This is our sixth year of showcasing up-and-coming young talent as part of our Young Designers To Watch, and it has grown to become quite a popular annual event. This year's group is as diverse as ever, with representatives from the West Coast, the East Coast, even the Far East. Just don't tell us these five designers aren't gonna make it big. Them's fightin' words.
JAKE RODRIGUEZ, SOUND DESIGNER
Jake Rodriguez entered the field of sound design through the back door. “I acted all my life, since childhood, then started playing music 12 or 13 years ago,” he says. Yet his approach to music is on the wild side, as he doesn't play a traditional instrument but rather creates his own style of music, ranging from amplified mouth sounds to electric synthesizer noises. But once he started playing music he thought, “what if I did the music and the sound for theatre?” For a while that is exactly what he did do, then morphed to primarily designing sound, yet continuing to present musical performances (you have to be there to explain it, he notes).
But sound design won out over acting as a primary occupation for Rodriguez, who recalls: “Sound became a new element and allowed me to look at theatre from a bigger picture, and opened my mind to see a production from a broader perspective. That became more interesting to me. I had no formal training in music or sound. I stumbled upon it.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in Los Angeles but moved to San Francisco in 1992, considers himself lucky to have done an internship in sound design at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco in 2001, where he was able to “see how the big theatre companies run in terms of production. I came to understand technology through experience.”
In August, Rodriguez was busy designing the sound for Nicholas Nickelby Part II (Part I of this sprawling epic by Charles Dickens was already up and running) at the California Shakespeare Festival in Berkeley, CA, where he is an artistic associate — he designed all of the shows there this season — on a freelance basis. “This is a huge show, it's gigantic,” he says. “We were rehearsing Part II while Part I was running. There are tons of sound and music cues and many different locations and transitions in the text. Part II is not so smooth as we were so crushed for time.”
Rodriguez did not compose the music for the production but rather used period music, trying different things out during the rehearsal period. “That's how I know to approach theatre. To be in the rehearsal room and try things out, rather than sit around a table and theorize,” he explains. “I like to make the sound as organic to the production as possible.” His desire to sit in on rehearsals led Rodriguez to develop his own computer-based playback program called Cricket, that was developed on software called MAX-MSP, a programming environment for audio and MIDI. “The software is taught in universities and used for experimental music. I make music with it and realized I could use it in rehearsal rather than a few CD players and digital consoles. This allows me to make choices during rehearsals,” he says. “You load in your audio and can work on playback timing and automate cues. Much of the work is done by the time you get into the theatre. I realized we could use it for shows. Other people are now using it as well.”
This software, as well as his creativity in general, is what led sound designer Garth Hemphill to point out Rodriguez as a hot young talent. “Jake is one of those people that is always experimenting and trying something new. He has a wonderful attitude and is a great collaborator. His energy and excitement are another part of his personality that makes him a good designer. He is an interesting composer as well, and I guess that may have a lot to do with what I appreciate in his work. No matter what the sound, there is always a sense of musicality and great sensitivity to the rhythm of the moment in his work,” says Hemphill. “Another thing that impressed me a lot about Jake is that when he couldn't find a Mac-based software that he could use for show playback, he created his own, and now he is marketing it and it is becoming very popular.”
The Cricket program that Rodriguez designed is used at the California Shakespeare Festival allowing him to transfer the show from his computer to the console and refine the levels for the performance mode. But when it comes to audio technology in general, he admits, “I'm not such a techie person, and don't have a favorite rig. There isn't a particular piece of hardware I salivate over. I just want it to sound good for the show.”
Rodriguez also enjoys the collaborative nature of the theatre. “It's always fun to mull the moment with the lighting designer,” he says. “Doing sound design has actually taught me a lot about lighting design through collaboration with the designers, such as Alex Nichols who designed the lighting for Nickelby. “I enjoy discussing how to make the moment happen with lights and sound. These are real-time design elements.” A production of Othello, also at the California Shakespeare Festival, was set against a giant glass wall. “My design had sounds of the wall collapsing throughout the show, and I felt as if I was collaborating with the set.”
At 31, Rodriguez is perhaps a tad older than some of the our other “young designers to watch” but this gives him a good perspective when it comes to advice for students hoping to break into sound design. “They need to take chances and be willing to make mistakes,” he says. “That's where a lot of the good stuff comes from. They should also sit in on rehearsals as often as they can. That's where theatre is made. Some of my best decisions have come from things I wasn't sure would work. In the rehearsal room you risk having everyone turn around and laugh at you, but you have to take those risks.”
— Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
JENNIFER CAPRIO, COSTUME DESIGNER
“Now what do I do?” is what costume designer Jennifer Caprio, 28, thought when she had done her first Broadway show, designing the whimsical costumes for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The answer to that question is to keep working and perhaps make inroads into opera — what she calls the “last frontier” since she hasn't designed for that artform yet — or maybe even film.
Currently, Caprio is working on a bunch of completely different things. Among them is the off-Broadway play The Blow In which, according to Caprio, is completely different from Spelling Bee: “It's gritty, dirty, nasty, blood-laden kind of stuff. Usually I get hired to do peppy musical comedies.” With upcoming shows at Colby College in Maine, and the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY, among others, Caprio credits her first jobs in New York at AMDA, an actors training school, where she learned to put up shows quickly and cheaply, and at the Tricorne costume shop where she learned from watching the best of the best. “I learned what could be done, what fabrics do what, and a little bit about how New York commercial theatre works,” she says.
Caprio, who received her under-graduate degree from Ithaca College and her MFA from Carnegie Mellon, cites as her influences, “anything and everything. I have no qualms about going anywhere looking at any artist to get any kind of inspiration. I do look at a lot of contemporary magazines. The New York Public Library picture collection is my greatest source of inspiration.”
Of course, other designers and teachers played a part in shaping the young designer's future. “I've always admired and watched Gregg Barnes, especially his sketch style,” she says. “And Carrie Robbins and Bob Perdziola do amazing sketches. I've always looked up to them and wanted to be able to do what they do, but I don't know if I'm in that caliber.” Concerning professors, Caprio says she had the luck or misfortune to always be in school when there was a staff change so she never got to study very long with any one teacher, but studied with a lot of different teachers so she finds it difficult to pick just one. However, she says that Cletus Anderson at Carnegie was a big influence because he was one of the first to really believe in her abilities. “I learned a great deal just from painting with him and hanging out with him, even more than in being in class.” She adds Carnegie Mellon's Paul Tazwell as an influence as well.
While she admits she has no preference on the type of production she likes to work on, she does enjoy musicals because she loves music so much. “I started out in music and I've always been interested in playing music,” she says, adding that she is a former French horn player which does come in handy “because you can get so much about a character through their songs, like in Spelling Bee. When we first did the show, I didn't really get a lot of the characters until first read through, especially in terms of how the song is sung and the pace of it. It tells you a lot about each character. If there's music in a play, I listen to it while I'm designing just to get it in my head.”
The more she works, the more she enjoys the collaborative process and the opportunity to meet actors, directors, other designers and playwrights, which is something she never expected to enjoy so much. “Usually I've worked more with directors but when Spelling Bee was at Barrington Stage (where the show was first conceived) there was a lot of input from everybody: composer William Finn, actors, playwright Rachel Schein, and other designers. That was the most involved I've ever been with a playwright in terms of costuming. Since then, I've found it rather valuable and I enjoy talking to playwrights about their characters. Even if I ignore what they want or I go with exactly what they want, it's their creation so it's always good to know where they're coming from.”
This collaboration is Caprio's favorite part of the creative process. “It's very important to be able to bounce ideas off other designers and whoever's involved in developing the show,” she says. “A lot of times when you're out of town you lose the ability to have the time to do that. It's extremely important, especially with everything crossing over so much these days.”
Her creative process begins with researching the history of the play. For example, for a play she's working on set in Ireland, she searched on the region where it takes place and went straight to the images. “A lot of times I look through magazines and find a person who's the essence of the character or something that will convey their personality,” she says. “I also do historical research about what kind of clothing they'd wear. I'm very research based; I have binders and binders full of images. Most are not used but I filter it all through.”
A self-admitted workaholic, Caprio says that as long as she's still making a living and can keep a roof over her head and feed her husband and cats, she'll be happy. Of course, she adds, “another Broadway show wouldn't hurt!”
— Mark A. Newman
ZAK BOROVAY, PROJECTION DESIGNER
Zak Borovay, a longtime assistant projection designer for such veterans as Batwin + Robin and Wendall Harrington who's now gaining recognition for his own work, is in many ways the poster child for convergence. Exposed to theatre from a very early age (his father Len is a set designer and high school teacher on Long Island, and Broadway designer David Gallo babysat him in his youth), Borovay spent much of his youth working with his father in “practically every regional theatre on Long Island” doing everything from carpentry to sketching and designing to getting lunch. At the same time, however, his interests also included music, art, computers, and video. He studied music at Berklee College of Music. “We had this family dream of the family all working in the arts,” Borovay says. “I was going to be in the pit orchestra, my sister was going to be the director, and my father would be the set designer.”
After graduation in the ‘90s, Borovay parlayed his knowledge of art and computers into a job as a graphic designer in New York. During that period, he became interested in web video and the idea of using the Internet to show film and video. In 1999, Borovay worked with Apple and Sorenson Media to engineer the first live streaming Quicktime webcast. “That's where I first got interested in taking the world of film and video and making it happen inside the computer instead of the more traditional means,” he says. “And it was when I first started trying to find a way to tie my interests in theatre, music, computers, and video all together, and integrate them into live performance in some way.”
According to the designer, those goals didn't totally crystallize until he saw the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Show in 2000, with projections by Batwin + Robin and realized “there was a place I could go and do what I wanted to go that was going to tie all those elements together for me.”
So his next step, logically enough, was to Batwin + Robin. He asked Gallo to set up an introduction, and after meeting with Linda Batwin he was asked to join the firm, initially as their computer guru. “I was brought on board as the resident Mac expert, but took care of that pretty quickly, and after they realized I had this strong theatrical interest they put me on a bunch of theatrical projects, and it was a great learning experience for me.” While there, Borovay worked on such theatrical events as the live production Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way at Radio City Music Hall, the off-Broadway musical Radiant Baby, and the Broadway play Golda's Balcony, as well as a variety of museum, cruise ship, and corporate projects. “I was able to get my hands on anything you could ever imagine that incorporated multimedia, and that was great because it meant it was never the same thing; everything was a different thing you got to learn about.”
Still, that theatre itch still needed scratching, so after three years Borovay left the firm to venture out on his own, collaborating with Gallo on Dance of the Vampires and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and eventually working with none other than Wendall Harrington on tours for Simon and Garfunkel and John Fogerty and such theatre projects as Eve Ensler's The Good Body and the upcoming Broadway musical In My Life. “She's been a wonderful mentor on many levels, not just in terms of the art we do, but she's helped me learn about contracts, negotiating techniques, and how to find and sustain work.”
“The thing I appreciate most about Zak is that he understands what it means to work in the theatre,” says Harrington. “He understands the work part, he's not dazzled or distracted. He intuits his function, focuses, and then makes the impossible possible. It's all well and good to have ‘the vision thing’ — which he has in spades-but he also has the solidity and craft that serves to advance a project even when it gets frantic and emotional. I don't know a better thing to say but this: I trust him.”
Directors have begun trusting him too. Borovay's recent credits have ranged from the NY Stage and Film production of Behind the Limelight, the premiere of the play version of Dead Man Walking at Fordham University, and the touring production of Pilobolus Dance Theatre's BUGonia. Currently, he's working with fellow projection designer Sage Carter on a multimedia exhibit for the Public Theatre's 50th anniversary.
Borovay sees himself as part of the second generation of projection designers in that he's never worked with slides, film, or Pani. “Everything I've ever done has been in the digital realm,” he explains. “So I've worked really hard to try and understand those media because I think it informs everything anyway — it's important to know about photography, film, and how those things work. People who come from the digital world sometimes tend to think that you can do anything and everything all at once, when a photograph of a flower is all you need. My ultimate goal is to support the story in an organic, soulful way.”
— David Johnson
KRISTIE ROLDAN, LIGHTING DESIGNER
“I've always been in love with theatre. I've tried to leave it several times and it just doesn't work out for me,” says Kristie Roldan, who may have given up on civilian life but whose work as a designer has been seen in Asia, Europe, and both US coasts. Roldan says she is drawn to lighting because the live experience is temporary, but so powerful. “It creates space and manipulates what people see, and it can be different every night,” she says.
A powerful influence on Roldan's work came while she was studying Russian Literature and Theater Arts at Brown University. Roldan was able to study at the Moscow Art Theater for three months; the first design student on a program full of actors, she was let out of monologue class and spent hours in Moscow's art galleries and museums, an experience that, she says, influenced her whole life. “I saw so much dance, opera, and theatre that it really got me excited about what design could mean,” she says of the intensive program, “and I really got a sense of their magnificent incorporation of both the Eastern and Western aesthetic.” Roldan singles out Stansilav Benedictov and Anatoly Smelianski as mentors on the program, which is run through the Eugene O'Neil Theater Center. The one drawback to the program for Roldan, a native Hawaiian, was the Russian winter. “There were definitely days I wore all of my clothing!” she says.
After Brown, Roldan got an MFA in lighting design at UCLA, along the way interning with Alan Burrett at Los Angeles Opera and Tom Ruzika at the Geffen Playhouse. At LA Opera Roldan had the opportunity to work on two new productions of Lohengrin and Queen of Spades, an experience she calls “wonderful” because, she says, “everything was from scratch, we had a great amount of technical time, and I got to learn how it all came together.”
Since leaving UCLA, Roldan has taken on resident lighting designer duties for three dance companies: Ledges and Bones, Thresh, and Hae Kyung Lee and Dancers. Roldan was hired by Lee after the choreographer's previous LD saw her work for the dance company Tongue at the Getty Center. The all-white Getty Center provided a challenge for Roldan. “I love color in my designs, and rather than try to isolate the stage, I took on the whole space,” she says, adding, “the masking pieces are white with glass, so any side light reflected out into the audience, which was just a wonderful effect.”
Roldan faced other challenging venues on the October 2004 tour of Poland of Gombrowicz's Meditations on Virginity, directed by Michael Hackett. Theatres ranged from the National Theater of Poland in Warsaw, to a 12' by 60' black box in Krakow. Despite the wide disparity in equipment in the different venues on the tour, and the fact that many of the lighting boards were in German, the hardest thing for the designer was focusing with a Polish crew. Roldan learned some Polish, including the words for “left a bit,” “right a bit,” “up” and “down,” and then developed what she called her “focus dance.” “It involved a lot of pointing and spinning,” she explains.
Roldan is also LD in residence for two Los Angeles-based theatre companies, Speak Art Theater and Nomad Theater Company. Her work with Speak Art Theater can currently be seen at a college town near you in a production of Nigger, Wetback, Chink, a comedy about racial stereotypes. In the show, Roldan struck a balance between the humor and the serious sentiments with broad washes of color and then tighter, isolating looks during monologues. “I was a little limited in terms of color because of the three different skin types,” she says, but she was able to have some fun evoking locations like Chinatown in red, and Compton in blue and white.
Roldan recently completed a stint at Walt Disney Imagineering at Disney-land, assisting Kent Sheranian on the 50th Anniversary refurbishments. She got her feet wet, so to speak, on Splash Mountain, The Jungle Cruise, and The Haunted Mansion. “It was my first foray into theme park lighting, and it was much cooler than I ever thought it would be,” she says.
Roldan has now taken her skills and experience to Visual Terrain, where principal lighting designer Jeff Ravitz calls her, “An example of someone to watch.” The veteran LD praises her varied experience and adds, “She is a young designer who has taken in the full gamut of what is necessary to succeed, from a skills standpoint as well as the less tangible ability to effectively deal with people.” Roldan's upcoming projects include Sons and Daughters (a weekly television show), a museum installation, and a multi-venue concert event.
— Hannah Kate Kinnersley
TAKESHI KATA, SCENIC DESIGNER
The old chestnut “like father, like son” can certainly apply to scenic designer Takeshi Kata, 31. He was heavily influenced by his father, Masaru, who teaches set design in Japan, where Kata grew up. “He said you have to understand that if it's about you, you're in the wrong profession,” Kata says. “You have the script, audience, and performer. If those three relationships work and the story is being told, then that's all you need. The last thing you want to do is get in the way of the storytelling; understand how the story is being conveyed and support that. I have a tendency to do something simpler and understated and stay in the background.”
Kata received his BFA from Ithaca College and his MFA from Yale School of Drama, and credits Erhardt Rom as giving him the basics of set design while he was an undergrad. “He was still a fairly young designer when he was teaching and he always questioned the nature of design and what it should be and that helped me define what I wanted to do. As I've learned how to craft my work, for me it is about: What idea do I have for the bigger art of theatre and the design at large?”
In a discussion with longtime friend and fellow set designer (and former Young Designer To Watch) David Korins, the two spoke of how music dictates storytelling in opera, but how it also has to work with the text. “I'm interested in working closely with the lighting and costume designer to compose a visual music to underscore the story being told,” he says. “So it's not so much facilitating the physical needs, but more about creating an emotional background so the story can unfold. I feel like there are many productions where the story is being told by everybody — actors, set designer, lighting designer — and there's a fine line between everybody telling the story in their own medium and, consequently, hearing the story four times in a night. I think there are productions where everyone contributes and all their elements maximize one story, so it doesn't get muddled and is cohesive, and the design elements are understated. The story is told by the actor and you push it and gently enhance what the story is.”
Like many designers, when Kata begins work on a new production, he scrutinizes the script to get at the heart of the story, which will in turn determine the type of set he creates. “Each production is very different,” he says. “For The Last Sunday in June, it was necessary to have a realistic apartment to tell that story, because it could not be told better with an abstract version of a New York City apartment. The text remains in a naturalistic place, and the emotions live in a naturalistic place.” Kata figures out where the emotional landscape of a production lies; more often than not, it is somewhere in between abstract and naturalism.
He also enjoys talking to directors and figuring out how to tell a story and feels more comfortable in theatre than in film. “When people ask me if I'm interested in doing production design for film, it seems as though the production designer's job is more of facilitating the physical needs rather than creating the world. That's more of the cinematographer's job,” he explains. “I'm more interested in the storytelling aspect. I happen to have a knack for it and an interest in physical space and dimensions, which makes me a good match to be a set designer. I think lighting designers have that job in theatre a lot more; they really compose the visual music underscoring the text. If I had a better grasp of lighting, I might be more interested in that as well.”
According to Kata, it's up to the scenic designer to create a space where the light can be thrown around and where composition can take place. “It's like choosing a musical style: jazz, classical, rock. The set designer's job is facilitating that bigger idea of what that production is going to be,” he explains. “I need to work with lighting designers that I feel comfortable with. The same is true with a costume designer. Unless they work together, you can't achieve the visual composition of enhancing the text.”
Ming Cho Lee, his former professor at Yale, could not be more glowing in his reviews of Kata's abilities. “He is unusually astute in terms of reading the play and he is one designer you never worry about doing something outside the parameter or thrust of the play,” he says. Lee feels that since Kata grew up in a family of theatre people, he took to design like a fish to water. “When he came to Yale he was extremely well trained in that his skill to support his design was very well developed. The way he approaches a play, just being merely rigiht, is not enough; he has a way of looking at the world that is often startling and surprising. He is tenacious in finding a look that is unique. He has impeccable taste, but at the same time he is not afraid to be a little bit dangerous, and that's what we need.”
Currently, Kata is preparing for Richard II at Milwaukee Shakespeare Company, directed by Alec Wilde, and Carmen at Skylight Opera Theatre, directed by Bill Theisen. His sets for Orson's Shadow can currently be seen at the Barrow Street Playhouse in New York City.
— Mark A. Newman