First, I want to take a moment to congratulate the entire company of The Conference of The Birds on an amazing and successful run. I’d also like to thank Jay Dunn for his beautiful and insightful entries right here in the Production Diary.
In today’s post, I conduct an email interview with the amazing scenic designer Tony Cisek, who will be designing both Henry V and Twelfth Night this season at the Folger. Below, you’ll find 10 questions about Tony’s background, influences, and career in design.
Before we get to that, I’d just like to make a quick plug. My theater company, Psittacus Productions (LA Weekly Award, NYMF Award for Excellence, Jury Nominee Pulitzer Prize) has an exciting event coming up in New York City. On December 19th at 4pm, we invite the public to a theatrical experiment at the Vineyard Theatre. In one day, we will bring together 8 actors, 3 dancers, 3 live musicians, and a puppeteer, in order to present Chas LiBretto’s new play “A True History” as a staged reading – with bells and whistles. What we rehearse that day is what appears on stage at 4pm. Henry V cast members Zach Appelman and Andrew Schwartz will appear. If you’re in New York, come and see if we succeed…or fail. Info here.
OK! And so, without further ado, I give you the one and only…Tony Cisek!
Louis Butelli: Can you talk a little bit about your background in design? Did you study it in school – and, if so where? How long have you been designing professionally?
Tony Cisek: I had done a bit of theatre in high school, at first for the extra-curricular credit I needed for the National Honor Society (nerd), then for the cast parties (ed: party animal). I thought theatre was behind me when I went off to Georgetown as a pre-med. Then in the middle of my freshman year, a friend took me to see a production of The Diviners that a student-run theatre group there was producing. I was blown away that people my age, with very few resources, could create something that could move me and transport me so fully. I had to be a part of it. Because it was entirely student-run and Georgetown, at the time, did not have a theatre program, you could do just about anything you wanted if you had the energy and a wee bit of aptitude – act, direct, design, produce. I did something for just about every show, much to the detriment of my pre-med classes.
After Georgetown, I interned at Arena Stage and painted and designed in small theatres around DC. After a few years of designing by the seat of my pants, I thought I should go back to school and get a little training. I applied to a few grad schools and ended up at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I graduated in ’94 and have been basically designing full time ever since.
LB: Do you have any influences in the world of theater design? Anyone whose work you’ve admired and/or emulated? Are there visual artists (painters, sculptors, etc.) that you look to for inspiration?
TC: I had the good fortune to have a great range of teachers in grad school – the late great Oliver Smith, John Conklin, Paul Steinberg and Fred Voelpel. I attribute my career to their guidance, and I often find myself looking to one pearl of wisdom or another for clarity when I find myself stuck on a design.
As for inspiration, I generally try to find one great piece of research, that expresses the essence of a play, which will form the core of the design. I never know quite where it will come from – painting, sculpture, magazine ad, travel photo, poster on the street, who knows?
LB: Can you talk a little bit about the DC theater community? You’ve worked at lots of different theaters, can you talk a bit about some of your career highlights?
TC: The old Source Theatre was where I really cut my teeth. They adopted me right out of grad school and kept me quite busy for the first few years. Source had modest resources that demanded that bold ideas lead the way because a lot of details just weren’t going to happen.
The now-defunct Theatre of the First Amendment was also a place where I did some of my most creative early career work. A production of a Sherry Kramer play called Things That Break has remained at the top of my list of collaborative experiences.
LB: I know that, for the purposes of show playbills, sometimes you are referred to as the “set designer.” But you’re really more of a “production designer.” Can you talk a little bit about that distinction, and where one may or may not draw the line? How do you collaborate with lighting designers?
TC: Hmm. I guess as scenic designer, technically my job is to create the environment that allows the play to happen. I’d like to think that the environment encourages, sometimes even forces the play to happen. Otherwise it’s just decorating, and I’m not very good at decorating. I don’t know any other way to do my job but to envision the production taking place. To do this requires a damn good grasp of the play, and I think that’s really how I end up crossing the line, as it were. That and the fact that my interest is always in getting the best production possible with all the tools at hand. Who cares if the set’s good when the play stinks. So if I offer up suggestions outside of my department, they’re always in an effort to make the story clear and engaging and essential. Some directors appreciate that, and I find myself working with them often.
Lighting designers are of course absolutely essential to scenic designers. What you see of the scenic design and how you see it are entirely in the hands of the lighting designer. I like to include lighting designers in as many of the design conversations as possible, so not only are we all trying to achieve the same thing once we get to tech, but that I have made choices that allow the lighting designer to activate the scenery by giving him or her not only great textures and finishes on the scenery itself, but adequate lighting positions from which to light not only the scenery but the actors.
LB: You’ve previously collaborated with Robert Richmond in the design for Henry VIII and for Othello, both at the Folger. Can you talk about how you and Robert work together? Where do the ideas come from? How do you decide which ideas “work,” and which need to be thrown out?
TC: Robert is a fantastic collaborator. He is never short of ideas himself, and he is always open to the ideas of others. I have to say that none of the three shows that we’ve designed together have come about particularly quickly or easily, but have been a process of throwing a lot of stuff in and then continually going back to the text and figuring out which choices are most essential and effective in making the bit, the scene, the play happen.
LB: Geography keeps you and Robert separate for almost the entire period of prep. My understanding is that you’ve had design meetings via Skype. That to me is sort of post-modern and fascinating. Can you talk about that experience? Do you find it as surreal as I do?
TC: Skype has changed my design life. (ed: not a plug.) I can now have my hands moving pieces around in a model in my studio or doing a quick scribble and holding it up to a webcam from another tech and get immediate feedback from a director. We can have a two-way visual conversation as often as needed at virtually any time of day or night. For free. It’s revolutionary! (ed: not a plug. Really.) Is it surreal? The first few times it was, but now it feels totally natural.
LB: The Folger is such a specific theater space, what with the pillars, etc. Can you talk about how you, as a designer, take some of the theater’s “quirks,” and turn them into amazing advantages? (You do it, I know, because I’ve seen it!)
TC: I’ve designed over two dozen shows at the Folger (yikes!), so I’ve had a lot of chances to try different approaches to ‘solving’ the space. Covering it completely doesn’t get you very far and uses all your budget before you’ve affected the groundplan. Pretending it’s not there is even worse. I (and others) have had the most success by twisting the aesthetic and bending and extending the existing architecture in different ways. Shakespeare wrote for a space much like the Folger, so something about its essence must work.
For example — The damn pillars! Well, when you actually stop to think about it; in performance, they are great to lean against; as framing devices, they divide the stage into a larger and two smaller plying areas; and as obstructions, they force the action downstage, closer to the audience, into the ‘golden triangle.’ So do what you like – turn them into the trunks of neon palm trees, but by no means should you waste them!
LB: Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve got in store for Henry V at this stage of development, with the understanding that things will probably continue to change over time?
TC: Scaffolding, sawhorses, pulleys, rope, and a noose or two. That’s all I’ll say for now.
LB: What other projects do you have coming down the pike? Is there a nice busy season ahead?
TC: In addition to 12th Night at the Folger, I’m designing Our Town at Ford’s Theatre, The Whipping Man at Portland Center Stage, and an African-American version of The Trip to Bountiful for Cincinnati Play House.
LB: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
TC: I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you?
And there you have it! Hope you enjoyed this little interview. Come and see Henry V come together in the New Year (January 22 – March 3) – get your tickets now! And please do check out Psittacus Productions at The Vineyard Theatre!
Until next time.