How Architecture Influences Set Designer Alexander Dodge

Alexander Dodge grew up in Arizona at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where his father works and teaches. Although he didn't intend to follow in the architect's footsteps, Dodge found that building on his father's work was inevitable. “I was always around architects and architecture students,” the designer explains. “I took architecture for granted.”

When he began to study theatrical design, the volume of space spoke to him. “I am always concerned with the three-dimensional space that the play or opera exists in,” Dodge says. “I try to discover the life of the piece with architectural and sculptural volumes.”

When Dodge worked on a recent production of Hedda Gabler with Kate Burton, for instance, his design evolved from an architectural idea: a cylinder with thick walls that would imprison the character. “In crude terms, it was as if you cut a hat box in half and looked inside,” he says, explaining that a round room could give expression to a woman spinning her wheels, going mad. Dodge designed the piece for the 18' proscenium at Williamstown, where he knew the production was heading, even though it opened initially at a 13' grid thrust at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. The choice proved useful when the production moved to prosceniums in Boston and on Broadway.

Although the design didn't change much as it moved from venue to venue, it went through radical revisions before the first build. Hedda lives in a sterile world, and director Nicholas Martin wanted a design that wasn't as boring as Hedda's life. At first, Dodge tried to make a clean break with the box set traditionally used for the play. He considered having walls of scrim or no walls at all, maybe even no furniture. “Then we wondered if we were beginning to lose something because you were more focused on why is she sitting on a white cube or some modernist chair [than on the play].”

In the end, all-white walls surrounded a room that depended on expressionistic elements, including exaggerated perspectives and windows and doors so deep that characters could hardly see through them. Nevertheless, the design was so rooted in reality it was possible for spectators not to notice the distortions. Dodge says exploring extreme possibilities made it possible for him to reach this point. “I had to come full circle with the fact that the play takes place in a period-looking room, and to push the boundaries without the audience realizing how far we've pushed them.”

Martin was impressed. “He is enormously contemporary,” the director reflects, “but he has incredible respect for the material itself. He has a profound sense of color and stagecraft. All his sets have enormous individuality and eloquence.” When he directed at Williamstown, Martin did not always have time to oversee the design at the theatre's second stage. “Alexander always solved those plays,” he says.

The Dodge-Martin collaboration goes back further, for Martin was one of the designer's teachers at Bennington College in Vermont. Even then, Dodge expressed a vision that was at once architectural and theatrical. For Brian Friel's Translations, set in a hedge school in Ireland, Dodge put a barn skeleton on Bennington's stage. “It was basically a frame of a building that came at you [in perspective], like an entire barn without a roof and walls.”

After Bennington, Dodge came to New York and assisted several designers, first James Wolke, while one of his classmates, Jonathan Mark Sherman, started the Malaparte Theatre Company with Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Calista Flockhart, Steve Zahn, and others. He became resident set designer for the company, which attracted audiences to new plays. Set budgets were good. “It was an opportunity for me, if not to make money, to spend money,” Dodge recalls.

His recent collaboration with Martin, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the Frank McGuiness play about soldiers from Northern Ireland in World War I, opened at the Mitzi Newhouse in February and earned the designer a Lucille Lortel award. Two acts take place on the front, a third inside army barracks, all on a unit set. “We wanted to keep things simple yet give some suggestion of the grim futility of war,” Dodge says.

Dodge designed the play for a small theatre at Williamstown and then redesigned it for the large Wilbur Theatre in Boston. At the Wilbur, an ominous trench, created by a floor that curved to an upstage wall, was done in a green that Martin and Dodge loved and everyone else hated. Dodge says the color confused some people who associated green with Ireland. At Lincoln Center, the trench is almost black, an earth color, with a silvery sheen to it, something both bleak and striking with green uniforms against it. “It's 100% better,” Martin concedes. At the Newhouse, a giant curved cyc in the back faces a wide open space with a trenched wall. “The redesign is thrilling,” adds Martin, explaining that the stage is divided into four playing areas, with a rope bridge suggested by an upstage platform on a 15° angle. Only at the end does it become apparent that the set has been a trench. “The set has a surprise in itself,” Martin reflects, “and an eloquence and wit. Alexander has a genius for designing a unit set that takes you to many locales.”

That has been important to director Dennis Garnhum, for whom Dodge designed The Hunchback of Notre Dame that opened May 30 on the proscenium stage of the Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival in Canada. Rick Whelan's new adaptation takes place in over 20 Paris locations, and Garnhum looked to a designer he knew could “blend historic accuracy with vivid imagination” to create those locales in a medium-sized theatre.

After many discussions, Dodge and Garnhum decided what was essential to the play: a surrounding sense of Notre Dame. Dodge says the deformed bell-ringer is but one character of many who are significant. “The play is more about the cathedral than it is about the hunchback. The cathedral was an important community center where everything happened, a giant edifice that towered over everything,” Dodge adds.

Dodge found a sepia-toned black-and-white photo at the Photo Collection at the New York Public Library, photocopied side profiles of the cathedral, enlarged them, and applied life-sized chunks of cathedral images to four moving units and a floor. “The set is a box that is photo blowups of chunks of the cathedral cleverly elevated out,” says Garnhum. Walls play tricks, opening in assorted places to reveal street corners and interiors; boats float along a river, and windows on the floor make it possible to light from below.

“One of Alexander's strengths is that he is able to combine freshness and a willingness to try anything with an innate sense of how far to take something,” adds the director. “During the bell tower scene, a luminous rose window flies upstage against all this black-and-white architecture. Having color on it is exciting. [Rather than creating a platform for Quasimodo and Esmeralda], ropes fly in and the floor opens up.” Garnhum acknowledges that the design is busy but when actors enter, it supports them. Both the company and the carpenters are excited about it. “You know you're on the right track when the carpenters are excited,” the director adds.

Dodge has also been at work on Charles Mee's Big Love for the Dallas Theatre Center (DTC), where he has done several productions. “He gets right in there in terms of the rhythm of the piece and has terrific problem-solving skills,” says artistic director Richard Hamburger, noting that Dodge's “elegant, stylish set” for Wit and his “clever design for Irma Vep [at the theatre was] quite intricate but looked simple and allowed the play to move seamlessly.”

Ironically enough, Rem Koolhaas' Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which is designing a new theatre for the DTC, also co-designed Big Love with Dodge. “Alexander has been a translator and distiller of many people's ideas,” says Hamburger. The director says he wanted the designer for the current project not just because “he has impeccable taste, visual wit, a great sense of humor, and a fresh viewpoint,” nor only because “he is technically brilliant and has a wonderful analytic process,” but also because of his understanding of architecture.

Working with several collaborators from the OMA, Dodge brought together two worlds he knows intimately: architecture and theatre. Where architects can postpone the opening of a building that is not on schedule, theatre artists know a show must open on time. Where architects are accustomed to designing functional structures that will stand, “in theatre, it's all about how things look,” says Dodge. “It doesn't have to be substantial.”

The theatre had budgeted $15,000 for sets. The OMA office came back with an estimate of $150,000. “I'm used to two or three times the budget,” says Dodge. “It became a question of ‘What don't we cut?’”

Real steel wasn't necessary to create the impression of a steel roof, for instance, notes Dodge, who is happy with the final design for a work that transpires on the terrace of an Italian villa, which doesn't have to be conveyed literally. Hamburger referenced the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. The plan was to create an outrageous design for this satirical adaptation of The Suppliant Women.

Dodge says collaborating with other designers in a world that is already highly collaborative is less than ideal, more so perhaps because he is only now discovering his own way of working, building on the Yale process and simultaneously breaking from it. “My process depends on the piece, where the inspiration comes from, and how involved the director is.” But some patterns have emerged.

Directors and fellow designers say Dodge is easy to work with and flexible. Garnhum rejected Dodge's first suggestion for Hunchback because it was too safe, and Dodge reconceived the design in a way that was anything but safe. He trimmed a bold concept for Hedda to better support the play. At the Yale School of Drama, where he finished his MFA in 1999, he arranged to destroy one of his sets at each performance. His tall vertical space for Maeterlinck's The Blind required the audience to stand. Spectators on a gallery surrounding the space leaned in on a raked gravel garden where the symbolist play about abandoned blind men unraveled. As actors walked and crawled through a beautifully patterned garden, the design unraveled, too.

But it should come as no surprise that the architect's son loves to build models. “The more detailed a model is, the fewer surprises you'll get later on and the more thorough your idea can be. I can lie to myself in a drawing more easily than I can in a model.”