30 June 2014

Two (Back) Stage Pros

[When most people who aren’t part of the theater world—what one of my teachers fondly called “civilians”—see a play, they think of actors, singers, dancers, maybe directors, occasionally choreographers.  Spectators may see the sets, the costumes, the lights, and all the parts of the show known as “spectacle” or “production values,” but I suspect most just figure they arrive as they appear on stage by magic.  The artists and technicians who create, build, maintain, and handle those important aspects of a show are often entirely unknown outside the business.  Even though there are Tonys and Obies for the work these talents perform, many who watch the awards shows zone out during the “technical” awards, I think.  Well, attention must be paid!  Not long ago, the New York Times and the Washington Post each ran articles on one of the professionals who do this work for the stage: Eugene Lee, one of the American stage’s most renowned and respected set designers, and Paul Huntley, the designer and maker of many of the hair pieces worn by stars, featured actors, and even chorus members on stages across the country.  It’s time ROT honored some of the artists who make the visual force of theater a vital part of the experience.  So I’m going to see to it that it does just that.  ~Rick]

by Sandy Keenan

[This article was originally published in the “Home” section (section D) of the New York Times on 3 April 2014.]

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For years, the crystal chandelier that Eugene Lee salvaged back in the 1980s, when the original Helen Hayes Theater in Times Square was being demolished, presided over Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center, adding a little elegance to the rarefied air around “Saturday Night Live” cast members like Eddie Murphy and Dennis Miller.

But eventually the opulent fixture was replaced, and Mr. Lee, a celebrated designer whose recent projects include the set for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and the new Broadway show “The Velocity of Autumn,” lugged it home on his weekly commute up Interstate 95 to his Georgian Revival house on College Hill. Now it hangs in the foyer here, brightening all the other things that he and his wife, Brooke, a painter, have collected over the years.

Just walking into the beautifully proportioned house, built in 1912 for the daughter of a Rhode Island governor, can cause a temporary sense of vertigo. There is so much to take in: layer upon layer of objects large and small, useful and not, all of them with a similar vintage and patina.

Mr. Lee, 75, collects utilitarian things like old typewriters, Art Deco sprinklers, old canes and roll-top desks. Mrs. Lee, 65, favors post-1900 tin globes (she has about 200), wooden stacking toys, colorful British china and silhouettes (her collection is so extensive that the framing shop offered her a bulk discount). The enormous pair of tailor’s scissors hanging in the doorway between the living and dining rooms was a joint acquisition.

“We were always great junkers,” Mr. Lee said. “Not to get all artsy or anything, but it’s a lot like painting. You pick, you choose, but you don’t add willy-nilly.”

Mrs. Lee added: “We like the real thing, but we’re not crazy. I don’t spend all day in my pajamas changing the way things are arranged.”

In any case, there is no time for that. Not while Mr. Lee, who was admitted to the Theater Hall of Fame in 2006, continues to be so much in demand.

You may not recognize his name, his kindly face or his spiky white hair, but you almost certainly know his work: In addition to “The Tonight Show” studio and set, Mr. Lee has designed sets for numerous Broadway productions and has won Tony Awards for three of them (“Wicked,” “Candide” and “Sweeney Todd”). He remains the resident design guru for “Saturday Night Live,” one of only a handful of inaugural staffers from the 1975-76 season still at it 21 weeks a year.

And this year has been particularly frenzied: At the moment, he is creating the look of Maya Rudolph’s pilot for a variety television show, while simultaneously collaborating with the writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg on a new version of “The Nutcracker” and designing for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical, “Bright Star.” All told, he is working on the sets for eight productions around the country. And this week, “The Velocity of Autumn,” his 25th Broadway show, opened in previews at the Booth Theater.

“It’s fun to have things going on all over town,” he said modestly.

But the busier Mr. Lee is, the less time his wife has to spend on her watercolors, which are scattered throughout the house, because she does his bookings and billings and even handles his small talk. As she said, “I maintain relationships, and I keep Eugene organized.”

While much of his work is based in Manhattan, the Lees have never considered leaving Providence, where his career began in 1967 as a designer for the Trinity Repertory Company, an organization he continues to be associated with as the resident designer. But during the weeks that “Saturday Night Live” is in production, Mr. Lee catches the train on Wednesday morning, arriving at NBC in time for the afternoon story meeting and, like the rest of his design team, works almost around the clock until the show goes live. Meetings are routinely held at midnight or later, and Mr. Lee lives spartanly, sleeping when he can at the nearby Yale Club (he got his M.F.A. at Yale).

It is nearly impossible to keep up with him as he scurries through the bowels of the enormous building, ducking and weaving, and tiptoeing around frenetic set painters. The studio, which he designed when the show was being hatched, is more like an elevated house than a TV set, and under his management, the sets are still built the old-fashioned, expensive way: from scratch, using real wood, genuine antiques (for the White House skits) and (when necessary) live animals. Authentic, realistic, sometimes seedy — the way he prefers everything.

Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota who spent 15 years with the show, credits Mr. Lee with changing the look of television comedy, which had been going in a campier direction in the early 1970s, with “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“The look of the show is probably a larger piece of its success and iconic status than most people realize,” Mr. Franken said. “Eugene made it elegant, and never got in the way of the comedy.”

Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer, agreed. “Comedy was getting all glossy; they called it the Infinity Look,” he said. “New York was very different back then. Eugene designed what he saw, decay and all.”

Mr. Michaels hired Mr. Lee after seeing his work on “Candide,” a decision he said he has never regretted. “I always say Eugene is the only actual genius I’ve worked with,” he said.

Not everyone has always felt that way. The cast and crew of “Dude,” Mr. Lee’s first Broadway musical, in 1972, took to calling him Helen Keller because he was so shy he was all but mute. (Fortunately for Mr. Lee, the show closed in less than two weeks and the nickname didn’t stick.)

That image is hard to square with the reputation he has developed for taking a bold, even radical approach to set design, ripping up existing sets to create something that better suited the new play. Good riddance to proscenium theaters; he wanted audiences to experience the work at hand, not simply observe it.

For “Slave Ship,” a drama at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that he designed the sets for in 1969, he built a platform that replicated the nausea-inducing motion of a boat on the sea, and placed audience members right beside the actors being tossed about and tortured. And in the early 1970s, for a Manhattan Project production of “Alice in Wonderland,” he had patrons crawl through tiny doors to get into the theater, like Alice trying to fit through an opening too small for her.

“I just have my own funny ideas,” he said. “Set design is not about picking molding.”

Thirty minutes before “Saturday Night Live” starts, Mr. Lee is out the door to meet a driver for the three-hour ride home, a luxury he recently afforded himself after the success of “Wicked,” which is now in its 11th year on Broadway, with touring companies all over the world.

When he is working at home, which is often, the commute is a lot easier: All that’s required is rolling out the back door, through the yard, and up to the second floor of the carriage house at the end of the driveway, where the cramped space is warmed by an old potbellied stove that Mr. Lee feeds with wood and then a steady supply of coal. “Nice dry heat,” he said.

A congregation of old pendant lamps dangles from the ceiling of his studio, and there are more than enough clocks to represent every time zone in the world, all of which need to be wound daily. On an oak filing cabinet is an early model of the Jimmy Fallon set with a balcony, a mock-up done before Mr. Lee decided it ought to be a more intimate space.

Mr. Lee has made some difficult choices about what kind of work he takes on. He has done a few movie sets, but he didn’t like being away from Mrs. Lee and sons Will, now 40, and Ted, 31, when they were growing up. Doing more films would also have meant saying no more often to theater people, whom he also considers family.

On a recent tour of the house, Mrs. Lee pointed out some favorite things, many of which were acquired while Mr. Lee was “propping” his projects. “These are not bazillion-dollar paintings,” she said, referring to the hundreds of artworks they’ve collected. “Most were from fairs, $25 at the artist’s table.”

Their sons recall countless family trips to summer flea markets around New England and visits to salvage yards in industrial cities. And the difficulty of buying gifts for such avid collectors, which is continuing: What do you get the couple who has everything?

Will, who is now a teacher in Vermont with his own children, said it is taboo to give his parents anything new — but if something is old, chances are it’s already part of their collection. “If they see something they like, they’re going to own it,” he said. “So you have to find things they’re not going to find. That’s the challenge.”

Last year, he gave them a miniature model of an Airstream trailer and was happy to see it prominently displayed the next time he visited.

His younger brother, an artist and record store owner in Northampton, Mass., likes to joke about regifting them something that’s already in the house.

“They’d never know it,” he said. “And they’d be thrilled to have another one.”

[Sandy Keenan is a reporter for the New York Times “Home” section.]

*  *  *  *
by Ann Greer

[On 25 April, I posted my ROT report on David Ives’s The Heir Apparent, his adaptation of an 18th-century French farce presented by New York’s Classic Stage Company.  I made particular note of the wigs worn in that production and the artist who designed and made them, Paul Huntley.  In “Easy lies a head that wears his wig,” Ann Greer describes in the Washington Post the artistry of Huntley as it was applied in a recent Shakespeare Theatre Company presentation of Henry IV.  This article was originally published in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 4 May 2014.]

When floozy Doll Tearsheet, played by Maggie Kettering, enters a tavern scene in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV, Part 2,” your gaze is drawn to her crowning glory. Ringlets in extraordinary hues from rust to ruby cascade down her shoulders to perfectly cap her bawdy, worn attire.

This fantastical wig, one of the more than 60 human hair wigs and facial pieces in the productions of “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Part 2,” is the handiwork of designer Paul Huntley. He and director Michael Kahn settled on a contemporary vibe for the wigs, including a Rastafarian motif for high strung Hotspur (John Keabler).

“There’s a slightly modern approach, incorporating what you see in everyday life. It’s a contrast with Shakespeare’s words,” Huntley said by telephone from his base in New York. “I made the wigs a little wild in some ways, as the characters are all a rough and tumble lot.”

Huntley, in his 80s and a native of England, began his life in theater as an actor. He created wigs for the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh before moving to the United States in 1972. His workshop has four staff members, with others added as needed. Huntley designed wigs for the original Broadway productions of “Les Miserables,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Hairspray,” among others; his current Broadway shows are “Bullets Over Broadway,” “All the Way” and “Cinderella.” In 2003, he was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony Award.

Not all of Huntley’s wigs have been for actors. In the mid 1970s he made a dozen or so wigs of varying colors, lengths and styles for a man who was not forthcoming about their use. He did say that they were not for a play or movie, and that they should be of the finest craftsmanship and not detectable as wigs. Huntley worked with the man for five or six years, teaching him how to put on the wigs and their accompanying eyebrows and other facial hair. The man, who was middle-aged and graying, was made to look younger with some wigs, in a crew-cut style and a tousled, long-hair hippie look. He transported the wigs in a special suitcase and eventually divulged that he was involved in undercover government work and traveled to other countries. Then, without a farewell, he never returned to Huntley’s studio.

Wig design, as with other design elements in a production, entails familiarity with the script and research into the time period and types of characters. Focused work with the director and costume designer follows, along with input from the actors who will wear the wigs.

Stacy Keach, who plays Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre production, last performed the role of the jolly, dissolute knight 47 years ago, when he was 27. He wanted to recapture that look, so Huntley worked from photos to create a wig of silvery white waves with bushy muttonchops. For Ted van Griethuysen’s feisty Welsh warrior Owen Glendower, Huntley contributed to an almost show-stopping entrance with a wig that perfectly compliments the character developed by the actor.

“He adored it,” Huntley chuckled. “It is sort of magnificent, isn’t it? Ted suddenly felt like this grand character; we all thought he should be in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ We went for an untamed look that would also give him majesty with his costume.”

With van Griethuysen and the other actors, Huntley said that wigs give them a complete picture physically of what they have created during rehearsal.

“It’s the last thing they see before they go on stage — themselves in the mirror from the neck up,” he said. “Suddenly they see the character, and it gives them an enormous amount of confidence, it really makes them feel the part.”

[Ann Greer is a freelance writer.]


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