What Did These Tony-Nominated Scenic Designers Each Hide in Their Set?

Tony Awards   What Did These Tony-Nominated Scenic Designers Each Hide in Their Set?
 
Look at the sketches and renderings of this year’s nominated plays, plus the secrets hidden in the walls of the Broadway sets.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s vision for <i>The Front Page</i>.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s vision for The Front Page. Courtesy of Douglas W. Schmidt

The scenic designers of the 2016-2017 Broadway season created environments spanning from tobacco-stained newsrooms to cartoon-like suburbs. Their influences ranged from renowned artists to amateur theatre companies. Each designer focused not only on the larger aspects of the worlds of their respective shows, but also on extreme details including making sure documents looked exactly as they would in real life.

Here, the Tony nominees for Best Scenic Design of a Play share inspirations, early sketches and renderings and Easter eggs hidden around their sets.

Read More: BEHIND THE SCENIC DESIGNS OF THIS YEAR’S TONY-NOMINATED MUSICALS

DAVID GALLO, Jitney

What was the inspiration for your set design?
DAVID GALLO: The paintings of Romare Bearden and the words of August Wilson. Discussing the play was certainly a primary inspiration and August was largely visually motivated and inspired by the paintings of Romare Bearden. He describes in his life the four B’s that were his big influences – Bearden being one of them – so the paintings of Bearden I think are always an important point of which to sort of base these worlds on visually. And then third the ideas of our director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who had a very clear vision for the show and inspired the entire thing to be everything that it is and was.

Is there a set piece you’re most proud of?
DG: One of my favorite things about designing Jitney is that it’s got such an incredible simplicity. You need a telephone, a place to sit, and a door. The play revolves around that phone. I think that you could say my favorite piece of scenery is also the most essential – that enormous sort of Pittsburgh steel beam with the telephone bolted to it. I just think it’s a really great image and I think it also works really practically so that the cast can be on the telephone and work 360 around it.

Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice?
DG: [On the Jitney set] there’s a cardboard box on top of the little bathroom area. It’s an old box with some stuff in it, but it’s a carton from a company called Alaga Syrup, which was breakfast syrup that was [featured on] an enormous billboard in King Hedley II. That was very important to August. This was syrup that people gave their kids when they didn’t have a lot of money to fill them up so they wouldn’t feel so hungry. It was a product sort of aimed at lower-income people. That’s part of the August Wilson world.

The Jitney set included two full-sized cars. What was the process of getting them into the theatre?
DG: The set to me is sort of an enormous living collage. Romare Bearden was a collage artist. He would cut out realistic photographs of cars and slap them into his paintings and so I thought we should really have real cars and drop them into our “painting.” Getting those two big old 1970s Sedans into that theatre was not exactly easy. They had to go down a hallway sideways so we built little car rotisseries and pushed them down the hallways sideways. We bought the cars, they were gutted and completely dismantled and then put back together. It was worth it.

NIGEL HOOK, The Play That Goes Wrong

Nigel Hook’s vision for <i>The Play That Goes Wrong</i>.
Nigel Hook’s vision for The Play That Goes Wrong.

What was the inspiration for your set design?
NIGEL HOOK: The play itself and rather a lot of—shall we say—interesting amateur drama that I’ve seen over the years.

Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of?
NH: It changes. I suppose currently my favorite thing is the lift doors. I rather revel seeing that work—the “stained glass” windows. They were meant to be wrought iron in the very first iteration. I do like the very final image [of the play], but we can’t really give that away, can we?

Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice?
NH: If you look deeply into the wallpaper, you might find my initials. I mean, it’s very, very tiny and it’s only in maybe four places and they’re about an eighth of an inch high, but it’s my way of signing it. [Laughs] I’ve always wanted to—but it’s been resisted slightly by the writers—to put a piece of the wallpaper on upside down.

Were there major set changes made in bringing this show from the West End to Broadway?
NH: Quite a lot. Every generation of it gets a little bit of a bunk up. I was watching our archive recording of the very first performance of the English tour that we did so many years ago now, and I was quite surprised how different it was from what we have on Broadway at the moment. The very first set was a very bad looking set. It was meant to look as if it was scenically painted wrongly. We’ve gone a bit more ’70s with the wallpaper at the moment on Broadway. It looks like it should have a bathroom suite in there from the 1970’s, but I’m probably the only member of the company who can remember that.

DOUGLAS SCHMIDT, The Front Page

Douglas W. Schmidt’s vision for <i>The Front Page</i>.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s vision for The Front Page. Courtesy of Douglas W. Schmidt

What was the inspiration for your set design?
DOUGLAS SCHMIDT: The set design for the Front Page comes from a literal reading of the script. There are very precise physical needs that the set for the play must fulfill – the desk, the window, the proximity of the door and all those bloody telephones. All are crucial in terms of relationships between the characters and how they interact with the interiors. Where those items are placed is dictated not only by the actors, but also by the theatre that we play and the sightlines. I took some inspiration from the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh as a kind of a visual jumping off point. Basically it’s a box set interior like it was when it was originally designed, which parenthetically I should add was designed by my teacher in 1928 and I feel like I’ve kind of come full circle from my professor, Raymond Sovey, at Boston University.

Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of?
DS: I’m very fond of the bathroom. [Laughs]. It’s revealed only by an opening door, you don’t actually see the bathroom except for the extreme sightlines, but in order to make it a boys town boys’ bathroom I found some great old pinups and magazine covers of kind of risqué, vaguely pornographic material. Every time you would open the door there was this kind of collage of naked ladies, obviously staring at you when the door is closed. That was kind of amusing.

Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice?
DS: There came a request after PBS came to interview Jack O’Brien. I had put some sports memorabilia on the wall…I can’t remember what the original was…but in any case, due to the interviewer’s prompting, we added a pennant for the Chicago White Sox and it was at the time that they were in the playoffs. The premise was that it might bring them good luck.

MICHAEL YEARGAN, Oslo

A rendering of Micahel Yeargan’s design for <i>Oslo</i>.
A rendering of Micahel Yeargan’s design for Oslo. Courtesy of Michael Yeargan

What was the inspiration for your set design?
MICHAEL YEARGAN: It all happens in Norway and it happens in real places. We looked at all of the photographs and all of the research. J.T. Rogers, the playwright, went over there and we had more research than we knew what to do with. Because it happens in so many different places, we had to be as simple as possible—almost like designing a Shakespeare play. There’s a lot of Neoclassical architecture and there was something about having a monumental door that led to the room where they actually did the negotiating. There’s a lack of pattern in Norwegian architecture. That helped us immensely because we knew that we were going to be projecting moments.

Is there a setting or set piece you’re most proud of?
MY: It has to do with projection. The moment when they go for a walk in the woods, after you’ve been in all of these interiors, the combination of the projection and the lighting just gave it such a beautiful look that we were all kind of dazzled by. I wish that there was an award for projection because it’s really becoming such an integral part of what we all do.

Is there anything hidden in the set (to inform the actors, as an homage to something) that audiences might not notice?
MY: There are so many props in this show and there’s so much paperwork. We were very, very careful to make sure that all of it was correct and that when the actors read something it’s really written there – that it looks like the document.

What was the process of moving Oslo from the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre like? Were there any re-designs?
MY: It was an incredibly difficult piece to move from [the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre] because in the smaller space it was all on one level. It was a really careful process of scaling everything up so we didn’t lose the proportion that we had before and just having more space gave a more psychological use of space. You could take a table that was in a living room when it had a chandelier over it, but take the chandelier away from it and put couscous on it and you’re in a restaurant. It was playing with all of that that was kind of magical.

Tune in to the Tony Awards on CBS June 11. For continuing coverage leading up to Broadway’s biggest night, stay tuned to Playbill.com/TonyAwards, and for more information visit TonyAwards.com.

Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.

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