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A CurtainUp Quiz
Do You Know Who These People Are?
By Elyse Sommer
You might not recognize any of the people in the picture above, and yet if you're a theater goer, a little bell might go off at mention of some of their names.
The genial slightly stout fellow at the left is Jim Morgan. Hear a bell tingling?
How about Mimi O'Donnell, the pretty young woman next to him? Or, James Houghton, the gent in the blue suit? Or, Peggy Eisenhauer, the attractive woman in the white blouse? Or David Korin, the tall, fair and handsome young man to Ms. Eisenhauer's right?
Whether that bell goes off or not, you DO know these people. Well, not so that you'd recognize them as you would actors you've seen on stage. What you know is their work. The costumes that make those actors look good, the scenic design and lighting that makes the production they're in coalesce, If you'd been at the Drama Desk's January 31st panel entitled "The Talent Behind the Scenes," you'd have discovered them all to have great charm and fascinating things to say about how they happened into this unseen wizard's work that contributes so much to our enjoyment of a show, and learned about the challenges and rewards of doing what they do.
And so, to clear up the mystery about who's who in that picture and what each talked about. . .
James Morgan is a busy scenic designer, most regularly for the York Theatre Company of which he is artistic director and the Irish Rep Theatre in Chelsea where you can soon see his work in a revival of Take Me Along, a revival of the musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness. If you've attended some of the York productions, Jim may actually be less "unseen" than some of the others as he always welcomes audiences so entertainingly that he could easily have another career as stand-up comic.
While all the panelists agreed that their work was very much a collaborative effort, for lighting designer Peggy Eisenhauer collaboration has an added element since she has worked in partnership with Jules Fisher for more than 20 years. (They've created the lighting for the 2007 revival of The Ritz, won the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award in 2004 for Assassins and in 2001 a Tony nomination for Jane Eyre. The list goes on).
Costume designer Mimi O'Donnell and scenic and production designer David Korins, are not partners, like Eisenhauer and Fisher, but they've worked together on numerous productions. Mimi began her costume designing career at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the early 1990's and has since designed for Manhattan Theatre Club, the New Group and the LABrynth Theatre Company of which she is a member. You will be seeing her costumes in the New Group's Two Thousand Years and LABrynth's Unconditional. David, like Jim Morgan, wears two hats, having co-founded the Edge Theater Company. He worked with Mimi on Jack Goes Boating and was the production designer for the recent 2-day concert version of Jerry Springer, The Opera at Carnegie Hall. Currently, he's represented off-Broadway with Hunting and Gathering and on Broadway with Passing Strange.
The man in the middle was our distinguished moderator, James Houghton, who, given all that he has accomplished, is also quite a theatrical wizard: Most notably he not only came up with the idea for a theater that would each season produce the work of a single living playwright but, being a can-do guy, founded just such a company— the invaluable Signature Theater company, where he has directed some of the productions by the playwrights in residence and thus worked with designers.
At the end of the hour and a half discussion led by Mr. Houghton, the Drama Desk members and their guests all agreed that they had learned a lot. Following are some of the questions posed and answered with wit, intelligence and eloquence.
On how they came to this work. . . Mimi O'Donnell initially wanted to be a fashion designer; David Korins said he was a jock who went to college on a sports scholarship; Jim Morgan was interested in architecture but became involved with college productions; and Peggy Eisenhauer started out to be a concert pianist but became involved in her home town of Nyack's community theater, fell in love with lighting and went to Carnegie Mellon because that's where her idol and future partner Jules Fisher had gone. On the process involved in designing a particular show from beginning to opening night and the special challenges such as working with small budgets . . .Jim Morgan noted that both small budgets and problem spaces were often an asset in that they call on you to be especially resourceful. The panelists agreed that unlike the days when playwrights like Shaw and Miller wrote detailed stage directions, the director's vision is nowadays paramount to the design process.
Since the panel was put together by an organization whose members write about the theater, the panelists were naturally asked to comment on how they felt about the way critics wrote about their work. This again brought out their view of their work as integral to an overall collaborative effort. David Korins's admitted that it's s nice to received a good notice, but pointed out that designing a set was not about earning praise for that set but that the idea is for everything to work together. He noted that sometimes a writer praises a scenic element at great length but brushes off the director's work with a "he keeps things moving at a good clip"— probably because it can be difficult to pin down just what the director does).
If there had been more time, it would have been interesting to hear from some of the other behind the scenes people contributing to the pleasure and dimension of what we see when the cell phones are shut off and the lights dim. Projectionists, fight directors, dramaturges, and the sound designers. But perhaps that's another panel. Until then, our Curtainup interview archive does include an interview with sound wizard James DiNicola and another busy off and on-Broadway set designer Derek McLane.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide