by John Calhoun

Every day I'd show up at her studio in Soho and it would be like, ‘today's assignment is…’ It was like projection school.

Growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, Michael Clark didn't dream of becoming a projection designer. “I didn't know anything about theatre except that I was so enamored of it that I wanted to know more,” he says. “At that point in time, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I want to be a director’ — not even understanding what a director did.”

A graduate program in stage management at North Carolina School for the Arts helped Clark to understand a lot more, and when he moved to New York in 1993, so did a four-year stint as associate production manager at Playwrights Horizons. “When you have that kind of job in a small Off Broadway theatre,” he explains, “you wind up getting challenged by a complicated sound thing, or figuring it out when video gets put into a show, or when somebody needs to do an effect.” Off hours, he worked with the Ridge Theatre, which specializes in multimedia experimental work. “A friend at the company gave me the Avio slide book, and said, ‘Can you figure this out? We need some help.’ So I read through it and learned how to program the slides for their shows at the Kitchen and La Mama.” Through a Ridge production at American Repertory Theatre, Clark met costume designer Catherine Zuber, who in turn introduced him to Wendall K. Harrington.

“I met her at Starbucks one day, and three months later she called me up and said, ‘When can you start?’” Clark says. He worked with Harrington for two years, on such projects as Freak, Amy's View, Putting It Together, Minnesota Opera's Transatlantic, and the NBA All-Stars. “When you're part of the family, you just do what needs to be done. Every day, I would show up at her studio in Soho, and it would be like, today's challenge is…” he says. “It was like projection school.”

Clark went out on his own in the winter of 2000, “thinking I was never going to work again.” But shortly thereafter, he got a call to do the North American tour of Gumboots, a South African dance show. He also designed projections for Aeros, a production featuring the Romanian gymnastic team, worked on a piece with the David Parsons Dance Company, and assisted on two Broadway shows in Spring 2001: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Sage Carter, and Judgment at Nuremberg, with Elaine J. McCarthy. In the summer, Clark added Mark Brokaw's Drama Dept. production of Douglas Carter Beane's Music From a Sparkling Planet to his projection design credits, and this fall, his work will be seen in Frank Wildhorn's Dracula: The Musical at La Jolla Playhouse.

Music From a Sparkling Planet, produced by the Drama Dept. at New York's Greenwich House Theatre in August, definitely fits one of Clark's job profiles: “Bringing a beautiful projection idea in on a budget.” It tells the story of a 1970s afternoon-TV-show host (J. Smith-Cameron), recalled through the eyes of three contemporary men who are having trouble growing up. The guys are obsessed with the memory of the lovely Tamara Tomorrow, who would introduce cartoons like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, and make predictions for the future, from whence she purports to visit.

The show's set designer, Allen Moyer, framed the stage with a false proscenium of TV monitors, and flashbacks of Tamara delivering her intros to a stage-left camera were accompanied by a video feed on five of the monitors. “That was a budgetary consideration,” says Clark. “I wanted eight originally. But it became, ‘You get five.’ Fine — five works.”

During the rest of the show, Clark kept the monitors alive with original artwork, Astro Boy cartoon clips, and period stills: research can be as much a part of a projection designer's job as the actual design. The artwork was created in Photoshop, Aftereffects, and Final Cut Pro. “With my work process, I would be having a bad day if my Macintosh didn't turn on,” Clark says. “Even with a film project like Dracula, which is being done with large-format PIGI projectors, it still gets scanned and imported.”

Clark says Dracula, which is being directed by Des McAnuff, will probably use two PIGI projectors from the front and one from the back. “John Arnone has designed a beautiful set, mostly period cutouts in black velour, to take projection,” he says. In between the Beane play in New York and Dracula in California, Clark was planning a jag down to Florida to work with Harrington on a Ragtime tour.

The world of New York-based theatre projection is a clubby one, which Clark says is a good thing. “There's me and Elaine and Sage and Jan Hartley and Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri and Wendall,” he says. “I've worked with all of them in some capacity or another. Because it's so small, and fortunately, because there's enough work, it remains very friendly, like a community or a network.” Summing up his career path, Clark says, “I went down a dark alley, and here I am.” As for what direction he wants to take in the future, he says, who knows? “It's as simple as a life in the theatre.”

by David Johnson

I convinced him that he needed an assistant. He said, ‘I'm just starting out, so I don't know if I need one.’ I said, ‘Yeah you do, because I want to quit my job and work for you.’

A couple of vans got Jill Du Boff started in theatre sound design, and by that we don't mean the kind you use to move your gear from one gig to another. Du Boff, whose recent solo credits include The Wax at Playwrights Horizons and Hooray for Iceboy at the Adobe Theatre Off Broadway, was fortunate enough to have worked with two well-respected sound designers very early in her career: Jim van Bergen and David Van Tieghem.

Du Boff hadn't even considered sound design as a career when she first ran into van Bergen as a sophomore at Bard College. “My friend was the stage manager for a production of On the Town, and I had come backstage to congratulate everyone,” Du Boff recalls. “My friend had to call someone, and she said, ‘Talk to this guy’, and it was Jim. He said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I'm a dramaturgy major.’ He said, ‘You know, the way I got my start in theatre was that I just assisted people, so I got to know the business as well as the people.’ He said he was looking for assistants, and asked if I would like to assist him. I was just going on winter break, so I said, great. It was Booth, starring Frank Langella at the York Theatre Company. That was my first show.”

She also followed van Bergen's advice and began working in other aspects of the theatre at York, from stage management to box office to casting director. The latter job made Du Boff unhappy, however, and she decided to get more involved in sound design. Having worked with David Van Tieghem on a couple of prior projects, she pitched to him the idea of becoming his assistant.

“I convinced him that he needed an assistant,” she says now. “He said to me, ‘Well, I'm just starting out, so I don't really know if I need one.’ But I said, ‘Yeah you do, because I want to quit my job and work for you.’ So he hired me for 30 hours to start, and that was six years ago. It's been trial by fire really, and I've just learned by doing.”

Over those six years, Du Boff has worked with Van Tieghem on such projects as The Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) at the Lucille Lortel, The Mineola Twins at the Roundabout, The Grey Zone at MCC, and Judgment at Nuremberg on Broadway. At the same time, she's managed to carve out her own sound credits, ranging from Tallulah Hallelujah! at the Fairbanks Theatre to Poona the Fuck Dog and Other Plays for Children at the Adobe to the first national tour of Wit. She's currently working as sound designer to Van Tieghem's composer in the New York debut of the latest Sam Shepard play, The Late Henry Moss.

Du Boff says she learned a lot about design from Van Tieghem and fellow sound designer Bruce Ellman, and a lot of the technical side of the job from David Ferdinand from One Dream Sound. She's done one musical — Tallulah Hallelujah! — but she sees herself more in the designer/composer side of sound, much like her mentor, though she admits she still has much to learn about composing.

“I like underscoring and soundtracking,” Du Boff explains. “I like setting the mood for shows, adding sound where it's not expected, and just making sounds up.”

Van Tieghem, a former TCI Award winner, is impressed with Du Boff's creativity. “I know that when I go see something she's done, she always surprises me,” he says. “She's managed to create her own individual voice, which is nice to see.”

One of Du Boff's favorite recent projects was Poona at the Adobe, directed by Jeremy Dobrish. “They let me have free rein,” she says. “So I devised the show based on the fact that it was a fairy tale, and gave every actor his or her own effect. There was one character called Suzy Cyberassassin, who discovered she could destroy the world, and at one point was going to set her brother on fire; I used the sound of Zippo lighter clicking open and the whoosh of an explosion for her. There's also a rabbit, and I made bouncing noises for him. I did 455 cues for that show.”

Poona, it turned out, was also one of Van Tieghem's favorites. “It was a funny play and a funny sound design, and I don't think I'd seen her do anything as big and a complicated as that before,” he recalls. “I felt kind of proud at what a good job she had done.”

by David Barbour

Construction is inherently interesting. I really get into things like steel size.

You only have to look at one of Dipu Gupta's set designs to realize that he is a singular tyro talent. Don't expect naturalism and or lots of decor. In his design for the Frank Langella adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, a giant moon rising gave the stage an otherworldly look. His version of the jazz memory play Side Man unfurled strips of shiny, metallic material, a design that seems drawn from the ultra-cool abstract look of 50s jazz albums. In case after case, his work provides a structure in which to house a play, rather than a detailed illustration of it.

None of which is really surprising when you realize that Gupta trained as an architect (his master's degree is from the University of Virginia). He continues to work part-time as an architect, too, although he freely admits that he is much more interested in the stage. Then again, his background in architecture is probably the key to his design work. “Construction is inherently interesting,” he says. “I really get into things like steel size.”

Having left school in 1994, Gupta quickly realized that architecture might not provide him with a satisfying career. “As a society, we have decided not to build well,” he says. “We could be living in places that look like Paris and Rome. Instead, we're educated to like ugly buildings.” College — the University of Pennsylvania — provided him with some theatrical experience, and in graduate school, his imagination was seized by opera. He began designing opera productions, speculatively and for the love of it, to show what he could do.

Gupta's breakthrough took place in 1998, when he designed scenery and lighting for Verdi's Falstaff, produced in celebration of the reopening of Royce Hall at UCLA. A year later, he designed three productions for Shakespeare Santa Cruz: Othello, Arms and the Man, and a Cinderella staged in the English pantomime tradition. A year after that, he started working at San Jose Repertory Theatre, where his work included Cyrano and Side Man.

Gupta's designs are marked by strong structural conceptions and the use of unusual materials. For Lucia di Lammermoor at Santa Fe Opera this past summer, he placed a white cylinder at center stage. For certain scenes, the cylinder turned to reveal a gold interior, creating a strong sense of contrast and surprise. The set itself was constructed of plastic. Cyrano's moon was constructed out of foam, set against a backdrop of paper plastic, while an unrealized design for Tales of Hoffman featured a series of translucent panels on which the opera's score was painted. Another production from this past summer, Hippolyte et Aricie, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, consisted of a series of “S” shapes, constructed of holograph plastic. “You couldn't do this set five years ago,” he says, “because the material didn't exist.”

Speaking of Gupta's work, Timothy Near, artistic director of San Jose Rep, says, “Dipu's not afraid of the big metaphor. That's one of the things I like so much about his work, his ability to find and create an image that helps the play resonate. And yet he's very practical as well. He understands that for a metaphor to be fully successful it must incorporate the nuts and bolts of staging, it must feed the actors. It must be usable. Perhaps because of his architectural training, he's very good at mining the play for raw material, hauling it up to the surface, and building something beautiful. And then he's a lighting designer as well, so there's no question of it looking good and your designers getting along.”

Although he now lives in New York, Gupta still works most frequently on the West Coast. In July, there were two more productions for Shakespeare Santa Cruz: A Midsummer Night's Dream and She Stoops to Conquer. He'll return to Santa Cruz in November for another pantomime production, Hansel and Gretel. His 2002 schedule is filling up fast, with a double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Les Malheures d'Orphee at Henry Street Chamber Opera in New York (January), followed by a Barber of Seville for Opera Pacific in April, and a Magic Flute for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in May.

Gupta's style, with its subtleties and abstractions, is somewhat unusual in America, but he says, “We don't give enough credit to audiences.” He sometimes challenges technical departments with his ideas and choices of materials, but he adds, “You need to develop a sense of trust that they will be able to build your set.” He notes that he especially likes designing for opera, because of the long lead time, which allows time for reflection. The big question, he says, is, “Can a design have an artistic integrity in and of itself?” It's possibly an unanswerable question, yet Gupta's work makes it a provocative one, too.

by Liz French

I guess I have a tendency to work with mostly new plays, which I like because it's all brand-new ideas.

Mimi O'Donnell's path to New York City and a career in costume design was not a direct one. For one thing, she attended fashion school, not costume design school, in her native Philadelphia. But even before that stint — at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences, now called Philadelphia University — she considered the fields of education and dentistry.

“I spent my freshman year at school in Lancaster, PA, doing secondary ed,” O'Donnell says. “It was something I enjoyed for a time, but then I spent time student-teaching, and I realized I didn't want to do that. So I took a year off and worked in a dentist's office as a hygiene assistant. But that wasn't really what I wanted to do either, so I started taking classes at Philadelphia Textile.”

O'Donnell graduated with a major in fashion and a minor in textile design, then interviewed at a few fashion houses in New York, but she ended up working at the Arden Theatre Co. and Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia as an assistant designer or stitcher. “It sort of clarified that this was what I wanted to do, instead of doing fashion,” the designer says of the experience.

After a few years working locally, O'Donnell went to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts in 1993 and worked as a first hand in the costume shop. “That was the first time I was completely surrounded by it, immersed in the whole costume thing,” she says. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do and I want to move to New York.’ It was a crazy, crazy place to work, because you do 10 shows throughout the summer; it's practically like opening a show every week.”

One person O'Donnell met at Williamstown was Playwrights Horizons costume shop manager Therese Bruck, who called her in 94 and offered her a job in the wardrobe department. O'Donnell took the job, and worked on several productions there, such as A.R. Gurney's A Cheever Evening. O'Donnell says one of the best things about the wardrobe job was that it freed her up to work on design projects in the daytime; her first New York costume design project was for a production of Hesh by actor Ethan Hawke's company malaparte.

“After that, I continued to take every job I could,” O'Donnell continues; she hooked up with the LABrynth Theatre Company in 1999, doing the costumes for In Arabia We'd All Be Kings, which was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, then worked again with Hoffman on Jesus Hopped the A Train in 2000. O'Donnell also worked with John Patrick Shanley on his new play, Where's My Money? this past June, which is moving to Manhattan Theatre Club in October.

“I guess I have a tendency to work with mostly new plays, which I like because it's all brand-new ideas,” O'Donnell says. She enjoys the rehearsal and tech processes: “I realized that's where my answers are; if I have any doubts about what they're going to wear, I just go sit in rehearsal for a while and it comes to me.”

In addition to her theatre work, O'Donnell has a steady gig as assistant designer to Tom Broecker on Saturday Night Live. She says the SNL schedule leaves her plenty of time to work on theatre projects. “It's 20 weeks out of the year, we have three weeks off at Christmas, and a lot of times we'll have two weeks on, two weeks off,” she says.

“We get the scripts on Wednesday night, then we have three days to get it together,” O'Donnell says of the hectic SNL pace. “You definitely hit the ground running on Thursday morning, and throughout the next couple of days, they're rewriting and recasting, so where it was five people in a sketch, suddenly it's 20.” O'Donnell adds, “When 11:30 comes around and they say, ‘Live from New York,’ there's definitely a buzz in the air.”

While O'Donnell doesn't have one specific mentor in the business, she says she's learned from the various costume designers she's assisted. She says of Martin Pakledinaz, with whom she worked on The Life as third assistant, “Once an actor comes into his fitting room, if his sketch isn't fitting on that body, he's completely willing to toss it out the window and start from scratch, start anew. He may have been the first person I saw do that, and I thought, that works for me.” O'Donnell adds that she's learned a little something from every designer she works with, including Paul Tazewell, Constance Hoffman, and Beth Clancy.

In August, O'Donnell did summer stock, clothing Estelle Parsons and Judd Nelson in a production of The Cocktail Hour at the Cape Playhouse in Cape Cod. Her fall schedule is rapidly filling, too; in addition to Where's My Money? and SNL, she will be working again with Hoffman on Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living at Manhattan Class Company. Look for that to open in November, and look for O'Donnell's modern, flexible design there and on a television, live, near you.

by Natalie Zmuda

I thought, I only have a year. I'm just going to New York and I'll see what happens. I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose.

Like most undergrads, D.M. Wood wasn't always positive about the road that she wanted to take. In fact, the former criminology student was downright confused when she entered British Columbia's Simon Fraser University. “I guess for my situation, it was not being totally in touch with what made me happy. I had always done art and theatre in high school and was very good in both subjects. When I went into my undergrad, I wanted something completely different.” Wood quickly returned to her roots as a film major, but after just one lighting class, she was hooked. “I just took more classes, and then, I was in a position where the last year in undergrad, I think that's all I did.”

The influence of Barry Hegland, a professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser, didn't hurt either. Wood speaks fondly of her undergrad mentor, saying that he was instrumental in taking her under his wing and allowing her to express herself. He also helped Wood to discover and explore her design sensibilities. “Without having met Barry, I don't think that I would have continued in the field,” she says.

The Toronto native then embarked on lighting design as a career and never looked back. She left Toronto for the States and the University of Illinois, where she did a graduate degree in lighting design. After graduating from U of I, Wood was at a crossroads. Her student visa allowed for one year of practical training before she would have to return to Canada. “I thought, I only have a year. I'm just going to New York and I'll see what happens. I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose.”

Nearly six years later, she has not lost a thing — only gained experience, contacts, and a budding career in lighting design. Wood got her first big break in 1997 when Pat Collins' first assistant brought her on as the second assistant for Once Upon a Mattress. “She worked out really, really well. She had terrific skills in handling people — those are hard to find,” says Collins. “And as a designer, she has a really good eye, extraordinary technique, and she's really, really up on the technology.” Shortly thereafter, Wood began working as first assistant to Collins and often acts as an associate. “She's had significant luck,” Collins adds. “It is a really difficult field to get started in, and she has made a rather quick start. If she were a sprinter, we'd say she was off the block fast.”

And since 1997, Wood has been taking it all in stride. Her credits include a smattering of selected designs and associate designs. She was the associate designer with Collins on Proof, and she also recently wrapped up The Cider House Rules Parts I/II, directed by Oskar Eustis at the Trinity Repertory Company. “Working on The Cider House Rules was a very good experience,” says Wood. “It is a considerable challenge to make one light plot work for six hours of theatre, as I was always striving to keep things new and fresh and different — being creative about changing the space and fooling the eye.” Other Trinity Rep credits include The School for Scandal, Meshugah, and The Cryptogram. Wood also lit Everybody's Ruby and Civil Sex at NYSF/The Public Theatre. Although her résumé is limited to theatre, opera, and dance, she says she's not opposed to moving into lighting other types of projects. “I'm always open to new experiences. I don't think I'm horribly tunnel-visioned about things.”

For now, Wood has no plans of going anywhere. She has been on a cultural contribution visa for three years, and is currently in the process of trying to get her green card. The self-described country mouse also recently moved to Connecticut from Manhattan “to escape the heat.” She now shares a studio with Collins and Mimi Jordan Sherin, where she is helping Collins put together the national tour of Proof. In the next few months, Wood will be keeping busy serving as an associate designer to both Collins and Sherin in a number of shows around the world. As for the future, the once confused criminology student turned film major turned lighting designer's aim is crystal clear. “To keep working. To keep growing as an artist.”

Photos: Andrew French