BWW Interviews: Edward Burbridge Talks About Designing Sets
Talk about a calling! Set designer Edward Burbridge always had it in him to design sets. Directors just keep calling on him and he keeps on going and going, finding unexpected inspiration from various sources. Burbridge designed the set for Marat/ Sade, Mike Downstairs, Jimmy Shine, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, Our Town, Buck White, Status Quo Vadis , The River Niger , The Visit, Chemin de Fer, Holiday, Absurd Person Singular, The First Breeze of Summer, Reggae, Checkmates and Mule Bone. He was the Costume Supervisor for What the Wine-Sellers Buy and The River Niger. His current project is the set design for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun at the Westport Country Playhouse.
How did you get started in set design?
I’ve been doing it all my life. I was the kid in kindergarten who made the costumes colored with Crayola crayons and painted backgrounds on Kraft brown paper. And sang. And was Edward the Ugly Prince on the radio. I was always designing or performing.
How do you find people to hire you?
I’ve never really gone out much looking for a job. I just work with directors who are also starting out and they took me along.
How do they find you? First of all, I was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. I did all those early plays that were done in the 1960s. I worked in summer theatre. I worked at Metropolitan Opera while still going to art school…a compendium of things. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are dead or gone to Hollywood.
What’s involved in the design process?
In this particular case, working with Phylicia Rash?d, whom I’ve known for a long time, I was working with a friend. I worked with her before as an actress. Phylicia comes to this project with a deep knowledge. She appeared in it and directed it before. [Rash?d won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun and won the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for the 2008 television adaptation.] I designed it once before for the stage and for PBS with Ruby Dee and Al Freeman, Jr. To Be Young, Gifted and Black had a scene from this. Phylicia has a very strong vision for this play. My job is to support her vision of the play.
Where do you start?
It’s different and specific for each play. For A Raisin in the Sun I started with the Langston Hughes poem. I don’t want to sound esoteric. There are things in the poem that I can express visually. The setting is naturalistic. The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem. It takes it out of strict naturalism. Having said that, one doesn’t want to be heavy handed with it and hit them over the head. The Lena character is trying to get this house. She’s hoping it has outdoor space. I have an image of a garden that isn’t quite there…a floral wallpaper motif…faded, as if it’s appearing or disappearing. Further on in the poem, Langston Hughes talks about the dream deferred -- Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. That tells me …when looking for furniture, for example. I can decide what type of sofa feels right. The color -- is it heavy or light? Sometimes it’s more about what it shouldn’t be than what it should be. I shop it as if I’m the character. If I’m going out with the prop master, [I think] is this something the person would buy? Having said that, this is in my mind and I know when it feels right and when it doesn’t. I have to couple that with what the director wants. The director has the final say, [and] I need to support that.
I also listen. I like the director to talk to me the way she talks to the actors. She gets them to be clear about their backstory, where they’re coming from. I listen to that same kind of conversation, and I try to work from that. From that I get what’s important to actors, in particularly props and furniture. I did the set for Absurd Person Singular, with Geraldine Page. The play ran for over a year. I got a call from the house property man that the rug had worn out. I got a note from Geraldine Page. The property man replaced it with another rug-- not the same. She had a sense memory of that particular rug. Seeing the new rug without being told unsettled her.
What was the smallest budget you’ve ever worked with besides Our Town?
Budgets have changed. With Absurd Person Singular, I did three complete sets for $23K. When you’re doing regional theatre, they get a lot for their money… because they have their own carpenters and good quality carpentry. In regional theatre, you’re not even given a budget. Once I give the design, they work with it.
Sometimes I’m given a figure. Some producers tell me to design it first. They get three or four bids. It’s competitive. And they know their budget. I presented it to the technical director to look at he was able to say, yes, it was within budget. I don’t have to know a dollar figure.
In the case of the Westport Country Playhouse [for A Raisin in the Sun], I knew the budget and presented the design to the technical director. Right now the set has been largely built. It’s covered with a wallpaper fabric. The scenic artist is painting it. I will go out and work with him.
How long does it take to design a set?
It varies. This was quick and long at the same time. I got the job a long time ago. I didn’t really meet with Phylicia until much closer to the production date. So much of it is being done by communicating by computer, iPhones, emails.
What was the most challenging set you had to design?
Probably a musical which didn’t make it to New York -- Satchmo. There were a lot of sets, a lot of orchestras on the stage. [I had to design them] historically, the way they would be. Lala Club to Waldorf-Astoria. That was produced by Kenneth Feld of Barnum & Bailey Circus.
What’s your personal style?
That’s easy. First I trained at Pratt Institute in painting. I studied under faculty members who came out of the Bauhaus School. I really like clean, simple contemporary design. I like to do things that are either contemporary or grungy. I’m not much for doing lovely drawing rooms. When I came along it was just around the time people were doing things very structured [like] Marat/Sade. To flip that completely, I’ve done ballet reconstructions for The Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre. I like to work in watercolor. In reconstructing ballet, it’s very fluid and painterly.
For television I did Kojak. A lot of work [was] in the street. We had a well-knit production crew. The budget really wasn’t a consideration. We had to move so fast. I’d be with the prop man in the car. We’d go to the prop shop and pick this, that, that. [I did most the set designs for PBS’s Dance in America. When I wasn’t doing that I was singing with Alvin Alley. I’ve had an eclectic background.
With A Raisin in the Sun, the story was close to me. I was born in New Orleans. My parents divorced when I was four. We moved to Sacramento. My mother remarried. My step-father was a janitor. She was the person who wanted to get the house, just as the character in A Raisin in the Sun. She was the one who found us our first house. I had a grandmother who told me, “Whatever you do in life, get someplace you can call your own.” I grew up with that impulse. My mother was a seamstress. She became a furrier. My step-father stepped up…hiring other janitors. She got one house after the other….eventually a three bedroom house in the suburbs.
What’s your next project?
Working on my house [in] Brooklyn Heights. Years ago in 1968, I bought a small storefront. I renovated it in the 70s with people I worked with in the theatre. I made a couple of duplexes. Another staircase -- I’m hoping to do that at some point.
As far as theatre goes I don’t know. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I belong to the Sacramento Poetry Society. I’ve read there. I’m hoping to sing again with the Alvin Ailey Company. I’m going on studying, working on Spanish, watching telenovelas to improve my Spanish.
A Raisin in the Sun runs from October 9 through November 3. For tickets and more information, call (888) 927-7529 or (203) 227-4177. The Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court in Westport, Connecticut. Visit www.westportplayhouse.org.