Jo Mielziner, Designer

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20th, 2008 by kokoro

“The theatre artist has been called a jack-of-all-trades. Perhaps a better name would be hijacker-of-all-trades, for no man’s lifetime is long enough to learn all about ‘drama’ if he also has to learn about design and the history of art, if he has to master the intricacies of color and light, if he is to understand form in sculpture and line in architecture, if he must have a working knowledge of music and dance. Any one of these is a career in itself. The designer’s danger is that he may become an amateur of all the arts and crafts and a professional in none.” – Jo Mielziner in his 1965 book, The Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio

The following biography of Jo Mielziner and his design style was written by Mary Henderson and can be found here.

As the twentieth century wanes, it is generally conceded that American theater came of age in the years following the first World War. With the emergence of Eugene O’Neill, the spread of the experimental theater movement, and the introduction of the “new stagecraft,” the attention of the world was focused on the remarkable achievements in the American theater during a period beginning in the early 1920’s and continuing for the next fifty years. No one better represented and reflected this era than the stage artist and designer, Jo Mielziner, whose entire career almost exactly coincided with the flowering of American theatre during those years.

Beginning as a disciple of Robert Edmond Jones, whose theories shook the established stage practices of his time, Mielziner matured into the finest scene and lighting designer of his time—and perhaps, of all time. For a while, he elevated scene design and the designer to an almost transcendent position in the creative theatrical collaboration without, however, distorting the function of either. His perception that the designer must penetrate the fabric of the play to provide its visual metaphor was his most important contribution. As proof of this, he worked in no set style, giving each play and musical its unique scenic image. In many cases, his perfectly realized visual interpretations for such plays as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire and such musicals as Guys and Dolls and The King and I have made it almost impossible for designers who succeeded him to avoid imitation. Directly and indirectly, Mielziner trained an entire generation of designers and the reverberations of his vision are still being felt. He created scenery and lighting (and often costumes) for almost three hundred productions, ranging from Shakespeare to the lightest farce, from O’Neill to Tennessee Williams, and for musicals, opera, and ballet.

Mielziner’s dissatisfaction with the theatrical architecture of his period led him to formulate his own conceptions of workable theatrical plants, which in turn brought him commissions to design, co-design, or serve as consultant on such theatres as the Vivian Beaumont in New York, the Denver Center Theater, and the Wake Forest University Theatre in North Carolina. He also received commissions for industrial and commercial projects and for such special events as the convention site in San Francisco for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the lighting of the PIETÁ in the Vatican Pavilion of the 1964 Worlds’ Fair in New York.

All of the following pictures of scenic examples and descriptive text come from here.

Seed of the Brute
This play, called “a fair-to-middling play” by the NY Times critic, was by Knowles Entrikin. It was a rather heavy handed melodrama which had little stage life after the initial production. Mielziner’s design shown here is the only one he ever executed in grattage, a method of rendering a design by scraping away the dark wax surface covering the plate to reveal the lighter color beneath.

ANATOL [1931]
Mielziner was interested in the complete look of the productions he designed. He frequently designed not only the settings and lights but also the costumes. This is the costume design for the title character, a Viennese playboy, for the 1931 Broadway production.

The Wookey
Frederick Brennan wrote this play about a tugboat skipper, played by Edmnd Gwenn, who hates war but changes his attitude after rescuing men at Dunkirk. Mielziner’s sets, lights and special effects won universal praise. A room broke into flames, a house is bombed and the terrifying mayhem of war was created through collapsing scenery, lights, special effects and sound. This design is for the basement setting of the Wookey’s bombed house.

Death of a Salesman
The set of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman evolved in Mielziner’s mind over a period of months. He submitted his ideas, sketched on any available paper and sent them to the director, Elia Kazan, for his reactions. These sketches show some of his early ideas for this, one of his most highly praised sets.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The musical, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn based on Betty Smith’s novel, was written by Betty Smith and the remarkable George Abbott. The music was by Arthur Schwartz and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Brooks Atkinson called it “a darlin’ show in a hospitable mode with a liking for its people and locale. Of Mielziner’s settings he writes that “they derive from nostalgic sentiment for a neighborhood and its people.” This design if for the laundry scene set on the roof.

Top Banana
Mielziner created this rendering of a ballet scene which was ultimately cut from the final production. The dark background emphasizing the brightly lighted dancers shows his intense interest in the effects of lighting on scenery and actors.

The Lark
THE LARK [1955]
For The Lark. Jean Anouilh’s version of the Joan of Arc legend, Mielziner designed a series of low randomly-placed platforms covered in blue plush set against a backdrop (or cyclorama) of thin muslin stretched on a frame. On it, he projected a rose window and other images including this battlefield to signal changes of scene. Lighting was the principal element in this production

Possibilities by Arthur Pittman takes place over three decades. The play was an unqualified failure but the two designs for projections which silhouette fire escapes and fences against the evening and night sky, although telling us little about the play, are both haunting and evocative.

Susan Hilferty, Costume Designer

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20th, 2008 by kokoro

The following biography was written for Susan Hilferty’s personal website.

Susan Hilferty has designed over 300 productions from Broadway to the Bay area- and internationally including Japan, London, Australia, Germany and South Africa. Recent designs include Wicked (2004 Tony, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards and Olivier nomination), Spring Awakening (Tony nomination) August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Jitney, Lestat (Tony nomination) Assassins, Into the Woods (Tony and Drama Desk nominations; Hewes Award), Manon at LA opera and Berlin Staatsoper, Richard Nelson’s Conversations in Tusculum, Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Chris Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo. She works with such well-known directors as Joe Mantello, James Lapine, Michael Mayer, Walter Bobbie, Robert Falls, Tony Kushner, Robert Woodruff, JoAnne Akalaitis, the late Garland Wright, James MacDonald, Bart Sher, Mark Lamos, Frank Galati, Des McAnuff, Christopher Ashley, Emily Mann, David Jones, Marion McClinton, Rebecca Taichman, Laurie Anderson, Carole Rothman, Garry Hynes, Richard Nelson and Athol Fugard (the South African writer with whom she works as set and costume designer and often as co-director since 1980). Hilferty also designs for opera, film, and dance, and chairs the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was awarded a 2000 OBIE for Sustained Excellence in Design.

As the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hilferty discuses what she looks for in a student here.

… She is not the only student whose background has left them woefully unprepared for life as a designer. I often get stunned expressions from candidates when I make suggestions about what they should be taking. They are shocked when I say that a student with a strong liberal arts background who has taken drawing classes in the art department and has had only a small amount of time in the theatre is better prepared to be a designer. “But I have worked on over 25 productions!” they wail. How do I tell them that they have been trained to be technicians, not built the foundations to be designers? Without taking history, political science, languages, English literature, all of the liberal arts; without taking even one pure art class, not even a figure drawing class; without having seen any of the current practitioners of this art form, how can they even know if they want to be designers?

… First, I took a critical look at what I was looking for in a member of my incoming class. I am looking for a student who is passionate about the theatre; who understands that it is a living, breathing thing directly connected to contemporary life and at its best helps us wrestle with an understanding of our own lives. The student I am looking for does not have to be highly skilled in the theatre arts, but must have a broad-based liberal arts background on which he or she can depend as a resource for his or her designs. The student must understand that we are designers and must be able to speak the language of design, which means the student should come equipped with some drawing background. The most basic requirement is that the student can understand and communicate proportion. I want someone who is insatiably curious about everything and is willing to risk and embrace failure in his or her desire to explore.

… For me, drawing is an essential tool, because it allows the designer to explore proportion, the keystone to any design idea. I feel that the student needs to speak the language of design to truly be a designer. I do not believe a student has to draw like Michelangelo, just to be able to put an idea down on paper in proportion to see the idea and then make a choice about the design. I believe that drawing is important as a way to explore a design rather than to present an idea.

Hilferty’s personal website also provides a portfolio with costume sketches and photos of her work, including Wicked, Into the Woods, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

An interview with Hilferty discussing the costumes of Wicked.


Posted in 2008hist329 on October 8th, 2008 by kokoro

As a secondary source Glory certainly has some issues, especially with smaller details, and even some not so small details (shouldn’t the recruits of the 54th Regiment have been mostly free blacks?), but overall the movie depicts a fair representation of the Northern opinions towards blacks, as well as blacks’ opinions of themselves. I think the movie does a better job than Amistad in showing a larger historical context. Amistad seemed to suggest the case was an important cause of the Civil War and a great step in abolition, which is simply not true. In Glory, the black regiments help to change Northern views toward the black race and help to give the blacks a sense of self-respect and confidence, which is a fairly accurate account. Also, the battle scenes are well done. They were filmed with the help of actual Civil War re-enactors, which supports the accuracy of the battles.

As a primary source of the time when Glory was made, it is quite clear that Hollywood was out of its romanticizing of slavery and the Old South period. The movie portrays slavery as bad, plain and simple, but it does tend to play up Northern goodness to a degree, especially with Shaw. Then again, Shaw’s goodness has been played up in real life. It’s important to note that the movie also shows Northerners who are nasty to the blacks. Even Shaw has some moral ambiguity, like when he allows Trip to be whipped. I think Glory shows the generally accepted and more accurate view of slavery and Civil War that replaced the old ideas of benevolent white masters with loyal slaves. Of course, there will probably always be people who want to believe that history…