Eugene Lee Accepts USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in Scene Design

Eugene Lee Accepts USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in Scene Design

USITT honored Eugene Lee with its 2014 Distinguished Achievement Award in Scene Design Friday at its 54th Annual Conference & Stage Expo.

USITT Scene Design Co-Commissioner Michelle Harvey presented the award to Lee in recognition of a career that includes 40 years as production designer for Saturday Night Live and three Tony awards for best scenic design, for Broadway's Candide (1974), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Wicked (2004).

"There's no major process," Lee said of his work. "I just like what I do."

Hundreds of technical theatre professionals and students attended Lee's award presentation at USITT's biggest annual event, the four-day Conference & Stage Expo in Fort Worth. The Conference drew about 5,000 live entertainment professionals and more than 250 companies, with over 240 stagecraft-related workshops and events.

Lee entertained fans with funny stories and wisdom at his award session and, earlier Friday, in a panel discussion with the five other 2014 USITT Distinguished Achievement Award winners: Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, sound design pioneer Bob McCarthy, lighting design legend Shirley Prendergast, Texas stage manager and mentor Susan Threadgill, and technical theatre educator Dana Taylor.

When asked how he brainstorms ideas for sets with directors and producers, he said he would rather not. "I don't need any more meetings," he said to big laughs.

Lee said he had fun with a couple recent projects -- the miniature hand-carved wooden Manhattan skyline behind Jimmy Fallon's new Tonight Show desk - "it's all made of cherry," Lee said -- and the scene design for the new musical The Fortress of Solitude playing at the Dallas Theatre Center (and heading to New York's Public Theatre later this year).

Of his 40 years at SNL, Lee said he's still learning how to design for live TV. "After every show I say, 'Well, I've failed. Maybe next week will be better.'It usually isn't.'"

He told students asking how to start their careers, "I'm a dummy, so if I can do it, anybody can do it."

"I do believe in hard work," he added. "I work all day. I don't have lunch."

He joked that he's been at SNL so long he doesn't remember why they do certain things.

"For instance, whenever we shoot in the hallway, we have to have Abe Lincoln, a chorus girl, and a llama," Lee said. "I don't know why anymore. But when we get a script that says 'Shoot in the hallway,' we order the llama. Last year they sent the wrong color llama. We sent it back."

USITT, the national association for theatrical and live entertainment designers and technicians, provides year-round opportunities for networking, training, and promotion of the backstage arts. For more information, visit

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