[THEATER] Eugene Lee - Tony Award Winning Set Designer
- Eugene Lee (set designer)
He has been the Resident Designer at Rhode Island's Trinity Rep for
30 years. He has a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, a BFA from
Carnegie Mellon University, an MFA from Yale Drama School, and
honorary Ph.Ds from both DePaul University and Rhode Island College.
Mr. Lee has won two Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, for
Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" and for his glorious design at the
Gershwin Theatre of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." He is the
production designer for Saturday Night Live on NBC. Other New York
theater work includes: "Alice in Wonderland," Larry Kramer's "The
Normal Heart," "Agnes of God," and "Uncle Vanya."
His film work includes John Huston's "Mr. North," and Louis
Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street." His more recent work includes the
Broadway revival of "Showboat" (which also played the Gershwin
Theatre), for which he won the 1995 Outer Critics Circle Award and
the 1995 Drama Desk Award, and the Broadway production of the
Ahrens/Flaherty/McNally musical "Ragtime."
Susan Hilferty (costumes) was recently nominated for a Tony Award
for the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." She
chairs the design department at New York University's Tisch School
of the Arts. Her other New York designs include "Jitney," "Dirty
Blonde," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Night
of the Iguana," Tina Howe's "Coastal Disturbances" and Paul
Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told."
Mr. Lee has been designing at Trinity Rep since 1967. He has BFA
degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon
University, an MFA from Yale, and three honorary doctorates. He has
been the production designer at Saturday Night Live since 1974. He
has received the Tony Award, the American Theatre Wing's Design
Award, the Outer Critics' Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the
Pell Award, the RI Governor's Award for the Arts, and has been
nominated for the Emmy. He won the 2004 Tony Award for the musical
Wicked. He is an adjunct professor at Brown University, and lives in
Providence with his wife Brooke.
EUGENE LEE (Scenic Designer)
He has been Resident Designer at Trinity Rep since 1967. He has a
BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, a BFA from Carnegie Mellon
University, an MFA from Yale Drama School, and an honorary Ph.D from
both DePaul University and Rhode Island College. Mr. Lee has won
three Tony Awards, for Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Stephen
Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Wicked.
He was also nominated for a Tony for his work on Ragtime. He is the
production designer for "Saturday Night Live" on NBC. Other New York
theater includes: Slaveship, Alice in Wonderland, The Normal Heart,
Agnes of God, Grandchild of Kings and Uncle Vanya.
Film credits include Easy Money, Francis Ford Coppola's Hammett,
John Huston's Mr. North, and Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street.
Recent projects include Stephen Sondheim's Bounce at the Kennedy
Center. An adjunct professor at Brown University, he lives in
Providence with his wife Brooke and son Teddy.
When Eugene Lee designs a set, he often redesigns the theatre,
repositioning exits, light booths, even walls, to accommodate the
play. His audiences frequently find themselves inside, on top, or
under sets that don't stay put. A graduate of Robert Brustein's Yale
School of Drama, where he studied with Donald Oenslager, Lee first
came to international attention when he designed Slave Ship and
Candide at the Chelsea Theatre Center in Brooklyn. He is perhaps
best known for his adventurous collaborations with Adrian Hall,
Andre Gregory, Peter Brook, and Harold Prince, and for his long run
at NBC, designing Saturday Night Live. His current project is The
Seussical, a musical based on the writings of Dr. Seuss, with music
and lyrics by Steven Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens and directed by Frank
Galati. Davi Napoleon recently talked with the designer.
Davi Napoleon: You've done so much! Where should we begin?
Eugene Lee: I tend to be focused on what I'm doing at the moment.
I'm very excited about this musical based on Dr. Seuss stories. We
worked on it a bit in Toronto over the summer. Frank Galati is
DN: How are you approaching the project?
Lee: I've never done anything quite like it. When people describe
rockets and wheels and a universe that is spinning through space,
the mind spins.
DN: Where does it land?
Lee: I know more about what it couldn't be than what it will be.
DN: What isn't The Seussical?
Lee: Often these things develop a cartoony style, and that ain't it.
We were at a possible theatre, where Seussical may go. I always get
really good ideas from the actual space. On the surface, this
theatre is small and slightly wrong. After sitting there, I got
great ideas. Some of them involve a little re-construction.
DN: Will your design resemble the illustrations in the Seuss books?
Lee: One has to reference his work in some way; if you look at the
drawings, he has this incredible universe. But it harkens back to
the kind of storytelling in Alice in Wonderland. None of it looked
like the illustrations in the book at all.
DN: That was one of the many productions you've done with Andre
Lee: We're working on a piece of Wally's [Wallace Shawn] now, The
Designated Mourner. Wally plays the part. They've been rehearsing it
for the last couple of years. It will be like the last thing we
worked on, Vanya on 42nd Street. We'll have an audience of about 30
people. We found a wonderful space for part of it on the Lower East
Side. It's falling apart.
DN: You did Vanya at the New Victory?
Lee: I found it when I was looking for theatres for Grandchild of
Kings with Mr. Prince. It was a dangerous place, with pipes half in
and frozen in place. We sent a friendly stagehand, an experienced
man, into the flies and he came down shaking. We couldn't do the
film there. They started to restore it. It was a great space before
it was restored.
DN: In the days of Adrian Hall and Richard Jenkins at Trinity
Repertory Theatre in Providence, you sometimes worked in unusual
places or totally reconfigured the theatre space to suit the play.
Lee: It was exciting in the 70s, with Adrian. He had certain
philosophies that seem little strange today. There was no recorded
sound. If the actors couldn't make it or play it, we didn't use it.
He was interested in the process. Very seldom did the set get
designed before we got into rehearsal. I miss that.
DN: And things stayed loose under Richard Jenkins, Hall's protege?
Lee: Yes, I encouraged him to take the job. If he hadn't, there
might have been no Trinity Rep. He's such a comic guy and such a
wonderful actor. The critics tended to say about things, 'It was in
the Trinity style.' That's kind of true. Oskar [Eustis] inherited
quite a good company.
DN: Are you doing anything this season at Trinity Rep?
Lee: Oskar sent over a new play. I'll do it unless I'm really busy.
It depends on The Seussical.
DN: What do you think of his Trinity Rep?
Lee: I love them at Trinity. It's been over 35 years! I would love
to design there until I can't move my hands. The theatre seems to be
doing well financially. People like us. The work tends to be work
that seems to be aimed at making people like us: My Fair Lady. I'm
not against that. It's okay for the time. In the 70s, if people
weren't upset, you didn't feel you were getting to them.
DN: Has the process changed?
Lee: It seems a little more formalized now. Things change. Lighting
design changes. Technology changes. It's not about good or bad. I'm
doing a little play at Playwrights Horizons with my old friend
Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Forty-second Street has changed. Everything is
slick. I kind of liked 42nd Street when it was really seedy.
DN: That's where you've been doing Saturday Night Live.
Lee: That's been on 25 years. When we started, there was no comedy
channel, no cable, no fax machine.
DN: How has your design process changed for SNL?
Lee: They want it a little more detailed.
DN: More realistic?
Lee: I guess. They all do movies now.
DN: And you?
Lee: I did a film for Francis Ford Coppola, Hammett [produced by
Coppola and directed by Wim Wenders], and Mr. North, a wonderful
film in Newport years ago--John Houston was executive producer. The
thing is, you can only do a film. You can't do anything else. It
takes you away from your house, out of your studio. And in my own
humble way, I'd prefer to be the director of a film than the
designer. But theatre, it's the most wonderful business. My father,
who was an engineer, said to me, 'I work with a lot of people who
don't like their jobs. Do something you really like.' And I have.
DN: You've also been teaching.
Lee: I'm on the faculty of Brown, Rhode Island School of Design
(RISD), and Carnegie Mellon. We're working on a program to combine
Brown, Trinity Rep, RISD, and Rhode Island College.
DN: What have you gotten from teaching?
Lee: You end up adopting half the people you teach. It's such a
funny, hard business to get going in. The way I did it, the people I
knew at Yale [School of Drama] started Chelsea [the Chelsea Theatre
Center of Brooklyn, which produced Slave Ship and Candide]. It was a
wonderful adventuresome theatre. Harold Prince was on the board.
It's how I met Peter Brook. It's how I met Harold, of course.
DN: How do you work with Hal Prince?
Lee: Generally, with Mr. Prince, he has a thought. You solve the
problem. You show it to him and he doesn't think it's solved. You go
back. But he's terribly open. I can always call him. He's always
helpful. He has an office that when it closes it will be like a lot
of other things, the end of an age. He did that wonderful musical,
Parade, a thinking man's musical. His family comes first. He's a
good role model. When you look out in the house at a dress
rehearsal, all the family is sitting there.
DN: Robert Kalfin, who co-produced Candide and Slave Ship, says you
amaze him with your use of space. 'Even when needing to adapt to the
proscenium, such as in Sweeney Todd, Eugene astounded us with his
unique use of startling physical components.' Robert Brustein says
you 'have the remarkable capacity to create an illusion of vast
reaches out of circumscribed space.' How do you feel about
Lee: It's all actually kind of a different challenge. I was happier,
I must say, in the 70s at Trinity, when the goal was to confront the
audience in a real direct way.
DN: You just did Moon for the Misbegotten for Dan Sullivan at the
Goodman Theatre in Chicago and you'll be taking it to the Walter
Kerr in March?
Lee: It opens for its first public appearance on March 9, my
DN: How did you approach the design for that?
Lee: Eugene O'Neill is a special favorite of mine. I've done almost
all his plays over the years at Trinity. O'Neill is terribly
specific about what the environment might be.
DN: So you knew from the start what you had to do?
Lee: I had six different ideas and they all developed into 1/4"
scale models. Dan [Sullivan] was out of town in Stanford. We took
them all down to him one day. Dan looked at them all very carefully
and said, 'I think I could direct it in that one.' We built a 1/2"
scale model of it.
DN: What ideas were you playing with in the different models?
Lee: One has to make a decision: Does one go inside the house or in
front? I was having terrible trouble deciding where the moon is and
where the sky is, so finally [I arrived at] the notion of making a
sky in a theatre. Where's the moon? Out where the audience is. I
prefer the sky outside when I'm sailing. O'Neill suggests that this
tenement farm house had been moved and is sitting on wooden blocks,
that it doesn't fit into the landscape. One of the arguments in this
drama is about the farm and selling it. What are these farms like?
We settled on a house on a hillside of rocks and dirt.
DN: Real dirt?
Lee: [Once, on a production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles],
we wanted dirt. If it had been Peter Brook, they would have brought
in the dirt. But they said, 'Go to Universal. They have dirt skins.
They kind of look like dirt, like a rug.' We tracked down these
people in California and they sent some, rolled up. We took out a
match and it burnt like the devil. It's good stuff. After a lot of
fussing around, the Goodman shop, which is fabulous, figured out a
way to make it look very close [to dirt].
DN: I know that you used real materials for shows at Trinity Rep.
Lee: We used real found things for Sweeney Todd, too. I prefer to
build out of real things. There is some kind of humanity to it, some
kind of history to the planks.
DN: What do you enjoy most in your work?
Lee: Nothing makes me happier than an impossible space and an
has been resident designer at Trinity Rep since 1967. He has a BFA
from the Art Institute of Chicago, a BFA from Carnegie Mellon
University, an MFA from Yale Drama School and an honorary Ph.D from
both DePaul University and Rhode Island College. Mr. Lee has won
three Tony Awards for Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Stephen
Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Wicked. He was also nominated for a Tony
for his work on Ragtime. He is the production designer for "Saturday
Night Live" on NBC. Other New York theatre includes Slaveship, Alice
in Wonderland, The Normal Heart, Agnes of God, Grandchild of Kings
and Uncle Vanya. Film credits include Easy Money, Francis Ford
Coppola's Hammett, John Huston's Mr. North and Louis Malle's Vanya
on 42nd Street. Recent projects include Stephen Sondheim's Bounce at
the Kennedy Center. An adjunct professor at Brown University, he
lives in Providence with his wife Brooke and son Teddy.