And write. And maybe design. An acclaimed LD considers the options.

It's not always easy being a theatre LD. Either jobs are hard to come by, or you're working 24/7 just to stay afloat. It's all too easy to get pigeonholed by genre (Shakespeare, musicals, stark naturalism) or location (East Coast, West Coast, Broadway, resident theatre). With all the time spent rushing from job to job, a personal life is too often an impossible dream. The faster you go, the more you're running in place. Sometimes you have to do something about it.

Consider the case of Peter Maradudin. With over 250 productions on his résumé, he can lay claim to being the West Coast's top theatre LD. (It's a title he probably doesn't want, but we'll get to that later.) He's won dozens of awards for his work in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and nominations in New York and San Diego; he has even won the Angstrom Award for Lifetime Achievement in Lighting Design. He's worked in themed entertainment, consulted on theatres, and launched an architectural lighting firm. By any standard, he has accomplished a great deal.

Still, Peter Maradudin isn't exactly happy. He's not miserable, and, given his exhausting pace, you couldn't call him depressed. (In fact, he combines cheerfulness with a blunt honesty that can be quite disarming.) Nevertheless, he feels that he's missing out on something. So he's taken matters into his own hands, in a very big way: He's writing (book and lyrics, with co-author Lynn Stewart), co-producing (with Regina S. Guggenheim and A.J. Epstein), and designing a new musical based on The Count of Monte Cristo, which is destined, he hopes, for the West End and, ultimately, Broadway.

Of course, Maradudin is not the first designer-producer. Many have done it, including Jules Fisher and Jo Mielziner. But to write, produce, and design — that's something new and staggeringly ambitious. Then again, Maradudin is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. He wants to remake the terms of his theatre design career, so he's prepared to do whatever it takes. And, before you utter the words “vanity project,” consider this: He has signed on a number of highly respectable theatre professionals to the project, including set designer Ralph Funicello, costume designer Judith Dolan, sound designer Garth Hemphill, actors Davis Gaines and Lisa Vroman, composer Brad Carroll, and director Martin L. Platt, among others.

Still, it's a multifaceted challenge. Maradudin has been busy writing, rewriting, raising money, assembling collaborators, producing workshops, making demo recordings; he has even created a Count of Monte Cristo website. What's even more remarkable is that he has simultaneously maintained a steady pace of theatre productions, worked on new architectural projects, taught college, and lit an acclaimed production of Salome, his first major opera production in over a decade. Clearly, multitasking is his way of life.

Choosing to become a producer

So why is Maradudin doing Monte Cristo? “Because nobody was ever going to ask me to do a Broadway musical,” he says. “I'm always asked to do Three Sisters.” He has a point; among his credits are any number of epic productions including the two-day Appalachian drama The Kentucky Cycle and the stage adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, plus many Shakespeares for San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and a well-received Threepenny Opera in San Francisco. But, having chosen to make a life in the Bay Area, he feels that he has been typecast as a West Coast designer, or a resident theatre designer, or both. There have been Broadway productions, like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which introduced August Wilson to the world in 1984, and The Kentucky Cycle in 1993. He has also designed several Off Broadway shows. (All of these, however, originated at resident theatres, then transferred to New York venues.) Now, he has grown dissatisfied with the resident theatre system, in which, he feels, institutions perpetuate themselves at the expense of artists. “There is a level of hypocrisy in the regional theatres,” he says. “They say they're doing it for the art, but it's really about butts in seats. Designers are notoriously underpaid from the get-go.” He recalls the words of a LORT (League of Regional Theatres) negotiator who defended the group's low design fees by saying, “We never expected you to make a living wage from us.” Maradudin adds, “I'm tired of having to fight the same fight — the expectations are so high and the money is so low. In a way, commercial theatre is more honest.”

So he's taking a chance on commercial musical theatre, and, typically, his involvement is 150%. Initially, “I wanted someone else to do the book,” he says, “but it's hard to get anyone to do it on spec. So I thought, why not give it a shot?” It's a job that would daunt a seasoned professional; in case you haven't read it lately, The Count of Monte Cristo is Alexandre Dumas' thrilling potboiler about Edmond Dantes, a young sailor who is cheated out of his modest fortune (and Mercedes, the love of his life), thanks to the machinations of evil colleagues. Confined to the French equivalent of Alcatraz on trumped-up charges of treason, Dantes befriends another prisoner who tells him where to find a vast treasure. He escapes from prison and disappears, only to emerge years later as the Count of Monte Cristo, ready to mobilize a titanically complex revenge plot. Once begun, the novel is impossible to put down, which is a good thing, since the standard paperback edition runs over 1,200 pages.

Unsurprisingly, Maradudin and his colleagues have envisioned The Count of Monte Cristo, the musical, as a sweeping, romantic epic, in the tradition of the British pop opera. (The songs have titles such as “Wait and Hope” and “Angel of Vengeance.”) When it is pointed out that, on Broadway today, the pop opera format has given way to giddy entertainments like Mamma Mia! and Hairspray, Maradudin says, “You have to write what you want, produce what you want. Besides, the pendulum [of taste] swings back and forth. You either tap into the zeitgeist or you don't.” When asked how he and Stewart are dealing with the book's unwieldy structure, he says, “We emphasize the price that Dantes pays — it's the journey of one person's soul.” Their adaptation, he adds, focuses on the book's three love stories: between Dantes and Mercedes, between the Count and Haydee, his slave; and between Valentine and Maximilian, a young couple in whom the Count takes an interest.

“Right now, we're raising money for a full-blown workshop for, we hope, February.” he says, adding, “We're working with Kevin Wallace in London. He was at the Really Useful Group [Andrew Lloyd Webber's production company]. We're looking at doing it in London first. The cost of doing it there is 40% of doing it on Broadway. We're looking at a $5 million budget, including the workshop. We're talking to the American Musical Theatre of San Jose to be the host for the workshop. Of course, raising money is the hardest thing about the job.”

Meanwhile, back at the lighting console

As a result, Maradudin says he is distancing himself from the resident theatre world, although you can't prove it by his schedule: He designed nine productions for the first four months of 2002. These included L'Universe, at the Berkeley Rep, starring the Flying Karamazov Brothers; in addition, the LD acted as an associate producer. Other design jobs included Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, also at Berkeley Rep; V-Day in San Francisco, a large-scale staging of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; The Blue Room in San Jose; The Beard of Avon, Blithe Spirit, and The Glass Menagerie at ACT; Twelfth Night at the Long Wharf Theatre; and Salome for Seattle Opera. Salome, which was very well-received (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer praised the designer's “voluptuous lighting design, always changing its color fields, like paintings, with colors, both day and night”), was notable for what the designer calls a “giant moving-light moon. We used the MB Studio, a 2.5kW HMI fresnel unit with a giant moving yoke from Licht-Technik.” The unit was programmed to track, pan, and tilt throughout the opera, which takes place over a single long night. “You never saw it moving and yet at the end of the show it had moved from stage left to stage right.”

Last fall, Maradudin lit ACT's revival of Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, a Shavian comedy about journalism, adultery, and the Third World. “The set [designed by Annie Smart] was a challenge to light,” he says. “It's a big white interior with a ceiling, on a 45° angle to the plaster line. It was hard to light the actors without lighting the scenery as well. But the production was an absolute delight. I had the tremendous pleasure of spending some time talking with Mr. Stoppard.” Coming up is American Buffalo at ACT, and Romeo and Juliet at Seattle Rep. In fact, he plans to continue working with his core group of artistic directors, that includes Carey Perloff at ACT, Tony Taccone at Berkeley Rep, Timothy Near at San Jose Rep, and Sharon Ott at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Light, truth, and architecture

Not that theatre is the entire basis of Maradudin's career. Several years ago, he and fellow designer York Kennedy founded Light and Truth, to pursue architectural projects. The name comes from the term “Lux et Veritas,” the motto of Yale University, where Maradudin and Kennedy attended graduate school. “It's a basic tenet of our work that one rarely happens without the other,” says a statement on the firm's website. Since then, Light and Truth, which has a satellite office in Los Angeles, has designed a number of restaurants and retail venues in the Bay Area. “York left to work with [architectural LD] Pat Gallegos,” Maradudin says. “I struggled for awhile, but we're growing now.” A recent project, Crustacean, a Vietnamese seafood restaurant in San Francisco, led to this summer's main project, Prana, a Las Vegas restaurant run by the same management. “It's part of the Desert Passage, in the Aladdin Hotel,” he says. “The owner started construction a year ago with a previous architect and lighting designer. Then he pulled the plug and let it sit for a year; now he brought in a new architect — and us. It's meant to be a big old nightclub. There's an enormous chandelier over the huge dance floor with all sorts of things going on inside it — it's a giant, translucent fiberglass fixture that can change color. It should look very cool. We've been working with [Vegas-based lighting supplier] 4Wall Entertainment on it.”

Still, Maradudin admits that all this activity, no matter how stimulating, can wear him down. The more opportunities he creates for himself, the more he steals valuable time. After he says that he worked over 120 days in a row last year without a day off, the question is posed: How does one maintain a personal life under all this stress? He pauses for a second, then says, “Well, I was married, and now I'm not. I have a longstanding, long-suffering girlfriend, who is also an architectural lighting designer. But even now, I travel so much.”

And he may be traveling even more, if everything falls into place with The Count of Monte Cristo. In the meantime, he's busy developing several other musical projects. The Shadow, based on the vintage radio thriller, “Is moving forward,” he says. “We may have a workshop in early fall 2003 at ACT. The second-hardest thing about producing is getting the rights to material. We've been going back and forth with Condé Nast, which owns it, but they seem to be relenting.” Then there's The Body Snatcher, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story, which, he says, “is on the back burner,” and “a new project, based on the film Ever After. We're hoping to get Drew Barrymore and her film company involved.” He adds, laughing, “That's the pipeline, as much as one can have a pipeline.”

Also in the pipeline may very well be new twists in Maradudin's career. This is, as they say, a developing story. The next year will should tell a most interesting tale for this most distinctive designer.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.