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NY Public Library's Rosenberg Curator of Exhibitions Barbara Cohen-Stratyner on Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee


BroadwayWorld continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, the Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg Curator of Exhibitions for the Shelby Cullom Davis Museum, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on: Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts welcomes visitors and researchers to discover our collections. And sometimes, we send exhibitions out so to be discovered - around the country or even further. One of most traveled exhibitions, which has been installed in Taiwan and China, is currently in New York. But it isn't here at Lincoln Center, it is on view downtown, in residence at the Museum of Chinese in America. Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee is the 5th iteration of the exhibition since it debuted at The Library for the Performing Arts in 1995. Since then, he has continued to design scenery for theater, dance and opera so that the current exhibit represents productions from over forty years. It fills both temporary galleries in the beautiful Maya Lin-designed facility.

Ming Cho Lee was born in Shanghai, but traveled to California for college. After moving to New York, his mentors in theater were the great designers Jo Mielziner and Boris Aronson (whose collections are at The Library for the Performing Arts). He has taught in the design programs at NYU and, for almost 5 decades, the Yale Drama School. His designs for theater, opera and dance are well represented in our archival and media collections.

For the MOCA installation, the scale models are grouped by theater structure, recognizing that design solutions are different for thrust stages, theaters in the round, found spaces, and proscenium theaters, such as Broadway or opera houses. We begin with the Delacorte, the beloved Central Park home of the New York Shakespeare Festival where Lee has said he "learned his trade [and] found his voice." We selected models for texts that visitors may know, such as the Shakespeare plays, and those that may be unfamiliar, so visitors have to piece together visual clues.

In the theater world, we regard set models as communication tools for the collaborative team of designers and director; and for the director working with performers. They document specific productions as shaped by those team decisions. But here they are also artifacts that can be read as visual documents.

You can go through the galleries looking at houses, especially in the productions of O'Neill plays. Exteriors and porches are set at angles, interior elements may be out of scale or disconnected to walls. You can look for trees - are they three-dimensional, painterly or photographic? Do they grow in the ground or protrude from walls?

Although the ½", ¼" and 1/8" scale models form the core of the exhibition, you can also see examples of the storyboards in which Lee sketched out ideas for productions. Look for the designs for the shipwreck that began the 1989 Actors Theatre of Louisville production of The Tempest. Huge photo-enlargements on banners represent production photographs so you can see stage sets with costumed performers.

The Museum of Chinese in America is open Tuesday - Sunday at 215 Centre Street, just north of Canal Street. The exhibition, Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee will be on view there through September 11, 2016.

Photo: Electra (New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacorte Theatre, 1964). Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

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