Designer/Director Collaborations


When designers work with directors regularly, the boundaries often blur. Scott Zielinski might suggest staging while Tina Landau finds the right light cue. Often groups of designers collaborate regularly. Although we focus on the process Mara Blumenfeld shares with Mary Zimmerman, scenic designer Dan Ostling is part of the team, too - and Blumenfeld often designs costumes for Landau/Zielinski shows. David Jenkins regularly does scenic design for shows that Robert Egan directs with sound designer Jon Gottlieb. And without playwright Mac Wellman, Kyle Chepulis and Jim Simpson might not be collaborating at all. Some of these collaborations were made in Heaven, and some, well...

Zielinski & Landau For Scott Zielinski and Tina Landau, it was collaboration at first sight. She calls it "mysterious." He says it's almost a "cosmic connection." When Zielinski went to a bumt-out pier to see her production of Orestes for En Garde Arts, he knew he wanted to work with her. He wrote to her; she remembered him. She responded to "a thoughtfulness he exhibited. What I love about Scott is that he is interested and reflective about the big picture, not just about the whole piece we were doing, but the state of the theatre in general." He responded to her "sense of what is theatrical."

They first worked together in 1994 at the American Music Theatre Festival on Landau's Floyd Collins. "The ideas I had when I brought light cues up were almost exactly like what was in her head," Zielinski says. "We have gotten to the point where we almost don't have to talk to each other."

When they do talk about work like Floyd, Space, or Dream True that Landau has written, discussions include "everything from the way it's written on up," says Zielinski, who finds Landau at once "incredibly self-sufficient" and "hungry to listen to what people she respects have to say." Once, she cut a scene, partially in response to what collaborators thought. Another time, she cut a character to be able to pay to have the sound designer in rehearsal.

Landau agrees they skip steps because they begin beyond those steps. "He really gets inside of the way I perceive stage time and light and movement." Recently, when doing The Ballad of Little Jo at the Steppenwolf, Zielinski moved a light in anticipation of something he knew she would do. "He literally knew how to look at my staging and know what it was going to be two weeks from then," Landau says. She adds, "Scott and I know each other so well and work together so well and so without words, it's really hard to remember it being another way."

Zielinski doesn't always connect this easily. Nicholas Hytner once gave him a score for an opera marked with places for light cues. "I do theatre for the collaboration and, if it doesn't happen, I don't know why I'm doing it," he says.

That doesn't mean he and Landau always agree. Mid-techs at Playwrights Horizons, the second time they did Floyd, Landau decided his lighting for the cold, snowy Kentucky landscape wasn't bright enough. "She said we were not giving the audience enough, that it was too obscure. I got defensive and upset about it, then I turned around and did what she was asking me to do and learned that she was right." That's helped him trust other directors: "If a director asks me to do something that I think is completely wrong, I'll let them know that, but I'll also do it because I know sometimes I'm wrong. If they're wrong, they'll see it."

He's also discovered a side of Landau he didn't encounter at Orestes, which was the kind of "out there, almost dangerous, theatre experiences" he loves. Landau, he found, also knows how to please an audience, and many of her productions are enormous. "Even the things that aren't musicals are almost as big as a musical," says Zielinski, adding that Landau showed him "it's okay to give the audience what they want, too. It's okay to do a button at the end of a big musical number, to put people in followspots to see their faces really clearly."

Chepulis & Simpson When Jim Simpson first worked with Kyle Chepulis more than a decade ago, Simpson knew they would never work together again. Chepulis was the TD for Greta Gunderson at BACA in Brooklyn, when Gunderson asked him to design Wellman's new play, Cellophane.

"His design was extremely abstract and minimal: a small series of black-and-white tiles barely indicating something - I'm still not sure what - and visible lighting instruments, providing strong sidelighting," recalls Simpson, who directed it. "At the time it infuriated me, for there was nothing to help illustrate the text."

Chepulis was nothing like the designers Simpson knew at Williamstown or Yale Drama School. "He did not want to talk about the play or his choices or mine. His work then and now is not academic. He could care less about the world of the play." "I like to create environments," Chepulis explains. "Mac writes very environmentally. He creates worlds. I come at this from a non-traditional approach. I don't know the rules. I'm not formally trained in this."

Simpson wanted nothing more to do with this designer, but Wellman demanded that Chepulis do his next play, the Obie-winning Sincerity Forever. Chepulis did lights as well as sets, using tiny incandescent striplights to evoke a dark, creepy world. "He also created a cutaway car with an exposed real slant-six engine," recalls Simpson. "A surround of gravel, a projected three - dimensional moon. It was a remarkable set, one that informed the action/sound/look/feel of the play."

From then, the collaboration thrived. "Jim likes to work in the worlds I create," says Chepulis. The pair even built a theatre together, The Flea in Tribeca, out of a shared aesthetic that eschews big sets, which Simpson thinks often "indicate emptiness at the center of the endeavor," values the performer/spectator relationship and recreates it for each production, and takes advantage of modern technology-Nixon's Nixon was the first Off Off Broadway show to have lights, sound, and slides synchronized with show control and MIDI-triggered," Simpson says, adding that Christopher Walken's Him marked the first use of a "remote-sensored automated followspot."

Chepulis never had as much fun in the theatre as he is having now, with collaborators he trusts in a theatre they created, where they can do what they want. Their collaborative process changes from project to project, each production building on this developing common language. "It's never static," Chepulis says.

Blumenfeld & Zimmerman Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld and director Mary Zimmerman work and play together. When they're on the road, as they were when The Odyssey and Metamorphoses did the non-profit theatre circuit, they ate together, shopped together, developed their friendship, and strengthened their collaboration.

Often, they pick fabric together. Fabric has to meet the physical demands of Zimmerman's productions, but the director says her interest extends to "how beautiful they are, how well they catch the light." Blumenfeld applauds Zimmerman's sense of color and texture. "In every show with Mary, you dress actors up in lush and beautiful fabrics and watch them roll on the floor. She loves things with volume, but they have to accommodate physical reality," she says.

Price, too, is often a factor. Zimmerman is impressed by Blumenfeld's ability to spot a bargain and negotiate a price. When she needed an Indian sari for Mirror of the Invisible World, she went up and down the streets in an Indian neighborhood pricing them. The show called for seven princesses from seven different countries. "I wanted traditional national costumes," says Zimmerman, who also based each scene on a different color. All costumes had to be that color, most had to be shopped, and it had to be done on a dime.

Zimmerman's way of working is unique. Most of the time, she develops the script during rehearsals, and doesn't always know which actor will play which role, or even which character will be in the final version. "That backwards way of working would be very hard for someone who hasn't worked with me," she says.

Blumenfeld comes to rehearsals and gets ideas from the movements, rapidly drawing sketches of people in clothes. "You come up with a base ensemble look that can work across the board," says Blumenfeld. "With S/M, we had women in corset bodices and huge skirts, men in breeches, vests, and big open shirts, and we put layers on top of that." Sometimes, there's time to do renderings; much of the time, on a Zimmerman show, she "designs on the fly" and much drawing gets done on legal pads and napkins. Eleven Days of Proust found her engaged in "kamikaze costume design," with building continuing through previews.

Blumenfeld says those in Zimmerman's collaborative team "feel comfortable enough with each other as artists and as colleagues to teach and question each other. We tend to look at the pieces very much as a whole and not just our specific " areas. It's kind of like working with a family. Mary's work comes from her heart. She can only create when she feels passionate, and we all get passionate and involved."

Gottlieb & Egan Jon Gottlieb, resident sound designer for the Mark Taper Forum, has created the soundscape for productions that producing director Robert Egan does not direct as well as for most that he does. Because "he knows the range of my skills and abilities," Gottlieb feels Egan has been able to help other directors use his talents fully.

Egan says it can "take eons to communicate and to get back what you ask for" from other sound designers, particularly since a composer is usually part of the mix. Now, when he disagrees with a composer, he can trust his longtime collaborator to integrate the opposing views and "make all of that aural world work." "We have a big space and it's a complicated space," Egan adds.

"Jon knows the equipment. He knows the operator. You could have someone who - though this is impossible - has Jon's level of expertise, but wouldn't get stuff to function," says Egan, adding that the shows he directs have a good deal of sound, and transitions between scenes are often based on that sound. "That's what's leading us." Their process has simplified over the years. After testing elements of the soundscape in rehearsal, it's possible to go directly into tech. "I used to sit down with Jon and the stage managers and do a dry tech; we don't do that anymore. That's part of having a shared aesthetic."

Both value excellence and precision. Egan says, with obvious pride, that when Al Pacino starred in and directed Hughie at the Taper, "He turned to Jon and said, `The sound is perfect.' And he was obsessive about sound."