Hot enough for ya?
We've managed to turn our annual roundup of young designers to watch into a trial by fire for each group we select. For last year's cover, we set our five promising designers on a New York sidewalk on the hottest day of the summer. This year, the group on these pages faced a slightly cooler day, but on a hot, steaming Manhattan roof. Still, something tells us they better get used to all that heat. From a photography school in France to a small college in the Pennsylvania countryside to one of this country's most prestigious grad schools, this year's group of young designers on the verge is typical of the promise shown by previous honorees. They are also the embodiment of the talent and diversity of the industry itself. You can almost see the heat rising from the page.
All photos: Ilona Lieberman
Profession: Sound Designer
Education: BA from Muhlenberg College, dual major in theatre design and medieval history.
Recent Work: Four at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Underneath the Lintel at the SoHo Playhouse, Tartuffe at the TriBeCa Theatre.
Influences: “In my freshman year of school they brought in a sound designer from New York, Jim van Bergen. He actually gave me the first classroom schooling in sound, and I've been working with him ever since.”
Why He's Worth Watching: It can be tough enough these days carving out a career based on your college major, but just try carving two. That's what Paul Adams has been fortunate enough to achieve thus far in his young life: with his dual major in both theatre design and medieval history from Muhlenberg University in Pennsylvania, he's managed to become not only a working sound designer in New York, but also spends his summers training jousting troupes at the Renaissance Faire in New Jersey.
He's best known in New York, of course, from his day job, most notably on his stunning sound design on Four, Christopher Shinn's play about two wildly inappropriate couples getting together on a date on a Fourth of July in Hartford, CT. Directed by Jeff Cohen, and featuring original music by David Van Tieghem, Adams' design combined a wide range of atmospheric sound effects — including, naturally, fireworks — and placed them precisely within the space. The production originated at the TriBeCa Playhouse and transferred last season to the Manhattan Theatre Club.
“Jeff and I first hooked up two years ago in a show in Princeton, and ever since then, he's ask me to design everything he's done down there, from Isn't It Romantic to Tartuffe,” says Adams. “When started doing Four downtown, the playwright really had a major role in the show at that time, and I worked with what both Jeff and the author had in mind in the show. At TriBeCa, I was hanging more locations than they'd ever had in there.”
Adams first got into audio during high school, and while at Muhlenberg he juggled theatre with local rock acts. He also served as student technical director for the school's theatre department. “Pretty much anything that came through the college that required sound I took care of,” he says. “I was mixing everything under God's earth: a country folk act, comedians, rock and roll. It was a great learning experience because you're doing everything with gear that sometimes works.”
The first big theatre piece he did at school was a production of subUrbia. “We actually mixed down a soundtrack, with two desks. We hung speakers all through the lobby and annoyed a lot of the administration.”
The classes on sound design taught by Jim van Bergen at Muhlenberg helped convince Adams that theatre sound was where he wanted to be. Adams has often served as van Bergen's assistant on a wide range of projects, from musicals like last year's Summer of 42 to a wide range of corporate work and one — off events.
“Paul has a very wide-eyed approach to every project, where he'll say let's sit down and figure out what we're going to do, and that's one of the things that makes him interesting as both a person and a designer,” says van Bergen. “He doesn't say, ‘Well, I'm going just throw X, Y, and Z at it,’ which unfortunately, can happen to designers as they get older. Paul's still at a point at his career where he still has an openness and a curiosity to everything. And that's part of what makes him a great resource.”
Adams spent part of the hot summer doing a lot of corporate and other one — off projects, and the other part donning his armor for the Renaissance Faire. His next theatre project will come in the fall, when he returns to Muhlenberg to teach a class and design a show that may come to New York. “Lately I really miss doing theatre, because how many times can you do a corporate meeting without banging your head on the wall,” he says. “But it's the life of a freelancer.”
Profession: Projection Designer
Education: Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Arles, France
Recent Work: 36 Views at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre
Influences: Jan Hartley (“Her work is really fabulous. She's very precise about the things she wants to do.”)
Why He's Worth Watching: The world of theatre projection designers is relatively small, with a handful of names handling most of the work in New York. That's why 36 Views, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory and the Joseph Papp Public Theatres, was such a surprise. Naomi Iizuka's devilish puzzle about art history, forgery, and assorted criminal activities featured an extremely ambitious and effective use of projections. The fact that the projection designer, Ruppert Bohle, was not one of the usual suspects, only added to the interest. Even more interesting, Bohle and set designer Douglas Stein both received Drama Desk nominations.
Bohle was born in Germany and studied photography in France. “I never had the intention of going into the theatre,” he says. Back in Germany, he interviewed at a state employment service. “They asked me what I could do; I told them I was a photographer and was good with lights.” He got an interview for a position as a touring theatrical electrician. “I bought a manual, and read it, then went into a meeting with this guy, who probably realized that I had no experience,” he recalls. The work was tough: “You're with another guy, sharing and sleeping in a truck. Every day you go to a different city. You start around ten in the morning, loading in the set. You start lighting at two and, at five, the actors come in and see the space, if it is very different from the night before. At seven or eight you do the show, then you strike it, get back in the truck, and drive the next city — a two-, or four-, or six-hour drive. Then you do it all over again. It's like the circus; one could make a film about it.”
After a year, Bohle and his wife moved to New York, where he met Nick Schwartz-Hall, then the production manager at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. “I was doing corporate theatre, working as a stagehand,” Bohle says. “Nick needed someone to work with Jan Hartley on the play Space. I took over as programmer, then worked for the Public on a couple more shows.” One of them was Book of the Dead (Second Avenue), by composer/director/projection designer John Moran, in which actors lip-synched to a soundtrack while enormous images were projected onto scrims in front of and behind the stage “The Public asked me to make sure that what John wanted to do was feasible,” the designer says. “I did all the programming. The show had only one cue; we linked everything to the musical score,” using the Dataton System from Scharff Weisberg.
36 Views' design, like the play, was very intricate. Stein's set featured shoji screens and a deck fashioned to look like a board for the Asian game Go. Bohle's projections were a nonstop parade of video imagery that performed a number of functions. Some announced the number and/or suggested the location of each of the play's 36 scenes. Others featured Japanese art (the forgery of an medieval Japanese pillow book is a central plot point) while still others created movement and dizzying shifts of perspective. In fact, 36 Views was, arguably, one of two or three best-designed productions in New York last season, partly because all the elements worked in such complementary fashion.” Often when projection design comes onboard, it is, unfortunately, an afterthought,” says Bohle. “You come in to an already-designed set, which wasn't created for projections. You try to bend scenery to work with the projections or bend projections to work with the scenery. This project was a really collaborative effort. Doug created a huge space for projections. David [Weiner, the lighting designer] kept asking me if something would affect my work — and I would ask him the same thing.”
Next up for Bohle is The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, starring Al Pacino, as the Hitlerian title character, and Billy Crudup, John Goodman, and Charles Durning, opening this month at the National Actors Theatre's new venue at Pace University in downtown Manhattan. The director is Simon McBurney of London's Théâtre de Complicité; the set designer is Robert Innes-Hopkins. Bohle admits being both excited and a bit intimidated by this starry project. “It's a different process,” he says. “Simon has a very organic way of working, which means that we don't know what we're doing at this stage of the game.” The key, he says, is “how to connect to this play and connect it back to us, now,” not treating it as an historical artifact. Given McBurney's taste for arresting imagery and Bohle's skill, the results should be interesting indeed.
Profession: Costume Designer
Education: UC Santa Cruz (BA in Modern Literature); Yale School of Drama (MFA in Costume Design)
Recent Work: The Wooden Breeks at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska; The Ramayana at Bard College; The Marriage of Figaro for Target Margin Theatre; Fefu and Her Friends at Actor's Express in Atlanta, GA; Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22 at Yale School of Drama
Influences: Ming Cho Lee (“He taught that the designer's first responsibility is to be open to the play and to find the humanity within it”); collage artists Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg; Marcel Duchamp.
Why She's Worth Watching: The word “multifaceted” comes to mind. Hoffman's a designer with a heavy-duty art and literature background who also — look out — wants to direct. Hoffman attended LA County High School for the Arts, then decided to major in literature at UC-Santa Cruz. “I thought it was the major I could get the most out of,” she says. “But I designed costumes the whole time I was there, for three productions a year” at the college and later at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. She chose to pursue an MFA in costume design “because it combines my love of literature with my love of art.”
At Yale, she studied with Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood, Jennifer Tipton, Jess Goldstein, and Steven Strawbridge, directed a couple of productions, designed a few sets here and there. That was also where she met directing student and frequent collaborator Wier Harman.
The two worked together at Yale on his thesis production, Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22 and on Maria Irene Fornes' Enter the Night. Citing her literary background, Harman, now artistic director at Atlanta's Actor's Express, says, “She can read a script for narrative, then extrapolate those values to her design choices. I find her an invaluable collaborator not only for what she brings as a costume or set designer, but what she helps me discover about the text that I happen to be working on. She sort of thinks like a director and it helps me visualize.
“Her definition of research goes far beyond the picture collection at the library; it's more wide-ranging contextual research,” Harman continues. For Fefu and Her Friends, another Fornes play directed by Harman set in New England in the 30s, Hoffman read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein and The Group by Mary McCarthy. “It helped flesh out the world of the play for me,” she says.
For The Ramayana, Hoffman read a novelization of the Hindu epic poem as well as the script, then set to work to make the young student actors at Bard look more epic and heroic. One solution was makeup: “We had a session where we brought in cheap makeup and we played with all the actors. We put whiteface on all of them, tried different mouths and different shapes on their faces. Then we took pictures of them and looked at what it did to their faces,” she says. Next February, Hoffman will travel to ACT in San Francisco for a new production of The Ramayana.
After attending the La Mama Umbria Directors Symposium in Italy, in the summer, Hoffman returned to New York to work on Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, for director Kirsten Kelly's thesis project at Juilliard. Hoffman says she and Kelly bonded over this little-known play at a wedding two years ago. “I said there's this one play I've been dying to design, but most people have never heard of it. And her eyes got wide and she said, ‘You're kidding! I've been dying to direct it for years; I'm doing it in Chicago!’ I couldn't do the Chicago show, but I'm doing the costumes for the Juilliard production.”
In January, she'll head back to the West Coast to costume Outrage, a new play by Itamar Moses, at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. “It's a new play that jumps worlds: Ancient Greece at one point, the Renaissance at another, a contemporary East Coast college at another. And Bertolt Brecht is in it.” When asked just how she'll costume Brecht, Hoffman replies, “I think that if you've got Brecht, you better just research Brecht.”
Profession: Scenic Designer
Education: State University of New York, Brockport
Recent Work: Where's My Money? at Manhattan Theatre Club; The Glory of Living at Manhattan Class Company; Mrs. Feuerstein, Off Broadway; Spanish Girl at Second Stage
Influences: Christine Jones (“She lifted my heart, my eyes, my soul”); Narelle Sissons (“She opened up my mind.”)
Why She's Worth Watching: Look at the company she keeps: playwrights like John Patrick Shanley and Rebecca Gilman, actors like Anna Paquin; directors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You don't get to work with the likes of them unless you've got something going for you. And Malavet has plenty.
Malavet started out to be a dancer, “beginning,” she says, “when I was five, with the local modern dance school in Mamaroneck,” the New York town where she grew up. In college, at SUNY Brockport, she studied choreography, but then, she says, “my knees went out, my back went out, everything went out.” Taking a general theatre course, she was introduced to design, which, like dance, she feels is “a kinetic form of art.” A summer season as an assistant set designer at New Jersey Shakespeare Festival was pivotal: “I met four great designers: Rob Odorisio, Shelley Barclay, Michael Vaughn Sims, and Christine Jones. They opened my eyes to what design was.” She spent two years working for Jones, then briefly for Tony Walton. In 1998, she assisted Narelle Sissons on the Blue Light Theatre production Oedipus, starring Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand. “I was with Narelle for quite some time,” she says. “We did The Misanthrope [at Classic Stage, with Roger Rees and Uma Thurman], a production that sparked many people's careers. John Gould Rubin was in the show; he's been directing a lot, and he brought me into LAByrinth Theatre.” The company had recently gained in fame, thanks to the rising fortunes of member Philip Seymour Hoffman and good reviews for the drama Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. Malavet's first production there was The Trail of Inner Thigh; the second was Where's My Money?, which later transferred to Manhattan Theatre Club.
“I design very dramaturgically,” Malavet says; “if I'm superimposing ideas on the play, it's just going to be a grand failure.” For example, the set of Where's My Money?, a bitter comedy about divorce, was notable for its skewed angles and daunting rakes. “The play was about the imbalance of power,” she says. Also, she notes, many of the play's scenes take place in a cafe and Malavet had meetings with Shanley in an ancient Sullivan St. cafe, whose sloping walls and ceiling provided inspiration. On the other hand, in The Glory of Living, a tale of sexual abuse and murder in the American South, “Phil [Seymour Hoffman, who directed] and I wanted to do a room that shifted, that deconstructed. As the lead character deconstructed, so did her world. If I could have kept her in the center of the stage and moved everything around her, I would have.” Then again, for Spanish Girl, a comedy about college life, she says, “I wanted you to feel like they were back in college, in that dumpy off-campus apartment, with that roommate you haven't talked to in 10 years.”
Next up for Malavet is Blood in the Sink, by Josh Ben Friedman, directed by Rubin, and produced by another Off Broadway group at Urban Stages. “It has a kitchen, and it doesn't move — as of yet,” she adds, laughing.
Profession: Lighting Designer
Education: Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
Recent Work: Stephen Belber's The Transparency of Val, Adam Weiner's Rough Draft, Chen Shi-Zheng's Ghost Lovers at Spoleto Festival USA and Lincoln Center Institute, Heat Lightning with Jonathan Appels in Paris and New York City
Influences: Certainly Beverly Emmons is tops on Weaver's list. Also Cindy Limauro, Michael Olich, Richard Block, and Gregory Lehane at Carnegie Mellon. Weaver also lists J. S. Bach, Wassily Kandinsky, Utah Phillips, Charles Dickens, Konstantin Stanislavski, Jean Genet, Jean Anouilh.
Why He's Worth Watching: This 25-year-old has a very clear vision of who he is and where he is going. He also describes himself more as a storyteller than as a lighting designer, which gives him a unique perspective that can be seen in his work. “I tend to think of light as a language I choose to tell stories with, more like a tool to help serve a text. That's why I think of Utah Phillips or Jean Genet as an aesthetic influence. I think of them as great storytellers,” says Weaver, who grew up in a theatre family, and was always surrounded by people who told stories for a living. “I always felt very comfortable in that environment,” he adds.
Weaver also digs into the material first and foremost. “That becomes my main focus in the beginning. Not just the play, or the dance, but also peripheral research. I do a lot of literary research, as well as visual. Nine times out of 10, the research has no relationship to how the show is lighted, but it immerses my head and my instincts in the material further,” he explains. “The rehearsal is the most important phase for me. I really try and have a set of goals and priorities going into each rehearsal. For me it's not merely seeing where the actors are standing, but tapping into the work that the actors are doing, the director is doing. I usually get more from a director by the way he or she gives notes to the actors than to me.”
But there are still challenges to the job. “What's so hard about what LDs do is that we have to sketch in public,” he notes. “A costume or set designer can throw the sketches they hate in the trash and no one sees it. A lighting designer is sketching in front of the crew, cast, designers, directors, and producers. It's a very public process, which is something I've had to learn to embrace rather than fret about. I don't feel the need for cue one to be perfect in order to move on. I can try something, move on, go back, try new things, start over. The trick is to have all of this in eight hours or less sometimes.”
Weaver is also both ambitious and aggressive, in the best possible way. He has never been passive about his career, and took the bull by the horns at the age of 16, when he started writing letters to designers such as Chris Parry, Richard Pilbrow, and David Hersey. “Most were gracious enough to write me back; Chris even called me,” Weaver says. “Imagine being 17 and having the Tony winner for Tommy call you during dinner.”
During his senior year in high school, Weaver worked for John Hoey (he had written to him as well) at Pennsylvania Ballet and the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. Then he attended Carnegie Mellon, and went right into a one — year fellowship with Beverly Emmons at Lincoln Center Institute. “That was an incredible year,” Weaver says. “I had the opportunity to work with so many great designers, directors, writers, and choreographers. I guess the rest is sort of history from there.”