To call David Rockwell simply “a designer” doesn’t capture the vast range of his work. With offices in New York, Madrid, and Dubai, he leads a 150-person team called the Rockwell Group and takes on projects that range from playgrounds to airports. Prior to the start of rehearsals, dramaturg Charles Haugland spoke with David about what makes for good design and how he approached this play. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
CH: Every project your studio tackles is a different world. What are you working on right now?
DR: As an architect and a designer, what’s always been the driver for me are environments that connect people together. It links all the projects we are doing right now. For the TED conference in Vancouver, we are making a pop-up 1,200-seat theatre that we will assemble in four days, totally designed around how you might structure a conference. We are designing the Andaz hotel in Maui that among many things has a sandpit in the lobby, so check in will be done on tablets as opposed to at a big counter. We are doing the Hall of Fame for the Green Bay Packers.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about a lifelong passion for theatre, but the early years of your design work were focused on architecture and interior design. Was there a moment you decided to expand into theatre?
Next year is our 30th year of the Rockwell Group, and I’ve been working in theatre proper for sixteen of those years. The first fourteen years, I was creating places by looking at ideas in theatre that we abstracted into architecture. But that whole time, I was going to see two shows every week. The first time I was invited to speak at the TED conference was 16 years ago. You are encouraged to speak about something you are an amateur at and not to promote your work. I put together a talk that looked at five ideas from theatre — lighting, permanent/ temporary, choreography, physical transformation, and sense of entrance — and then translated those ideas to architecture. [The Rockwell Group was then tapped to design a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, which premiered in 2000.]
What attracted you to The Power of Duff?
What attracts us, as a studio, to a project is something that engages our sense of curiosity. We’re very interested in intersections and mashups. I find the most interesting design ideas come at the intersection of other ideas, like performance and dining or storytelling and craft.
Peter DuBois approached me originally about The Power of Duff, and I read the script. I thought it was really smart and interesting, and I thought it was something that I could add value to. I went to school in Syracuse, so while I don’t know Rochester well, I think they’re similar. There is a powerful connection in the play between the ordinariness of the world and the extraordinary things that happen in it.
This play takes place in locations that people are familiar with. Sometimes in design, you’re creating places, such as Hairspray [designed by Rockwell on Broadway in 2002], which took place in fragments of places that were less familiar. We wanted to create a world that was anchored to the studio, but that could expand into a world of bigger ideas. We did a lot of research on television studios, down to the vacuform backlit letters you would see in a real one. There were slicker versions, but we wanted to create something that was really of that world.
What questions did you ask yourself early on?
How real does the TV studio need to be? Could it be suggested? How does the show move? We had lots of questions for Peter about how the play breathes. When does it get bigger? When does it get smaller? How do we collaborate with video, lighting, and Peter to allow that to happen?
How does that collaboration among designers work? Is it ever difficult?
We come to the table with every idea we can contribute, and then when we are working with a projection designer, as in this show, they come in with a million other ideas. We’re all there to contribute. Everyone acknowledges that if a designer says there’s only one way to do it, that’s probably a person who has run out of ideas, because there’s always more than one way to do things.
How do you know at the end if the design is successful?
We pick projects based on which plays are interesting to us, because you can’t really control the result. We’ve done plays that are hugely successful and ran a long time; we’ve done plays that didn’t run a long time and weren’t intended to. In the hotel and restaurant world, I’ve had what I believe is the best work we did that year not succeed and something that wasn’t as good last for twenty years. I don’t think you can do it for the immediate feedback (although immediate feeback is nice). In theatre, you get immediate feedback from the audience about whether they get it or don’t. That’s the final piece of the collaboration that the audience lets you know: do they know where they are and do they know what story is being told.