Designing Vengeance is the Lord's
Over his prolific career, Tony Award winner Eugene Lee has worked on Broadway, Off Broadway, and regionally, bringing his dynamic scenic designs all around the country. He designed sets for Mauritius and The Cry of the Reed at the Huntington, for the Broadway production of Wicked and the original production of Sweeney Todd, and is a production designer for “Saturday Night Live.” Assistant to the Artistic Director Chris Carcione sat down with Lee to ask him a few questions about his career and his innovative design for the world premiere production of Bob Glaudini’s Vengeance is the Lord’s.
What made you become a scenic designer?
Every year in high school they took us to see a play in Chicago. I was always fascinated by those commercial plays. After high school, I went off the University of Wisconsin. They had no design program, but they had a fabulous theatre. I took a class in set design and the guy who ran the theatre gave us a tour. On stage, there was the set for The Bad Seed — I remember it like it was yesterday — sitting on the stage. Someone asked, “Who does these sets?” and the guy said, “You want to do the next one?” So I said I’d love to do the next one, he told me to come see him the next morning, and suddenly I was.
When you are designing a show, where do you usually start?
Every show is a little different. That’s what makes it kind of fun. With Vengeance is the Lord’s, the playwright suggested that the whole house is on stage, so I drew a ground plan of a house, just like it was a real house. I tried to make it real in its relationships. I put in toilets, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the hallways, the front closet, and the hall closet. Then I did something I’ve never done before — I put it on a turntable. Usually turntables are good for adding motion, but I haven’t really used them much to change scenery. I don’t know if it’s right, but I’ve never done anything quite like it.
What made you decide to use a turntable?
The playwright had suggested the house is kind of isolated and we messed around with different ideas of how to do that. The turntable isolates the house from the surrounding environment. It’s very real, and the architecture all connects. Often when you do a box set [a single, interior setting], there are doorways to the kitchen, but when actors go to the kitchen, they’re really going offstage. In my set you can’t do that because everything is connected. So if you go to the kitchen, people see you in the kitchen. You are always onstage on this set. I think it suits the style of the play and makes the action more realistic. I had fun with it, and I’m looking forward to it.
Do you prefer designing for smaller or larger theatre spaces?
I’ve always been a big fan of rearranging theatres. It’s only in my old age I find myself working in a proscenium theatre. With my friend, director Andre Gregory, we do shows where about 25 people fit in the audience. I love that. I feel much happier when I’m arranging seats and arranging the whole space and can put the audience closer to the action and around it. I prefer that, but you can’t always do that. On the other hand, I love designing big musicals like Wicked.
Do you have a favorite part of the design process?
I have a least favorite part: when you walk into the theatre for the fi rst time and realize what you’ve done. Usually, it’s okay. We do our best not to make serious mistakes. I’m a compulsive worker, and I always work on all kinds of things at once. I just try to have fun.
A detail from one of Eugene Lee’s plans for the rotating set of Vengeance is the Lord’s — including a 32-foot-wide circular turntable at the center of the stage