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A CurtainUp Interview
Set Designer Derek McLane

This interview is yet another look at one of the unseen (except through their work) creative talents who are a vital part of the collaborative process of putting on a show. One of the key members of any show's production team is the set designer and Derek McLane is one of the busiest and most talented of the small band of practitioners of the set designer's craft. As we learned when he graciously took time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about his work, he's also an attractive, charming and delightfully open young man with a sense of humor and a balanced perspective -- the last seeded by a loving and supportive family, a "heartland" childhood (he was born in London but his American parents returned to the US -- Evanston Ill -- when he was 3 or 4) and marriage (to a film producer who understands the demands of his profession since her sister is the set designer Heidi Ettinger).

Unlike actors who often become smitten with the idea of going on stage as children after being taken to their first show, McLane stumbled into designing. He always liked to build things but his creative efforts were directed to aquariums not stage sets and while his parents took him to see some shows, theater was not a career on his horizon. Instead, he entered college as an English major, (not a bad beginning for an artist for whom the first step towards doing his job requires that he read and understand the play he will be working). It was when a college friend asked him to design a set that he became smitten. This eventually led him to enter the Yale Drama School's graduate program and honing his artistic skills with lots and lots of drawing courses, including adult education classes. Graduation in 1984 was followed by the trek to New York, first as an apprentice to several experienced designers and eventually heading his own design company. It's evident that fourteen years of navigating the often rough and tumble world of show business have not diminished his passionate love for set design.

We met with Derek at the Vineyard Theater where we were able to look at his set for Nicky Silver's new play A Maiden's Prayer, which had begun previews just a few days before we met and opens officially on February 22nd. The set was still undergoing some last-minute carpentry but essentially, McLane's work is finished -- and he will go into full gear on another upcoming project with Scott Elliott and the New Group, Hazelewood Jr. High School.

The interview follows the format of previous interviews. The letters CU precede precede CurtainUp's questions The letters DM precede Derek McLane's responses. --e.s.
CU: Before we get into the set we're looking at today, let's backtrack briefly to some of the people who influenced and inspired you along the way. Any seminal teachers and influences at Yale?
    DM: There was the friend who asked me to design a set for him at college after which I became totally thrilled about doing this. At Yale I had a great teacher, Ming Cho Lee (Ed note: The Tony-award winning set designer who worked on the recently reviewed Romeo and Juliet --see link at end). I was also very much influenced by the work of Joseph Svoboda who was a real pioneer of set design in the 50s and 60s. I bought his book and worshiped him for years.
CU: So what happened after you graduated and you came to New York. How did you get started working in the field?
    DM: .I knew some names of designers to call up to get some work as assistant and those designers. You can actually make a better living as assistant set designer than designer -- no expenses and you get salary. I worked with Robin Wagner who did a lot of big musicals and was then working with Michael Bennett.
CU: How long did this post-graduate apprenticeship with these working practitioners like Wagner last?
    DM: I needed a hefty apprenticeship period because when I graduated from Yale I had sort of lost my voice as a designer. I was a stronger designer before but then at Yale I got wrapped up trying to assimilate all these skills and because I was young I was very impressionable. This happens to actors too-- when they get out of Juilliard they seem terribly academic watching their voice lessons and movements. What you need to do is to throw all that stuff away and sort of put all the training in the background and an apprenticeship is helpful in doing that. Some of my older classmates at Yale weren't as overly shaped by their teachers but it took me 3 -4 years as assistant.

    Another designer who I worked with during this period and who was a great inspiration to me was Doug Stein (Ed Note: Stein is the designer of the forthcoming Roundabout revival of A Flea In Her Ear). I learned a huge amount about how to design and also how to talk to director and producers --the business of being a designer. Now we're just colleagues and friends and he's one of the six designers I share a studio with.
CU: Sounds like a pretty large space?
    DM: It's an old fur factory and three of the designers are costume designers so it's great to be able to chat about what's going on and bounce ideas off each other.
CU: Now that you've designed a lot of shows on your own tell us a bit about how you work on a play -- how does the process begin and how did that tree land on the stage of the Vineyard for A Maiden's Prayer?
    DM: The director, (in this case Evan Yionoulis with whom McLane went to school but has never worked with before), calls to ask if you're interested and you read the play to decide whether to say yes or no. Liking a play is most important. If you don't care about play there's no point- to doing it; you'll never come up with good idea. After that you and the director start to have conversations.

    In the case of Maiden one of things that struck me when I first read it was that it had a lot of overlapping scenes -- and lot of times you go very quickly from one place to another. The script didn't give you the feeling that you could have any moving scenery, what what is there just has to be there a while and co-exist with other specific pieces of scenery needed to establish a sense of place. The initial conversations with the director were about how to make those places coexists simultaneously and how to make that happen effortlessly. I also do a lot of doodles to try out various schemes and get to something that makes sense. These also show the director where I was going.
CU: Does the playwright enter into these conversations at all?
    DM: It depends on the director. Sometimes the director doesn't want the playwright involved during the early stage. In this case Nicky had a lot to say about the play and he's very smart about the scenery.
CU: How true is the final set to the ideas you get during or right after the play reading?
    DM: When I read a play I always imagine things and then when I'm actually working on a set I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like and I try desperately to hang on to this initial impulse because that is what audience wants. Sometimes it's hard to hang onto that feeling as other problems come up.
CU: So how did that tree that looms so big on stage work its way into this process?
    DM: There is reference to tree in the opening and closing scenes of play. There's also this house in Connecticut and a shift in scene to a New York apartment. Even though that house is not visible when the action moves in New York, that tree seemed like a wonderful stable presence that's there when you see the house --and when the action shifts to New York. You don't give it a thought, various other set pieces appear-- but that tree is always there.
CU: What about the house?
    DM: The house is always there too but it appears and disappears based on whether or not you light it.
CU: This brings up the subject of your work with the other members of the production team, how important is the choice of who's going to be doing the lighting and costumes to you
    DM: I care a lot about both but I'm really dependent on the lighting designer. So much modern scenery is about how you light it. Many plays are written with 20-40 scenes and you really can't make all those places with hard physical scenery so you're dependent upon creating a lot of those places with light and color and shapes. By having that Connecticut house (ed note: a facade of the house, actually) behind a scrim it can just stay there and be visible or invisible according to how it's lit. (Ed Note: Readers may want to refer back to our comments to the light-created railroad tracks in Ragtime ).
CU: What's you involvement with and responsibility for props and projections?
    DM: There's -always a props person who actually goes out and finds the stuff but I'm responsible and there are various ways this is handled -- -research, pictures or you go shopping with a person. I also do little doodle sketches--or, if a prop has to be built then you do a draft sketch as you do for the set. (Ed note: As we walked out of the interview, Derek showed me one of these draft drawings of the Maiden and explained that this is one of the duties he now assigns to an assistant). We also re-use some stuff in the theater's warehouse which for Maiden included several pieces that were reupholstered to fit the new set. I work with other people on projections, like Wendall Harrington who probably does more of these than anyone (Ed Note: Recently garnering much praise for both Capeman and Ragtime ). The exception are very simple projections as for Hazelwood Jr. High where the projections are just text and therefore a computer typing job.
CU: Since Maiden is a comedy, how do you as a designer support the wit?
    DM: Well I don't really the thing about comedies because most of time you can't do funny scenery. It's a kind of theatrical rule that for comedy to work well the actor must be brightly lit which means I have to be aware about what color the set is. Also-- this play is s actually extremely sad.
CU: So what would you say is the key of your design for this play?
    DM: It's a very delicate play with a very simple design that I hope has caught that overlapping quality of scenes. It's not kind of set that's will actually cause people to talk about it a lot
CU: But sets are talked about and always come up in reviews in fact, sometimes the : gets a better review than the show. When that happens, does it make you uncomfortable?
    DM: Sometimes but the fact is that it's easier to design a set than write a play. A good set can be difficult but it's not nearly as tricky as writing a new play. (Editorial aside: Unlike a lot of actors who claim not to pay attention to reviews, McLane was familiar enough with who said what about which show to make it clear that he keeps up with what critics say about all plays, not just his own; also that he takes less than ecstatic appraisals of his work without rancor and is able to see the silver lining hiding behind some not so favorable comments).
CU: Do you get nervous about reviews and do you feel it's fair for someone to say you should have been more or less abstract or realistic when that's probably the director's decision?
    DM: About reviews--sure I get nervous. On the second question, you don't abdicate responsibility to the director but you talk about it. To me each play has its own own problems to solve and to me that's the most exciting part, to figure out what will make this play work.
CU: In terms of your work in general, is there a style that defines your work, or a signature of some kind--something that invariably shows up in your work or otherwise defines it and might in some ways typecast you?
    DM: I try to avoid that though it's also inevitable. I probably am more typed than I realize but I couldn't tell you about my style signature any more than I can describe my own personality. My wife could probably do so more clearly but to me it's sort of invisible, just who I am and it the same about designing. I can't say what my style because I try to avoid a style. What I try to achieve with each project is to make each develop life of its own.
CU: In other words, no one can say about a play you've worked on as "all set no play?"
    DM: I would try to avoid that.
CU: You've mentioned Hazelewood Jr. High as your next project -- do you often work on several projects at once and if so, how difficult is it to juggle your time and energies?
    DM: I do about ten plays a year, and used to do more, and I don't find it that hard. It's distracting only if someone is having serious problem. Actually I find it stimulating to work on several different things at once, as long as the projects you're working on are not too similar. You can also be just a little less nauseated and nervous on opening night as the actors and directors because you have more things going on.
CU: You obviously don't lack for work, but is there any particular thing you're pining to do Anything you're pining to do--genre, specific plays
    DM: Oklahoma. I'd love to do a big Broadway revival of that. I've done a number of small musicals -- Hello, Again, The First Lady's Suite (both produced pre-CurtainUp but right up there on our list of memorable and unusual small musicals) and Violet (see our review) -- and quite a few operas (including a forthcoming premiere of Dream Play at the Sante Fe Opera House. My first big musical Harmony with Barry Manilow is coming to Broadway next Spring.
CU: Since you're married to a film producer, is movie work on your own horizon?
    DM: No. I did a bit of film work but t I never worked on good movie. Mostly, the problem solving is not as interesting. In a movie you design everything as it ought to be. In a play you have a limited amount of space and time and making it fit in those parameters requires the type of thinking I love best, the kind of puzzles I like to solve.
CU: Before we end, one more tree question About Maiden -- what about that extra tree trunk that's lying at the side of the stage?
    DM: Well, if you look closely at the scrim you'll see that there's a mark outlining a tree, but we thought we'd try actually putting another tree back there.
CU: Well, I can't wait to see if it works when I come to see the play -- and thanks for taking the time for this interview.
©Copyright Elyse Sommer.
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