Call it the massacre of 2000. Jane Eyre switched off the lighting designer, Seussical tore apart the costume designer, and Lion King LA shut down the sound designer who had lulled audiences on Broadway and the West End. Whether a show is in trouble, or an insecure producer feels the need to solve a non-problem, the proposed solution too often is to fire a designer. And that creates problems not only for the artists who exit but also for those who come on the scene to replace them.
"There's always guilt and hurt feelings," says James Noone, who stepped into two shows in progress. "You feel bad because the people you replace are talented people. That's why they were hired in the first place. It's heartbreaking to be separated from something you love." Has Noone ever been fired? "Not yet," he says, acknowledging the vagaries of the business.
Sometimes the circumstances are just plain horrific. Take the time, for instance, when David Merrick replaced Jo Mielziner with Robin Wagner as Sugar moved in from DC - and he didn't bother to tell Mielziner. Merrick assured Wagner that Mielziner accepted the situation before Wagner agreed to redesign the show around Gower Champion's existing blocking. Finally, Pete Feller, Sr. broke the news to Wagner, who in turn knew he had to tell one of his idols what had been done to him. As it happened, Mielziner was ill and he was relieved to get out of a difficult task for a difficult producer - but the news certainly took him by surprise.
Even in kinder circumstances, replacing a colleague requires tact. Kevin Rigdon, who stepped in to finish an overextended colleague's scenic design on Speed-the-Plow at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre in Chicago, says he "walked very carefully." In this instance, the set was already under construction; Rigdon modified a drop and made only minor adjustments to the original design, which he also lit.
His advice? "Listen and try to find out what wasn't working. It might not be the design. Usually, the artistic conflict wasn't so big in the first place," says Rigdon, who thinks it's often a matter of incompatible personalities. He says the newcomer's role may be mostly a matter of handholding, reassuring the producer or director that the show will be fine.
When design issues really are at the heart of the problem, studying the previous design can help a newcomer know where not to walk. When Noone came in to completely redesign Finian's Rainbow after the out-of-town opening, he says he had a decided advantage because he was able to see the traps his predecessor found hard to avoid. "There's something about seeing a musical on its feet that makes it easier to know what can go wrong," he says. "I knew what I was getting into, I knew what direction to go in."
A restricted budget was a problem for him as it had been for "the wonderful designer I replaced. Set design is expensive," he reflects, "and it's tricky to keep everyone happy. You hear stories about designers who haven't been fired and everybody's angry with them. You're trying to make everybody's dreams come true, and that costs money." Noone says the beautiful ideas that evolved could never have been done on the money allowed and thinks that too often, "the art gets thrown away and the pocketbook takes over."
Noone had occasion to replace a colleague once before, on a musical he prefers not to name. Several designers had been engaged by the time the show reached Noone, the last of whom had done a model the director loved but found incompatible with his vision. Even though Noone came in too late to make conceptual contributions, he says he enjoyed a terrific collaboration because he shared the director's sense of the show. "He had very strong ideas and I really needed to shape them and make them a reality." Again, having seen a version helped him know what the director didn't want. His advice? "You just have to try to learn from what went wrong the first time and try not to make the same mistakes."
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, on the other hand, found it useful to go into a show blind, even though she could have opted to see photos and models. When the Romulus Linney adaptation of Ernest Gaines' novel, A Lesson Before Dying, opened Off Broadway at the Signature Theatre recently, economic considerations kept the original designer from coming to New York. Kellogg proceeded as she would have on any show, with nothing but some of director Kent Thompson's favorite research pictures, electing not to see the Alabama Shakespeare Festival design by a designer she respects. Nevertheless, the theatre imported some pieces from the original, including "a chillingly accurate electric chair. Building props is easier in a resident theatre situation than it is in most theatres in New York, so props requiring a complex build and paint treatment, like the e-chair, we decided just to ship on up north," says Kellogg. She believes that Thompson had the hardest job, working on a wider stage and with a new design. "Rethinking decisions and a show rhythm you've already committed to is surely more confusing than starting a project with a clean slate," she says.
Replacement designers often work on fast forward. Wagner watched Sugar for three days, studied the blocking, and had the new set on the stage before the performers got to New York. Merrick "never lost a performance night," even if it meant replacing scenery before a show closed out of town, Wagner reports. Kellogg, who was his assistant on Sugar back then, started working on Lesson "at the beginning of July, and had to deliver by the beginning of August, with the artistic personnel scattered all over the summer map." Kellogg and a new lighting designer, Jane Cox, had "to play rapid catch-up. We've crammed the whole design process into a month and the build into even less." Previews began September 5.
How stressful is speed design? Frances Aronson says that with less time to consider options, she doesn't agonize as much about such things as how to allocate a limited budget. Michael McGarty, who helped to totally reconceive a show heading for New York on a given day, fast coming, says in some ways, the situation was less stressful than most because the producer had to make decisions quickly in order to stay on schedule. Stress also depends on expectations. Wagner stepped into Hair when Tom O'Horgan took it over for Broadway, but in that instance, "There was no pressure because there were no goals. We went around the East Village with a truck, picking stuff up," Wagner recalls; working without renderings or models, he relied on rented scaffolding and found pieces.
The work itself may go smoothly or be fraught with difficulties. When Aronson stepped into Julie Taymor's production of The Tempest en route to Stratford, Taymor clarified the intentions of each scene, and Aronson says the design process was no different from any other - it just happened faster. On the other hand, when she took over Simon Gray's The Common Pursuit, producers asked if she could have a plot the next day. That would have been difficult even if they had provided her with plans for the scenic design and for the theatre. "It was an adventure," she says.
Aronson recalls the time she had been working on five shows and was looking forward to a break when Playwrights Horizons wanted her for Herringbone, a one-man show with musical scenes. She turned the director down. She turned the artistic director down. They wore her down, but not before they promised to take the lights down and let her start over. "The show was so complicated, I needed my own design logic in place," she says. That can't always happen. By the time the American Repertory Theatre asked her to come in on Ron Daniels' production of The Cherry Orchard, the show was hung and colored. "I went in to do what I could with what was there," she says, adding that she wrote cues and adjusted the focus. The upshot? Aronson won the Boston Theatre Award for a design she freely admits wasn't hers.
Aronson had worked with scenic designer George Tsypin and Daniels before. When a designer is brought in late, "Presumably they have a friend on the production team telling everybody to trust them," says Aronson, noting that this can make a difficult situation manageable. Another plus is that a lighting designer "may sometimes get to actually see the show before you work on it." Cherry Orchard, for instance, was fully blocked when she came in.
Associate designers sometimes feel they're replacing other designers - and sometimes they feel they're being replaced. Mark Nayden says he did all the designing, drafting, and modeling for a production that was credited to an established scenic designer who had taken on too many projects, but wasn't replaced - at least not officially. The director wanted her, and nobody wanted an unknown designer's name on the project. Tech week was awkward, with both designers present. "My hands were tied in a lot of ways," says Nayden, explaining he was bound by her initial concept, which he felt was wrong for the show. His response? "It was the last time I did associate design. When you're an associate designer, the water's already boiled and you're jumping in." Nayden had a wonderful time co-designing Translations with Ashley Martin Davies, and his design for the national tours of An Inspector Calls and Indiscretions allowed him to "enhance a concept and bring it to a new level." But he says associate designing has more in common with replacing someone than with either of these scenarios.
Wagner came in to see shows often and offered advice, but Sugar was the only time he took over. (Nobody else wanted Hair, he notes.) He believes most producers today don't love theatre, aren't visual enough to understand a rendering, and ask for results before there can be any. Merrick, for all his faults, produced "shows with a classic theatricality born from him. Now it's all about product and budgets and financing and being fully prepared because you can't afford for anything not to work," Wagner laments. "You don't know what a show is until you've seen it rehearsed. The orchestrations can open an avenue to the way the show could be done." Replacement designers have an advantage because they come in when there is more of a show to design. If producers understood that, perhaps there wouldn't be so many of them.