By Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Highly recommended by lighting designer Chris Akerlind and set designer Chris Barreca, 31 year-old Justin Townsend was the perfect candidate for the USITT Rising Star Award, fitting the profile of a young designer on the rise. He designs sets, lighting, and occasionally sound. “Not so much anymore,” he admits of the latter discipline. “But when I first moved to New York City, I did anything I could to get behind the tech table.” A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, where he received his MFA, and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Townsend currently lives in Brooklyn and is a member of United Scenic Artists.
When approaching a project, his process includes, “listening to what's specific and unique about the space, the script, and the moment. I ask myself why this group of people is going to do this at this time,” he says. “Then I put my building blocks on the table.”
His interest in sets and lighting comes from the complementary aspects of the different disciplines. “I like the dichotomy of scenery and lighting; they are a fantastic pair,” he notes. “They both deal with time and space, while lighting is more time related and scenery deals with space.”
When faced with a challenge, Townsend says he likes to “poke a hole in the problem,” solving it on a model or directly in the venue. “I like to come in with tools, then work things out in the space alongside the director and the actors.” During previews, Townsend often digs deeper into the process, honing his choices and finding out how to tell the story in a more singular way. “That's my favorite part and the hardest part of the process,” he admits.
In the event that he designs only the sets, Townsend is aware that his scenery can be daunting for another designer to tackle. “I understand where the lights could go,” he says. “I like to work with the lighting designers and help reinvent the vocabulary to find the specific energy that a project requires, rather than use old or familiar tricks.”
Townsend's sets range from a room lined in Visqueen with chipboard risers and fake grass in Rhinoceros, to an interpretation of a Victorian toy theatre that eventually reveals a room wrapped in white fabric for Twelfth Night, and an unusual installation for Miss Juile, in which the audience looks into a mirror to see that actors that were actually behind them. This kind of optical illusion is just the kind of theatrical magic one can expect from this young designer whose accomplishments belie his age. More of his work can be seen at www.justintownsend.com.