“Designers shouldn’t be so eclectic,” proclaims Eugene Lee. “Artists have styles that you can recognize instantly, and I have always thought that that is what the stage designer should have. At base we’re artists and craftsmen with a tradition. I have always thought there should be a point of view.”
For Lee, resident stage designer at both Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., and, more recently, the Dallas Theater Center, the entire theatrical experience resides in the relationship between the performer and the spectator—all else is secondary. Consequently, he sees the stage and auditorium as a single, unified space. Most designers, of course, have a style; it is easy to spot their use of color, texture, sculptural forms or even idiosyncratic trademarks. Yet many of these same designers have submerged their points of view, espousing, instead, the necessity of serving the text and the director. Lee, too, believes in serving the text, but not through the creation of pretty pictures restrained by the proscenium arch. He approaches each play as if it were a puzzle or a problem to be solved. With no preconceived notions as to how the text is to be interpreted or how the theatre space is to be dealt with, he becomes an iconoclastic problem-solver in close and direct collaboration with the director.
The results have included such daring and innovative landmark productions as Amiri Baraka’s Slave Ship (Chelsea Theater Center, 1969), the revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide for which he won a Tony (Chelsea Theater and Broadway, 1974), Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (Broadway, 1979) for which he won another Tony, and dozens upon dozens of productions with Adrian Hall at Trinity Square. These productions, in turn, led to designs for NBC television’s Saturday Night Live, several movies, rock concerts and collaborations with British director Peter Brook.
There are two stylistic elements that recur in Lee’s work. First, his use of space is generally non-traditional—regardless of the usual configuration of the theatre in which he is working, Lee treats the entire theatre space as one room to be designed. Hence, his work is frequently environmental or at least audience-involving in some way. Second, he likes real materials and objects rather than the illusionistic imitations frequently emloyed in theatrical design. “I don’t mean painting things to look real,” he explains. “Once you start painting, it has a painted look. What please me are real textures used in the way nature left them. There’s nothing like a real piece of rusted tin—really rusted—put up on the stage. I don’t care how heavy it is, how dirty it is. Everyone says, ‘We can paint it; we can make it.’ You know they can’t.” For Andre Gregory’s production of Endgame at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia (1965) and Yale (1966) Lee constructed a wire-mesh cage to enclose the performance. He began constructing it outside, three months in advance of the production, in order to let it rust naturally.
Because the terms “environmental” and “audience-involving” tend to have specific, perhaps negative connotations for some people, it should be emphasized that Lee’s work is meticulous, technically sophisticated and highly conceptual—always evolving from ideas he and the director find implicit in the script or scenario. “I hate those theatres where people come up and talk to you,” he says. His interest in encompassing the audience within the scope of the design is an attempt to engage them on a psychological and emotional level. He becomes excited when discussing the atmosphere at Trinity Square, and the production of Billy Budd (1969) in particular: “We would roll big cannons out at the audience and they would climb out of their seats because they knew the cannons were going to fire. I love to shake them up, see them on their feet and moving—theatre that’s outside and inside at the same time.”
Lee has a reputation in some circles for being difficult or non-communicative. In fact, he is shy, and his speech falters in situations in which he is uncomfortable. Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe describes the “hesitant, staccato, cyclical patterns of his speech…the exact opposite of the crafted, meticulous stage sets.” If he is difficult—Harold Prince calls him stubborn—it comes from a passionate, uncompromising sense of theatrical values—values that sometimes fly in the face of commercial norms. As a result, his best work has emerged out of his collaborations with directors Andre Gregory, Adrian Hall, Harold Prince, Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Lorne Michaels. His unconventional approaches began to get him into difficulties in college—he attended several.
Trying to reconstruct Lee’s past can be difficult. He is genuinely uninterested in past accomplishments and totally unable to recall dates. Of his patchwork college career, he states vaguely, “I don’t think I have a degree from any place. Maybe I have a degree from Yale, I can’t remember.” (He told another interviewer that Carnegie “took pity on him” and granted him a B.A.) He is not being facetious or affected; his memory is poor when it comes to his own accomplishments, and he is quite uncomfortable talking about himself. “I don’t know what I do,” he replies when asked to discuss his work. Sounding a bit like the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth, he continues, “I only have a sense of the future. I can’t tell you about my past, only what I’m working on at the moment, or what I will be doing tomorrow.”
After stints in summer stock and at the University of Wisconsin, Carnegie Tech and the Goodman School in Chicago, he headed to Yale. Fellow Yale student, costume designer Carrie Robbins, recalls that his sets there were stunning and innovative. But there, as elsewhere, Lee felt stifled by the faculty for his unconventionality. Although he admits that some teachers over the years were influential, he concludes that, “You learn nothing in school that you couldn’t learn by travelling around the world for five years.”
It was Ted Hoffman, head of the theatre program at Carnegie, who recommended Lee to Andre Gregory in 1965. Like Lee, Gregory had a reputation for being difficult and unconventional and was having trouble finding a designer with whom he could work at the Theatre of the Living Arts. “We’re talking in the theatre about an unseen music, and poetry and rhythm that’s not necessarily physical,” comments Gregory, who saw in Lee a kindred spirit. “Most designers I met wanted to know how many walls I wanted—I didn’t know how many walls I wanted. Eugene wasn’t like that. When he showed up in Philadelphia he looked like a mad bomber. He was extremely shy, had very thick spectacles and a cap. He could hardly say a word. He just opened his portfolio and I was simply staggered by the beauty of his work and sort of fell in love with him. It was never necessary to talk very much.”
This early collaboration resulted in some startling work. It marked the beginning of Lee’s participation as a collaborator in the staging of productions—”I like to get involved in the script,” says Lee. “If I can’t, it’s no fun for me. I get involved in how we do it—what the ideas are. I mean the real ideas, the directorial ideas.” Gregory involved him in this process. Lee is one of the few designers who truly enjoys sitting in on rehearsals.
This collaborative process has been most successful at Trinity Rep with Adrian Hall. “I would never have been able to fulfill myself as an artist without Eugene Lee,” claims Hall. “It is a communal art that we deal with. The structured text is not what the theatre experience is. So any amount of wishing that you had a good text still does not mean that you would have good theatre. The designer is an integral part of structuring that experience.”
Almost any Lee design could serve as an example of collaborative problem solving, but James Schevill’s Cathedral of Ice (Trinity Square, 1975) stands out in Hall’s mind as “the single most brilliant design effect I have ever seen, the most brilliant solving of a problem I have encountered.” Lee created a carnival atmosphere for the play about Hitler’s rise to power and American myths. The performance began in a tent outside the theatre that was set up to suggest a German beer garden, complete with long tables and free beer for the spectators. The play then progressed inside the theatre to a kind of carnival midway through which the audience was free to move. At the end of the second act—the moment Hall is referring to—the atmosphere had to change instantly from carnival frivolity to the gas chambers. Lee’s solution, after much discussion, was for bodies to fall from trap doors in the ceiling. As Hall describes it, “The sky literally opened and hundreds of bodies plummeted out of the sky in one minute. It was the most horrifying moment you can imagine. It wasn’t built on any kind of illusion. It was just there—bang! The audience looked up and just gasped.”
Lee’s first design at Trinity Square timidly poked out from the proscenium, but it was not until
Macbeth (1969) that the iconoclastic style for which Hall and Lee have become known emerged. There were two main impulses toward breaking through the proscenium plane. Trinity Square had a grant to perform theatre for students, and its first season of doing so had been disastrous in terms of student response. “We had to find a way of grabbing their attention and holding it,” explains Hall. He began to realize that the physical barrier between the audience and the performers also acted, at least in the case of the students, as a psychological barrier.
Around the same time, Lee visited the Edinburgh Festival with the Trinity company, where he saw Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre. Grotowski’s company created total, audience-encompassing environments for each production. Grotowski also advocated “poor theatre” which, among other things, abolished the glossiness and illusionism of much contemporary theatre in favor of sets constructed of found objects, illumination through simple white light, and simple costumes.
“I always wanted a dirt floor! If you want a trap, if you want mud, you just bring in a backhoe.”
Macbeth, which clearly showed the Grotowski influence, was followed two months later by Billy Budd, based on the Herman Melville novel. The audience was made to feel as if it were on an 18th-century warship whose machinery dominated the setting. Rigging—sometimes with sailors on it—hung over the heads of the audience. As with Macbeth, there was a wooden runway and pipe scaffolding. During a battle scene, performers and action filled the auditorium, including overhead; sound effects and smoke engulfed the space.
None of this evolved from theory. The term “environmental theatre” had only recently been coined. Hall, in fact, does not refer to the settings as environments but as “atmospheres.” Son of Man and the Family (1970)—a play created by the company about the Manson Family—for example, was an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a prison. A visit to a Rhode Island prison left Hall and Lee with the impression that “everything is happening over your head. Men seem to be marching on steel grates above you,” said Hall in an article in Theater (Winter 1982). The resulting design included steel-mesh catwalks above the audience.
Part of the creation of atmosphere, they realized, was the creation of an aural environment—not just recorded effects, that can be as phony as the painted scenery Lee deplores, but live sound produced by the setting. The overhead catwalks in Son of Man and the machinery in Billy Budd, as well as similar effects in later productions, recreated sounds found in the original environments.
This unique collaboration at Trinity—which Lee likens to the best ensemble theatres of Europe—allows him to do things at other theatres that he might not otherwise have had the courage or experience to try. “No matter what I’ve done elsewhere,” he says, “in theatre, television or film, I always did it first in some way at Providence.”
The Providence approach was first seen in New York when Lee designed the Chelsea Theater Center’s production of Slave Ship at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He did not merely place scenic elements around the audience but literally rebuilt the entire space, platforming over the raked auditorium of the narrow performance space to create one large space. The audience was within a few feet of the performers and this proximity was exploited to create terror, tension and guilt, but the actors stopped short of direct contact. Critic John Lahr, in his introduction to the play in Life Show, described the set as: “an environment where humiliation cannot be escaped…Blacks are chained to the floor, the ceiling is three feet above their bodies…nothing is more shocking, revolting or obscene than the fact of the cramped violence of the space…The actors crawl beneath our feet, their shackles clink as they move…They surround the audience with their madness and their despair.”
“I love to shake up the audience—see them on their feet and moving.”
At about the same time, Lee and his former wife, Franne Newman Lee, were designing Andre Gregory’s landmark production of Alice in Wonderland (1970) with the Manhattan Project. Gregory, inspired by Grotowski’s “poor theatre” concept, wanted to create with actors alone a movie-like aesthetic. “It was obvious,” explained Gregory, “that there should be no sets, lights or costumes. Eugene’s work was to give the illusion of no sets, lights or costumes, while still creating an environment that would look as if the performers had created it themselves!”
The result was a cross between a circus tent and a children’s club house—Lee wanted a sense of both circus and claustrophobia. The audience gained access to the performance space by ducking through a 3 1/2-foot doorway. Inside, old wooden chairs with legs sawed off were fastened to a bleacher-like seating area. Both audience and performance areas were covered with a large parachute—like a circus tent—and everything was lit by two bare bulbs. Thus, while intimacy and a sense of participation in the fantasy world were created, there was never any direct contact between performers and spectators.
Lee’s work on Slave Ship brought him to the attention of director Peter Brook, who invited him to work on Orghast (1971), a ritualistic piece performed in tombs and monuments at the Shiraz Festival in Iran, and the following year on Peter Handke’s Kaspar at Brook’s International Centre for Theatre in Paris. Like Adrian Hall, Lee notes with approval, Brook “is interested in more than just the picture.”
Besides the Trinity productions, one of the best examples of Lee’s collaboration with a director was last season’s Seattle Repertory Theatre production of Michael Weller’s The Ballad of Soapy Smith, directed by Robert Egan. The opening sequence as written “seemed too weak” to Lee—it was a narrator describing the discovery of gold in the Yukon. The scene, as it was finally staged, was in part Lee’s creation. Lee, who is an avid sailor (and lives on his boat docked at a Manhattan marina when working in New York), remembered the 1983 America’s Cup race when the crowds wanted to see the mysterious keel of the Australian yacht. Hundreds of people on the dock chanted “Show it to us!” Lee translated this image into a scene on the Seattle docks:
“The scene came alive with a whole stage full of people—a Zeffirelli stage full of people—as many people as we could muster. There was a gigantic steam whistle blasting, big doors opening, a ramp is coming down, you just saw part of the steam ship through the doors—smoke, fog and things. This miner came down, the crowd kind of stopped, and they all started chanting, ‘show us, show us, is it true?’ He pulled open his coat and it was full of diamonds and gold. He took out a bag of gold and poured it and said ‘I’ll never have to work another goddam day in my life!’ A headline came down—’Rumors of Gold in the Yukon’ —and the play started as written. It was a good collaboration.”
Lee also enjoyed the production because once again the set was allowed to spill out past the proscenium and over the theatre walls. For the New York Shakespeare Festival production of the same play this season, the set extended along both walls of the Newman Theatre to the back of the auditorium.
Throughout the early 1970s it became commonplace for Lee to reconstruct the interior of a theatre when he designed a set. For the 1972 Broadway production of Dude—a rock musical by the creators of Hair about a character’s metaphoric search through the cosmos—the Broadway Theatre was transformed for a then staggering $100,000.
Dude was one of the most spectacular failures of the season, but the following year Lee successfully brought environmental design to Broadway with the Harold Prince production of Candide. First staged at the Chelsea in Brooklyn, it was a grandiose version of Slave Ship. There were seven stages with connecting ramps, aisles and stairs, among which were stools, benches and bleachers for the audience. At roughly the center of the space was a pit created by a raised oval ramp. Spectators sat on stools in the pit. At the center of the pit was a stage built on rockers to create a ship-at-sea effect.
The production moved in 1974 to the Broadway Theatre which was once again totally reconstructed. The ceiling was lowered, part of the balcony was closed off and much of the auditorium was platformed. The seating capacity was reduced from 1,800 to 900, which eventually caused economic problems.
Lee and Prince had hoped that the success of Candide would open the way for more innovative staging on Broadway. Unfortunately, the musicians’ strike, high operating costs and limited seating caused Candide to close after only 740 performances. At around that time, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre was experiencing one of its periodic difficulties and Prince approached the Lincoln Center board with a proposal for turning the Beaumont into a permanent environmental theatre. He and Lee had worked out a tentative plan for a changeable space that would accomodate 700-800 people. Obviously, nothing came of that proposal.
Lee, in fact, envisioned their next collaboration, Sweeney Todd, in that space. The mechanical barber’s chair in which the victim’s throats were graphically slit before they slid town a chute beneath the chair, was to be on a central stage in the midst of the audience. Sweeney Todd was eventually done at the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin), the biggest house on Broadway. The setting, which filled the entire stage and spilled out beyond the proscenium, was a Victorian foundry created in part from scrap metal and mechanical devices from old factories in Rhode Island. There was a peaked roof of grimy glass panes supported on steel trusses and rusted iron beams. Stairways and platforms filled the sides of the stage. The back wall was made of corrugated tin and rose to reveal a painted drop of 19th-century London. There was also a catwalk-bridge suspended from a traveling girder and there were all sorts of moving parts that did little but create an atmosphere. Specific locales were delineated by scenic units on rolling wagons. Prince points out that while the superstructure of the set was huge, the show itself was very small and intimate—”the whole play took place on a nodule and a few stairs.”
“Eugene and I agreed that it should be a Victorian factory,” recalls Prince, “and that what we were saying, without making a big deal out of it, was that there was a connection between Sweeney Todd and all the people on the stage—what the industrial age had done, not only to the quality of life of so many people in the ghetto just in practical terms, but to the peacefulness and harmony in people’s lives—in the environment, the atmosphere. With the industrial age, people could not see the sky for the puke that was flying in the air above them. That’s what we tried to do. The whole thing is encased in glass. No one sees the sun except through glass.”
By creating what one critic called an “awesome set,” Lee was able to overcome the cavernous atmosphere of the Uris Theatre, to overwhelm and “assault” the audience, while remaining essentially frontal and proscenium-bound.
Reconstructing theatre spaces can be costly, and finding producers who will allow this is increasingly difficult. When the Trinity company renovated an old movie theatre into the Lederer Theatre in 1973, Lee designed its two spaces—one flexible, the other thrust—to accommodate his style of design. He also helped convert the national Furniture Factory in Paris for Peter Brook’s company, and has designed two spaces for the Dallas Theater Center now under the direction of Adrian Hall. One is a renovation of Dallas’ Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theatre, but he is much more excited about the other—a temporary space constructed in the Dallas arts district. It is a corrugated tin structure, approximately 100’x 100’x45′ high with a compacted dirt floor. “I always wanted a dirt floor,” he says with delight. “If you want a trap, if you want mud, you just bring in a backhoe. We might have a platform consisting of railroad ties or bricks set into the earth.” A recent production of Tom Jones in that space had a gravel lobby area, a pond, a dirt “road” and a real crane.
It was in part Lee’s fascination with real materials that kindled his interest in film. Although he had done about a dozen PBS “on location” films, Francis Ford Coppola’s Hammett (1983)—about mystery writer Dashiel Hammett, set in 1920s San Francisco—was his first Hollywood production. When he talks about the money available for scenery, the crews, research (he had about five file cabinets full of pictures), editing equipment and general facilities, he sounds like a child in a toy store. “You want a 1928 crane, they get you one! You want concrete streets? They bring in the cement mixers and pour them in the studio!” Lee’s job was to recreate San Francisco on Zoetrope’s largest sound stage. Concrete streets were poured, the Bay—complete with water—was recreated. Lee called it “summer stock at Zoetrope.”
Real material, Lee discovered, is more difficult in television. He had never done television design prior to Saturday Night Live. Producer Lorne Michaels hired him largely as a result of seeing Candide. “I was looking for someone to create the sort of intimacy of a theatrical environment,” explains Michaels. “I was looking for a way to bring the audience close enough in a television studio to be relaxed and comfortable.”
Lee created the overall environment of Studio 8H, as well as the individual sets for the sketches on the weekly show. The basic set was a sort of warehouse or Soho garage. What he succeeded in doing, according to Michaels, was to “restore a certain kind of glamour to New York by showing the beauty in what was run down in urban environments.”
The flip side of Lee’s penchant for real and found objects onstage is his delight in tackiness—and that is what emerged on Saturday Night Live. The settings for the various skits bordered on kitsch and were often marvelous parodies of sit-com box sets and talk show milieus. This was enhanced by the last-minute approach to the show on the part of the writers and performers. When Michaels left the show after five years, Lee did also; but he has continued working with Michaels and his production company on films; television specials for people like Steve Martin and Randy Newman; Simon and Garfunkel’s reunion in Central Park and subsequent tours; and the short-lived prime-time successor to SNL, The New Show. Commenting on the Central Park set for Simon and Garfunkel, Michaels said, “I think it worked both for the people who were there and also on television—he tends to bridge that better than anyone I know. He’s a genius. The only one I’ve met.”
For a while in the early 1980s, Lee was becoming quite discouraged with theatre. The restrictions of Broadway were stifling, and even at Trinity Square he found that once adventurous audiences were demanding conventional seating. The flexible upstairs space at the Lederer became more and more a conventional thrust stage. But recently he has regained a spirit for which the word enthusiasm seems too mild. The dirt-floor theatre in Dallas has sparked his creativity, and the ability to do environmental settings once again in Seattle and New York has engendered a new sense of hope and anticipation. And his new family life—he remarried and had a baby (he has a son from his former marriage)—has rekindled his spirits as well. “What’s important,” he told The Boston Globe, “is that you love what you do, that you have a family life. I have two family lives, one with Brooke and my sons, and one in the theatre. Theatre people are special.”
So in a striking about face, while many others are bemoaning the moribund state of the theatre, Eugene Lee happily proclaims, “The future looks bright.” ❑
Arnold Aronson is the co-editor of Theatre Design and Technology and a visiting associate professor at Cornell University. This article is adapted from his book American Set Design, to be published in January by Theatre Communications Group.
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