Hi readers! Over the past three and a half months, my students and I engaged in distance learning, which required me to get creative with service delivery. Though maybe I should have expected it, my students asked me how they could stay creative at home. Many of these students had spring plays and musicals that had been put on hold, with hopes to revisit during the next academic year. When I asked in what area they wanted to be creative, they said they wanted to learn more about the technical aspect of theatre, specifically scenic design. I had reached out to a few scenic designers and was ecstatic that Tony Award winning Derek McLane, who has designed Moulin Rouge!, A Soldier’s Play, American Son, Gigi, Beautiful, Nice Work If You Can Get It, along with the NBC LIVE! Musicals The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The WIZ, and Hairspray. We talked about what goes into his design process, when he begins working with the creative team of a show, and how folks interested in design can stay creative while at home.
Stef: How did you become interested in theatre, and then scenic design?
Derek: When I was in high school, I had learned how to do some house construction and carpentry. It was a summer job of mine for a few years. In college, I was asked to build a set, which was something I had never done before. So I built the set and I thought, what I’d really like to do is design the set, not just build what someone else had designed. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, which didn’t have a theatre program while I was there. Ina way, that was a blessing for me, because there was very little competition when I said I wanted to become a set designer. I had done a couple of sets for shows around campus, and I sort of made it up as I went along, and I decided I needed to learn more about what I was actually doing. I applied to Yale drama school, and completed my Master’s degree there.
S: That’s a lot of schooling. How long did that take you?
DM: It’s a three-year Master’s program. It was very intense, especially in the first year. We had to design one set a week, and we had a Saturday class in which we presented our work and it was critiqued. Once that was done, you got your assignment for the following week. It started with simple plays and became more complex as the year went on. Operas, musicals, multi-set plays, and it was exhausting. And that was only one class. We got to see our progress over the course of the year, so that was exhilarating. That was my first experience with face-to-face criticism.
S: At what point in a production do you join the rest of the creative team? What does your process look like?
DM: Well, it’s always a little different, depending on the creative team and how complex the project is. I get involved pretty early, and start the design work. Typically, what’ll happen is the director will send me a script, and I might get to see a reading of it, and conversations begin from there. Making a musical is a very collaborative thing, and it can be complicated, but the moving pieces come together through these conversations. This can take years, sometimes less. By the time you get to the second, third, fourth meeting, you and the designers, the director and producers have an idea of what the design looks like. At that point, we have an idea of how the show would work with our proposed design.
S: I’ve seen a decent number of your shows on Broadway and each set is so distinct to its show, and all so memorable. Two that come to mind, American Son and Moulin Rouge!, seem like polar opposites in how they’re designed. Where do you pull your ideas from and tailor them to fir their shows so specifically?
DM: The ideas really start with the script. I also got to do the movie adaptation of American Son, which is on Netflix. American Son has four characters, with two characters on stage at time for the most part. It’s a tragedy, and when I read it, it felt like a Greek tragedy. Not that far into the play, you can tell where it’s going, which is awful and scary. Something about the script felt symmetrical to me. You’re looking into a square room at a 45-degree angle. The text in the script, what’s described, is quite mundane. There’s not a lot of people in this space, not a lot of interaction. When I looked at my research for Miami police stations, they looked pretty bland. We put in windows, but all you could see was the rainstorm that’s mentioned. It was meant to feel elemental and realistic.
Moulin Rouge! is really an entertainment more than anything. It’s decadent. For that, I was trying to capture the club feel in the script and I was determined to make it a surprise for the audience when they came in. I didn’t want to disappoint the many fans of the movie that were coming in with the movie in mind. I felt obligated to honor that. I made a very conscious decision not to make the scenes stylistically similar, there’s an eclecticism to the way the scenes look. The show starts and it’s bright and there’s a lot of red and then we transition from the club to the streets of Montmartre, which is very grey. It shows the contrast between the settings in a fun way, keeping the audience thinking about where they are.
S: Do you have a favorite element you like to design in a show or a favorite material you like to work with?
DM: It varies. I try to let those things come out of the ideas for the story. I don’t see it as my job to impose my taste, it’ll show up through my design inevitably, but I’m much more interested in designing each show as its own bubble. I’m happiest when I can see that each show has its own world and logic. I feel like I’ve succeeded when it takes on a life of its own. When that happens, other little details make more sense based on the logic based on the bigger world.
S: How do you feel about projection design becoming more prominent alongside scenic design, as that seems to be a trend I’ve seen in a few more recent shows?
DM: It’s certainly come a long way. There are all different levels of success with that. Technologically, we’ve come a long way, but it really depends on how it’s used. What Ivo Van Hove did with Network and West Side Story made bold use of projections, and it’s something we haven’t really seen before, but it doesn’t really become scenery. King Kong also used projections really well, the set designer did those himself, and he did a clever job od tying projection into the 3-D elements on stage. In that production, the projections were all illustrated and all tied into the overall design of the show. They had a very strong identity with their design.
S: How can my students get started with scenic design, especially now that we’re home? My students are looking for ways to be creative, and a lot want to know how to explore this area more.
DM: The best part about that is anyone can design a set. Whether it can be built or not is another story. The simplest way to do it is to draw it. That’s what I’d be doing, finding a story you love and draw a set for it. It doesn’t have to be a play; it could be a book or something they make up altogether. I’d encourage them to draw the way they’d like to see something, not the way the scenes are shown to them. What can they do to make something they know better? When I’m designing a set, I keep in mind it’s something that I’m going to be looking at a lot, so I may as well like what I’m looking at. If I’m an audience member, what do I want to see? Draw spaces—your bedroom, your kitchen, wherever you are. A lot of set design is based on architecture, and that can be really helpful when you understand perspective and spatial arrangement. The drawings don’t have to have great details, they can be fast, they can be messy, they just need to convey the space.
S: Is there something people should know that they wouldn’t learn in school?
DM: A million things. School will teach you a certain number of skills, but you’re always learning. But the thing that school probably won’t teach you much about is how to deal with the people you work with. And there’s different levels of that. There’s the director and producer, the people who deal with money, the people who will build the set and work with props. You need to be able to persuade them to overcome their doubts and if necessary, stand up for what you believe is necessary and advocate for yourself. You’re working with a lot of people at once, and people skills go a long way.
S: What is the most ambitious design that you’ve executed?
DM: Moulin Rouge!, for sure. And Hairspray Live, which we did at Universal studios in Los Angeles. Sometimes we were using interior and exterior shots. There we re sets we used from their backlot and sets we built in the studio. Shooting it live and getting from one set to another was really complicated but very exhilarating.
S: So, is television more challenging than designing for television?
DM: I don’t know that it was harder than Moulin Rouge!, but we had sets of varying sizes. We were under different constraints. On stage, the stage is tinier than you think. Figuring out how to make all of that fit. You don’t have that problem on television, because you have plenty of space. The other piece is on Broadway, the set has to last a long time. On television, it only lasts as long as it’s needed. The challenges and constraints are different.
I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Derek McLane. My students got to hear all about this conversation before distance learning ended, and I know some of them started drawing scenes they were interested in creating. It’s safe to say both my students and I learned a lot more about scenic design and its part in production development of a show. If you’d like to lean more about Derek McLane, you can find him on Instagram at @derekmclane or his website derekmclane.com.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP