The press has acclaimed the revival of Kiss Me Kate at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA, with stellar notices for the sets by scenic designer John Iacovelli (with costumes by David K. Mickelsen, lighting by Jared A. Sayeg, and sound by Jon Gottlieb). "Scenic designer John Iacovelli takes what we first see as an empty, rundown theater stage and transforms it into a Technicolor-rific Shakespeare world, with David K. Mickelsen giving us one absolutely stunning outfit after other, whether recreating the distinctive ‘New Look’ of the late ‘40s or garbing the cast in full Shakespearean mode. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting is as gorgeous as lighting designs come, Jon Gottlieb’s sound design provides crystal-clear amplification, and Carol F. Doran gets top marks for her wig and hair design," says Stage Scene LA. Kiss Me Kate runs through October 12, and Live Design has interviewed Iacovelli about his designs:
Live Design: How do you approach the design of a musical revival like this?
John Iacovelli: I approach the design for a musical revival in listening to the music and doing some research. I love the Cole Porter music. I read the script and plot out the scenes. I have only seen this show once before. That was with Tony Walton’s beautiful sets when Brian Stokes Mitchell was in it on Broadway a few years ago. I knew that what Tony got right, that the backstage ditty world is dimensional and that the ‘musical play within a musical play’ world is flat and colorful was just the right tone for this piece. Sheldon Epps, the director [and artistic director], and I have worked on a number of challenging shows and every one looks different. From The Importance of Being Earnest (with Patrick Dempsey) to Les Liaisons Dangereuses to Intimate Apparel to Blues for an Alabama Sky, none of the shows we have collaborated on look alike. I am very proud of that. This one is special to us both. The last musical we collaborated on was the premiere of Sleepless in Seattle. There is a reason these older shows work so well, we found that the scenery (as far as covering shifts go) designed itself. In fact, in most cases, we finish the shifts way ahead of the music or song that was originally devised to ‘cover’ it.
LD: Did you have an assistant? What is your process: drawings, models, storyboards, etc.?
JI: I never bring anything to the first meeting. I just listen. Then I do a lot of research, mostly from books and I try to stay away from the stale and derivative stuff on the Internet. I start with sketches and I did do one sketch in black and white for each scene. I then painted those and they became the color storyboards for stage management. I work out all the elevations in ¼ inch and I do all the ground plans. I then send all this to the draftsman. I used Travis Kerr as my drafting assistant and he was one of my recent graduate MFA students where I teach at UC Davis. He was in Pittsburgh. I find it easy to work with draftsmen who are not in the same city as I am. Darcy Prevost, perhaps the premier model maker working on the West coast, built the model. I used a ½ inch color model for this show as I think it was important to help tell the story of the backstage world. The model was also kept in rehearsal when it was not needed in the paint show. After most of the drafting was done, I used the ½ inch drawings to then paint color elevations in watercolor and acrylic.
LD: What are the design constraints at the Pasadena Playhouse as well as its charms?
JI: I have designed at the Pasadena Playhouse for 25 years on about 25 shows. The first show I designed there was The Twilight of the Golds by Jonathan Tolins (Buyer and Cellar) and it went onto the Kennedy Center and then was my first Broadway show. It is a magnificent building and the theatre in Los Angeles that is most like a Broadway house. Of course, designing a musical in a LORT theatre (with no enhancement money) can be very difficult. We did not have a large budget for this show and I had to be crafty at how to get ‘a big look.’ I decided early on not to have any masking, so changing the scenery is part of the show, but we devised it so that you don’t see ‘everything.’ I love that building and I usually do a rake. This show was completely different. I had seen an old photo of the playhouse in the 1930s and there were steps up to the stage. I recreated the feel of those and built them over the orchestra pit. While we were loading in, the playhouse replaced all their carpeting and seats in the house. It really looks great.
LD: What is the design concept or intent for the scenery here? What did you want to communicate to the audience?
JI: Early on in the process, Sheldon texted me a photo of the empty stage at the Pasadena Playhouse and he said, “This is our set!” It is a beautifully crusty old backstage with a plaster cyc that has large cracks earned from several earthquakes over the past 100 years. Sheldon’s concept was to set it in 1948, when it was written. He also asked me to look at it with an African American Touring Theatre Company.
We found that from the 1930s onward, that there were a number of famous productions like Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones [written by] Eugene O’Neill, and the ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth directed by Orson Welles. Exactly right for us was Swingin’ the Dream, which starred Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman with “scenery after the cartoons of Walt Disney,” a curious and wonderful credit. There was also the Michael Todd-produced Broadway musical The Hot Mikado, starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, which was a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. We found Billy Rose’s Carmen Jones, which is the Bizet opera set in the Caribbean with a jazz-enhanced score by Oscar Hammerstein. Sheldon and I used the African-American Harlem renaissance painter Archibald Motley as an inspiration for the scenery for what we call Swinging the Shrew! and I also used the great African American muralist Aaron Douglas for the color palette of the gritty backstage world. There actually was a real “Negro American Theatre Company." We call ours The American Negro Theatre Company. This was wonderful approach to begin with.