Any way you look at it, James Vermeulen is having a hell of a year. At an age when most of his contemporaries are happy to take virtually any job, he's been involved in an extraordinary lineup of interesting projects. He assisted LD Brian MacDevitt on the Broadway musical Side Show and the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or "schmucks," by Jon Robin Baitz. He was associate designer on the controversial Off Broadway drama Hazelwood Junior High. Vermeulen designed a production for The Drama Dept., New York's hippest new theatre company. Next up, he's designing a production for The New Group, New York's other hippest new theatre company. By the way, Vermeulen graduated from college in 1996.
Surprisingly, Vermeulen, a Long Island native, didn't even develop an interest in theatre until he was a student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego, where he went to study sociology and meteorology. His interest was piqued when he saw a fellow student's light plot: "I said, 'That's homework?,'" he recalls. She introduced him to the theatre department and, as he says, "I got the bug." After two years, he transferred to SUNY Purchase, where he studied first with the late William Mintzer and then with MacDevitt.
The association with MacDevitt proved to be a milestone. "During my first year in his class, I started working as an intern in his studio, and I never left." Vermeulen emphasizes that MacDevitt and his longtime assistant John Paul Szcezpanski have acted as a kind of ongoing graduate program, schooling him in the art and practicalities of lighting for the theatre. About Vermeulen, MacDevitt says, "Jimmy was somebody who did the assignment and 20% more. He always gave 120% to everything he was doing."
This season, Vermeulen broke through as a designer in his own right with Uncle Tom's Cabin for the Drama Dept. Put together by Randolph Curtis Rand and Floraine Kay from Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, as well as various stage adaptations and other sources, the production examined the book's contradictory roles as a storehouse of racial stereotypes and an instrument of radical social change. Distinctly non-linear and often savagely stylized, it called for considerable ingenuity in its lighting design.
Through discussions with Rand, who also directed the production, Vermeulen worked with two basic design concepts. The first involved the use of distinct color combinations and geometric patterns. "Everything in the scenery and lighting was based on the painter Francis Bacon," he says, "including the vertical lines on the backdrop, the orange floor, and the use of intense yellow against blue and red." He adds that Bacon's work, which often makes grotesque use of human figures, was a highly appropriate conceptual source for a piece about the horrors of slavery. In addition, Rodney Cuellar's set also featured a thrust stage where the actors stepped out of their Uncle Tom roles and offered authentic slave testimonies and literary commentaries on Stowe's novel. For this narrative no-man's-land, the prevailing image was the sterile, ultra-modern space seen in the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey--"it was supposed to be like a surgical table," Vermeulen says. For this area, he devised a translucent floor which used alternating waves of blue and white light to constantly redefine the space.
Otherwise, Vermeulen notes that his design for Uncle Tom's Cabin was "a dance plot, with downlight, backlight, and booms, but also with a series of specials to specify each individual scene. There were about 22 scenes and, to really make each one seem different, it took a lot of cutting and carving with the specials." All the work paid off when Ben Brantley of The New York Times singled out Vermeulen's "evocative" work.
More recently, Vermeulen has been involved with the Off Broadway company The New Group. Hazelwood Junior High was staged in a real New York City intermediate school auditorium, an unforgiving space that challenged the designers' ingenuity. Among other things, they had to light the interior of an onstage car for a lengthy sequence in which its protagonists, murderous teenage girls, drive around with the body of their victim in the trunk. "The dashboard lights were a series of L&E Micro Fills," he says, "the headlights were actual headlights, the taillights were just bulbs stuck in the tail, and the trunk had another Micro Fill." For the next New Group production, The Fastest Clock in the Universe, by Philip Ridley, he graduates from associate to designer. Unlike the site-specific Hazelwood, Clock will be staged in a real theatre; the setting, a naturalistic loft with a ceiling, will provide a new set of challenges.
Throughout a conversation with him, Vermeulen's fascination with live performance comes through loud and clear. Adds MacDevitt, "When he's in the theatre, it's plain to see that he's thrilled to be there, which is infectious." However, Vermeulen does harbor at least one architectural ambition. "Do you know Hell's Gate Bridge? It's in Astoria, NY. It's rusty red and on each side is a castle made of stone. Underneath it is a whirlpool--I think they call it Hell's Gate because boats used to get pulled down into it. The bridge is just gorgeous and you can see the skyline of the city from there. But at night the bridge just disappears. That's my pet project for someday." You'd be advised to keep your eye on both the bridge and Vermeulen.