This might be considered the year of Douglas W. Schmidt. The veteran scenic designer is the subject of a new book, The Designs Of Douglas W. Schmidt, by Annie and Barrett Cleveland, published by USITT, and he is the winner of the 2015 TDF/Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design, which will be presented in New York City on May 1 at 6:30pm at the Hudson Theatre (145 W. 44th Street) as part of the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards presentation. Schmidt also received the 2015 USITT Distinguished Achievement Award from the USITT Scene Design Commission in Cincinnati in March.
In an excerpt from the book, designers Carey Perloff and Robert Wierzel are forthright about why collaborating with Schmidt is rewarding:
“His work ethic is always very strong,” said Wierzel. “He makes sure that information is dealt with and the people who need that information are given it. He’s willing to listen and to accommodate.” Wierzel then highlights three trademarks of a Schmidt design:
“One, he understands space. He understands what a play needs, and he serves the play. Two, he has great taste, and being of his generation, which is kind of lacking in contemporary designers, he really understands aesthetics and has taste because he has history. And three, with Doug, it’s about the scale and the detail and the proportion. That’s about taste, but it is also about looking and seeing what it is and not making it up. He has a great ability to understand that subtlety and how to apply that to storytelling in a play.”
Carey Perloff stated succinctly why she repeatedly chooses Schmidt for the most challenging productions at A.C.T. “[He] understands how theatre is made. He understands how actors work and how an actor will live in his space. I’ve just always found him a big thinker, and I think that’s why I’ve always enjoyed him so much. It wasn’t just ‘let’s get this design done.’ We always end up having much bigger conversations about the field as a whole and the nature of the field or about theatre buildings or how does the Geary work as a space.
“He’s always willing to learn something new. He’s always really interested when there is a new material out there to use or when there’s something that you can find that he didn’t know about. He’s very hungry. He’s not someone who says, ‘This is what I know and that’s it.’ He also comes to the theatre all the time. I find him very supportive. He comes and he’s part of it and he watches it. You feel like he’s part of the community.”
Schmidt will be in New York City on Thursday, April 30, to celebrate the release of the new book at The Drama Book Shop, 250 W. 40th St. He will participate in a talk-back interview at 5pm., followed by a book-signing and wine and cheese reception with the book’s authors, Annie and Barry Cleveland.
An Excerpt From The Designs Of Douglas W. Schmidt
"Magic At The Met"
Schmidt returned to New York to design a new production of Puccini’s set of three one-act operas, Il Trittico, for the Metropolitan Opera. Jack O’Brien was selected by outgoing managing director Joseph Volpe to direct the Met’s first new production of Il Trittico since 1989. O’Brien assembled a creative team who had never worked at the Met, because he felt that, although the Met was receiving large grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the company was mainly supporting foreign directors, designers, and performers. O’Brien elaborated:
“It really made me angry because I’m very nationalistic in that respect, and I vowed that I was going to take artists who had never worked at The Met with me. So I called Doug, and he said yes immediately. Then I called Jules [Fisher] and Peggy [Eisenhauer], and they said yes immediately, [and] I got Jess Goldstein. So we all made our debuts. I wanted to take nothing but Americans with me.
“I thought it was sinful that Douglas Schmidt, who had done one of the great bodies of work in America, had never worked at the Met. And the odd thing is because [Peter] Gelb was coming in and Volpe was going out, nobody paid too much attention to us. I think if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to be as elaborate as we were. But we were! It’s Doug at his greatest. Those are all the things he does probably better than anybody else working.”
Schmidt’s design for Il Tabarro proved to be both challenging and engaging for the lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Eisenhauer recalled: “At the Met, we were all a bit nervous about the scale, and we had very limited amount of time compared to the theatre. It wasn’t as hard to light as we thought. One of the things I’ve noticed about working with him [Schmidt] is that when the set is in place and it is ready to be lit, adding an element of light from a considered lighting position usually reveals the three-dimensionality of the set so readily. He’s doing the work of the lighting designer before we even get there.
Jules Fisher said about Il Tabarro: “The opera starts late in the day, and the murder takes place at night. It was a very long interlocked, timed fade. We were making a deal of how the sun was getting darker and darker and also how it reflected off the windows. But I had not paid attention to the upstage back wall that needed to match all that. And Doug was a stickler about that when we were in the theatre. He kept telling me to go up in the balcony, because it didn’t look good from up there. From those seats you saw further down. It was a raked stage, so the background went down behind the raked stage, and it had to match in color. I love that he was demanding of us to make that look good.”
Some of the creative team thought that the work’s full potential had never really been met. “We wanted to push the parameters,” said Schmidt, “but the money people said we couldn’t.” Joseph Volpe had decidedly nineteenth-century sensibilities, and he and the production’s sponsors did not want it to be an avant-garde production. But Schmidt did indeed push the technical parameters for the production: “Since it was my first time in that house, I wanted to use all the mechanicals,” he said. Each of the three acts of the operas was designed with a full-stage set. The third opera, Gianni Schicchi, starts in a large interior bedroom, but for the final vista of the opera, Schmidt designed a fourth full-stage set of the rooftop of the house overlooking lavish gardens. This final look descended from the ceiling as the massive stage elevator lowered the interior into the basement. Il Trittico was broadcast live on April 28, 2007, as a part of the Met’s “Live in HD” season.