In theatre, the word "avant-garde" comes loaded with baggage, a heavy weight of associations suggesting productions that are difficult, tedious, and confusing to the audience. And yet, with LD Scott Zielinski the term is inescapable, not because his work is any of the above, but because he is drawn to work that challenges the audience's expectations. Of course, yesterday's avant-garde experiment is often today's mainstream success, and it's been this designer's good fortune to be involved in many of the more interesting theatre productions to be seen lately. A quick perusal of his collaborators, an A list of theatre innovators, tells you everything you need to know; the group includes directors George C. Wolfe, Richard Jones, and Lisa Peterson; playwrights Naomi Wallace and Anna Deavere Smith; composers Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon; and writer-director Tina Landau. This is not the tried-and-true brigade.
Then there's Zielinski's design sensibility, which has a highly original premise. Some LDs begin their work with a closereading of the text; others begin by appraising the set design and its attendant challenges. Like any good designer, Zielinski is concerned with these issues, but he also brings to a production a heightened awareness of the space that surrounds it. More than most, Zielinski's designs pay special attention to the space in which the performance takes place. Call it architectural lighting for theatre; the results are frequently stunning.
Example number one: Macbeth, directed by George C. Wolfe (starring Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett), staged at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in early 1998. The Public Theatre is housed in the former Astor Library, a Beaux Arts structure on New York's Lower East Side; Martinson Hall, the production's venue, is a kind of black box, generally configured as a proscenium house, featuring a beautiful, 19th-century vaulted ceiling. Following Wolfe's direction to make use of the entire space, set designer Riccardo Hernandez created a three-quarter thrust configuration, using a stark wooden setting that exposed the entire room--and also did away with the overhead lighting grid.
Although a new overhead system, consisting of two long truss lines, was added, Zielinski clearly needed other positions. Thus the LD took advantage of the fact that much of the Martinson ceiling is covered with old windowpanes--from the days when the room received natural sunlight--adding many units behind the panes. Zielinski worked with steep overhead angles supplemented by low side positions placed under the side audience balconies, with some floor units, such as Mini-Tens, at the rear of the stage for certain fight scenes, and birdies placed down front for eerie uplighting effects. The result was a remarkably flexible design, which exposed the entirety of Martinson Hall, giving the production, and the theatre, an utterly unique look.
Example number two: Dream True: My Life with Vernon Dexter, staged at Off Broadway's Vineyard Theatre, in April 1999. As very loosely adapted by Tina Landau (with music by Ricky Ian Gordon) from George L. DuMaurier's novel Peter Ibbetson, the musical follows the lives of two men, boyhood friends separated by circumstance, who can communicate with each other through their dreams, yet cannot forge a satisfying relationship in real life. Landau's libretto is cinematically constructed, covering four decades, moving from the plains of Wyoming to the crush of midtown Manhattan--and in and out of the characters' dreams. Thus G.W. Mercier's setting consisted of a largely open stage, with additional playing areas located above the audience on both sides; Jan Hartley's projections were used to imply various other locales. Zielinski's lighting fused these two elements, exposing the theatricality of Mercier's design, and creating strong color washes which never undermined the strength of Hartley's images; the lighting gave the production the easy flow of a dream narrative and transformed the look of the Vineyard.
Example number three: The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, produced in June 1999 at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW). Naomi Wallace's play is about small town inhabitants reeling from the corrosive effects of the Depression, and Riccardo Hernandez' setting, a collection of metal girders, had an empty, industrial look. Zielinski made use of this design, using carefully placed units (including some at the rear of the theatre) to create striking, shadow-laden images that accented the set's haunted atmosphere, which blended brilliantly with the spare industrial design of NYTW's building (a former garage), creating a sense that the play did not stop at the edge of the stage.
Interestingly, this unconventional designer had a very conventional introduction to his career. "A high-school sweetheart brought me into theatre," he says, adding that, as a teenager, his great interest was music. Zielinski grew up in Ralston, NE, a suburb of Omaha. "We had a big theatre program in my high school," he continues, "with a real theatre, something like 150 lights, and Jack Parkhurst, a really energetic drama director. We produced six shows a year and did a lot of touring in the summer."By his senior year, Zielinski was assisting Jack Schmidt, then resident LD at Omaha Ballet and Omaha Opera (and now sales manager at the spotlight company Strong International). Zielinski then spent one year at Northwestern University before moving to Boston University. While at BU, he saw a production at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre (ART), designed by Jennifer Tipton. Inspired by her work, he applied for graduate work at Yale School of Drama where Tipton teaches lighting design. The young LD also spent summers as lighting supervisor at Williamstown Theatre Festival where other professional influences included Pat Collins and the late Arden Fingerhut.
In 1990, Zielinski graduated from Yale. In rapid succession, he moved to New York, joined United Scenic Artists, and was one of the first Design Fellows sponsored by the not-for-profit organization Theatre Communications Group and the National Endowment for the Arts. "You make your own proposal," he says of the program, "and I wanted to observe directors in the earliest stages of their process, which usually means first rehearsals. I wanted to see them work with actors. Among other things, I got to see Robert Wilson stage [Ibsen's] When We Dead Awaken at ART and Liz LeCompte stage Brace Up! with the Wooster Group." The experience, arguably, contributed to his already strong ability to collaborate with strong-minded artists.
It's a talent Zielinski would soon need, as he quickly began to establish himself as a designer, working with director Marcus Stern on such downtown productions as Phoebe's Got Three Sisters at Cucaracha Theatre, and Cross-Dressing in the Depression at Soho Rep. Other important early productions: Arthur Kopit's The Road to Nirvana, produced at Circle Repertory Company (February 1991), directed by Jim Simpson, with scenery by Andrew Jackness and costumes by Ann Roth, and The Tempest at the Guthrie Theatre (October 1991), directed by Jennifer Tipton, with scenery and costumes by John Conklin and sound by Hans-Peter Kuhn. Arguably, however, a turning point in his career came in late 1990, when he took a rare assisting gig, with Tipton on the Broadway production of La Bete.
La Bete is one of Broadway's great cult flops, a verse comedy (by David Hirson) about a Moliere-like playwright and his problems with royal censorship. As staged by English director Richard Jones, La Bete was an explosion of in-your-face theatricality, with Richard Hudson's bizarre, forced-perspective set and outrageous costumes (Tipton's colorful, often shadowy lighting added to the fun). During the Boston tryout, the script was refashioned from three to two acts. "This was after Jennifer and I had left," says Zielinski. "She went on to another show, while I was at home. The stage manager called and said, 'You have to come back.' This was my opportunity to work directly with Richard." The following year, when La Bete was done again, in London at the Lyric Hammersmith, Zielinski did the lighting design, based on Tipton's original. Afterwards, Jones asked him to design Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at the Royal National Theatre in London and Black Snow at ART. Also, Hudson asked him to light Twelfth Night, directed by Neil Bartlett at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. At this point, Zielinski was barely a year and a half out of graduate school.
"You don't take a Broadway assisting job because you assume it's going to get you design work," says Zielinski, and he's right, but still, his work with Tipton has been extraordinarily fruitful for him. Zielinski admits to feeling a certain sense of vertigo about those early years--he wasn't entirely comfortable keeping such heady company while simultaneously finding his voice as a designer. Still, his work never lacked for self-confidence, and by 1993 he was well on his way.
In subsequent years, Zielinski has become a familiar face on the American resident theatre circuit. Notable productions include The Tempest (directed by Jennifer Tipton at the Guthrie), House Arrest (written and directed by Anna Deavere Smith at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum), Tartuffe (directed by Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage), Woyzeck (directed by Marcus Stern at ART), A Midsummer Night's Dream (directed by Mary Zimmerman, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company), Berlin Circle (directed by Tina Landau at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre), and Betrayal (directed by Liz Diamond at Yale Repertory Theatre). Other gigs include dances for American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet, and two productions for Houston Grand Opera.
Then there's the Ice Capades (1994), a topic that clearly delights the designer. "It's really the only thing I've done that is not based in theatre, dance, or opera, and that's partly why I loved it so much," he says. "It was a complete change of venue. I didn't know anything about it, but I quickly learned that it was dance on ice. We did Hansel and Gretel; it was written and designed by Desmond Heeley. I remember they sent me many, many pages of color xeroxes that could have been a children's illustrated book--it was Desmond's storyboard. It was a truly wonderful experience."
Another unique experience came when Zielinski was hired to light A Language of Their Own, written by Chinese playwright Chay Yew and directed by Keng Sen Ong at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. This led to two productions with Ong's own company, TheatreWorks, based in Singapore: Workhorse Afloat, and Mortal Sins. Zielinski's wife, Lisa Porter, also served as stage manager for Workhorse Afloat. "They have a company of actors, many of whom have other jobs," says Zielinski, describing the Workhorse work process. "They start with a premise and create a work from scratch over six to eight weeks. The work is very visual, very dancelike, more like performance art. It's not unlike the Wooster Group."
One recent production that has had a profound effect on his career is Floyd Collins, the musical by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, that opened at New York's Playwrights Horizons Theatre in spring 1996. Floyd Collins is based on a true story, about a young Kentucky man who, in the late 1920s, died slowly, over the course of 14 days, trapped in a cave. In many ways, Collins' death was the first media circus, as hundreds of reporters, tourists, newsreel crews, and others descended on the site of the accident. Billy Wilder used the event as the basis for his scalding black comedy Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival).
There's very little of Wilder's cynicism in Floyd Collins, however, a piece marked by passages of great lyric beauty, exploring love and friendship, the bonds of family, and the search for meaning in life even in the face of imminent death. James Schuette's rough-hewn wooden set design was dominated by a raked platform with splintered pillars at the sides, which resembled the walls of a mineshaft. Zielinski's lighting created a closed, dank, claustrophobic feeling in the cave scenes; yet at other moments he opened up the stage with light, for scenes depicting Floyd's family and other hangers-on. Then his relatively restrained palette exploded into color revealing how the entire incident had degenerated into a carnival for sensation-seekers. Speaking of the piece, the LD says, "I had a lot of help from James, who left things open about where certain boards would be placed; that allowed me to sneak in low sidelight as best as I could. That and the cyc had a lot to do with what helped me make the space, at times, expand."
Floyd Collins received mixed reviews--a number of raves were offset by a negative notice from the Times--but that was not the end of the story. The production was revived this past season, beginning at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, then moving to the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia (where it was originally produced in 1994) and ending at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Floyd Collins was the beginning of a close collaboration with Landau that continued with Dream True and most recently was represented by Landau's play Space, produced two years ago at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, in 1999 at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, and, last December, at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. (Other collaborations with Landau include two plays by Charles Mee: Time to Burn, based on The Lower Depths; Berlin Circle, based on The Caucasian Chalk Circle; and Noah Ain's opera The Outcast. The Mee plays were seen at Steppenwolf, while The Outcast was produced by Opera Ebony at Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
Space is about a college professor who investigates the cases of people who say they were abducted by aliens; in each production, the LD has worked with James Schuette's abstract, architecturally striking set designs and Jan Hartley's cosmic projections (in Chicago, the projections were by John Boesche). Fittingly, for the designer, each production of Space is about the concept of space, in this case, the differently sized and configured theatres that have housed it. Space brings the designer back to the Martinson, and, speaking before the New York version, he says, "There are very similar ideas in all three, but I think the Martinson will be distinctly different, visually." He adds that Steppenwolf and the Taper are more modern-looking spaces, while the Martinson has that vaulted ceiling. He adds that Landau chose the latter theatre "for its verticality and sense of intimacy." Later, once the New York production is on its feet, he adds, "For me, the set design in New York is about people in a space, while the other two productions were about people set against a background. In Los Angeles and Chicago, I meticulously made sure that none of the actors' light hit the wall behind them. In this production, the light does hit the wall, which becomes part of the room and not its own separate entity."
A constant factor through the various manifestations of Space is his close relationship with Landau. "We have our own language," he says. "She and I can discuss things in a very efficient manner. We're in tech and she'll say, 'Scotty?' in a voice that says she's not quite sure I'm going to want to do something. Then I say, 'You want XYZ.' And she says, 'Yes. Of course. Exactly.' It doesn't even come out of our mouths, sometimes. She's amazing."
As usual, Zielinski has a full slate of interesting projects including Desdemona, an adaptation of Othello for TheatreWorks, to be staged at the Adelaide Festival in Australia (with subequent productions in Singapore, Hamburg, and Fukuoka, Japan), and Silver River, a new opera project for the Spoleto Festival in May; Keng Sen Ong is the director of both. On tap for next season is the new musical The Ballad of Little Jo, to be directed by Landau at Steppenwolf, and Soon, a play written and directed by filmmaker Hal Hartley, which is tentatively set for the Orange Country Performing Arts Center in California, then the Next Wave Festival at Brooklyn's Academy of Music.
"It was something to do with the fascination of light," says Zielinski, when asked about his early interest in his work. "It was less to do with theatre, at the time. Eventually that shifted." Although he doesn't say so exactly, one gets the impression that, nowadays, for him the attraction is the people. Put together a group of his favorite directors and designers, and the LD will go anywhere, try anything. It's an approach that, naturally, has led down a few blind alleys, but has also led to some fascinating work. And, as Scott Zielinski surely knows by now, it's the trip, not the destination, that matters.