us together for years, which of course made us resist meeting each other! But I think we all originally met when we were assisting older master-designers, which is where you start out if you're lucky.
Peter Kaczorowski: Those were the best years of my life. I assisted [lighting designers] Tom Skelton, Craig Miller, John Bury, Beverly Emmons. Being an assistant is wonderful, because you're not in the hot seat, you don't have to deal with directors or producers yourself. You can sit there and observe. You work hard—there's a ton of work?but the pressure isn't directly on you. Two years out of NYU, I was sitting at the table with José Quintero and Jason Robards doing the Iceman Cometh revival.
Thomas Lynch: You're also dealing with resources that at a young age you would not have access to otherwise. You feel you're part of important projects, even from the sidelines. During and just out of Yale, I assisted Santo Loquasto and Robin Wagner. I got to work on Michael Bennett and Gower Champion musicals that I consider to be national treasures. You watch and learn how to handle yourself and how to handle ideas. You see the older designers putting their ideas together, the give and take flowing between them.
Kaczorowski: But the chemistry between designers really happens over time, over doing the projects, don't you think? Our first time working together, the Orphée at Seattle Opera, went well and turned out beautifully. But you can't just sit in a room and have a conversation about what it all should look like and expect to have a success.
After paying some dues, these artists graduated fairly quickly to roles as head designers on productions by major opera companies. I wondered: Did it then become harder to go back and work on smaller Off-Broadway and regional theatre shows, where the financial resources were more limited and the production values less sumptuous?
Pakledinaz: To me, doing an intimate play in a 100-seat theatre is still one of the most wonderful things in the world.
Kaczorowski: I totally agree. When I started getting most of my own work, it was in the opera world. And because I was cutting my teeth, I was very into the opera scene and the kind of lighting you can do there. But I have to say now, the way things are done in theatre is better—because all the artists show up to work on the same moment in the show until you've got it licked. Then you move on.
Lynch: Yes, each person's concerns are so much more palpably addressed in the theatre—the actor's, the set designer's, the lighting designer's, the costumer's, the playwright's. Any problems that come up have to be dealt with right there in rehearsal. And invention can happen in a moment, involving everyone. In the best of those moments there's kind of an éclat of mutual inspiration.
Kaczorowski: In opera, you only get singers onstage a few hours a day, because they're off in musical rehearsals. So I have to create something on an empty stage, with light-walkers, assistants or volunteers coming to walk the stage and represent a cast of 10 or 20 people. I've gotten good at it. But it's so much more satisfying to me now to have everybody involved right there in the room, working their butts off together for 10 or 12 hours.
I just did a play last year called Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher at Philadelphia Theatre Company. It was in a room about four times as big as this one. I really got to know everybody. We had very little money but a fantastic design team, a good script, and it was very satisfying.
Regardless of the size of the cast or budget, I also wondered if designing a naturalistic American play, set in somebody's living room in the present day, with the characters wearing street clothes, could really be as exciting a gig for a mature designer as, say, a big period piece? Or a Ring Cycle? Or a splashy musical à la Kiss Me, Kate?
Lynch: I recently designed Richard Nelson's play Madame Melville at the Promenade in New York. We'd first done it in London on a bigger stage, and though it wasn't a shoestring budget, physically you just didn't want to do too much. To be able to collaborate closely with [lighting designer] Jennifer Tipton and [costumer] Susan Hilferty on an intimate project, and with actors like Macaulay Culkin and Joely Richardson....a very high level of work in a small space like that can be so gratifying.
Pakledinaz: Every designer wants to do Shakespeare or opera at first because they're so big. But after a while it can become a bit wearing, because of the bigness. There's so much to worry about, so much work to do, you can feel divorced from the center of the production. When you go into a room where there isn't much money but a lot of talent, the energy just buzzes.
More and more of the "major" regional shows are co-productions which "tour" to the several theatres co-producing them. How does the designer's role change in that situation? And what is it like working on a show that is (unofficially) "trying out" in regional theatre for Broadway?
Lynch: I have some very strong negative feelings about what's commonly called co-production in regional theatre. In general, I think it's a very demoralizing trend and a homogenization of regional theatre work. Suddenly, an Arena Stage show looks like a Seattle Rep show, which looks like a Mark Taper Forum show, or whatever. Each theatre loses its identity. And there's a false economy in it, too. The boards of these theatres may think they're saving money, but they're not, because every time it goes somewhere else a show has to be rebuilt in some way—plus there's load-in, lighting set-up. And it robs the staffs of these theatres of the very reason they're working there. Basically, what they get is a road show—something so worked out already that they don't have much to do with it, or a mess they have to cobble into something presentable.
Kaczorowski: I agree. And, more and more commercial producers are involved in trying out shows out of town, in a regional situation, where the costs are lower. What that sets up is a whole different kind of pressure that regional theatres shouldn't have to shoulder. And certainly the designers, who are getting paid regional theatre rates with regional budgets for a regional show, shouldn't have the responsibility of making it look like it belongs on Broadway.
Pakledinaz: I sort of disagree with at least one point here. To have wonderful productions in Seattle or Princeton, like the three Marivaux plays we did with Stephen Wadsworth [The Game of Love and Chance, Changes of Heart and The Triumph of Love], and to share them with audiences in other towns—I'd hate to see that lost.
Lynch: Now I'll eat my words a little bit. We had the luxury of nurturing the Marivaux trilogy over time into very beautiful productions, and it's great to have something like that travel. It would have been wonderful to put them all into rep at BAM or somewhere. But those were not commercial pieces. They could have only have been developed in regional theatres, without that Broadway pressure.
Those three Marivaux plays, which started at the McCarter Theatre but then went on to regional theatres in Boston, Berkeley and Seattle, all had a certain stylistic strategy in terms of both the design and the acting. I found that very unusual and very rewarding.
Pakledinaz: I remember that something interesting happened with Game of Love and Chance. When it went up at the McCarter, we realized we'd made several big costuming mistakes. Stephen and I were playing with color, and we just played too much, so much that we stopped telling the story. At one point, the actress Francesca Faridany entered wearing a color that did not indicate she was an aristocrat masquerading as a maid. The male lead had the same problem. He wore a beautiful blue costume, but it didn't tell us he was pretending to be a manservant. But we had a chance to redo it for the Huntington, which we did, and it got so much better.
I had always wondered if stage designers and their immediate colleagues felt separate from the actors in a show. Does the design work evolve so much in designers' studios, so much through individual discussions with the director, that the performers don't play a significant role in it? Does it matter, for instance, for the designers to even know what the casting is initially, in the conceptual design phase of a show?
Pakledinaz: Yes! More and more I procrastinate as much as possible so I can find out whom I'm dressing. Doing something like Beth Henley's play Impossible Marriage at the Roundabout Theatre, with contemporary clothing and actors of personal power like Holly Hunter, I know there'll be strong opinions in the room about the clothes. For that show, I laid some light images down in advance. But I had to be firm and say, "Let's wait until the actors come in before I do more."
Lynch: When I design a set, more and more I need to know who the actors are, strangely enough. A couple years ago I designed Christopher Durang's play Betty's Summer Vacation for Playwrights Horizons, and Kristine Nielsen played this over-the-top part of the landlady, Mrs. Siezmagraff. I needed to know it was going to be Kristine—she's a very wonderful, very particular kind of actor, and when I found out she was in it, that affected the color, the props—all sorts of choices I made for this beach house setting. I had to go over and over it all in my mind and say, "What would this environment be like for someone played by Kristine?"
Kaczorowski: It's different for me. My work is not so much about being aware of who the actor is.
Lynch: But Peter, I think you do something so intuitively that you're not even saying it. Your work is so immediately responsive to what you're seeing in pre-production and rehearsal. It's almost like a direct collaboration with the actors.
Kaczorowski: Yes, I do intuitively follow the lead of people once they're onstage. But when they show up in Marty's clothes, on Tom's set, and are doing the work the director's given them, then I plug in. The sets come first, the costumes next, and I kind of take it from there.
I pressed a little further on the subject of communication with actors. How have performers responded to and influenced their designs?
Kaczorowski: I've found many actors are very attuned to lighting. It's not so much a star thing anymore, about who has the brightest light. I'm reminded of my days assisting Tom Skelton when he was working a lot with Katharine Hepburn. One focus of his was to always make Hepburn look fantastic, whether or not it was particularly appropriate to whatever the scene was. I don't think that happens so much these days.
Lynch: Actors trust lighting designers more now.
Kaczorowski: Yes, and the form has developed. I think the stature of the lighting designer has risen considerably in the last 10, 20 years.
Pakledinaz: There are so many actors who really want to come out into the house because they're desperate to see what the show looks like. A lot of that is light, because when you're onstage you generally can't see the light. And actors love light. But more and more, they know it's the synthesis of everything that counts.
Kaczorowski: A good actor, getting on the set, in costume and under lights for the first time, will really alter things, speeding up or slowing down because of the lighting or where things are onstage. Boyd Gaines is an actor who's very sensitive and attuned to that. When we were doing Contact at Lincoln Center, I could see Boyd working with the quality of the light in the scene where his character tries to commit suicide, and changing his performance accordingly. Those moments are very exciting to me.
Lynch: Yes, that was my experience with Boyd, too. In that scene, he had a great awareness of physical things, like the design of the windows in the apartment set. For designers, this kind of interplay with actors is very, very nurturing.
And what about directors? Highly visual artists like Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis aside, I wondered if the three designers felt directors in American theatre were engaged enough with the visual aspects of their shows. Had the level of interest and involvement with design elements noticeably changed in recent times, as theatrical aesthetics have shifted to reflect the influence of film, the visual arts, computer graphics, et al?
Lynch: I think directors have become increasingly good at visualizing things, so they're not all at sea, don't go into shock when the stage is dressed for the first time, and they see what's actually there! Twenty years ago, there were more times when directors saw the completed set or costumes and said, "My God! What are you doing?"
Kaczorowski: There's a wide range of visual attunement. There are some directors, like Susan Stroman [The Producers, Contact, The Music Man] who are interested in every single degree, every percentage of every lighting gel.
Lynch: Right. Peter and I are just working on this new Broadway musical, Thou Shalt Not with Susan, which is based on Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Basically, she staged it over three days, though the cast wasn't there yet. It's a complicated show, with more than 20 scenes. But schematically it's all in her head already. I sometimes compare her to a watchmaker or film director. She thinks like an Alfred Hitchcock in the way she crafts things.
Kaczorowski: But not everyone's like that. Correct me if I'm wrong, Marty, but Michael Blakemore, with whom we worked on Kiss Me, Kate, is mostly concerned with text, and the actors performing the text, and he just trusts the other people to come in and do their own work.
Pakledinaz: Yes. You have some brief, smart conversations early on, and he's always there to answer questions. But things that for another director might be a huge production, you'll say, "I thought I'd do this," and he'll say, "Of course." I actually told him once, "You know, I often turn up with costumes that don't look anything like the sketches." And he took a beat and said, "Right!"
Lynch: Robert Falls is another one whom you have rollicking good conversations with, and then you just go on and do it. Either way, if the director knows what they're up to and trusts you, it can work.
>I couldn't end our conversation without asking the designers to reflect on a concern of many theatre artists: Most younger audience members these days have their formative experiences of professional live theatre attending eye-popping mega-musicals on tour—e.g. Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Aida. Given that, and all the frenetic, splashy TV advertising and music videos, are audiences' visual expectations too high? Is the modern theatre under pressure to fulfill a constant hunger for razzle-dazzle spectacle?
Lynch: I think it cuts both ways. We can't say that's really new. In 1925 people were looking for splashy sets. There was that period in the '60s and '70s when a lot of the glitz was knocked away, and we came into an almost minimalist age. But since then, that's been overcome by a lot of overproduction.
Sure, we can bemoan that audiences expect overproduction. On the other hand, they can be a lot more receptive and malleable than you'd think. They want a vivid, gripping experience in theatre, and sometimes simplicity does the trick. The Death of a Salesman that Bob Falls did is one great example. The set [by Mark Wendland] was deceptively simple. The focus was totally on the actors and the ideas in the play, and the audience was right there.
Pakledinaz: That reminds me of doing the Encores! revival of Hair at Symphony Space in New York. We had two weeks to put it up and as much money to get everybody dressed as it cost for one costume in Act 1 of Kiss Me, Kate. And it made the year for us. Getting the right T-shirt for people was half of it! Did the audience expect anybody to come up through the floor or have a big costume change? No! In fact, they were liberated by the fact that someone would just pick up a flower, and that would be the genesis of a song.
Lynch: One of the reasons I'm proud of my work on Contact is that it seemed simple all the way through, but it had real power. Audiences by the end of that show are just leaning forward and hanging on. It's like that flower—choosing exactly the right prop or costume, at exactly the right moment, to tell the story.
Kaczorowski: With lighting, it completely depends on what the piece is, what the moment is. It's very emotionally satisfying if it's something pure and simple. Nobody cares if it's not all lit up.
Pakledinaz: But if you see Kiss Me, Kate, you don't walk away saying, "Wow, those lights!", like you would at Aida. Because your lighting of that show is, like....the world.
Kaczorowski: Right. Aida is about those lights. To me, it's about getting the design and what the show is about to match up every time.
Peter Kaczorowski is working on Thou Shalt Not on Broadway, as well as on the London production of Kiss Me, Kate and, tentatively, a new Eric Bogosian play at the McCarter Theatre.
Thomas Lynch is also working on Thou Shalt Not, as well as on Edward Albee's All Over at the McCarter Theatre and another new musical, Me and Mrs. Jones, starring Lou Rawls.
Martin Pakledinaz is currently designing costumes for a new dance piece by Mark Morris, choreographed to the music of Robert Schumann, and for the Broadway-bound musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Misha Berson, a frequent contributor to American Theatre, is the theatre critic for the Seattle Times.
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