Interview: Janie E. Howland Honor Sets the Stage for ELLIOT NORTON AWARDS

Boston Theater Critics Association presents 41st annual ceremony at the Huntington Theatre on May 20.

By: May. 15, 2024
Interview: Janie E. Howland Honor Sets the Stage for ELLIOT NORTON AWARDS
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Interview: Janie E. Howland Honor Sets the Stage for ELLIOT NORTON AWARDS

The 41st annual Elliot Norton Awards, presented by the Boston Theater Critics Association (BTCA) on May 20 at the Huntington Theatre, promises to be a big night for scenic designer Janie E. Howland.

Not only is Howland the recipient of this year’s Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence, she is also nominated for three Outstanding Scenic Design awards in the midsize/small theater category for her work this season on “Machine Learning,” at Central Square Theater in partnership with Teatro Chelsea, and on “Rooted” and “Thirst” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

Five additional awards have also been announced, for visiting productions: Outstanding Visiting Play for “Moby Dick,” presented by ArtsEmerson; Outstanding Visiting Musical for “Girl from the North Country,” presented by Broadway In Boston; Outstanding Visiting Performance in a Musical for Heidi Blickenstaff in “Jagged Little Pill,” presented by Broadway In Boston; and Outstanding Visiting Solo Performance for Alex Edelman in “Just For Us,” presented by Emerson Colonial Theatre/ATG Entertainment.

Theater audiences have been enjoying Howland’s scenic designs for 30 years, since the Newton native received her MFA in set design at Brandeis University. In greater Boston, other work of hers has been seen this season in “Cost of Living” at SpeakEasy Stage Company, “The Minutes” at the Umbrella Stage, and City Ballet of Boston’s “Urban Nutcracker.” Over the years, her sets have also been seen at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Company One Theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, Wheelock Family Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and more. She is the recipient of four prior Elliot Norton Awards for Outstanding Design.

Howland has taught at Wellesley College, Northeastern University, Emerson College, Bridgewater State University, and Worcester State University, and plans to return as a guest lecturer to Oregon’s Willamette University. She is also the founder of Prop Co-Op, a Worcester-based shared space props storage warehouse serving theater companies across New England, which she operates with fiscal support from SpeakEasy Stage.

Married to architect Brian Howland and the mother of two college-student sons, Howland makes her home in Natick. By telephone recently, the veteran theater artist spoke about her latest honor and more.

What was your first reaction when you learned that you would be receiving this year’s Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence?

I was shocked and very, very flattered. It was amazing – shock and awe, really. I just wanted to jump up and down. I found out when I was at “Something Rotten” last month at Boston Conservatory, though, so I couldn’t actually jump up and down. But I wanted to for sure.

What does this honor mean to you?

Sustained excellence is everything. It means the world to me. I hope to receive one of the other awards I’m nominated for this year, too, and if I had to pick one I would go with “Rooted,” where I got to design this giant treehouse with moving branches and a trap door.

What is your favorite set you’ve designed so far in your career and why?

It would have to be for the 2018 production of “Anna Christie” at the Lyric Stage, under the direction of Scott Edmiston. It was really sculptural, which I love, and I got to build the set out of found pallets. It turned out great, as did the whole production.

How did you become interested in set design?

I went to Buckingham Browne & Nichols and in my high school years, William Fregosi, who taught design as well as theater and opera history at M.I.T., and who was also a scenic and lighting designer, would come to speak to us after school. That encouraged me to get more involved in BB&N theater productions, where I would often be on the tech crew. Later, I got my undergraduate degree in art history at the University of Pennsylvania. They didn’t offer any classes in set design. I did random things in the arts there, though, and I was always drawing whatever was in front of me. I’m very structurally oriented and I love to draw inanimate objects.

You’ve taught quite often at the college level. What advice do you give your students?

I tell them that the set is the first thing the audience sees so you have to establish the right emotional tone from moment one.

What are you working on right now?

I’m doing “La Cage aux Folles” for Trinity Rep in Providence. Taavon Gamble is directing and everything is going very well. We go into tech rehearsals soon and the production has its first performance May 30 and runs through June 30. I’ve been trying to work at Trinity – a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) – for over a decade, so I’m very excited.

What’s next for you?

This summer, I’m doing Moonbox Productions’ annual Boston New Works Festival, June 20–23 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, and I’m also designing the sets for Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s upcoming productions of “South Pacific,” June 14–23, and “All Shook Up,” July 12–21, at the Robinson Theatre in Waltham.

Photo caption: The late Johnny Lee Davenport, left, and James Ricardo Milord in a scene from the 2018 Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “Anna Christie,” playing out on a set designed by Janie E. Howland. Photo by Mark S. Howard. Head shot of Janie E. Howland courtesy of the Boston Theater Critics Association.


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