“I’m so not a brilliant idea person,” set designer Donyale Werle is trying to convince me, as we share a cup of tea in her cozy apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “But I’m a hard worker.” Her humble self-analysis is both supported and contradicted, it seems to me, by an intricately built set model sitting on a nearby table and, resting against one of two cluttered work desks in the room, a vividly imagined painting for the mural that appears in the hit Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatcher, for which she won a set design Tony this year. Werle’s handcrafted designs—all made from recycled, upcycled and otherwise salvaged materials—are immediate and organic explosions of expression that look as though they’ve been created in a mad second, but are in fact the result of a long trial-and-error process.
“I work on the edge of disaster a lot, and eventually it turns. It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know when that’ll happen,” explains Werle, surveying the living room that doubles as her studio. Interconnectedness, she says, provides unexpected inspiration for her innovative designs. The model, for example—a miniature of the design for Allegiance, a new musical for the Old Globe in California, set in a Japanese internment camp during World War II—features a series of screens fashioned from the lids of old sushi containers—remnants of take-out she and her husband, Paul Jepson, a stagehand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had ordered.
As pre-production co-chair of the Broadway Green Alliance, Werle advocates for her colleagues to use sustainable materials. “Any kind of trash can be material,” Werle reasons, and it’s something she deeply believes. The sets in the second act of Peter, which continues its run at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, are made entirely from recycled materials.
“Those were materials we got left over from Disney productions,” Werle reveals excitedly. “They let me into their warehouse in Rochester. They had these giant RP screens that were lying around or just folded in piles. The interior is the leftover fabric from The Little Mermaid costumes. They had boxes and boxes of little scraps of fabric. They were so tiny nobody could do anything with them for costumes, but they were beautiful.” She had the idea to string these pieces together to create the backdrop for Neverland, the quintessential place of unceasing possibility, where time wraps around itself in an embrace of the eternal child. Werle’s deceptively simple set evokes this giddy thought—first, as a wash of color that’s felt instinctually, then with playful greenery contrasting the deep blue abstract landscape, and finally transforming into props used by the actors as the action intensifies.
“[Directors] Alex Timbers and Roger Rees really had the idea of creating this piece from almost nothing, just rope,” Werle remembers. (In Peter’s first act, that rope is used in endlessly creative ways to evoke epic pirate ships, with intricate strands forming ships’ masts and framing intimate moments.) “We never wanted scenery for the show, and yet when you go to a Broadway show, you don’t want to see nothing. That’s the challenge. How do you show nothing without actually showing nothing? You’re not giving them that lavish experience but rather letting them find it for themselves.
“I just try to figure out the movement of the show and gather research,” Werle explains of her process. “I don’t sketch at all. I just go right into the model.” While she works, Werle listens to music on Spotify. “I like movement, and I love music,” she beams. These dual energies, of movement and music, can be clearly seen in her work. Peter’s sets are built around the frenzied action of crazed pirates and weathered crewmen searching for the mythically potent “starstuff”—but they also elicit a boy’s more introspective search for identity and his place in a world that hasn’t yet been created.
“When you put people into an empty space, then you can see. I start making people”—she shows me dozens of stick-figure models she keeps in a box on one of the desks—“and then put the people in the model. I build scenery around people.” The little models serve as the foundation for all the characters whose worlds she’s created.
“We’ve done up to three shows with three different models in here,” Werle says of this whirlwind year that saw her building sets for Theatre for a New Audience’s Taming of the Shrew in New York City, Paper Mill Playhouse of New Jersey’s Once on This Island, and the Broadway transfer of Peter, all beginning in her 400-square-foot townhouse apartment. And her year has not yet ended. Allegiance opens this month, and Werle’s next project, BARE, a musical about teenagers at a Catholic school, is due at New York’s New World Stages in November.
Bringing Peter uptown to the Atkinson from New York Theatre Workshop, Werle and her directors were concerned with preserving its intimacy while incorporating the lavish architecture of their new Broadway space. “We took pictures of every little detail inside of the Atkinson and tried to replicate them and match the colors. We matched the golds, but that wasn’t enough,” Werle elaborates. “We had to paint one little six-inch area of the proscenium to match ours.” It’s a patch only Werle can spot—her stage fits so seamlessly into the Atkinson’s that it takes a while to realize what she’s done.
“Compressed space was also very important,” she adds. “We dropped the ceilings and our openings. When you transfer a show from downtown, you have to keep in mind the reason people are drawn to it is because of the intimate feel. If you ‘blow it up,’ you lose that instantly. The trick is trying to get the scale to feel small, but still be able to project it a large distance.”
It’s a trick she and director Timbers polished for the first time in 2010 with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which moved from the Public Theater to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. “Everyone was saying we couldn’t do it, but the joy of working with Alex is that he’s like, ‘Nope, we’re doing this.’ When you have someone pushing you to try, you don’t just give up.”
Werle and her team tapped into the structure of the Jacobs, not knowing what they would find. “We had to bust holes in the ceilings and figure out what that structure was. We found this giant galvanized metal thing. It looked like a drum. We got it into the shop, and then it looked like a giant cat food can.” Coincidentally, in the pop-up shop nearby, Werle and her team had been gathering stacks of cat food cans. “We collected gazillions of them—we thought we were going to do something with them, but we just didn’t know what.” It wasn’t until Werle saw them in the context of this happily found object that the gestating idea clicked into focus: “The combination of that with all the little cans, it became probably a seven-foot chandelier,” she explains with a wonderment that shines a light on her passion for discovery.
The sustainability ideal seems to come naturally to Werle. “The materials teach me, instead of the other way around. I couldn’t force a material to do what I wanted it to do.” This idea comes out of Werle’s upbringing in Nashville, Tenn. “I come from a family of environmentalists. My dad’s a landscape architect who was involved in the solar movement in the ’70s, so I grew up that way.”
It took a while for Werle to find her way to set design. While at the University of New Mexico, she worked backstage as an electrician and stage manager—“I was terrible at both those things,” she demurs—and then ended up in the paint shop, which led to a bachelor’s in painting and her first career. “I was a painter and sculptor, and had a business in San Francisco painting finishes for television sets,” she remembers. “Someone said to me one day, ‘I think you should design my set.’” The proposition came from a friend, director Russell Blackwood, and the project was for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try this.’ And it clicked instantly.”
The thought of delving into design had been brewing subconsciously for some time. Werle had been exhibiting a series of large interactive paintings (upwards of six feet tall) with built-in lights. “I realized these weren’t paintings that should go in people’s houses,” Werle says with hindsight. “I was doing scenery.”
She confesses she sometimes misses painting but has found a way to include it in her work. Most notably, she painted the mermaid mural that appears in majestically enlarged form as the front scrim during intermission at Peter and remains through the fantastical opening scene of the second act, wherein members of the shipwrecked crew fall under the spell of “starstuff,” to hysterical results. A gold banner at the bottom of the mural reads: “Breaking the Oldest of Nature’s Laws.”
In many ways, Werle is staking new ground in building her sets from warehouse surpluses, salvage yards and what others would see as trash. But she points out that it’s not a new idea.
“It used to be that everyone worked this way,” she contends. “Most theatres would always reuse their stocked goods. You would just recompose the old scenery for the new. I’m not sure exactly when it shifted, but with the emergence of design curricula in a lot of grad programs”—Werle earned her MFA in set design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts—“they’ve begun teaching ‘the blank slate.’” That approach is meant to cultivate creativity, Werle says, but it has a downside. “The idea was that everyone can create anything—you have the opportunity to do whatever you want to do—but that also produced a lot of waste,” she comments.
“I still think you have the opportunity to do anything,” Werle allows. “However, be responsible. If you know your show is only going to be on stage for six weeks, design it with that knowledge.”
Werle first had this realization when she was working as an associate set designer on High Fidelity, the ill-fated 2006 Broadway musical adaptation of Nick Hornby’s popular novel. She worked on a set she describes as “incredible” for 13 months, but the elation faded when the show closed after only 13 performances. The set was trashed, causing Werle to examine her role in that waste more closely. “There was this disconnect between my personal life and what I did for a living,” she remembers feeling. The experience helped transform the way she worked.
Besides, “It’s easier and cheaper to work with found materials,” Werle points out. It’s also conducive to the creation of a vintage feel: “You don’t have to buy new stuff and make it look old.” That seems an obvious enough statement, yet the idea is elusive to many designers. As passionate as she is about sustainability, Werle refrains from dogma. “There’s no one set of rules. I’m not a green designer. I’m just greener, perhaps, than some others.”
But the approach is gaining notice. Werle’s sets for Broke-ology at Lincoln Center Theater in 2009 came from Habitat for Humanity ReStores, and she frequently shops at the salvage outfit Build It Green. “They go into apartments that are being torn down and get all the stuff, then they resell it very cheap. If I’m looking for a door, I go there.” The material she found at the Disney warehouse for the second act of Peter clocked in at just $5,000, though the labor costs to assemble it were considerably more Broadway.
Beyond money, there are challenges and rewards that Werle feels are unique to found materials, and that fuel her creative process. “You get this stuff and you wrestle with it,” she explains. “Materials and colors can be anything. All the time, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is what we’ve got. This is what’s in front of us. How do we use it?’”
Christopher Kompanek writes about the arts for the Huffington Post and other publications.