Legendary scenic designer Ming Cho Lee has created a lifetime of work that changed the face of theatrical design. On April 23, 2010, he will be among the honorees of the Theatre Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Awards when he takes home the special Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design. Equally at home designing for theatre, dance, or opera, Lee has been responsible for teaching generations of new designers during his tenure in the Design Department of The Yale School of Drama, beginning in 1969.
Award-winning scenic designer Douglas Schmidt reminisces:
I met Ming for the first time on March 9, 1964. I was interviewing for a summer position as his assistant at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and as I really wanted the job, I was anxious to make a good impression. Planning on taking the early 1am milk train for my appointment, I made my way to Boston’s Back Bay Station in a ferocious early spring snowstorm that delayed the train to the point that I feared all was lost, and I might spend the rest of the night, if not all of March, in an unheated rail car stalled on a track in central Connecticut until spring thaw. Miraculously, I made it to his apartment door on the Upper East Side, standing in a puddle of my own snowmelt and flop sweat, with not a moment to spare.
I didn’t know it then, but I would spend more time in this small, but grand, and chaotic apartment in the next three years than any place I would live between 1964 and 1967. The moment I walked in, I felt overwhelmed by the intensity of Ming and Betsy’s family life and intimidated by the astonishing craft and art of his designs. Picture this: a three-room apartment crammed with three young boys (the youngest, David, a babe in arms having just been born), a design studio piled high with drawing tables, models, and rolls of drafting paper, and somewhere under all the clutter, a large bed, since the studio doubled as their bedroom at night! The boys shared another small bedroom, and the living room, when not in use as an extension of the studio, served as conference room, Betsy’s office, and a storage/display area for Ming’s incredible set models piled vertiginously one on the other covering every surface. In short, this was my introduction to a life in the theatre, and I was immediately drawn in, made to feel an indispensable member of this family, and set on a course that would define me as an artist in my own right.
For three years, Ming designed operas, ballets, plays, and musicals, and I, along with one or two other assistants—we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters—learned our craft in the benign shadow of Ming, who was, himself, honing the skills he would bring to bear educating generations of design professionals only a few years hence.
Through Ming, I got my first professional jobs, met designers, directors, producers, and technicians who would become lifelong friends and collaborators. Most importantly, I learned the respect for craft, attention to detail, and skills necessary to navigate the treacherous shoals of quirky personalities, divergent points of view, and practical considerations required to successfully bring a design to port in one coherent piece.
The micro-world of stage design is one of the last vestiges of the medieval concept of the apprentice system. There are direct lines to be drawn in our profession from the past to the future. Robert Edmund Jones, considered by most the father of American stage design, begat Jo Mielziner who begat Ming Cho Lee, whose artistic offspring number in the hundreds, thanks to his influential and long-lived commitment to the Yale School of Drama and educational theatre throughout the country. Those lessons I learned in his studio I find I am forever passing on to my own assistants and in turn, they onto theirs. In addition, we have Ming and his wife Betsy to thank for the long-running hit, The Portfolio Review (aka: Ming’s Clambake), drawing the best graduate-level design students to a meeting of professionals and their future competition at an annual event that will always be associated with their untiring generosity of spirit and comity to the theatre community as a whole.
The true essence of show business is ephemeral. Our achievements are, at best, temporary, and our failures often the stuff of legend but truly live only in the moment of performance. The part, however, that lasts is the influence our work has on future generations, and, in this respect, Ming’s legacy is forever insured. I, for one, am eternally grateful for that March snowstorm that blew me into Ming and Betsy’s home and for their patience and generosity in welcoming me into their life and setting me on my career path, grounded and prepared for whatever was to come.