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Scenic Designers' Roundtable: Images of Magnificence

Designers' Roundtable

Over the course of four weeks, scenic designer David Gallo will pose one question each week to a group of some of the top designers working in theatre and entertainment today. The hope is to scratch beneath the surface to glean some insights into these working artists’ artistic processes.


The great American designer Robert Edmund Jones challenged the youth to “keep in your souls some images of magnificence”.

What have you done or seen lately that filled your soul with magnificence?

- David Gallo, Performing Arts / Design Contributing Editor




It’s Fall in New York. Anyone who is blessed enough, or lucky enough, or has struggled enough to find themselves here now knows the answer to that question.

It’s easy to fill your soul with magnificence in this city because it is intrinsically so. This week I was confronted with the exit from the 6 train at 28th Street which passes through the New York Life Building; a magnificent space that has the ability to transform the person who passes though it from “guy, late to a meeting” to “VIP taking his time”. I always get a thrill when a space surprises me with power like that.

New York is full of marvels like this on every corner, but I don’t think this is what Jones meant when he instructs us in this way. I don’t think the goal is to seek out magnificence and surround one’s self with it, but rather to see it where others don’t, to understand that it’s everywhere. I punch up the shuffle play and here is Pete Townshend. “Baba O’Riley”?Undeniably magnificent. The fact that I’m hearing it through a little piece of glass? Equally so. The train I’m riding? You bet. This salt bagel with butter? Absolutely magnificent.Most of the time we take it all for granted, the ubiquity of moving electrons, the mundanity of internal combustion, or the miracle of bread. But don’t. Don’t take them for granted.

New York demands our attention; it makes us alert and aware. But to be aware is what Jones is asking us to do. Wherever you are, be there now. See all the magnificence that’s right in front you, fill your soul with it, and make something from it. And if you are blessed enough, lucky enough, or struggle enough to do so, then the next time someone asks you what kind of artist you are; you’ll know that it doesn’t matter. Only that you are.

      (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)     (Pirates!)
      (Lucky Guy)
      (City Club)



This is a quick answer because of the storm craziness, but great architecture always inspires me. A number of years ago I was in Rome and saw the Pantheon for the first time. The geometric perfection of that space (even with its couple of geometric imperfections) just thrilled me. I think I literally stood there with my mouth open looking at the massive dome of that incredible space. It inspires me to strive for that sort of simple but rigorous composition. Similarly, the massive scale of China’s Great Wall thrilled me when I got to spend part of a day walking along a tiny portion of it.

      (Sondheim on Sondheim)      
      (25th Annual…Spelling Bee - rendering)     (25th Annual…Spelling Bee)



In the summer of 2010, I had the fortune to see Angelica Liddell’s La Casa De La Fuerza at the Cloitre Des Carmes at the Avignon Festival in France. We had heard her piece was a six-hour-long affair. The entire town was talking about it as the piece to see. I really did not know what to expect, but took the plunge nonetheless. Hard to describe what I witnessed that night; I had never seen anything like it. The words that come to mind cannot do it justice: unsettling, extreme, marginal beauty, images of palpable real anguish and disillusionment, atonal, all through the words of affliction and defiance.

That night I realized what theater can be and should be, when it is set free. No boundaries. No restrictions. Not looking for a “button” or for applause. This is a woman/playwright/performer of uncompromising vision, a real artist. And NO ONE, NOT ONE person left… This theater does exist! I saw an audience from all parts of the world transfixed. For six hours, I witnessed what to me has been the closest I’ve come to Greek theater. Angelica herself says: “The stage does not break off the social pact: you just tell the truth out loud. From this space of absolute freedom comes the monster that is capable of telling what is going on around you. This is where the barrier of decency blows up. Decency is an obstacle to this kind of work. What I do is a kind of pornography, the pornography of the soul; for I tell what cannot be uttered or confessed.”

Not only did this night fill my soul with magnificence, it showed me theater distilled and naked in all its sublime beauty and ugliness.
(Lost Highway)
(Battle of Black and Dogs)     (Desire Under the Elms)



I looked up “magnificence” so that I could answer the question with exactitude. I found:

1: the quality or state of being magnificent. So I looked up magnificent and was happiest with 4: impressive to the mind or spirit: sublime, and then I looked up ‘sublime’ and found c: tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence, and then I looked up ‘transcendent’ and landed on 3: transcending the universe or material existence. 

Now I feel I can answer the question. 

Several months ago (maybe a year ago?), I saw a piece called “Infinity Room”, by Douglas Wheeler at a gallery in Chelsea. It was a light and space installation. You walked through a kind of proscenium to enter the work and then with a small group of people absorbed the space, walked within it, watched the light shift. The space succeeded masterfully in evoking the sensation of infinity. I felt light, I felt joyful, I felt no edges, I felt free. As I fell into the feeling and let the feeling fall into me, I felt myself expand, I felt Love all around me inside and out. I wondered for a moment, perhaps this is what it feels like to die. And I thought, “Oh, if this is how it feels to die, I’m okay with that. I will meet death happily.” 

I go to theatre in pursuit of that same feeling of being undone. It’s a kind of freedom you chase, but that’s always there if you can tap into it—like Home for Dorothy. I agree with Mr. Jones. It’s important to keep in heart what you are chasing.

      (Spring Awakening)
      (Spring Awakening)     (Spring Awakening)
      (Spring Awakening)



This past Spring I walked 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. I witnessed magnificence of light in nature that filled my soul: violet mountains pierced amber and orange skies at sunset; silver Eucalyptus trees in moonlight seemed unearthly and surreal; and sunlight dusted poppy fields making red electric—while redefining The Wizard of Oz as reality. In my lifetime I have seen many images of nature that I would deem magnificent but none had penetrated my soul like in Spain. Perhaps it is because in walking I saw without urgency or distraction and images had the luxury of penetrating my consciousness more deeply. I can conjure those images at any moment and it has made me realize how much is around me that I miss every day simply by moving too fast.

      (Anna Karenina)
      (Dead Man’s Cell Phone - renderings)
      (Dead Man’s Cell Phone)



ROB BISSINGER has designed for the theatre for over 10 years and his work has been seen regionally in Damn Yankees, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Full Monty (Paper Mill), Half A’ Sixpence, Pirates! (Goodspeed), Hunter/Gatherers (the Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theatre), and Everything’s Ducky at the St. Louis Rep, for which he received a Garland Award. Off-Broadway credits include: Lucky Guy (Little Shubert), City Club (Minetta Lane), and Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (The Zipper). In addition to art directing large-scale projects like the Venetian Phantom Theatre in Las Vegas, he has also been associate designer for Broadway productions including Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, and his designs have appeared all over the world in 3 Mo’ Tenors, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Scooby Doo in Stagefright, Disney’s Believe, and most recently, Mythbusters: Behind the Myths.

[Back to Rob’s Answer…]


BEOWULF BORITT Broadway: The Scottsboro Boys (Tony Nomination), Rock of Ages, Chaplin, Grace, Sondheim on Sondheim, …Spelling Bee, Lovemusik, The Two and Only. Off- Broadway: More than 50 shows including The Last Five Years, Toxic Avenger, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, Miss Julie, Public, Roundabout, MTC, 2nd Stage, Vineyard, MCC, New Group, Pearl, American Place, Keen Company. Other Designs: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York City Ballet), Paradise Found (London), Reel to Real (Beijing) and 2 editions of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He received a 2007 OBIE Award for sustained excellence in set design.

[Back to Beowulf’s Answer…]


RICCARDO HERNANDEZ Broadway: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012 Tony Best Musical Revival), The People in the Picture (Studio 54), Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change (also National Theater, London), TopDog/UnderDog (also Royal Court, London), Elaine Stritch at Liberty (also West End’s Old Vic & National Tour), Parade (Tony and Drama Desk Nominations), Bells Are Ringing, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (also National Tours and Japan), The Tempest. Recent: La Mouette (Cour D’Honneur, Avignon Festival), Jan Karski, Mon Nom Est Fiction (Opera Theatre, Avignon Festival), Abigail’s Party (Oslo National Theater), Philip Glass’ Appomatox (Robert Woodruff director, San Francisco Opera), The Lost Highway (London’s English National Opera/Young Vic), Die Entfuhrung Aus Dem Serail (Opera de Nice, France), Il Postino (Los Angeles Opera, Opera de Chatelet Paris, Theater an der Wien), David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette (American Repertory Theater). Over twenty productions at New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater: The America Play, One Flea Spare, Stuff Happens, Mother Courage, etc), BAM, Lincoln Center, Atlantic, Second Stage, NYTW, MTC, MCC, Playwrights Horizons, etc. Regional: American Repertory Theater, Guthrie, Goodman, Taper, La Jolla, Steppenwolf, McCarter, etc. Opera: Amistad (Opera of Chicago), Houston Grand Opera, Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun (New York City Opera), Sweeney Todd (Opera Theater of Saint Louis. Also: Festival Automne Paris, Orleans CDN France, Det Norske Teatret Oslo Norway, MXAT Moscow. Upcoming: Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of The Dead directed by Joe Dowling for the Abbey Theater, Dublin. Princess Grace Statue Award.

[Back to Riccardo’s Answer…]


CHRISTINE JONES is a freelance set designer and the Artistic Director of the critically acclaimed Theatre for One, a portable private performing arts space for one actor and one audience member. She won a Tony Award for her work on American Idiot, A Punk Rock Musical directed by Michael Mayer, with whom she will be making her debut at The Metropolitan Opera with their production of Rigoletto. Additional Broadway credits include: On a Clear Day, Spring Awakening (Tony Nomination), Everyday Rapture, (all directed by Mayer), and The Green Bird, directed by Julie Taymor. Currently she is designing Hands on a Hardbody, a new musical based on the cult documentary film. Additional credits include: The Book of Longing, based on the poems of Leonard Cohen with music by Philip Glass (Lincoln Center Festival), The Onion Cellar (Elliot Norton Award), which she co-created along with director Marcus Stern and The Dresden Dolls, Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park), and Burn This starring Ed Norton and Catherine Keener (Signature Theatre). Her designs were included in the exhibition Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designers for Live Performance at Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts (2008). For achievements in her field, she received an Award of Distinction from Montreal’s Concordia University, 2009, and was honored at NYU’s Tisch Gala 2007. She has lectured at Princeton University and is currently Adjunct Faculty at the Tisch School of the Arts.

[Back to Christine’s Answer…]


G. W. (SKIP) MERCIER is a set, puppet, and costume designer who began professional work in 1983 and has since designed over 350 shows. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Dramatic Art from the University of California at Berkeley and the Yale School of Drama with an MFA where he was named the Oenslagger Scholar for the founder of the design program. Dozens of New York premieres include Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl at Playwright’s Horizons directed by Anne Bogart, Urban Zulu Mambo with Regina Taylor for Signature Theatre, Miracle Brothers by Kirsten Childs directed by Tina Landau, Eli’s Comin’, the work of Laura Nyro, and True History and Real Adventures by Sybill Pearson, with music by Mel Marvin and directed by Michael Mayer, both at The Vineyard Theatre, where he is a resident artist. He is currently working on a world premiere of the yet-to-be-titled show by Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay, directed by Tina Landau for Signature Theatre, Alice in Wonderland, directed by Peter Brosius for Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, and an adaption of Peter And The Wolf with Doug Fitch to be co-produced by Giants are Small and Cirque du Soleil.

[Back to G.W.’s Answer…]

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