When Eugene Lee designs a set, he often redesigns the theatre, repositioning exits, light booths, even walls, to accommodate the play. His audiences frequently find themselves inside, on top, or under sets that don't stay put. A graduate of Robert Brustein's Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Donald Oenslager, Lee first came to international attention when he designed Slave Ship and Candide at the Chelsea Theatre Center in Brooklyn. He is perhaps best known for his adventurous collaborations with Adrian Hall, Andre Gregory, Peter Brook, and Harold Prince, and for his long run at NBC, designing Saturday Night Live. His current project is The Seussical, a musical based on the writings of Dr. Seuss, with music and lyrics by Steven Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens and directed by Frank Galati. Davi Napoleon recently talked with the designer.
Davi Napoleon: You've done so much! Where should we begin?
Eugene Lee: I tend to be focused on what I'm doing at the moment. I'm very excited about this musical based on Dr. Seuss stories. We worked on it a bit in Toronto over the summer. Frank Galati is directing.
DN: How are you approaching the project?
Lee: I've never done anything quite like it. When people describe rockets and wheels and a universe that is spinning through space, the mind spins.
DN: Where does it land?
Lee: I know more about what it couldn't be than what it will be.
DN: What isn't The Seussical?
Lee: Often these things develop a cartoony style, and that ain't it. We were at a possible theatre, where Seussical may go. I always get really good ideas from the actual space. On the surface, this theatre is small and slightly wrong. After sitting there, I got great ideas. Some of them involve a little re-construction.
DN: Will your design resemble the illustrations in the Seuss books?
Lee: One has to reference his work in some way; if you look at the drawings, he has this incredible universe. But it harkens back to the kind of storytelling in Alice in Wonderland. None of it looked like the illustrations in the book at all.
DN: That was one of the many productions you've done with Andre Gregory?
Lee: We're working on a piece of Wally's [Wallace Shawn] now, The Designated Mourner. Wally plays the part. They've been rehearsing it for the last couple of years. It will be like the last thing we worked on, Vanya on 42nd Street. We'll have an audience of about 30 people. We found a wonderful space for part of it on the Lower East Side. It's falling apart.
DN: You did Vanya at the New Victory?
Lee: I found it when I was looking for theatres for Grandchild of Kings with Mr. Prince. It was a dangerous place, with pipes half in and frozen in place. We sent a friendly stagehand, an experienced man, into the flies and he came down shaking. We couldn't do the film there. They started to restore it. It was a great space before it was restored.
DN: In the days of Adrian Hall and Richard Jenkins at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, you sometimes worked in unusual places or totally reconfigured the theatre space to suit the play.
Lee: It was exciting in the 70s, with Adrian. He had certain philosophies that seem little strange today. There was no recorded sound. If the actors couldn't make it or play it, we didn't use it. He was interested in the process. Very seldom did the set get designed before we got into rehearsal. I miss that.
DN: And things stayed loose under Richard Jenkins, Hall's protege?
Lee: Yes, I encouraged him to take the job. If he hadn't, there might have been no Trinity Rep. He's such a comic guy and such a wonderful actor. The critics tended to say about things, 'It was in the Trinity style.' That's kind of true. Oskar [Eustis] inherited quite a good company.
DN: Are you doing anything this season at Trinity Rep?
Lee: Oskar sent over a new play. I'll do it unless I'm really busy. It depends on The Seussical.
DN: What do you think of his Trinity Rep?
Lee: I love them at Trinity. It's been over 35 years! I would love to design there until I can't move my hands. The theatre seems to be doing well financially. People like us. The work tends to be work that seems to be aimed at making people like us: My Fair Lady. I'm not against that. It's okay for the time. In the 70s, if people weren't upset, you didn't feel you were getting to them.
DN: Has the process changed?
Lee: It seems a little more formalized now. Things change. Lighting design changes. Technology changes. It's not about good or bad. I'm doing a little play at Playwrights Horizons with my old friend Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Forty-second Street has changed. Everything is slick. I kind of liked 42nd Street when it was really seedy.
DN: That's where you've been doing Saturday Night Live.
Lee: That's been on 25 years. When we started, there was no comedy channel, no cable, no fax machine.
DN: How has your design process changed for SNL?
Lee: They want it a little more detailed.
DN: More realistic?
Lee: I guess. They all do movies now.
DN: And you?
Lee: I did a film for Francis Ford Coppola, Hammett [produced by Coppola and directed by Wim Wenders], and Mr. North, a wonderful film in Newport years ago--John Houston was executive producer. The thing is, you can only do a film. You can't do anything else. It takes you away from your house, out of your studio. And in my own humble way, I'd prefer to be the director of a film than the designer. But theatre, it's the most wonderful business. My father, who was an engineer, said to me, 'I work with a lot of people who don't like their jobs. Do something you really like.' And I have.
DN: You've also been teaching.
Lee: I'm on the faculty of Brown, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Carnegie Mellon. We're working on a program to combine Brown, Trinity Rep, RISD, and Rhode Island College.
DN: What have you gotten from teaching?
Lee: You end up adopting half the people you teach. It's such a funny, hard business to get going in. The way I did it, the people I knew at Yale [School of Drama] started Chelsea [the Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn, which produced Slave Ship and Candide]. It was a wonderful adventuresome theatre. Harold Prince was on the board. It's how I met Peter Brook. It's how I met Harold, of course.
DN: How do you work with Hal Prince?
Lee: Generally, with Mr. Prince, he has a thought. You solve the problem. You show it to him and he doesn't think it's solved. You go back. But he's terribly open. I can always call him. He's always helpful. He has an office that when it closes it will be like a lot of other things, the end of an age. He did that wonderful musical, Parade, a thinking man's musical. His family comes first. He's a good role model. When you look out in the house at a dress rehearsal, all the family is sitting there.
DN: Robert Kalfin, who co-produced Candide and Slave Ship, says you amaze him with your use of space. 'Even when needing to adapt to the proscenium, such as in Sweeney Todd, Eugene astounded us with his unique use of startling physical components.' Robert Brustein says you 'have the remarkable capacity to create an illusion of vast reaches out of circumscribed space.' How do you feel about circumscribed spaces?
Lee: It's all actually kind of a different challenge. I was happier, I must say, in the 70s at Trinity, when the goal was to confront the audience in a real direct way.
DN: You just did Moon for the Misbegotten for Dan Sullivan at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and you'll be taking it to the Walter Kerr in March?
Lee: It opens for its first public appearance on March 9, my birthday.
DN: How did you approach the design for that?
Lee: Eugene O'Neill is a special favorite of mine. I've done almost all his plays over the years at Trinity. O'Neill is terribly specific about what the environment might be.
DN: So you knew from the start what you had to do?
Lee: I had six different ideas and they all developed into 1/4" scale models. Dan [Sullivan] was out of town in Stanford. We took them all down to him one day. Dan looked at them all very carefully and said, 'I think I could direct it in that one.' We built a 1/2" scale model of it.
DN: What ideas were you playing with in the different models?
Lee: One has to make a decision: Does one go inside the house or in front? I was having terrible trouble deciding where the moon is and where the sky is, so finally [I arrived at] the notion of making a sky in a theatre. Where's the moon? Out where the audience is. I prefer the sky outside when I'm sailing. O'Neill suggests that this tenement farm house had been moved and is sitting on wooden blocks, that it doesn't fit into the landscape. One of the arguments in this drama is about the farm and selling it. What are these farms like? We settled on a house on a hillside of rocks and dirt.
DN: Real dirt?
Lee: [Once, on a production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles], we wanted dirt. If it had been Peter Brook, they would have brought in the dirt. But they said, 'Go to Universal. They have dirt skins. They kind of look like dirt, like a rug.' We tracked down these people in California and they sent some, rolled up. We took out a match and it burnt like the devil. It's good stuff. After a lot of fussing around, the Goodman shop, which is fabulous, figured out a way to make it look very close [to dirt].
DN: I know that you used real materials for shows at Trinity Rep.
Lee: We used real found things for Sweeney Todd, too. I prefer to build out of real things. There is some kind of humanity to it, some kind of history to the planks.
DN: What do you enjoy most in your work?
Lee: Nothing makes me happier than an impossible space and an impossible project.