With the one-two punch of Bunny, Bunny followed by Broadway’s Jackie, David Gallo, 34, proved himself a set designer who could create a universe all his own. Using cartoonlike visuals, such as one dimensional coffee cups stuck with velcro to equally one-dimensional, art deco-style tables (in Bunny, Bunny) and Crayola-worthy colors (who better to approximate the world of Peanuts in Broadway’s recent revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), Gallo’s sets can have a golly gee sense of playfulness. That feeling no doubt came in handy in designing Blue’s Clues Live!, a national touring production (through Aug. 20) scripted by Angela C. Santomero and the author of Jackie, Gip Hoppe. The story tells of puppet characters helping the human host find a special, magical place. When Playbill On-Line caught up with designer Gallo, he was in the midst of a different kind of magic -- trying to make the new phone system in his work studio (which he shares with, among others, John Arnone, Brian Webb and Jim Youmans) function properly. He had also just received news that he had been nominated for two Drama Desk Award nominations, for his sets for Jitney and Manhattan Theatre Club's The Wild Party.
Playbill On-Line: Sounds like a beehive of activity.
David Gallo: We’ve been here a couple of years at the Film Center building in midtown; we share resources. We’ve just been able to make a bunch of capital improvements all around.
PBOL: And your work on Blue’s Clues Live!. How did that come about, and how do you feel it about it from a design standpoint?
DG: The TV show came with an established look; we needed to give the live production an analogous look. In the show, we go to Steve’s house, the back yard, the bedroom, the kitchen -- bringing to life the computer-generated animation aspect of the show in a live stage environment. My work on You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was somewhat similar to that. In Blue’s Clues, the designers also made a conscious decision to do a “Skidoo” -- that’s a term from the TV program, where the characters transport themselves to different places -- which have a different look from the television show. That’s when our own individual stamp or style came into the piece. The TV show does have a certain degree of repetition, so we didn’t just want to recreate the aesthetic of the television show. It was great fun. It was also different from my theatre work, because it’s a more corporate kind of gig. We were dealing with Nickelodeon, so there were more people involved. They’re a fabulous team at Nickelodeon, and it was really fascinating to see how they worked, but here we felt like an extension of the art department over there.
PBOL: With Bunny, Bunny, Jackie and now Blue’s Clues, does that solidify your reputation as -- to co-opt a Pee Wee Herman term -- “the King of Cartoons”?
DG: Actually, the cartoon stuff had been a real departure. It was exciting but terrifying, and it’s odd that it labeled me with a particular style. My other stuff had been darker; I didn’t rely on rendered images so much. But really, it was a strange coincidence that Jackie had a similar cartoon aesthetic. People thought this is what I did. It took awhile to escape that label of, “This is the guy to call for fun cartoon shows.” After A View From the Bridge, though, I escaped that. Except I decided to do Charlie Brown. But in that, the cartoon imagery was less interesting than they way they move. Charlie Brown had horizontal movement, fragmentation -- a whole world of tiny bits and pieces. The dopey Red Baron Battle was not a spectacular visual but it got the point across in the simplest manner. On the other hand, Bunny Bunny was about excess.
PBOL: What influenced your style, which is different from other theatre designers?
DG: I don’t know if I have a definable style. I like to believe the versatility is there. Every time you get a new script, it’s a completely new beginning; you find out what’s most appropriate for the particular piece. I don’t need a “thumbprint” on everything I do. I guess I was greatly influenced by Terry Gilliam movies, that sort of zaniness and Pythonesque stuff. For the cartoon works, I watched way too many Bugs Bunny cartoons; Bugs Bunny was one of the greatest set designer of all time. Also, I have a huge respect for Robert Edmond Jones, the greatest set designer of all time. He redefined design. He worked at a time when it was about decor and making pretty pictures, so his minimalism and making statements with so little was quite remarkable. Also, Jo Mielziner. I have a modest collection of design work artwork, and those people figure heavily in them. Other influences are musical. Whatever sets the mood sets the tone, more so than anything else. For Jitney [now at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre] and August Wilson’s King Hedley -- those almost come with a soundtrack. For Thunder Knocking in the Door, I did vast amounts of musical rather than visual research. PBOL: Can you point to a particular set you did, or part of a set, and see it as your finest moment to date?
DG: Well, I thank Alan Zweibel for writing Bunny Bunny and Christopher Ashley for directing it. Most people appreciated the design but fixated on the tricks, but I think the design worked on other levels that weren’t always appreciated. My favorite set ever? A View From Bridge and my design for Hughie. I think it’s the best thing I’ll ever do. The scenery didn’t talk about itself; it was a dreamscape, and subtler than just about anything I’ve ever done. It was me trying to be Robert Edmond Jones.
PBOL: Okay, reverse the question. What set of yours did you think would work but didn’t in actual performance?
DG: I don’t want to get specific because it’s often not a situation of just a piece of scenery, and you don’t want to hurt people you might work with again. Those situations had to do with difficulties with a director who saw things differently; we didn’t click. It’s always a roll of the dice and seeing what happens. Producers cringe, “What do you mean, we spent a million dollars and it could look like shit?” On the other hand, I remember presenting the model of Jackie to the cast and they were cracking up, probably thinking, “This is either gonna be really great or incredibly annoying to look at.” And with The Wild Party [at Manhattan Theatre Club], it was really all about the set being used so beautifully, with Ken Posner doing the lights. You wouldn’t give a director with no vision a set that’s difficult to control.
PBOL: What was the first show you saw where the set design made a significant impression?
DG: I have vague memory of being very young... I was in Europe... at a strange child’s opera in Frankfurt. I was fascinated by it. The first show where I noticed this is what I wanted to do with my life was a Broadway revival of West Side Story in the early 1980s. I’d never seen a scrim before; I thought it was remarkable. Mind-blowing, like a movie special effect. Later on, my mother saved up money, and my mom thought it was somehow important that I see Cats, but I remember it being nothing much.
PBOL: And if you hadn’t become a successful set designer, you’d now be...?
DG: A really poor aspiring set designer. [Laughs] I’ve delivered pizza, and I’ve designed scenery. I’ve done some book covers for novels. I worked as an assistant designer a lot. If my career didn’t take off and a film career arrived in front of me, I think I’d go be a milk man. I really like live theatre. Though it occurs to me maybe I’d design furniture, or do furniture recycling.
PBOL: By the time you were an undergraduate at SUNY Purchase, you were already lucky enough to be working in the field. Any advice for those on the same road but facing a steeper path?
DG: Don’t do it! [Laughs] If there’s anything else that interests you, pursue that. It’s a very difficult way to make a living. It’s about dedication and not giving up. It has to be the most important thing in life. Also, you have to concentrate on furthering your own inner self. Some people get out of school with these incredible portfolios, but you know they’re not going anywhere. You have to look for that success. I was a terrible student at design school, but it was my own self-learning and assisting other people that allowed me to develop my own aesthetic. I pursued every employment opportunity out there, regardless of how much money I had in the bank. I told the bill collectors, “I’ll pay you when I have the money. And when I got the money, I did.”
-- By David Lefkowitz