An Exclusive BroadwayWorld 2011 Tony Award Interview With: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS Set Designer Beowulf Boritt
Having designed the stage sets for the Broadway productions of THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, LOVEMUSIK, Jay Johnson: TWO AND ONLY, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, ROCK OF AGES, and his Tony-nominated work on THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS this season, through his revolutionary and spare designs Beowulf Boritt has positioned himself as one of the most creative and sought-after stage innovators of the twenty-first century. Discussing all aspects of the Off Broadway and Broadway productions of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and tracing the progress of the design of the show from inspiration to model to actual set, we also discuss some of his past accomplishments - working with the great directors Hal Prince, James Lapine, SCOTTSBORO's Susan Stroman, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett; the latter his collaborator on THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS with the New York City Ballet last month - and some enticing new productions he is developing and has coming up in the near future - PARADISE FOUND, REEL-TO- REAL, THE TOXIC AVENGER in Houston, THE TEMPEST in Dallas, the ROCK OF AGES tour and West End mounting, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS in San Diego, and more!
PC: John Kander did this column a few months back when SCOTTSBORO was playing on Broadway. Did you get to work with him directly in the development process for the show?
BB: Yes, quite a bit. That was the most exciting thing.
PC: CABARET and, particularly, the revival of CHICAGO - along with Hal Prince's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN - act as evidence that Kander & Ebb shows seem to work well in sparse settings.
BB: Yeah, absolutely. I think their work is so theatrical and I think that's what led us to the design being kind of simple, the way it was. When you have a show where you've got a black guy playing a white woman or a black guy playing a white, redneck sheriff - you've got to have a world that's open enough and theatrical enough so that when, for example, a guy just changes his post and starts acting like something else, you just get it. If we had a whole, complete train set running around, it would look weird. But, if it's this very open theatrical environment where you can believe a chair is a train, then you've set up a world where anything can happen and just a gesture is enough to tell the story.
PC: And what about the buses?
BB: That was the first assignment when Stro called me about this job. We had to design this show relatively quickly. She called me and asked me to do it a couple of months before we went into rehearsal for it.
PC: Before the Vineyard?
BB: Yeah, we did it at the Vineyard first. We changed a little bit for Broadway, but that's really where we came up with all of the ideas.
PC: What did you two talk about in that first meeting?
BB: Well, of course, the theme of it was always going to be a minstrel show. She came in with the idea that she wanted those nine chairs onstage and basically nothing else.
PC: What a challenge.
BB: She basically said to me, "Can you make me all of these locations with nine chairs and that's all you've got to work with?" So, oh yeah, it was daunting - for there to be a train and jail cells and two different buses and on and on.
PC: Had you ever seen THE CHAIRS?
BB: The Ionesco play? I actually designed it - it was the second off-Broadway show I ever did. (Laughs.)
PC: Is that part of the reason she came to you?
BB: I don't think so, honestly. She and I were working on PARADISE FOUND with Hal Prince at the time.
PC: The great Hal Prince has done this column, as well. What is your opinion of him?
BB: We had a really great time working together. He's a great guy to work with. When we were doing LOVEMUSIK, I remember the first time I worked with him and I remember the first time I went into his office for a meeting and the entire history of American theatre is on the wall! You know, he produced/directed everything! (Laughs.)
PC: His office has some of the most amazing props you'll ever see.
BB: Yeah, I remember what drew my eye was this little paperweight for a desk set that has the figures from SWEENEY TODD - it's a sculpture of the theatre poster with Sweeney holding up the razor blade and Lovett holding up the rolling pin.
PC: And the FOLLIES set model.
BB: Yeah, I looked for an elephant in there. One of my tics as a set designer is that I always put an elephant in the set design somewhere.
PC: Where it is it in ROCK OF AGES?
BB: Umm, (Pause.), you know what? It's graffitied on the walls in a couple places. But, because of all the graffiti you can't actually see them, but there are elephants all over it - you just have to look really closely to see them.
PC: Will you be designing the tours and international transfers of the show, as well?
BB: Yeah, it's already out on the road now. It's basically the same as in New York, except, of course, all the billboards in the audience you can't do like we do in New York. But, everything else is basically the same design.
PC: Tell me about designing SPELLING BEE and how you adapted the set for the tour of that, especially since it played on a thrust at The Circle-In-The-Square on Broadway.
BB: Well, you know, we had done it at the Second Stage first - which was more of a proscenium setting. So, we just kind of went back to that when we toured and we went to other cities - because, obviously, you are not going to get a space like Circle-In-The-Square most places.
PC: What a magnificent and theatrically rife space that is.
BB: Exactly. What was so great about it was that we could have all that stuff out in the audience and over the audience - and, you just can't do that on the tour.
PC: Did you try?
BB: Yeah, we had a few banners that we would try to hang up in theaters around the country, but, on a touring schedule, there is just not time to do all that and to get the lighting right and set and deal with it. It takes eight hours to put the set in in each city - and, you know, there's fairly no time to get the set and the lights up, let alone banners and all that. (Laughs.)
PC: How many trucks was it?
BB: I think we had five. Usually, the production manager will say, "You have to cut some scenery" and then I figure it out from there.
PC: The new LOVE NEVER DIES in Australia has a twenty-seven truck tour - a new record.
BB: Wow! That's incredible. That's so crazy. (Laughs.)
PC: What is your opinion on the new huge tours like that and WICKED?
BB: In Australia, the touring model is usually really different because you get a week between sit-downs so it's kind of a different thing.
PC: Tell me about working with Lynne Taylor-Corbett on the Australasian tour of REEL-TO-REAL that uses film/live interaction.
BB: Well, you know what? That was an odd process. We initially put it together really quickly and I designed the show before there was a complete script - which is not always the ideal way for a designer to work!
PC: Definitely not.
BB: We always knew we had to come up with tricks to make people jump in and out of movie screens. I think we pulled it off.
PC: What did you think of the recent revival of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE with the pixilation and the design?
BB: I loved it. I thought it was really brilliant. I always said to Lapine that that was one of the shows that I, honestly, never want to design because I felt they had done it so brilliantly originally that there was nothing more to be done. But, Sam Buntrock and those guys figured out a way to do it differently that I thought was really natural and really worked.
PC: So, you are a fan of video projection in set design, I assume?
BB: I thought the video in the first act work really well, but, generally, I am not a fan of video onstage. I think in the right show it works great- and, definitely that was the right show for it! (Laughs.)
PC: So, you think integration of film and theatre is a
BB: Absolutely. In the right way, it can be really brilliant - but, it can also be really awful.
BB: The problem is that when you show film onstage, the audience watches the film and not the actors, generally. So, figuring out how to balance that so that they are working together and they feel like they are existing in the same world is what's hard. But, when you do it right it's magical.
PC: Less is more, though?
BB: Yeah, yeah - I mean, SCOTTBORO BOYS was all about that.
PC: A paradigm!
BB: Truly, the theatrical experience at its best - as an actor and as an audience member - is that you've got a live person actually doing something in front of you. Everything else is to support that and to figure out how to enhance that experience, really. Which isn't to say that I don't love doing a big scenic surprise, because those things are fun- but, it all has to be in service of the story. And, it always comes back to seeing characters that you care about and following them and wanting to know what happens to them.
PC: Tell me about the boat in LOVEMUSIK.
BB: Yeah - again, that was ultimately a pretty simple design for that show. Sure, there were a lot of locations so there was a lot of stuff - but, not a lot of set. Hal always talks about these shows as black box designs, basically - he calls PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a black box design! And, that, conceptually, is what it is - there is an awful lot of stuff there, but it is basically a black space that they put objects into and it lets your imagination do the rest.
PC: How would you compare Lapine, Prince and Stroman side by side? You've done two or more productions with all three of them.
BB: They're so different that it's almost crazy for me to even try to compare them. But, I mean, Stro started as a choreographer, so physical storytelling is her thing and that's what she does so brilliantly - especially in SCOTTSBORO. You know, with any other director, I don't think I could have done a set that was made out of chairs because if any of those changes were ponderous or boring to watch then it wouldn't have worked; the chairs would have seemed like an idiotic idea.
BB: But, she knows how to stage transitions and move people so brilliantly that we could take nine chairs and make it into this tinker toy thing that fits together. And, she can keep enough stuff going on that that transition was interesting to watch - you are sort of watching the beat of a guy lighting a cigar or a beat of a guy glaring at you or whatever - the lights focus you down on that. Then, all of a sudden, the lights come back up and there is a completely different configuration of these chairs onstage. Even though it happened in front of your eyes and you know it's happened in front of your eyes, you aren't really aware that it is happening.
PC: Like magic.
BB: Yeah. That's the magic - and, that's the brilliance of a choreographer like her who can hone every single beat of the show down to the second to make sure every component works.
BB: Exactly. Her sense of timing is just amazing - I've never seen someone with a sense of timing like that. And, obviously, she hires performers who can then do it. So, some of it is that the performers have great timing, too. But, the way that she connects the dots there and pulls it all together is what makes it work. I could take that idea to a different director and it really wouldn't work because it takes that kind of physical control of actors and space- and, a sense of storytelling - to make it all work and come together.
PC: Fosse's influence was very apparent in SCOTTSBORO to me- the "Magic To Do" nature of it was very evocative of him.
BB: That's the magic of it, really, to me - how she made something out of nothing. I would just sit there in awe of it because I, obviously, knew how it all went together.
PC: How did you actually devise the design the chairs?
BB: They were essentially tinker toys. They looked like chairs, but they all fit together and locked together in different ways. Every cast member had to know, you know, "You take Chair #9 and stick it with Chair #3 this way to make this scene, so it will be strong enough so we can stand on it and we can pile stuff up on it." So, every bit of that was choreographed.
BB: Yeah, her assistants had these crazy flip books with every chair numbered and the blocking of every chair.
PC: What are they made out of?
BB: They are made of a really lightweight aluminum. So, they are really strong, but they are really light - they weigh less than ten pounds each.
PC: The way the actors threw them around...
BB: Again, that was part of the challenge: I had to make them structurally strong so that you could jump on them and stand on them and dance on them. And, some of those guys are big guys - you know, Joshua Henry is built like a truck! So, it had to be something that could hold their weight and put up with the abuse, but, at the same time, be really, really light. So, yeah, they are made out of hollow aluminum tubes.
PC: How did the design for SCOTTSBORO develop?
BB: We workshopped it a lot. I sort of came up with the idea and then I showed Stro the model and I said, "Here's how all these chairs can fit together to make all these different things." And, once she approved that basic idea, then, I went to a shop and we had a couple of them built. Then, I brought them in and she looked at them and we showed her how they stuck together and did different things - so, she played them with for a little bit and she approved that. Then, she went into the rehearsal studio with her assistants for a couple of weeks and they just played with them and, I'd say, "This is a configuration I am thinking of," and, she'd start to think about how she was going to make all that work actually onstage. She'd come back to me and say, "Look, I need the chair to do this, can we alter them?" So, we'd do that and then we'd build a couple more that were maybe a little different shape or fit together in a slightly different way to do whatever she needed them to do in terms of the story.
PC: So, what was the set development process like?
BB: Well, it was a little bit slow, but really exciting. I keep calling it magic, but that's really what she does! Out of such simple things.
PC: What's next for the show?
BB: The future, as far as I know, is that we are doing it at The Old Globe next year and I think we are also doing it at the Philadelphia Theater Company after that. It will have a life that way - these sit-down productions.
PC: It's a perfect candidate to be filmed.
BB: There's a rumor that Lee Daniels - the guy who made PRECIOUS - wants to make a film version, actually. But, at least Lincoln Center Film On Tape filmed it in New York.
PC: What was it like working on SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM - especially since the design was a character in the show.
BB: Well, we worked on it for a couple of years before we actually did it.
PC: What was it like working with James Lapine on editing down all the video footage?
BB: I spent forever with Lapine on it. I got to, certainly, be involved with Steve, too. I was around for some of the interviews, but it was so packed with a whole film crew in Steve's apartment that I would just try to stay out of the way. (Laughs.)
PC: What was it like working with Lapine in general?
BB: It's always amazing to me to get to work with him. He's such a smart guy. He always pushes me to go further. He's always sending me back to the drawing board and saying, "Well, that's a good idea; but, that sucks - so go back and try it again."
PC: What was the process like developing the complex design?
BB: Oh, I must have gone through twenty different ideas for SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM before we landed on what we ended up finally doing. But, it was months and months of discussing ideas and maybe there would be some kernel of the idea worth pursuing. James just has got such a smart visual sense and the work just gets better and better every time I work with him. He keeps telling me to try again and again; over and over. (Pause.) He just won't settle for anything less than what's great.
PC: Speaking of greats: in regards to Hal Prince, SCOTTSBORO and PHANTOM seem to have some design elements in common, as well.
BB: There is so much to learn from that show - just from its design. I think it's shocking how well the show holds up. The stagecraft and just the look of it all is just so good.
PC: What did you learn from working with Hal Prince on LOVEMUSIK and PARADISE FOUND?
BB: I think the biggest thing I learned from working with Hal is this black box concept of approaching musicals- because when you put too much sh*t onstage, not only does it get expensive, which is problematic, but you just don't need all that stuff. If you have a black space that seems to go on forever and you stick a stairway in it or a doorway in it or whatever - that's really all you need.
PC: Back to: less is more.
BB: Yeah, it's sort of like an illustrator's approach to something - when you are doing an illustration of a person walking up a staircase, all you need is a person walking up a staircase; you don't need every other thing that would be in that location. It's the same onstage - you don't need seven thousand details to distract people. You just need to boil it down to the couple of essential things.
PC: How do you proceed to do that?
BB: Well, you know, you need to think it through. You need to read the script and talk to the director and have the chance to play around with stuff and make sure you've got the right pieces to tell the story. It always feels to me that it's harder to do a spare set than a really crowded set.
PC: Boris Aronson is the prime example - FIDDLER, FOLLIES, COMPANY.
BB: Yeah, yeah, I know those designs intimately - Hal brings them up to me all the time. (Laughs.)
PC: What does he say?
BB: Well, Boris's widow is still alive and I see her once in awhile. When we were working on PARADISE FOUND, Hal had some question about how they had dome something in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and he called her up and she sent me a picture the next day! (Laughs.)
PC: Is opera next for you since you just did your first ballet with Lynne Taylor-Corbett and THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS?
BB: I really haven't done much. Doing SEVEN DEADLY SINS was the first ballet I had ever done, too. So, getting into those more abstract forms interests me. I am doing a new opera called THE LIGHTHOUSE for the Dallas Opera next year. I did do one opera for Manhattan School of Music years ago.
PC: What about Shakespeare?
PC: Will it be unique?
BB: Yeah, I hope so! I think you can toss in one bold interesting idea per play, so I have something planned for THE TEMPEST. I am doing the costumes for that, as well. I think for the dog chasing Trinculio and everyone away we will do something pretty cool.
PC: Do you see more Shakespeare in your future?
BB: Yes. I've always said I love doing musicals and I love doing Shakespeare. There's a heightened theatricality about them and I love the speed that the stories tend to move at. I love Shakespeare so much and I can't wait to get the chance to do more.
PC: Tell me about how you devised your design for THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS this year.
BB: The way we approached it was almost literally. We didn't try to establish the cities or anything, but what we did was that we did a sort of color-coding type thing so that when one thing was red, everything was red; when one thing was blue, everything was blue; when one thing was yellow, everything was yellow. So, when we get to Pride/ Memphis, we set it in a strip club and the stools the guys were sitting on were red and the stage lights that flew in were red and the costumes had touches of red in them and there was this bright red glowing backdrop. Then, in the Los Angeles scene, everything is yellow: it's a movie set and there is yellow scaffolding with a yellow camera on it and yellow director's chairs and a big yellow sunset hanging off of yellow trussing.
PC: How did you and Lynne devise the color palette?
BB: We tried to go with the emotional feel of them and still avoid cliché - you know, though, envy was still green. (Laughs.) Our lust was like a pale blue lavender, though.
PC: The hottest part of the flame.
BB: Right! Right. (Laughs.)
PC: What's next?
BB: We are doing ROCK OF AGES in London at the end of the summer. I am doing this production of THE TEMPEST in Dallas. And, then, we are doing THE TOXIC AVENGER in Houston with an eye bringing it back to New York.
PC: What about the future for PARADISE FOUND?
BB: I don't know. Hal is still looking around and I know there have been some nibbles on it. I am sure that if someone wants to produce it, we will do it again. I know they are tinkering with the script. But, there is nothing pipelined immediately. I haven't seen him in a couple of months, so I don't know what's new there yet. He is very passionate about the piece, I can tell you that.
PC: What production would you want to do next, in a perfect
BB: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - I have a way I think I can crack that. I'd love to do CAROUSEL, too. Any Shakespeare I'd love to do, too.
PC: Define collaboration in terms of your work on THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.
BB: Well, on SCOTTSBORO BOYS, that was a perfect collaboration. For me, it's basically mostly about my relationship with the director - yeah, the lighting is important, as well and if a set isn't lit well it doesn't matter what it looks like - but, working with the director is the most important; having a firm idea about what the show is about and what direction we are pushing it in. It's the back and forth - you know, I develop the physical manifestation of their idea. It's not always easy, but it's all about what is appropriate for the story.
PC: Break a leg on Tony night, Beowulf! Thank you so much.
BB: Thank you, too, Pat. It was a real pleasure. Bye.