From black box theatres downtown, to upscale houses uptown, to operas all around the country, scenic designer Allen Moyer has a full dance card as he jumps back and forth between the worlds of opera and theatre, from abstract to realism. Anyone who saw the recent revival of Twelve Angry Men knows that Moyer is a master of details. Likewise, his work on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 2004 production of Nixon in China was the stuff of design legend. He also designs for the Houston Opera, Glimmerglass Theatre, and the Santa Fe Opera. ED's Mark A. Newman chats with Moyer about his work and his unusual road to the stage via biochemistry, and his thoughts on what's right — and wrong — with higher education.

ED: What is your design approach when you're dealing with an opera in repertory?

Allen Moyer: I'm usually not that concerned when I'm designing a show that it's going to be in rep with other shows. At a certain point that becomes a concern. There's a sense that you have that prevents your mind from going certain ways. When you're approaching it you can't plan on a poured concrete floor, but I wouldn't think in those terms anyway. In the back of your head you know what the limitations will be. But I don't think about them or feel oppressed. You get to a certain point where the designers present all at the same time and then you evaluate all of them at once and that is usually the point where the technical director takes over and figures out how they can all work together.

Certain places have very little backstage space. That becomes an exercise in what you can include. The TD has a back wall you want to use, but it is in our best interest to leave it on stage for the whole season, but I need it to be 2' narrower so it can work with the other three productions. Then you weigh the decisions: is it essential to be the size I wanted or would it be a better piece if I adjusted it? Those are the kinds of things you start to work out.

I don't think about it. That's when people come to you and ask you for adjustments. If I make that piece like that, those other two shows can't do what they want to do. It's not fair to be inflexible.

ED: The set for Twelve Angry Men looked like a typical government building. Is there a different set of challenges for you when you have to design something to be so realistic as opposed to something more abstract like Nixon in China?

AM: It's a totally different mindset. At times my career seems a little schizophrenic because I do all these operas. The opera and theatre worlds are very, very separate. People who work in opera tend to go to the theatre and they know what's going on in the theatre. People who do theatre — in my experience — never go to the opera, so it's a total one-way street and it's too bad for designers because it's terrible to deprive yourself of going to the opera. Opera can be a more abstract and sometimes more exciting design, because you're not tied down to worrying about doors and windows.

In theatre, I have a reputation for doing wonderful, almost naturalistic interiors, things like Lobby Hero and This is Our Youth, which are real spaces and I enjoy doing those. I feel very strongly in designing these sets, because I don't make up spaces; I base them on real architecture. If it's going to be done onstage, it's best to make them as real as possible. Twelve Angry Men was based on a real tour I took of those spaces. I was able to do something based on the real space, and I just wanted to de-romanticize it because I felt the movie was very romantic and in reality it did not look like that. When I saw the real space, I was struck by the fact they were in such disrepair and so depressing. I thought to myself, “Is this how little we think about this process?” And it worked nicely for the play. When the men enter the room, that's their frame of mind; they care more about a baseball game than the process. All you want to do when you come in is get the hell out and that doesn't encourage exciting conversation about the trial you witnessed for a week. That's how little we value real conversation about the judicial process.

ED: What was your educational background, and how did you get into designing for the theatre?

AM: I started out at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania called Albright College, and I was studying biochemistry. I changed my major after my first year, I was studying mostly dramatic literature classes and I was totally immersed in that. I wanted to study theatre more seriously but, at that time, I wasn't sure if I wanted to direct or design. I transferred to Penn State because some friends of mine did that, and they had a good theatre program. I had three years off in between and went back to Albright and designed their shows. After doing that I went to NYU and got an MFA.

ED: Was your education, in your view, adequate?

AM: People who study anything would say that college barely scratches the surface. I felt like I was well prepared partially based on mistakes I thought I had made. I thought I was disadvantaged because I started out studying science for two years, and others working on BFAs had been doing it for four years. But the things I thought were mistakes ended up giving me an advantage over my peers. In those two years at Albright, reading plays prepared me to deal with the material in a way that theatre programs don't spend enough time on. There's a way of reading plays and discussing them that many theatre programs just scratch the surface on. It was a real advantage looking back.

One of the things I'm proudest of is that I have good relationships with playwrights, and I can talk about their plays in a way they can relate to. The person at Albright who taught in the English department also directed the plays so she taught from the standpoint of a non-academic approach. It was all in terms of how you use that information to actually do a show. That's where I was really lucky, because some people go through dramatic literature programs but they're dealing with purely academic people and it doesn't translate to how you can use that to make a production. It teaches you how to write a beautiful thesis on it, but it doesn't set you up for a professional life. I always feel that was lucky because I had that. I can really talk about a play, and I can participate in a way that a lot people are not able to. I'm very comfortable talking with a playwright — talking about what their play is about. People I work with like getting that from me, but some can be intimidated because they don't want to share that responsibility.

As far as general education, I feel like I was prepared as well as possible for this career. There's only so much you can do. It's basically like having classes about riding a bike. You're going to fall down a couple of times. Eventually when you're riding a bike, you remember.

ED: It's more about doing than being told how to do it.

AM: Absolutely. At first you might say, “that didn't prepare me at all.” In a class situation, how do you train people to be collaborative? The only way to do it is to actually do it. It's all about the practical experience. NYU was good for me because all of my teachers were working professionals. Through them, I learned a lot about all that kind of stuff and simple things like scheduling your time and the pace of life. So it wasn't a mystery to me when I got out of school and was working like a dog every day.

At NYU, a teacher would be working out of town for three weeks and we wouldn't have class, then once he's back we would have class four times that week. That was wonderful for me because that let me know there was nothing routine or regular about what the career or life is going to be like and gave me a lot of insight. A lot of schools are primarily staffed with academics; their practical experience may have been working as an assistant for two years, then they decide to teach and design a show at the college every year. It's harder for those students to have a sense of what they'll be facing. NYU and Yale and many others have working professionals doing things all over the world and that makes a big difference.

A lot of colleges and universities have blanket requirements that all instructors should have a PhD or be working toward a PhD. I don't think someone working toward a PhD in theatre should be teaching design. People who work in the theatre don't have PhDs. A lot of universities have requirements about publishing, but if you're a set designer you don't publish anything. You work and design a play. There are a lot of rigorous rules universities have if you're going to teach. They are shooting themselves in the foot: trying to shoehorn a theatre program that purports to be a professional program into that framework is somewhat ludicrous. It's a never-ending circle. Do we really need so many people teaching theatre to teach people to teach theatre?