A Tony Award and Drama Desk Award-winner, Derek McLane is currently represented on Broadway with his sets for Gigi, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Living On Love. He has also designed several iterations of the Oscars, sliding seamlessly from the stage to Hollywood. His 2015 Live Design Award, to be presented by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall on June 4 in conjunction with the Live Design Master Classes, pays tribute to his continued excellence in scenic design.
Who have been your biggest influences and why?
Ming Cho Lee and Michael Yeargan taught me for three years at Yale, and they have had a lasting effect on my work. I learned a tremendous amount from each of them.
What would you say is your biggest achievement thus far?
Hard to say. Perhaps opening three shows in a week? Raising three children? Getting up the day after a bad review and getting back to work? There is no specific milestone for me, other than to say that I feel very fortunate to be able to have a studio where I can sketch rough ideas and guide them into finished designs. That is a luxury I spent many years developing and that I appreciate every day.
What is your favorite production and why?
My answer to this changes from time to time, and I always feel by answering it I am being disloyal to some other productions. It's a bit like asking which child is my favorite. But at this very moment—and this might be a different answer tomorrow or next week—I’d say The Pajama Game at the Roundabout. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, and with an amazing cast of wonderful character actors, and Kelli O’Hara and Harry Connick. It achieved a level of comedy and romance that was one of the most delightful experiences I have had.
How did you get into this industry?
Quite by accident. I had worked house construction as a summer job in college, and was asked to build a set for an undergraduate production. I didn’t much like building that set, but thought I’d very much like to design one, and so quickly designed a production of Guys And Dolls in a Harvard dining hall. After that, I was hooked and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Being An Artist
What is your favorite thing about your work as a designer?
I love brainstorming with a director and sometimes the writer as well. I love the process of coming up with a world, with its own logic, with discovering the theatrical language. I love the part where anything is possible.
What’s your favorite piece of gear/software/gadget right now, and why?
Favorite gadget right at this moment is the laser cutter in my studio. I actually don’t know how to operate most of the gadgets in my studio. I rely on my excellent associates for that. But, and I know this sounds dull, my most reliable tool is always a fine point sharpie and paper—that is how I develop every design.
How do you approach a new project in terms of research and design intent?
Every project is completely different. Some start with research, in search of an idea. Some start with an idea that needs to be followed up with research. But ultimately, I am looking for an idea—a big idea, or several ideas—to propel a project. That may come from a conversation with the director, or it may come directly from the text. But that is what I am always looking for, and once I find that idea, and once it feels right, I let it guide me through the entire production.
What advice would you give to young designers just entering the business?
Make sure you really want to be a designer. Make sure you are thick skinned enough to withstand the pressures and enjoy collaborating. Make sure you have the talent. And if you want to be a set designer, learn to draw and sketch really well. I sketch every day, through the day. It is how I communicate and how I develop ideas. All the drafting programs and Photoshop versions in the world will never make you a good designer. You need the art skills to make them mean anything. Be an artist.