Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Ming Cho Lee, from Yale website
Some selected snippets from a 1998 interview I did with Ming Cho Lee, a Tony Award-winning set designer for the theater, opera, and dance, and a longtime faculty member at the Yale School of Drama. 

How do you approach set design for a given play?

There’s no question that the leader of any production is the director. So usually, a designer shouldn’t begin until you have a conversation with the director... [I] read the play. Even if [I] know the play, I always re-read the play, make sure it’s a new experience. When I read the play, I try my best not to read it as a designer. I try to read it as if I’m an audience, seeing it or hearing it the first time, so that I have a very physical, emotional, total reaction rather than an analytic reaction. Often, another thing I do is that, if a place or a landscape is very clear—if the play indicates, say, Louisville, Kentucky, and I have been to Louisville—then I will refresh myself with all the streets and life and buildings in Louisville just to become part of the life of the play. If I have done the play before, then occasionally I prefer that there be some images or something that touches the sub-landscape of the play, rather than just the actuality.

What’s an example of dealing with the actuality of the play, and dealing with its sub-landscape, or its deeper thematic elements?

It is different, depending on the play. You’ve got to have a balcony for Romeo and Juliet, and you’ve got to have a bed for Othello. Without the bed, the scene just won’t happen. So there are requirements, but it doesn’t get so detailed that people are making coffee and they’re cooking scrambled eggs. If the play calls for realism, there’s nothing wrong with realism. But let’s say you’re dealing with Ibsen, that requires an extension that goes beyond realism. Nowadays, the more we read Ibsen, the more we feel that it is not just merely realistic; there [are] a lot of images, there’s a lot of subconscious landscape.

When working on a classic that is going to be set in the present day, what does that mean for you as a designer?

[When I do a play like that,] I’m not doing it because I say, “well, a contemporary audience does not have any connection to the Renaissance or Medieval times, and therefore we have to update it.” There’s a misguided arrogance in saying the audience is not as good as we are. On the other hand, it’s very important for me to be connected with the play, that the experience of the play is immediate… Designing a set has less to do with decoration than actually creating a world where human events take place.


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