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BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & More

Neil Patel, production designer of AppleTV+'s Dickinson, always finds time to design a little (or large) theatre set.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & More

Neil Patel, the ever-busy production designer of AppleTV+'s hit period comedy Dickinson, always finds time to design a little (or large) theatre set. Ever in demand, Neil has shared this creative talents in venues all over the world, including those in Mumbai, Tokyo, London and Venice.

Neil took a break from his Dickinson designing to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you taking the time for this interview, Neil!

Before getting down to my questions, would you clarify the terminology of 'set designer' vs. 'scenic designer' vs. 'production designer'? I've seen all terms listed in theatrical programs, as well as, in ending film credits. Do you wear all these hats?

Set or scenic designer is the title given for theater and opera, and I really don't think there is a difference, just a preference sometimes by the producing entity or the designer. Production Designer is specific to film and television. The production designer is responsible for the whole look of the film, and since the scale of the job is so much larger, they would supervise a whole team including art directors, set designers, location managers, graphic designers, set decorators etc. Creatively it is similar, but the craft and execution is completely different.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreI just saw BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN on January 23rd. I guess the ultimate compliment to give a scenic designer is to not notice that a set is designed. I thought Sri was filming in his kitchen and living room. Was your role in this situation staging his personal living space? Or did you recreate his entire apartment set?

We never get credit for what we do! We shot in Sri's apartment, but I restyled it for the show. We did things like remove the cabinet doors and dressed the shelves to create depth behind him. We also added touches like the Bollywood posters and layered dressing like family photos, plants, flowers, books, etc. All things he would have that reflect his personal taste, but styled and placed for the camera and amplified in an aspirational way.

Which do prefer to tackle - a grander-scaled opera production? Or a more intimate venue like the Geffen. I saw your gorgeous music studio set for THE LION there.

Love them both!! I started my career in the world of downtown New York theaters like New York Theater Workshop and in regional theaters like The Geffen, so that is always dear to my heart. I love going back to it, but I also enjoy the challenge of large-scale musicals, television series and feature films.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreAt what point of pre-production of an opera do you get involved? Before casting? The same time as the costumer?

I am usually hired at the same time as the costume designer, as we are part of the core creative team with the director and lighting designer who craft the look of the opera. Sometimes singers are cast earlier especially the in-demand ones who are sometimes cast years before. Designers certainly do not have a say in casting, but sometimes the early conversations between the director and the designers can shape the vision of the production and do lead to certain casting decisions.

How about in smaller theatrical venues?

I almost always come on before the casting is done, and with the other designers. Of course, the set designer and costume designer have the pressure of coming up with something first, as lighting usually responds to what we do. But sometimes the early conception is with the lighting designer if the director has a specific approach that involves an integrated scenic and lighting scheme. I work a lot on new plays, so the early conversations with the director and often the playwright are really important, and they can shape many decisions. Often the playwright is still in the process of rewrites, so a conversation about design can be influential.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreYou're a working production designer in theatre, film and television. Have you mastered juggling film commitments with theatrical gigs?

It's really difficult. I am mostly in the TV/film world at the moment, and I can't really juggle a theater or opera project at the same time. It is the curse of being too busy! I try to book theater and opera in-between but that gets tricky. I am a good multi-tasker after years of freelancing, so I pull it off every once in a while. For instance, I designed THE LION while I was designing a Bollywood feature that was shooting in two continents. I was very tired afterward. :)

What are the most projects you had to multitask at one time?

When I am working in the theater and opera I am sometimes juggling half a dozen projects at a time, sometimes in different countries. When I was designing MUGHAL E AZAM in India, I was simultaneously supervising the Royal Court production of FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS in London.

If financial compensation were not a factor, which medium do you prefer to work in?

I would be happy designing new plays, original series and independent feature films with original screenplays. I began my career designing for new work, and that's where I have the most fun. I am also, in these COVID times, learning about Zoom theater and in the process of designing an interactive immersive piece conceived of by David Byrne. I am always interested in new forms and approaches.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreWhat has been the biggest production design undertaking challenge that you're most proud of?

I designed a staged musical in India called MUGHAL E AZAM which is based on the famous Bollywood film. It was a crazy undertaking. A large-scale musical that takes place in the most glorious period of the Mughal Empire. I had to design for massive scene changes and a huge cast in a country with little infrastructure for Broadway scaled musical theater. With the brilliant director Feroz Abbas Khan, projection designer John Narun and lighting designer David Lander, we pulled it off to great acclaim. It was a true miracle!

I've seen your pictorial resume of theatre projects. Such stunning works, many so unlike the other. Is there a signature element in your designs that people recognize "That must be a Neil Patel piece"?

I really am not sure what it is to other people, but to me I would hope that audiences see a great care for storytelling and sense of space that always support and features the performer. I think of myself as a minimalist, even though I sometimes design huge productions. I aim to support the writing and the performances above all else.

You studied architecture at Yale. What sparked your interest in studying scenography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan?

I went to Yale intending to become an architect, but someone asked me to design a play, which I knew nothing about, but I was immediately hooked. I also studied Italian language and art in college and wanted an experience living outside of the United States. I was fascinated with the work of Giorgio Strehler and Ezio Frigerio, who I got to assist at the L.A. Opera later, at the Piccolo Teatro and La Scala. I learned a lot in those two years and was able to support myself working in a scene shop as a sculptor. That led to a summer at the Bregenz Festival which was my working introduction to opera production. I was a painter and sculptor for a production of HOFFMAN'S TALES, complete with real gondolas!

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreIs it more of a challenge: To replicate a well-known landmark or a period piece (i.e. Dickinson)? Or to be given total freedom in originating a production set in modern times?

They are really different challenges, but period work tends to be more challenging as it requires a lot of research and a lot of time to prep since everything needs to be custom made. For Dickinson, we try to be true to the period as a contrast to modern language and music, but we also try to pick and choose the right details that work for our Dickinson tone. We are not a museum show, so it is a combination of historical research and interpretation, which is challenging but really satisfying.

Would you describe your very first set design gig?

I designed a production of Jean Genet's THE MAIDS in a squash court at Yale. I was inspired by German Expressionism at the time. After that I was hooked.

You've worked in theatres, opera houses and film sets all over the world. Any particular place you haven't worked in/for yet, you'd love to add to your resume?

Yes! I want to work in Russia. I love the Russian theatrical and operatic tradition, and I've never been there, so that's where I'd like to go!

When you first visit a new city, does your eye automatically scout out different architectural anomalies and bookmark them for your future use?

Yes. I take lots of photos which I am hopeless at organizing. Travel has always inspired me, and wandering around a new city with a camera is heaven for me. I designed an art exhibition in Venice in 2017, and that was the ultimate travel work experience for me.

BWW Interview: Designer Neil Patel - So Deftly Versatile from Dickinson to KITCHEN & MoreWhen you, as an audience member, attend a screening or live theatre, do you unconsciously check out the production design before sitting back and enjoying the content?

Yes, I'm always looking to see how other people do their job, and I am really impressed with the incredible work that's being done right now by my peers. But usually once I get over the initial impact of the design, I give in to the story and stop noticing, which means they've done a very fine job.

If you haven't already, what kind of dream house would you design for your wife Maria and yourself?

We have a lovely but utilitarian beach shack on a glorious sand dune in Wellfleet that we have been going to for 20 years. It's our happy place. I dream of designing and building a modernist house there one day.

What's in the near horizon for Neil Patel Production Design?

I am currently designing Season 3 of Dickinson which takes place during the Civil War, so that is pretty engrossing at the moment. When live theater is possible again I look forward to resuming my work on David Byrne's THEATER OF THE MIND. I am also working on the opening production in an exciting new state of art theater in Mumbai.

Thank you again, Neil! I look forward to seeing more of your visuals in the thea-ta, as well as on the big and little screens.

For BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN viewing access through March 6, 2021; log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org

To view the first two seasons of Dickinson, log onto TV.apple.com


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