Director Mary Zimmerman's work has one definite trademark — well integrated design. The costumes, lights, and scenery seem to be part of the life of the piece. That is because Zimmerman brings in the design team before there is even a script. This year's EDDY Awards honors three of her frequent collaborators — costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer TJ Gerckens, and scenic designer Daniel Ostling — who have worked with Zimmerman on a range of shows and at a variety of theatres including the multiple incarnations of the award-winning Metamorphoses, Arabian Nights, The Odyssey, Measure for Measure, and Mary Zimmerman's collaboration with Philip Glass on the opera Galileo Galilei.
Blumenfeld, who enjoys the freelance life, and Ostling, a professor at Loyola University, are based in Chicago. Gerckens, formerly of Chicago, is now based near Columbus, OH, where he is also a production manager for the Contemporary American Theatre Company. This design team finds its creative inspiration is at its best when they work together in the unique collaborative atmosphere that is a Zimmerman project. “We are all good friends and the work Mary does is great,” says Blumenfeld. “Mary is very loyal about her design team. There is a lot of comfort. Zimmerman's focus is on original work. We start rehearsals without a script and there is a certain amount of trust and common vocabulary to be able to go into that process. We trust each other that we are all going to do our jobs and we trust each other to crossover our different jobs. We give each other input on the different designs. Because the nature of Mary's work is very collaborative and intense, you have to be closely connected to each other. And we enjoy each other's company and really like each other. When Mary got a grant for us to all go to Italy for Galileo, we had a lot of fun, and the fact that we got to see the same things together really fueled that design process.”
“The trip to Italy was great for us to travel together and immerse ourselves in the art and the culture, and later on when Dan was working on a sketch I often knew where the visual inspiration had came from, so for the lighting I understood what the feel of the light should be,” states Gerckens. “We had great design meetings with Dan sketching furiously on the backs of menus.”
The group research trip is an example of the unique design process this team practices when working with Zimmerman. “We are brought in first, which is something I think we all love,” says Ostling. “It is great to be involved at the shaping of the script; right away she brings us in and we all read whatever text exists and then we start researching and brainstorming. Again, we really love it because the scripts come out of the work. I have only worked that way with Mary. It goes against everything I learned in grad school about ‘read the play, support the action,’ but with Mary you can't do that. All of us are interested in making design choices that are about the integration of the play and not imposed on it.”
Collaboration of this kind requires a lot of trust among the team. One of the things Gerckens likes best about working as a group is that the boundaries get blurred. “Dan often has great influence on what I do and I have often said, ‘Dan, I think I would like it better if the set did this.’ Any number of times I have sat at a dinner table with Mara and Dan, looking at fabric swatches. As a team the walls get broken down and there is a lot of comfort to make suggestions. It is quite wonderful. There is no feeling of being threatened and we can just spur each other on.”
“We realize that we are really lucky that we get to keep working together, and when you do an outside gig you realize how lucky you are as a freelance designer to have such a home, both as a part of the design team but also with everyone who is this community of people that work with Mary,” concludes Ostling. And it is a good thing they are friends because, as Blumenfeld jokingly points out, with all the remounts of Metamorphoses, “We are going to be teching that show until the day we die.”