BroadwayBlogspot.com is thrilled to bring you the notable theatre designer/teacher Lloyd Burlingame.
Just honored by the NYC theatre community with the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design Lloyd has designed On Broadway, Off-Broadway, In the Opera world and beyond! Of note, Lloyd designed 13 of David Merrick’s Broadway Plays and served as chief lighting and scenic design of 3 musicals for him as well. Later on his career, due to a loss of vision, Lloyd had to rethink and re-channel his artistic endeavors in other areas.
Lloyd’s inspiring Q & A is filled with valuable information for aspiring theatre designers (in all areas), as well as advice on how to re-invent yourself when other uncontrollable issues get in the way of your artistic career.
BB: You have had quite a career designing on broadway and beyond!
What are the basic steps of putting a scenic design together? A lighting design? A costume design?
Lloyd: The first basic step of putting any design together is a love of the theater. One must have that passion. And the second step would be steeping yourself in the work and coming to thoroughly understand the play, opera, etc. I’ve always said that a designer really is the original composer or playwright’s surrogate and as a designer, your loyalty is to the prime creator of the work. At the core of any work of artistic merit lies the seed idea that motivated the author. Try to discover that and you can’t go wrong. Those two steps are integral components of any design.
BB: How much of the design is influenced by the creative team (i.e..the director/choreographer etc.), versus the needs of the specific show, versus your vision or is it a combination of both and/or does the director pretty much hold all the cards?
Lloyd: My experience working in theatre, opera, film, and television has shown me that there are three kinds of directors:
First, the Dictator Director. A Dictator Director tells you everything he or she wants. In this relationship, the designer really becomes an assistant.
The second type of director is the “I Don’t Know What I Want Till I See It” director. In this situation, the designer really becomes both director and designer. The “I Don’t Know What I Want Till I See It” director is really the opposite of the Dictator Director, as this director tells you little or nothing and you’re on your own.
The third type of Director—easily my preference--is the Collaborative Director. In this role, both the designer and director collaborate on how the design can support telling the story, and negotiate. This, as the name implies, allows for a collaborative effort between director and designer.
If you’re really hungry and need work, you may find situations where you need to work with Dictator Directors. My best piece of advice is just to know what you’re getting into!
As far as the “I Don’t Know What I Want Till I See It” Directors, cross your fingers and hope it’s going to work.
Working with Collaborative Directors is simply wonderful.
BB: How did you put your stamp on something... if at all?
Lloyd: For me, putting my stamp on a design was never a priority or goal. I’m not an artist who has one particular style and I always put telling the story ahead of everything.
I tried to adopt the design to the style of the piece. For instance, consider the design of a piece that takes place in Egypt by Bernard Shaw. That view of Egypt would be very intellectual—and would be quite different than the design for Shakespeare’s passionate, sweeping Antony and Cleopatra, or the Egypt of Verdi’s opera Aida, which has its own Italianate romantic style.
For me, it was vitally important to honor the work’s original creator and consider what the original creator would think of my design.
Even though I worked directly with the director, I always reported with my heart to the original creator. I had a fantasy that I was showing my designs to Shaw, Shakespeare, and Verdi and hoping that I had nailed the right style.
BB: Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve dealt with/overcome regarding scenic/lighting design when dealing with different spaces?
Lloyd: One thing you need to know before you pick up a pencil is what space you’re going to be working in. If you’re doing a play in a small off Broadway theater, that’s one thing, but if you’re doing the same play in a big Broadway theater that’s a whole other space you’re dealing with.
Knowledge about the space itself is one of the very basic things you need to know.
Working on Broadway, it is not uncommon that the theater isn’t booked early enough, and you can’t get serious about the design until you know what the space is. You can do preliminary work, but think of it like this:
If you’re moving into a new home, you’ll need furniture, but the furniture you would need for a cozy bungalow might not be the same furniture you would need if you were moving into a palatial mansion.
Not having the needed information about the physical space certainly presents challenges.
Having done some touring shows where the size of the stage changes radically from night to night, the most important thing is to keep the spatial relationship the same for the actors. The design that results in a situation such as this is a stage on a stage.
BB:You have also designed Opera. What are the differences between designs for opera versus musical theatre vs. plays?
Lloyd: Usually, the primary difference in designs for Opera, Musical Theater, and Plays is scale. Opera is the largest, musical theatre is the middle, plays are smallest in scale.
When designing for Opera, remember that the gesture of the opera is BIG – big, big passions, huge choruses. For example, I designed for Aida where we had to get elephants across the stage and of course, had to consider how big the elephants were—not to mention where to place a chorus of one hundred dozens of extras and an on-stage band of trumpeters!
In an opera, the music primarily tells the story.
Musical theatre is really a play with music and is usually smaller in scale. Musicals, which are almost invariably in English, are more popular entertainment.
A play is a spoken drama or comedy. For a play, it’s very important that the audience be in close relationship with the actors. Actors’ expressions and small gestures can mean everything in a play, while in an Opera, which is on a larger scale and seen more from a distance, the gestures and design has to carry farther.
Most Broadway theaters seat about a 1000 people; opera houses seat several thousand. A small off-Broadway theater will seat at most 200, therefore design and acting ‘gestures” can be quite subtle and still strong. However, no elephants cross such stages, so there is no need to worry about that sort of thing.
These are huge generalities, of course, but ultimately, the primary difference is about the scale.
BB: For students who want to design for the stage, what do you recommend?
Ideally, I would recommend a very broad general undergraduate education in the humanities. In undergraduate terms, work in practical theater situations as much as possible both while at college and in summer work. Take two years off between college and graduate school and work as close to your specialty (lighting/costuming) as you can. (Be a shopper for a costume shop; make models for a scene designer; become an electrician in a small theater) All this time, design as many shows as you can for experience and to create a portfolio of your work to show others you are serious about being a professional designer and that you have talent, and imagination. You should also present your portfolio to major graduate schools. Do your best on every job and good recommendations will speed you along.
BB: How can students who want to design get “hands on” experience to build a resume when they have no design credits?
Lloyd: Be willing to be “exploited” in any entry level position you can! Be humble and hardworking. Show ‘em what you’ve got. Prove yourself useful and soon you’ll be earning as you learn, working your way up that ladder. Keep in mind that very low paying work is an investment in your career.
BB:)You suffered from a loss of sight and were unable to continue your prestigious career. Art/theatre is something so embedded in someones soul how did you cope with having to give it up? What is your creative outlet now?
Lloyd: This is good question, as it addresses what does a creative person do when your principal sense is taken away from you and how do you reinvent yourself.
When I first learned I was legally blind, I sat in my studio and thought “Now what?” It was really not all that different from doing a play. I had to figure out what my strengths, assets, and limitations were—and then come up with creative solutions for what would be MY next design. In my case, the play would have been called, A Blind Artist Reinvents Himself.
When sight loss forced me to stop designing, I had a period of ten years when I had some useable sight. I turned to painting large canvases in the style of my beloved abstract expressionists. I created large multi fabric collages inspired by quilts, which I called touchable art and were designed for both sighted and visually-challenged people.
My sight loss was gradual. I was lucky—it went slowly but grew dimmer—so I had to give up painting. Then I started to experiment with writing as a creative outlet, and during that time, had retooled myself so that I was teaching classes, which didn’t require good eyesight!
When I retired, I continued writing and the first book I wrote was about sight loss and how I coped with it. I wrote several drafts of that book and then I wrote a theater book—Sets, Lights and Lunacy: A Stage Designer’s Adventures on Broadway—which I hope to publish next year. Next, I began work on what turned out to be Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan! A Love Story.
BB: What do recommend to others who have to leave the business either due to injury, illness or even financial instabilities? How can they cope? How can they find other creative outlets etc?
Lloyd: First and foremost, remember that you are a creative person. Ask yourself what other talent or talents you have that you can apply to a creative activity that you love.
I wouldn’t limit it to the thinking of what creative product one you supply. Creativity is such a broad field. Teaching, for instance, might be an option. With computer research, you can find agencies or organizations that can help provide the skills and tools to further your new, repurposed life. Consider that leading your life creatively can be an artistic statement. Most of all, THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX and keep saying “it can be done.”
BB: Any other advice/words of inspiration for students and/or up and coming designers in the business.
Lloyd: Make sure that your heart is in the work—that this is what you really must do, and that this is your calling. To be a theater artist is much more a vocation than a job. And once you are certain of your vocation, give it your all.