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Student Blog: Transforming Space Over Time

An Interview with Beowulf Boritt

Student Blog: Transforming Space Over Time

In August, Transforming Space Over Time: Set Design and Visual Storytelling with Broadway's Legendary Directors by Beowulf Boritt was released. The book tells stories from Beowulf's career as a set designer (he has done the sets for 25 shows on Broadway and over 450 around the globe) through conversations with different directors and writers including James Lapine, Kenny Leon, Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, Jerry Zaks, and Stephen Sondheim. After reading Transforming Space Over Time, I had the chance to speak with Beowulf about the book's release and his years of experience as a set designer. We talked about scenic design, influential directors, and even his favorite color to design with!

Kat: So how did you first decide that you wanted to get into scenic design?

Beowulf: I was a kid who always liked to draw and I liked doing the school plays. At some point, I realized I could put those things together and make a job out of it. I was an intern at a little summer theater in south-central Pennsylvania when I was a junior in high school. That was the first time I actually met a set designer and saw it was a job that somebody could do. And I thought, "Huh, I think this is what I want to do."

Kat: Did you ever think about going into another role in the theater, like acting or writing? Or was it always set design?

Beowulf: My first exposure to theater was acting in plays in school, and I loved that. But no, I think once I realized that set design was a thing, I really did pursue it. I dabbled, in other things - I directed a little bit. As anyone in the theater does, I have a drawer full of plays that I've written that no one will ever see.

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: But the design part of it has always been the part of the storytelling that I really gravitated to.

Kat: What type of research goes into your sets?

Beowulf: It really depends on the show - Sometimes a lot, and sometimes not so much. If it's set at all in a historical period or place I try to learn as much as I can about that so that I get the details right. But I think it's a constant danger in theatre that you can get too tied up in the research and you start doing something because it's accurate, not because it's correct for the feel and the art of the play. I'm an artist, not an anthropologist, so it's probably good for me to know what the accurate thing is, but that doesn't mean that I have to do it.

Kat: Did it take you some time to figure out that balance? Or did that come more naturally?

Beowulf: Instinctual, I think. I watched one too many people say, "Well, we did this because it was correct," and thought "Well, but it doesn't look good," or "It's not helping you tell the story." And ultimately, that's what we're trying to do. The flip side is, when you do something that's incorrect, it can also make the story less clear in some ways. And ideally, you find the thing that is both accurate and good storytelling.

Kat: Do you have an example of anything that you've designed that might represent that?

Beowulf: Honestly, I tend to stray so quickly . . . [Laughs] . . . I'm trying to think of something that was both accurate and good storytelling. You know, an example is in A Bronx Tale, which is set in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. The set was relatively abstracted - It was fire escapes that were realistic in their way, but kind of these free-floating fire escapes set against these very graphic red and black and white backdrops. But I spent a lot of time up in that neighborhood, took a lot of pictures of real fire escapes, and we used that as research to develop what the set was going to be. All of the backdrops, in fact, were taken from photographs that I took of those neighborhoods. I'm doing something similar with the set for New York, New York that I'm working on right now. It's a lot of historical photos and a fair number of photos that I've taken of New York now that I kind of mash together - I'm trying to get the details correct and making sure that my 1946 New York has all the right skyscrapers in it and so on.

Kat: Yeah, all the right billboards have to be exact!

Beowulf: Yes.

Kat: Do you have a typical process for creating each set?

Beowulf: I really don't. That's actually the thing that kind of led me to write the book - So many people have asked me that and I never had a good answer for it. It got me thinking about it!

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: The foreword of my book says that for the extent of my typical processes, I read the play, I talk to the director, and that's how I start. I end up with a set model of what the set's going to look like. What falls in between those two things changes on every show based on what feels right. I talk about them with the director and that will lead me down a different path as the set starts to emerge. I start figuring out the best way to express those ideas to the director.

Kat: When you present your ideas, do you more often find directors willing and accepting of your ideas, or do they have ideas of their own?

Beowulf: They always have ideas of their own, and that's honestly what's interesting about the job - I come in with some ideas, the director has some ideas, and in the best world, we take those ideas, put them together, and come up with something that neither one of us would have thought of on our own. And that's the most exciting for all of us because it makes it [the set] better than what I could do alone and better than what they could do alone. And that's what we mean when we say collaboration. With the directors that I really love working with, I don't tend to show them an idea and they're like, "Okay, that's it, let's do it." They say, "Well, that's interesting, but what about this?" And we talk back and forth, and that starts to lead to something. Then I come in with a model and they think, "Oh, well, this is great. But what if we did this instead?" It is very much a conversation. By doing that, we sort of figure out what it's going to be.

Kat: So I want to spend a few minutes talking about Come From Away as it's one of my favorite musicals.

Beowulf: Great!

Kat: In your book, you said that your first reaction was surprise, like, "Who's going to watch this?" How did you go from that surprise to designing the show?

Beowulf: Honestly, once I read it, I saw that it was not in bad taste and that it was handling the events of 9/11 really smartly. All it took was reading the show and listening to some of the music to understand that they found a really smart way to tell the story. I didn't have any trepidation about it after that, but I still wasn't sure it was a commercial show [Laughs]. We did it at La Jolla originally and it was very well received there. Then we did it in Seattle and it was very well received. And I could see that the show was wonderful and very moving. And, you know, especially the first time you see it, if you are someone who lived through 9/11 in any form, which a lot of the world did, you kind of re-experience that day. I was in New York - I wasn't down there at the Trade Towers, but I lived it and could smell it and all of that. The show touches those buttons just enough to trigger your own memories and emotional reaction from the day. And that's what theater does at its best - It makes the audience have an emotional reaction and it makes the audience complicit in the story. And that's what Come From Away does brilliantly. But a question in everyone's mind on the show was, "How is this going to play on the East Coast? What's going to happen if we try to do this in New York?" We did it in Washington first, since that was another 9/11 city. And the reaction was actually even more powerful. Then in New York, we found the same thing, but I don't think anybody anticipated that it was going to be a show that ran for five years. I think we thought like a lot of Broadway shows, even if it was well-received, it would run for six months or a year and that would be lovely. The power that show had caught everyone off guard. I asked Sue Frost, one of our producers, "Did you know?" And she's like "No, I had no idea!" You always hope obviously, and you do shows because you love them, but I don't think anybody really knows what's going to actually touch a nerve and get a mass reaction the way that Come From Away did.

Student Blog: Transforming Space Over Time

Kat: How did you choose to integrate the trees into the set and keep them on stage throughout?

Beowulf: Two things. The script talks a lot about trees and, literally, it made sense for Newfoundland. But I think my first image if someone were to say "9/11 musical" is that it would look like the Trade Towers falling down or something like that. That's a terrible idea, but that's where your head goes. I was trying to do something that was as opposite that as possible. And 9/11 is such an urban story and a story about steel . . . I was trying to make the set everything other than that. There are the two broken trees in the middle of the set that are representative of the Trade Towers but in a very subtle way - I don't know whether most audiences get that reference or not. But that's what those are there for, monuments to the towers. But the other thing that was quite important to me as we developed the show was that, because of the nature of the story, I was trying to make everything as real as it could be. Scenery is generally fake things like Styrofoam and paint. Broadway is the only place we were actually able to do real trees. But it was really important to me that in New York, in the 9/11 city, we make everything as real as it could be because we're telling such a real and present story. The producers took a little convincing, but eventually, they came on board quite enthusiastically, and we went up into the Adirondacks and cut down trees and dragged them to Midtown.

Kat: Was it your choice to make the set minimalistic? You mentioned in the book that after The Scottsboro Boys, you were a bit known as the "chair person" for Broadway. Did you come up with the idea of using the chairs so prominently in Come From Away?

Student Blog: Transforming Space Over Time

Beowulf: I think they probably hired me because they knew I knew how to do it. I hadn't worked with Chris Ashley before, but we knew each other a little bit. It was his idea that because it [the show] goes so many places, we had to find a very simple storytelling way to do it, and he thought that chairs were a good way to do that. He and the producers had all seen The Scottsboro Boys and saw that I could embrace this, "Let's tell the story with chairs" idea. Come From Away is one step less theatrical than that. In Scottsboro, the chairs were tinker toys that could literally turn into a bunch of different things. And in Come From Away, because it's so much direct address and actors talking directly to the audience, I thought it should feel a little bit like you're sitting on a back porch. It's a bunch of people sitting in a chair telling a story. That was kind of the image for it. I also wanted the chairs to have as much individuality and character as the characters within the story so that each chair is its own place and its own thing the way all of the characters in the story are individuals.

Kat: In Transforming Space Over Time, you have discussions with several directors. How did you decide that that was how you wanted to structure the book?

Beowulf: It really is the key collaboration for me as a set designer. I care a lot about who all my collaborators are, and to varying degrees with all the other designers, and with a writer, and with the actors. It's always a collaboration, but for me, the director is the key collaborator. They're usually the person who chooses me for the project, 99% of the time. If we have a good relationship, then the set will be good. And if we don't have a good relationship, then it's less likely to be [Laughs]. How they [directors] approach a story is a huge part of what makes the job interesting and just different from director to director, and I go into it a bit in the book. Each one of those people goes at a story in a very different way, and so I'm flexing different muscles when I work with them. Recently, I was talking about the POTUS set, and I said my job on that show was to create a dance partner for Susan Stroman. And anytime I'm designing for her that is, to a degree, what the set has to do. It has to dance with the performers as she's going to move the performers through the stage. With different directors, it's a different thing. My process of design is inextricable from the director that I'm working with. When I started to think I was going to do this book and tell this story, it just seemed obvious to me that those directors' voices should be part of it. And then the flip side of that was that I've had the really good fortune to work with some of the greatest directors working right now - I wanted to bring their voices in as well, because it's fascinating learning from Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, Kenny, Jerry, James . . . All of these people. I wanted to try to get some of the wisdom I've taken from them and their approach to storytelling and put that out there, particularly as it relates to design, but also as it relates to telling stories related to the creative process.

Kat: So did you choose the different shows you wrote about based on the director more than the actual show itself?

Beowulf: To a degree, yes, I wanted to get a show with each of those directors. Then I was trying to get an array of shows that would give me different kinds of shows over the book. So in a funny way, sometimes I didn't pick my favorite project with that director because I was trying to get a show that would fit into the arc of the book a little bit better. But all of them are interesting people, so any of the shows that I do with them are fascinating to me and allow me to talk about a different approach to design.

Kat: So you mentioned focusing on the "rhythm of shows" in the book and stated that's how you figure out how things work. How did you discover that for the first time?

Beowulf: You know, I'm not sure when I first figured it out. I think the first time I said "transforming space over time" to myself was a play called Grace that I did on Broadway. That was a very simple set - It was just a turntable. The play was written to take place in two condos in Florida that were kind of identical. And the idea was, and this came from either the director or the playwright, that it would be a single set of a condo with actors playing out two kind of concurrent stories in the same space. They were in the same physical space in front of us, but we were meant to understand that they were in two different condos next door to each other. In fact, they flowed back and forth between the two, so it was confusing in a way [Laughs]. The way we expressed it was a turntable that was slowly revolving so your perspective on the furniture in this apartment was constantly changing. And then around that, I had a big sliding glass door and the front door of the apartment, and that was on separate revolving tracks so those pieces could move in conjunction with all of it. So it was minimal scenery - Two doors, a ceiling fan, a sofa, a kitchen table, and a couple of chairs. But they were in constant flux in relation to each other. It was like you were watching a slow-motion blender where suddenly the front door was right next to the couch, when five minutes earlier it had been on the other side of the stage. But it all moved so slowly that I don't think the audience was aware that it was moving. They just were suddenly aware that, "Wait a minute, that didn't use to be there!"

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: And that's when I first articulated this thought to myself and started really thinking about it in terms of how the movement of stage scenery really affects your perception of the show. And Act One is, in some ways, the best example of it because the set was so rigid in its way that all it could do was spin in circles. But we constructed it so rigorously in relation to the written structure of the play that it allowed the action to flow through it in a very seamless way. It was a colossal exercise to figure that out and took many months with James, and some discipline on both of our parts to say, "Okay, this little bit doesn't work, so we need to change the script, or we need to change the set." Each of these directors has a different approach to it. James is so in love with the visuals and is so interested in an unconventional way of visually presenting things on stage, but he was happy to tackle the challenge of adjusting the writing when it needed to match the set. Sometimes he would say "No, you need to change the set to match the writing." But there was more interplay there than there is sometimes and it was interesting. And Sondheim on Sondheim was similar in that the structure of the show was very fluid because of how we developed it - It began to react to the set as the set reacted to it. It's exciting as a designer to get that because not every writer is going to do that or want to do that [Laughs].

Kat: So Jason Robert Brown complimented your "chameleonic versatility" when it comes to designs. How do you think you developed that skill?

Beowulf: Whatever style I'm using on a show, I try to match that to the director. It's not so much that I'm a chameleon - I'm trying to match my own style to what the director needs, and that leads to very different style choices. The impetus for all of it is that I'm trying to find something that's going to match the rhythms and the conceptual approach to the show. But what that looks like is going to change radically depending on who I'm working with and how they need it to move. I'm more interested in matching the director's style than imposing my own style onto something. And I try I have my own style - Looking over 25 years of doing this, I see repeated motifs and things that I do or things that I find interesting to work with. And I guess that is my own personal style, but matching that to what the director in the show needs is really what's interesting about theater to me.

Kat: What are some of the motifs that you've noticed over the years?

Beowulf: Toni-Leslie James, the great costume designer, jokes that I never do walls on stage

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: It's not quite true - I do have walls sometimes, but much more often I do something that's very open, and Act One is an example of it. It was a massive set, but it was very skeletal. As huge as it was, there was more not there than was there. And it's what Hal Prince says where he talks about leaving a lot of empty space on stage and room for the audience's imagination. It's exactly what I was talking about with Come From Away - You want to make the audience complicit and participate in the story in some way. I feel pretty strongly that less scenery does that rather than more scenery. If I put everything out there and dot every I and cross every T, then the audience just sits back and doesn't engage in the same way, whereas if I leave enough for them to think, "Oh, well, what's around that corner?" or to imagine the wallpapers, to imagine the drapes? It draws them in, especially with musical theatre. It's such an inherently non-realistic form that once you start making it too realistic, it starts to feel weird that someone's gonna walk downstage and start singing to you. But if it's the theatrical world, then there's nothing at all weird about somebody singing to you. It's just a form of expression within that theatrical world. But the flip side of that is something like Much Ado, which was this intensely realistic set, to the point that the audience would walk into the Delacorte that summer who were not normal Delacorte audience members, and say, "Oh, that house was just there, right? You guys decided to do a show in front of it."

Kat: [Laughs]

Student Blog: Transforming Space Over Time

Beowulf: Which was a great compliment in its way, and it was quite important to what we were trying to present with to show, that it seems rooted and real, that these were real lives. They just happened to be speaking Shakespearean verse. But what was important to Kenny was that it feels like real people, real modern people in Georgia telling a story of their lives. And the realism and the groundedness and the walls, frankly, of that set, were part of what made that groundedness feel apparent.

Kat: What do you hope that people will take away from your book?

Beowulf: Oh, goodness, that's a lot! [Laughs] I hope they enjoy it. It's all projects that I had fun doing and I hope that comes across. If there's a larger thing, I hope it opens up what the creative process is a little bit. I feel like that's the question I get asked the most, and you started this interview with it, "What is my process?" It's nothing that I've codified but I think through the course of the book, you can see different ways that I tried to tackle it from show to show, dealing with the challenges and constraints that theatre has. There are a lot of givens every time you're doing a play - It's not sculpture, I can't make it anything I want it to be. It has to serve a lot of other things. But it's a piece of the overall story we're telling in this little block of time. That's what's exciting to me - It's this visual expression that will hopefully express something over the course of that time and it will mean something different to you by the end of the play than it did at the beginning. And sometimes that's because it's moved and actually looks different, or sometimes that's because the story being told in and around it reveals something about it, so suddenly you understand it differently. But when I make that work, that's the greatest joy for me. You walk in, you see something, you think, "Oh, it's this." And then 90 minutes later, you say, "Oh, I understand now it's this and it helps me understand the story better." To me, that's what is exciting and interesting about design much more than what it looks like, what the period of the display is, or any of those things.

Kat: And now for some "Lightning Round" questions! Is there a show that you would like to design a set for that you haven't been able to yet?

Beowulf: There are plenty, but the two that I always toss out are West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. I love doing musical theatre, and I think Guys and Dolls is the pinnacle of frothy, light musical comedy, and West Side Story is one of the greats, dark operatic musicals. I did Guys and Dolls once in a regional theater. I've never done West Side Story, although I've done pieces of it in Sondheim on Sondheim and Prince of Broadway. I also did a New York City Ballet piece about Jerome Robbins, which had a little bit of West Side Story in it. But those are shows that I love and I would love to get a crack at someday with an interesting director.

Kat: What's the most fun you've had making a set?

Beowulf: Oh, man, There are just too many to talk about! In some ways, Act One because it was just so bonkers that somebody let me do that [Laughs].

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: I would stand on that enormous set when I was exhausted, reeling as we went through the process, and just think, "How the hell?" I can't believe I came up with this idea and then Lincoln Center said, "Sure, you can do that!" They financed it and allowed us to do it. I had a similar experience on Flying Over Sunset at Lincoln Center - What that theater allows the scenery to do is so extraordinary. Thérèse Requin at Roundabout was similar - We put a river on stage and rode a boat through it, and I just felt like, "Who gets to do this?" I'm like a kid with the best toy box in the world!

Kat: Favorite color to work with?

Beowulf: You know what? This is gonna sound weird. But honestly, black. Black is magic on stage, and I use a lot of it. I mean, I use other colors, too. But when black is used right, it becomes infinity on stage - It really is the lighting designer who controls that, but I have to create an environment that they can do that with. Howell Binkley was one of the masters of that. One of the things I'm always doing is trying to make finite space feel infinite. A black velour curtain, when lit properly, can do that - It can look like it goes on forever. And if I put black scenery, some kind of skeletal thing in front of that, and light goes across, black turns white when you put light on and it takes color. The form will appear out of the darkness. And that that is something that allows a physical object to appear on stage magically, just by light touching it. I don't think anyone's ever actually asked me that question before [Laughs], but I think black is the perfect color on stage. Although I use a lot of very bright colors in shows - I love picking a bright color and using it boldly for a particular show.

Kat: What advice do you have for those looking to get into scenic design?

Beowulf: Again, it's part of why I wrote the book - The last chapter is all about that. It's sort of a how-to list of things that seemed to work for me when I was trying to build a career. I always try to couch this by saying that I was a straight white boy living in New York in the 1990s. That was my experience, and it's different from anybody else's. There was a lot of money floating around in the 90s and that trickled down into very low-budget theater. Not that we were making a lot of money at it, but there was more small theater to get into and that that gave me opportunities. I increasingly over the years have become aware that straight white boys are allowed to say things that women, black people, Hispanic people, anybody else is not allowed to say in the same way. I'm allowed to be pushy and demand things without people thinking I'm a jerk. Or maybe they do, but I get away with it. I watched that with other white men too, and I think that's what they mean by white privilege. So all the advice I give is couched in the fact that I am aware that I had that on my side. It's not fair, it's not great, and it needs to change, but it's not the kind of thing that changes quickly. That said, I spill out a lot of advice on the things that worked for me. Be pushy, reach out to people, ask for things. Plenty of people will say no to you - Don't let that hurt your feelings. But if you don't ask, you'll never get it. And so that's I think that's maybe my best advice - Reach for the stars, but don't let it devastate you when you don't grab the stars because you probably won't most of the time. But if you reach 20 times and you get it once, or you reach 100 times and you get it once, then that gives you an opportunity to move forward. A career doing this [theatre] professionally requires a pretty thick skin because you're gonna get a lot of rejection. Even people at the very top of the field face a lot of rejection. I face it daily. In the book I talk about how I watched Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Susan Stroman, these people at the absolute top of the profession, be rebuffed, knocked down, and told no. You never get beyond that. There is no amount of fame or money that will get you beyond that. So you've got to have a thick skin and not let it devastate you, and at the same time remain open enough that you can approach things artistically with feeling and with empathy. That balance is one of the biggest tricks in the business - To be able to be both thick-skinned and thin-skinned at the same time.

Kat: And final question - What one word would you use to describe your career?

Beowulf: Lucky. My editor used to say, "But you're not just lucky, you're really good at what you do, blah, blah, blah." And of course I am!

Kat: [Laughs]

Beowulf: I'm arrogant enough to feel like I'm very good at what I do. But there are a lot of people who are very good designers who don't have the career that I have. There was a lot of luck. I mean I did a lot of things right, but I also had a lot of good luck. And you can do a lot of things right, you can be very talented in any part of this business, and it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have a career. I heard this on the radio recently, but it's basically true - If you go to law school or go to medical school, as long as you apply yourself and are reasonably intelligent, you're going to be able to be a lawyer or a doctor. You may not be the most famous lawyer or doctor in the world, but you can probably make a living doing it. It's not true in the theatre. You can get the best education, be very good at it, and still not have a career. That is the hardest thing about it. And you can also watch someone who has neither your education nor your ability to have a stellar career [Laughs]! It happens all the time, and it's the hardest thing about it. But all that said, for all the reasons I spouted off, I love doing it.

Transforming Space Over Time: Set Design and Visual Storytelling with Broadway's Legendary Directors can be purchased on Amazon and Bookshop.org

Thank you to Beowulf for the great interview and for Chaliece Dillon from Polk and Co. for helping to arrange it!

TodayTix Black Friday

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