A Trick of Lighting: An Interview with Scenic Designer Lee Savage

By Michael Paller
Scenic designer Lee Savage has worked at regional theaters across the country and has extensive credits in New York City. He joined the creative team for Satchmo at the Waldorf in 2011 and has been with the crew ever since. “I love working on one-person shows,” says Savage. “It’s a very intimate experience.” We spoke with Savage about the challenges and exciting discoveries that have come from designing Satchmo at the Waldorf

What sparked your interest in designing Satchmo?
I had been approached by [director] Gordon [Edelstein] to do it, and I had never worked with him before, so I was very excited by the opportunity. After reading the play, I was really thrilled by its theatricality. Not only the biographical aspects of Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, and their relationship, but how they were being embodied by one actor. There’s an innate theatricality and awesome skill that only actors have: they can transform not only from who they are every day into a character, but they can also transform between characters right in front of your eyes. That was something that, after meeting John [Douglas Thompson] and seeing what he could do, was really inspiring.

Actor John Douglas Thompson in Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012 production of
Satchmo at the Waldorf. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Is designing for a show with one actor different from designing a show for multiple actors?
Yes. [The actors in one-person shows] bring a lot to the process. You get to know the actor really well. We involved John in the selection of props and whatnot. There were things that John found in his research and in his character development that he felt were important to include in the space, so we worked together to do that. Sometimes those decisions are made solely by the director or the designer.

Was there a particular challenge in designing this set?
It definitely evolved. It started at Shakespeare & Company [in Lenox, Massachusetts],which has a really deep thrust, and is a much bigger stage area than subsequent productions. What we learned [in Lenox] is that John’s connection to the audience was very immediate and really important to the storytelling. When we went to Long Wharf Theatre [in New Haven, Connecticut], the relationship between John and the audience was less immediate because the space was an end stage. The set became a very realized interior with a ceiling and walls. Although it was successful and we got to have more detail in the set, we learned that it was too enclosed; it felt like John and the audience were in different rooms. When we got a chance to do it again at The Wilma Theater [in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], we eliminated a portion of the ceiling and sidewalls so it really opened up. That turned out to be the most successful version and the one that will be onstage at A.C.T.

So, more of an open approach?
It’s like a kind of shadowbox, I guess you could say. The room’s implied, there’s definitely architecture, but it opens up in the front, so it’s not an enclosed box. There’s no separation between John and the audience. There’s no frame around him. He’s thrust out into the audience as much as possible.

Working in the theater, you learn what you don’t need. The set at Long Wharf Theatre looks fairly realistic, but I was wondering what you chose to leave out.
It’s real, but it also has to respond to this gesture of changing character. I was trying to find the real dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria, which is where the play takes place, but there were no formal dressing rooms for performers that I could find, and I even went there to ask them. It turns out that a star who performed there would probably just get ready in his hotel room. So we looked at some hotel rooms, and we looked at a lot of research about Louis Armstrong when he was on the road and the different dressing rooms that he spent time in. That was very inspiring to us. But we also wanted to respond to the fact that we needed some sense of transformation when he switched to Joe Glaser. So, without giving too much away but giving it all away, the mirrors in the dressing room become the windows of Joe Glaser’s office by a trick of lighting and a two-way mirror. The set is able to respond to the character shifts, so we can actually change the location without changing anything except light.

So when John Douglas Thompson transforms, the set transforms with him.
Yes. We realized after version two [at Long Wharf Theatre] that we didn’t need the space to be completely real. It needed to be a little less real, more flexible, more open, more accessible to the audience. So it was great to have the opportunity to revisit the design and make it better each time. Sometimes you want a set to make a big statement, have a very muscular, spectacular design. This set is really about supporting John, the play, and the story. It’s a supportive set, I like to say. Everything is there to serve the play.

*To read more about Savage's set design, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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