Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Tribute to a Phenomenal Set Designer, Eugene Lee

I am just about to finish a set designing project and looking back at the process brings a smile to my face. It was a truly rewarding process and I've had a lot of fun with it. There were so many exciting challenges that reminded me of why I love theatre and why I love set design. This post is a tribute to a phenomenal set designer whose approach to theatre and set design never fails to influence and inspire me.


When asked about what he enjoys the most in his work, he answers, “Nothing makes me happier than an impossible space and an impossible project”. Eugene Lee, son of Eugene and Betty Lee was born in Bertoit, Wisconsin in March 9th, 1933. He got married to Franne Newman, a costume and set designer who he frequently co-designed shows with. Franne’s projects as a set designer were always co-designed with her husband at the time, Eugene Lee. Lee got married again to Brooke and lives with her in his home in Providence with their two sons. Brooke works as a painter and also works as Lee’s manager. Lee grew in quite a theatrical family. His father was an actor and his mother took backstage jobs in community theatre so theatre really ran his blood. When Lee was young he used to make little things and play with them. His family taught him that if he wants to learn something, he would have to buy a book and learn it from there. The way he learnt things was through a “learning by the book” method. He would buy a lot of books and figures out how to make things work.


Lee attended Berloit Memorial High school. He has BFA degrees from the Art institute of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University. He has an MFA from Yale Drama School and three honorary PH.Ds.. At yale, he studied alongside legendary set and lighting designer Donald Oenslager. Lee has been resident designer at Trinity Rep since 1967. He is the production designer for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”. Other New York theatre work includes Alice in Wonderland, The Normal Heart, Agnes of God, Ragtime, Uncle Vanya, Ruby Sunrise & A Number.His most notable credits are The Homecoming, Snow Boat, The Hothouse,The Pirate Queen, Wicked, Seussical, Ragtime, The Bells, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Sweeney Todd, the musical & Candide.Lee is on the faculty of Brown, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Carnegie Mellon.When asked about what he has gotten from teaching, he said:
“You end up adopting half the people you teach. It’s such a funny, hard business to get going in”. As for himself, the people he knew at Yale where the ones who started Chelsea and produced Slave Ship and Candide.


Lee won three Tony awards for Bernestein’s Candide (1974), Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1979) and Wicked (2004).Those three shows won him three Drama Desk Award for Outstanding set designs. His set design for shows like The Ruby Sunrise, Ragtime, The Hothouse & Alice in Wonderland got him nominations for several prestigious awards.
Lees style is very unique and several directors and producers referred to him as a genius. He first came to international attention when he designed Slave Ship and Candide at the Chelsea Theatre Central in Brooklyn. His work on the musical Candide at the Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn and on Broadway are chronicled in great detail in Davi Napolean’s book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre. The book also describes his work on Slave Ship and other productions at the Chelsea. He worked with light designer Kenneth Posner both on Wicked & The Pirate Queen.
When Lee designs a set, he often redesigns the theatre, repositioning exits, lights booths, even walls to accommodate the play. His audience frequently find themselves inside, on top or under sets that are not fixed. The computer has been the standard tool for set designers to create sketches but Lee is old fashioned and begins his process with a pencil and a sketch pad. He likes to use real material. He uses real, rusty metal, not painted wood. He creates set doors and windows that actually open and close. He puts the audience close to the actors and makes their seating uncomfortable if it’s right for the production.
Lee is a very unique and quite daring style when designing certain shows. His style is nowhere near traditional. His sets are very different from any set one might see before. He once designed a play called “The Visit” which is set in a train station. The play was performed in a real Providence train station, with passengers moving around the audience getting in and out of trains. The audiences were seated on benches.


Lee designed a play called A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2000, He said that the director was very specific about the environment of the set. Lee had six different ideas for the show and they all developed into models. He showed the models to the director and the director shows his favorite. The ideas he was playing with were all about whether he should go with inside the house or in front. He had terrible trouble deciding where the moon and where the sky is. At the end they settled on a house on a hillside of rocks and dirt. Although he likes to use real materials for his shows, for the dirt in this play they used dirt skins, they are like a rug and they come in rolled up. They looked like dirt and after working on them for a while; they were able to make it look very close to dirt. About using real materials, he said:
“I prefer to build out of real things. There is some humanity to it, some kind of history to the planks”. Lee wanted to tilt the house so “it looks as though it’s falling down and has an ‘earthquaky’ feeling, with landscape blocks that look like stones, like skulls, like the dead”.


Lee designed The Homecoming in 2007, Lee’s set had an enormous hole in the wall that apparently has been there for quite a while and seems to bother none of the four male residents. He was able to design a dirty floor of a suitably shabby and cut-down, post-war living room set. “Eugene Lee's setting did what was expected of it to suggest a home without a woman's touch, including the large gape in the plaster board wall that the men have no intention of ever fixing” - Simon Saltzman, a drama critic, said of the set.



Lee designed The Bells; it is set in an inn in a forgotten land on the edge of nowhere, as described in the script. Lee embodies this by creating a world of abstract reality. His color palette consists of shades of blacks and whites. Everything is meant to appear dead. The only colors that emerge in the frozen wasteland are those of blood.
Lee designed the set for The Pirate Queen in 2007, he has designed an impressively architectural setting that bursts through the proscenium. He redefined the proscenium of the Hilton Theatre with pieces of a period sailing ship, creating a frame that leaves room onstage for battle scenes and the show’s elaborate step-dancing numbers.The proscenium of The Pirate Queen is a kind of Elizabethan theatre made up of pieces of sailing ships. At stage right and left are imposing masts painted to look like faux-marbl. “The stage house of the Elizabethan theatre is supported by two large columns—they’re kind of like masts,” says Lee.


Lee designed a play called Mauritius, the most interesting part about the set of Mauritius is Lee creating a ceiling with light bulbs hanging down.The set changes into different places very quickly by pulling sets (a living room & a diner) out of the wall. Lee’s most successful design was the set design for Candide in 1974. He co-designed the show with his first wife Franne Lee. Lee revamped the Broadway theatre (a proscenium house) into one large playing arena with the audience seated on benches and stools. Planked platforms and levels from various patterns throughout the house. The orchestra is shown in the background.


Also one of his most successful projects is Wicked, the Musical.. Lee created a set and visual style for the play based on both W. W. Denslow’s original illustration of Baum’s novels and Maguire’s concept of the story being told through a giant clock. He defined his vision by creating a series of moving panels of gears and cog wheels that became the central image for the set. The panels and the wheels seem in constant motion during transitions from one song and scene to the next, rolling and sliding along the floor in grooves hidden by clouds of smoke. Monkeys fly from a tangle of vines that frames the giant fantasy clock. The set was made of steel, and other basic materials, aluminum, fiberglass, plastic, fabric and natural vines that serve as launching pads for the flying monkeys. The show has lots of crazy effects that one wouldn’t imagine possible. A witch in a sparkling blue gown a bubble blowing pendulum and a green witch in a black hat flies a broomstick through smoke were one of the most interesting spectacles. For the green witch’s flying scene, Lee designed a telescoping arm that the audience never sees because smoke and many fabrics of cloth hide it. They didn’t use a harness so that the actress would have freedom to sing.

*** For more information on the last play I set designed (opens Oct. 8th), check its Facebook event here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=127986933883&ref=mf

Looking forward to seeing you at the show!

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