BWW Interview: TIM MACKABEE Designs the set for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Baltimore Center Stage
I first recall watching Tim Mackabee play a policeman in the musical GUYS AND DOLLS while he was in high school in Towson, MD at the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology. I next met him outside the Yale Repertory Theatre where he was studying for his Master's Degree in Set Design. I've been following him ever since as he has risen to be one the most successful set designers in the country. He even made it to Broadway and London where he designed THE ELEPHANT MAN. His work is now ensconced at Baltimore's Center Stage where you can see his masterful job designing the set for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (which is a co-production with the Cincinnati Playhouse). I was able to see the show in a preview performance (it opens officially October 26, 2017) and marveled at his work. I caught up with him during tech rehearsals in Baltimore just before he had to leave for Philadelphia.
CS: What are you doing in Philly?
Tim: Working on a new musical called "TouchTones", it's about love and relationships centering around a late 90's phone sex operator office.
CS: When did you think about set design...why and how old were you?
Tim: It's all I've ever done for as long as I can remember. It started with puppet shows, then plays in the garage, but always centered around set design. I used to torment my cousins by wrapping christmas lights around them and making them stand in wheelbarrows as I paraded them around the pool in the summer. They were plugged in, of course, and often my grandmother would have to lean over the deck and say, "Timothy, unplug your cousins." I can't believe they all lived!
CS: Did you see many plays growing up?
Tim: During high school we saw every show at Center Stage. I'm seeing those posters in the theatre now working here, and it's making me feel old! I also saw a lot of touring shows at the Lyric and Mechanic theaters.
CS: What was the Carver experience like? What shows were you in?
Tim: Carver was an exceptional experience. It was a fluke that I got in really. We were moving the year I was starting high school, and back then Carver was zoned for certain districts only. I ended up going based on our old address. I was designing sets all the time, but yes, I did some acting. I remember the cop in GUYS AND DOLLS, a play called APPROACHING ZANZIBAR, I was in THE MIKADO. That was a bit of disaster-we couldn't really sing those songs that fast, and we really couldn't stop laughing at each other. I remember Ricky Oliver, Larry Mercer and I got yelled at for not trying hard enough. I thought, I'm dressing in a Kimono wearing white face paint-isn't that something?!
CS: When you went on field trips to Center Stage did you talk to set designers?
Tim: Only Center Stage. I never got to talk to set designers because they were always gone by the time we were seeing the show. I remember seeing a lot of work from David Gallo, Tony Stragies and Neil Patel (whom I assisted when I first moved to NYC.) I remember seeing the late 90's touring production of JOSEPH...DREAMCOAT 4 or 5 times and trying to go backstage after the show. It worked with varying levels of success.
CS: What teacher was a big influence to you?
Tim: I've had so many really. It started with my third grade teacher Mrs. Johnson at Pine Grove Elementary. We just got along from day one. I was in charge of all the bulletin boards. Mrs. Ambridge, the school librarian, let me put on plays in the library. The titans of Carver for me were Mr. Vogelman, Mr. Dougherty and Ken Skrzesz (whom we never called Mr. Skrzesz now that I think of it.)
CS: What college did you go to.? What was your major and did you do any set designs there?
Tim: Undergrad: North Carolina School of the Arts. BFA in set design. Mr. Dougherty from Carver basically told me I was going there, which was good because I was 18, dumb and had no better plan.
CS: When did you think about going to Yale?
Tim: I was out of town working on a show for the aforementioned Neil Patel and lighting designer Donald Holder. I was complaining about feeling like I had hit a ceiling. We were drinking...of course...and they basically told me what I was going to do. I didn't have the greatest time in grad school. Everyone says how fast it goes by, I didn't feel that way!
CS: Any shows there?
Tim: I designed ROUGH CROSSING at Yale Rep and some other school shows.
CS: After graduation...what came next?
Tim: Back to NYC where I started associate designing on Broadway. I worked on a musical called FELA for many years that took me to fantastic places around the world-Amsterdam, London, Nigeria.
CS: How does one get noticed?
Tim: These days, it feels like social media. Seems like anyone can pose in a tank top in front of a model and get a job now. It's all changing very quickly. The answer used to be good, consistent work.
CS: What theaters have you been to across he country and do you have any favorites?
Tim: I've designed at most regional theatres around the country, and the stand outs for me have to be The Old Globe in San Diego, The Arden in Philadelphia, Denver Center and The Alley in Houston. Those companies are so good at what they do it's shocking sometimes.
CS: Do you have a list of your 5 most favorite set designs?
Tim: I love the big musicals from the 80's! I miss scenery! I would say the original Broadway productions of MISS SAIGON, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MATILDA, BILLY ELIOTT and RED. (Do I have a thing for brits?)
CS: How about your design for Everyman's Deathtrap? That was amazing. Where did you get the knives and swords?
Tim: We had a fight director on the show, Lewis Shaw, who's a world renowned fight director and weapons expert, who lives 10 minutes away. He and the lighting designer, Jesse Belsky (also a fight director), geeked out over the weapon displays forever. I just started hanging things!
CS: How did the Broadway and England experience with The Elephant come about? What did this mean to you?
Tim: I was asked to come back to The Williamstown Theatre Festival to be the resident set designer for a few seasons. With that came a design slot. I had accepted the job before the director or Bradley Cooper were signed to do it. A little bit of luck there! After a successful run on Broadway, Bradley decided he wanted to do it again in London-I wasn't going to argue!
Tim: I'm also doing LOOKINGGLASS ALICE next at Center Stage. Just finished DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Ford's down in DC.
CS: Do you still have family here in Baltimore?
Tim: They're all still here!
CS: How does one do a set design...discuss what goes into it, discussions with the director, when do you read the play, how much research do you do?
Tim: You have a discussion with a director about what their approach is, why one is doing this play now and what they want the audience to think about and hopefully discuss. There's always a lot of research even if you don't end up using it literally.
CS: How much does a set like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE cost and do you consider that?
Tim: Set budgets at regional theaters like Center Stage can range anywhere from $20,000 - $40,000 depending on the show. That's for materials only. Set designs always have to go though a budgeting process and are rarely "in budget" the first time.
CS: There is now a new era of co-productions. IN THE HEIGHTS just finished a co-production with the Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center. This show is a co-production with the Cincinnati Playhouse. How does it work with different theaters and their different stages?
Tim: I love them! I love figuring out puzzles like that. The set for SIL is the same in Baltimore as it was in Cincinnati (except for some minor side masking.) This was pretty easy because of our approach to the show, and the spaces were pretty similar to start with.
CS: Is there a society or group of set designers nationwide or world wide that you belong to?
Tim: There's a designers union that negotiates certain contracts. There's also Facebook groups where we bitch about everything.
CS: Do you have a list of theaters in which you would like to work where you have not worked?
Tim: I'd love to work at The National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse in London. Over here...I'd still love to hit The Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Guthrie (Minneapolis) and The Huntington (Boston).
CS: Any advice for young people who desire to go into set design.
Tim: Just keep doing it and it'll happen. If you really want to do it, just don't stop.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE continues at Center Stage until November 26, 2017. For tickets, call 410-332-003 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org. Since I saw the play in previews, I cannot review it...yet. But don't miss it!!! And enjoy the set.
Photo Credit: Charles Shubow