Feature: Derek McLane Sheds Light on the Work of a Set Designer http://www.curtainup.com/mclane14.html a Curtainup Feature: Derek McLane Sheds Light on the Work of a Set Designer CurtainUp
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A CurtainUp Feature
Derek McLane Sheds Light on the Work of a Set Designer

Recently I had a chance to hear Derek McLane talk about his work again, this time as part of the Stage Directors and Choreographers (SDC)'One-On-One Conversation events. The discussion was between McLane and British Director Sean Mathias who directed the recent Godot-Pinter hit (Curtainup review ), about how they each work, with the focus on how they work together.

The London born and "heartland" raised McLane(Evanston, Ill since he was a toddler) now has a dab of gray at the temples, he's as attractive, charming and delightfully open as ever. His sense of humor and balanced perspective also remains intact.

McLane's career, though already well launched when we first met in 1998, has zoomed into truly big time success. His impressive number of much praised major production designs include a Tony for 33 Variations. Some major projects currently in the works include Gigi scheduled for the Kennedy Center in DC next season and The Money Shot, a new play by one of my favorite playwrights, Neil LaBute on which he'll be working with director Terry Kinney. As he's dealt with the challenges of a super busy, high profile career, so he's managed to move on from a divorce to a new relationship.

Much of what McLane told me during that long ago interview which took place in the lobby of the Vineyard Theater where he was designing the set for Nicky Silver's The Maiden's Prayer still applies to any description of what he's working on.. However, super success has resulted in his designing mostly big Broadway and other high profile shows.

To reiterate the background facts: McLane's early creative efforts were directed to things like 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 on). It was only when a college friend asked him to design a set that he became smitten with the theater. 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.

When I interviewed Derek at the Vineyard Theater the set for A Maiden's Prayer was in place but still undergoing some last-minute carpentry. In answer to an SDC audience member's question about whether he attends rehearsals, he explained that this is when he sees if he needs to adjust anything to facilitate the between scenes transitions. However, any adjustments apply to what's on stage since "it's more expensive to load inn a set than to build it."

In the case of the Vineyard show McLane's work was sufficiently finished when we spoke for him go into full gear on an upcoming project for the New Group, another respected Off-Broadway company. As he explained at the SDC discussion, despite his working mostly on very high profile production, he does like to still work with small companies like the New Group and smaller out-of-town companies as they afford more of a chance to make mistakes that won't have the sort of visibility to adversely affect your career.

What follows is the 1998 interview which follows our format of preceding CurtainUp's questions with the letters CU and the initials of the interview subject preceding the responses. To update some of Derek's answers with some related remarks made during the SDC conversations, I've added such additional comments in yellow. --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 (oteN: aTony-award winning set designer). 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.
    In answer to a question about his own requirements for an assistant, McLane cited drawing skills as a top priority.
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 Julliard 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.
    This post graduate period of being blocked came up again at the recent discussion at which time he added that the best advice he got was from a friend who told him "use a pencil as if it has a mind of its own." Though computers are much in use these days, McLane hasn't abandoned this creative tool.
Another designer who I worked with during this period and who was a great inspiration to me was Doug Stein 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 in an old fur factory.
He's since moved to a new and much better space of my own, with studio space for his assistants, and office for himself and a conference room. The larger space is shared with Catherine Zuber, the costume designer, and Doug Hughes, the director, but we each have our own separate work areas.
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.
    Lots of drawings are still a critical starting point
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 play and he's very smart about the scenery.
    In discussing his work with Sean Mathias, McLane emphasized that with other directors as well these early conversations were largely one-on-one propositions. And he responded with an empathetic "no" when asked whether producers were ever allowed to be in on these discussions. As he explained, having your "boss" watching you while your work is still developing would hamper the freedom to play with ideas that though wrong often are the impetus for ideas that are right.
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 to 40 scenes and you really can't make all those places with hard physical scenery so you'redependent 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.
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 butI'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 The exception are very simple, as when all that's projected is text and therefore a computer typing job.
    Since the use of projections has escalated over the last dozen years I asked whether he planned to be adding this to his own studio work. He expressed no interest in doing so and, in fact, voiced a concern that projections were being overdone. As he put it "you can't touch them or sit on them." That said, projections are very much present in many of his sets and Harrington while still the eminence grise in this field, other projection designers have come on scene and worked on McLane sets.
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 scenic design 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. 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.
    Some of McLane's much praised sets for musicals, do have one style element, a two tier set with lots happening on all levels, that serves these shows very well (see reviews of Beautiful, the Carole King Musical , Anything Goes , Ragtime).
CU: As you see your sets, no one can say about a play you've worked on as "all set no play?"
    DM: I would try to avoid that.
    Nevertheless there are times when your sets have gotten better reviews than the play, which I admit was the case with my review of your last New Group play, Intimacy.
CU: 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 have, however,worked on a number of small musicals.
    Though he's yet to do Oklahoma, McLane now has plenty of impressive designs for big musicals under his belt, including Follies as well as the above mentioned Ragtime, Anything Goes and Beautiful, the Carole King Musical, he designed the Fiasco Threatre's production of Into The Woods at the McCarter Theatre ( see Curtainup's review). Other productions of both Beautiful and Into the Woods are on the not too distant horizon.
CU: Is movie work on your own horizon?
    DM: No. I did a bit of film work but 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.
    Apparently the door to film work is not locked all that tight since McLane did tell me that there is a film project he's working on that's still in development and with a director that I have worked with a number of times. He felt it was still too early on to give specifics. As for screen work, he did design the Sound of Music Live for NBC. This was as he put it "not exactly a film, but moving in that direction." Also not exactly a film but different from his main theater work, he also worked as the production designer, known for the Oscars (2013), the 86th Academy Awards (2014) and the 64th Annual Tony Awards (2010)
    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.
    While the play hasn't had much of an after life, but everything did indeed work, per my review Too Much Sun, by Silver will have its world premiere at the Vineyard Theater with an official opening 5/18.

    For some more set images see Derek's website: http://derekmclane.org/home.html

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