Colin McIlvaine has about 20 minutes to spare. He’s coming straight to the lobby café at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater from InterAct Theatre Company, where he’s remounting the set he designed for Salt Pepper Ketchup, a co-production with Trenton, N.J.’s Passage Theatre Company. As we chat over iced coffees on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, the plans for a 2019 production of Saint Joan at Delaware Theatre Company lean against our table in a fluorescent green poster tube. McIlvaine talks animatedly about his approach to scenic design, a process he describes as “oscillating between supporting the text and expressing an artistic opinion.”
That collaborative spirit and creative curiosity have made the 30-year-old Delaware native one of the region’s busiest designers since graduating from Temple University’s MFA program in 2013. “Colin has quickly become one of my go-to designers, and I know that other local theatres and directors feel the same way about him,” effuses Seth Rozin, producing artistic director of InterAct. “He always goes the extra mile with each project—doing excellent research, creating meticulous renderings, maximizing a theatre’s limited resources, and thinking through every artistic and technical detail.”
Those elements have translated to scores of memorable sets across a varied range of theatrical styles. For Kiss Me, Kate at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, Pa., the grimy, dusty backstage of a second-rate tryout house gave way to a sense of grandeur once the actors assumed their roles in the musical’s play-within-a-play. McIlvaine captured the gritty realism of a lower Manhattan restaurant kitchen in Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife at InterAct, consulting with chefs from three local eateries to get the professional details exactly right. As someone who grew up in the food service industry, I spent formative years around grill tables and garde manger, and had to convince myself that I couldn’t actually smell fryer grease as I watched the play.
If you-are-there realism was a hallmark of those two productions, McIlvaine displays an equal affinity for the abstract. “This is probably true for most scenic designers, but I enjoy the old school and the gestural, being able to play with light and shadow,” he says. “There are usually moments of magical realism that I can inject into a set, too, while still respecting the text.” His mise-en-scène for James Ijames’s White, at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, Pa., showed that balance: an expansive, colorless void that grew darker and deeper as Ijames’s “modern Frankenstein story” of racial manipulation hurtled toward a chilling crescendo. The designer’s spare, suggestive work beautifully supported the playwright’s pinpoint-precise vision.
Peruse McIlvaine’s website and you’ll find more than two dozen pre-production mock-ups, all of which look painstakingly close to the work he ultimately delivers. Whether it’s a dingy motel room in rural New Hampshire (Lost Girls, Theatre Exile) or an ornate manor house in the Russian countryside (The Seagull, Swarthmore College), he considers it his duty, first and foremost, to use design as an element of storytelling. That encompasses his aesthetic philosophy: “There are very successful designs that are never noticed, but that elevate the production in a way that changes the audience’s perception,” he says. “Good design magnifies the experience, even if it’s not something that everyone instantly recognizes.”
And with that, he’s off. I could talk to McIlvaine for hours, but he has a new model to build.