For Immediate Release
October 7, 2015
an Interview with russell metheny, SCENIC DESIGNER for april 4, 1968: Before we forgot how to dream
Russell Metheny has designed scenery for more than 40 productions at the IRT, including The Game’s Afoot, Who Am I This Time?, The House That Jack Built, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the perennial favorite A Christmas Carol. This season he designs April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream, which is presented on the IRT’s Upperstage, a space that Russell designed. He is one of the co-founders of the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, and designed that company’s current four-theatre complex, including the 200-seat Metheny Theatre. Russell is one of the most beloved members of the IRT family.
How did you become a designer?
It wasn’t planned.
As a kid, I loved building things—models, miniatures, whatever. It was an escape for me. My dad was great—he could build things, and he taught me how to draw, how to draft, how to build to scale. I planned to become an architect, but they told me I needed to go study engineering. That didn’t interest me, so instead I went to art school and had a terrific life.
I did some work for the Hartford Ballet and then moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Puppet Theatre. I developed friends in the theatre community and started working with them in various places doing architecture and design and space. All my early design career was new playwrights, new plays—good plays, bad plays. I had total freedom to design the space and the seating.
Joy Zinoman had an acting conservatory, and I designed a few plays with her. Then she decided she wanted to start a theatre company, and she found an old hot dog factory and she raised some money, and I designed a flexible performance space, and I kept designing plays. That was the Studio Theatre, and it became an institution, and it moved across the street, and I kept working with Joy. She has great attention to detail and space, and she’s committed to making strong, powerful, unique theatre that has great design but has its core in acting and actors. We worked together really well.
How did you get to the IRT?
Eventually I decided I needed to leave DC. I had no delusions of Broadway grandeur, I just felt that it was important to move out, to move on, to be independent. To do that, I needed to find other theatres. Fortunately, I had worked with a lot of directors who brought me in to other theatres. One of those directors brought me to the IRT for an Upperstage show. Then a few months later I got a call from Ben Cameron, who was the associate artistic director here, and he wanted me to design You Can’t Take It with You, and in that first phone call he had me on the floor cracking up. We just got each other. This is back when Janet Allen was the dramaturg. So I did several shows with Ben, and he and Janet were inseparable twins. I fell in love with Janet—she’s so smart, and so strong—so when the board decided to let her to take over the joint, I thought, great! Through my whole career, the dominant forces have been women. I have a great dialogue with women. I’ll never understand why, but I’ve been blessed to have that in my life.
What is unique about your working relationship with the IRT?
There is a lot of personality in the shops and in the offices—good people who know what they are doing. When I get here, I can take the temperature around the building—where people are in terms of creating the play, the shows that come before and after. I’ve gotten to know the guys and gals in the shops—what they’re good at, where they want to be challenged. Watching them develop over the years. It’s great to be able to design something and then throw a curveball and get hollered at and find a solution together. It’s a very personal relationship.
And the people here have lives. They’re great at their jobs, but their theatre careers are not their sole focus. They’re strong and feisty, they have opinions—they have lives, and that’s healthy.
Your work might often be characterized as spare. Can you talk about your design aesthetic?
Ultimately, I’m designing for the actor in space—I’m very aware of how actors move in the space. I like to design something that appears to be spare, but is very detailed. Something for the audience to build on, to make their own. I don’t want to clutter the stage with a lot of stuff. I want the audience to breathe good air. When they walk into the space, they should have a nice “aha” moment: “ohhh, this could be interesting….” It’s not telegraphing to them: a living room, a kitchen. It’s something deeper. Each person creates their own vision, nobody else has exactly the same reaction. It’s private and personal.
The core of the idea is flexibility. You need to build it in from the start, to plan from day one for things to be changeable. How ideas change, the intellectual and emotional content of what happens with the actors in rehearsal—that’s what makes theatre great. I want the director to have freedom in rehearsals without needing a lot of minute notes about moving the chair six inches. I want the director and the actors to have the freedom to imagine things that I never thought of in the space. Then the challenge is translating that flexibility into the pragmatics of building a set and props on a schedule. It’s very tough to work this way, but when you work with people you trust, you can weather those storms.
I never set out to be a set designer. I’m labeled as a set designer because it’s what I do, it’s how I make a living. But I’m really interested in the whole event. It’s so strange that we start the design process without the actors—we have to start designing the play long before rehearsals begin, sometimes even before the play is cast. When the director and the designers gather, I’m feeling the air in the group—where does the freedom want to be in the design? And eventually, when we are all on the same page—what is going to be the leading design, the most prominent element in the look of the show? It’s not always the set. The really great designers I love to work with understand scale: how the costumes work on the set under the lights with the soundscape—and we still keep the air in the room. And it all supports a great actor giving a great performance.
Performance is the bottom line that grabs you in your seat. At the same time, you’re diving into the text, and subconsciously aware of how things are moving around in space. Ultimately, it’s not just a play—it’s something that moves you, that inspires you, that moves you forward in life. It’s a deeper experience.
Founded in 1972, the IRT is the largest and fully professional not-for-profit theatre in the state and has grown into one of the leading regional theatres in the country. The mission of IRT is to produce top-quality, professional theatre and related activities, providing experiences that will engage, surprise, challenge and entertain people throughout their lifetimes, helping us build a vital and vibrant community.