Just a few hours prior to the 2004 Tony Awards, Entertainment Design sat down with costume design nominee Mark Thompson to talk about his work on Bombay Dreams, a show that also featured his sets. His previous nomination had been for the design of Arcadia in 1995. In subsequent years, Thompson designed the costumes and sets for Blast!, The Blue Room, Art, Life (x) 3, and Mamma Mia. However, on this particular Sunday, he lost out to Susan Hilferty's Wicked wardrobe, but he didn't seem too concerned about the outcome.
ED: How do you honestly feel about your chances tonight?
Mark Thompson: I'm totally not going to win. They're so anti-Brit. They're so anti- the show. They don't really understand, I'm afraid, design.
ED: Why do you think that is?
MT: There's an enormous sway of anti-Andrew Lloyd Webber factor, which doesn't help. I think the Americans are terrified that the Brits are going to arm wrestle them into 80s musicals again. Bombay Dreams is so not one of those musicals. People go on about how there's no plot, it's just fluff. Well, it is a load of fluff but so are most musicals, frankly. I just think [Broadway musicals are] all very disappointing. It's all about the big bravura buttons to get everyone to clap. Don't get me started. I think some things [on Broadway] are marvelous.
ED: Considering the critical drubbing that Bombay got, were you surprised by your nomination?
MT: Everyone kept on saying you're going to be nominated for Tonys. I didn't do it to be nominated for Tonys. It's so uninteresting, actually. It's all a load of nonsense, awards are. So, I was actually more cross that I'm not nominated in both categories, than surprised to be nominated at all.
ED: Your other show, Mamma Mia, is a huge hit here.
MT: I'd rather have that than a Tony nomination!
ED: What do you see as a difference in the “design eye” between Broadway and the West End?
MT: I think we design differently. I think we approach it in a different way. First of all, the designer is respected in London and the designer is not respected in this city at all. It's all about the director and what he or she says. It's much more collaborative in England. People are surprised by that when they work with a British team.
ED: So you seem to think that collaboration is more alive in England than New York?
MT: That's how it works it London. I've actually never worked with an American director.
ED: Designers often give credit to the director more than anything else.
MT: That's simply not how I work. In England, the director and I will talk. There's nothing better than a director talking about a show intellectually and discussing the subject, the feelings, and the reactions to it. I will react and bounce things off that. Never would I let a director say “We've got to do it like this.” I'm just not interested in doing that. A director might say that we can set this in Bombay. Fine. That's absolutely valid but it has to be handed over to the designer.
I was having a meeting with a director recently on a show I actually turned down, one of the reasons being that he started saying that “I think it should be this, I think it should do this.” Hang on. Back off. Don't start designing the show for me. I'm the designer. That's the major difference actually. We also tend to work much more three-dimensionally than American de-signers. I think this is led by directors, producers, producers' wives, and everyone else who has a say in what a show looks like. [On Broadway] if we're doing a scene in an office, we have to have the actual office and not imagine it with two chairs. It's like television and it's full of wobbly scenery which is what I think most of Broadway is: wobbly bloody bits of flat that are supposed to look like concrete, wood, and glass and actually it looks like scenery. It's loathsome.
ED: Bombay Dreams has undergone a radical change on its journey to Broadway. Is that a plus or a minus for a designer?
MT: It's very rare one gets the chance to revisit a design when it moves. Because the show's been majorly worked on book-wise, it had to be rethought. The [Apollo Victoria] theatre in London was a difficult space to work in. I'm not blaming the building but just excusing myself slightly. I was scared to commit to the Bollywood thing. The building was an old cinema in 1930s, art deco style and the thought was to make the building a part of the show. There is a tiny flying tower at the back of the stage with no wings at all so we built out this big thrust stage. Was [the box] going to be gold because Bombay is called the city of gold? It ended up in yellow, which seemed neutral and reflected what Bombay felt like to me — bright, hot, and sweltering. But I don't think it helped the show very much and was very dissipating energy-wise so you could never isolate a scene. The first thing I said is we're going to change the box. It's not going to be yellow, it's going to be dark. I thought that was more exotic.
ED: One of the chief set pieces is the Bombay slum that — on Broadway — swings down like a pendulum. But in London the set was only hinted at and was built around a massive drainage pipe. What was your inspiration for that?
MT: I had seen this extraordinary photograph of a huge water pipe cutting its way through this city of cardboard and corrugated iron in Bombay. When I went to Bombay I went to where the slum was, and they had been moved on exactly like in the show but the stench was extraordinary. It was very moving. These people were just eking out some kind of existence. So we tried to get a pipe onstage, which was the initial idea in London. Then it got cut down and became rather dissipated. When we got rid of the bloody prison in the new script, it meant we could fly in something bigger. I didn't want it to just look like a piece of scenery or a load of old cardboard boxes. It had to have some type of musical comedy factor. Also it doesn't want to look as if we're being condescending about people living in poverty. It has to have some sort of wit.
ED: Could you have done this design without having gone to India?
MT: Good heavens yes. You're not going to go to early 20th century Russia if you're going to design Fiddler on the Roof. Having said that, there's nothing better than going there. It was a fantastic experience. It made me understand more about the culture, which is completely alien and although there's loads of books and photographs, you're not going to soak in the atmosphere. There is something about place that informs design. I would always try to go somewhere if I can. You learn why people wear certain things and why things look like they do rather than just looking at this photograph cold.
ED: You had a bad experience once when you didn't do both sets and costumes. What happened?
MT: I was asked to do both. I accepted to do both. [Thompson was then asked to only do the sets and his response was to leave the production, but he was persuaded to return by the director who said he might enjoy working with somebody else.] To me the set was designed knowing what the costumes were going to look like and that's how I work. The costumes were a complete travesty. They were just hideous. And I don't care if that goes into print. It was just vile design as far as I'm concerned and should never have been allowed on stage. So when I was sitting in the theatre and the cast first came onstage, I went back to my room and burst into tears privately.
ED: Was that the worst experience you've ever had?
MT: Yes. And I will never get over it. It's in my blood. The longer I live with it, the angrier I get about it.
ED: Tonight in Radio City Music Hall what are you going to be thinking?
MT: Of course it's nice to be nominated. People say you so deserve to win, but what is “deserving to win”? I didn't do the show to be nominated for a Tony. I did the show to design Bombay Dreams. That's what it's about. But it would be lovely to win.