The Mind’s Eye
By: Alix Cohen
November 1, 2023: “Cezanne’s famous damning praise, ‘Monet is only an eye, but what an eye!’ had such impact that it killed interest in Monet’s heart or mind.” (Jackie Wullschlager Monet the Restless Vision).
Great set design addresses more than the visual. “Ultimately what it looks like is important, but getting there you need to know what it means,” Beowulf Boritt tells me. His mind and heart have made themselves known in over 31 Broadway shows the past 15 years and more than 489 across the globe since he began.
Therese Raquin – The Apartment: Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan
One example is the oppressive browns and golds of Therese Raquin(2015) whose claustrophobic apartment and actively churning river epitomize the loveless marriage of Zola’s heroine. For Come From Away(2017): “I knew that people who lost people would come see the piece,”Boritt remarks. “Telling a real story to victims made me want it to be real stuff. The back wall was made of real wood we weathered by sandblasting it with broken glass. It makes the grain more prominent. And I wanted real trees, not Styrofoam or plastic. Our scenery shop found a lumberjack in the Catskills. I went up into the mountains with him and tagged 24 trees. We sealed up the bottom so the water didn’t leak out.” In April the trees onstage miraculously started sprouting leaves.
Come From Away – The Company
Drafting a Designer
Beowulf Borritt was born to a Pulitzer Prize nominated American Civil War scholar and an aspiring singer. The house was full of Asian art collected while his father worked abroad. He believes it had subliminal influence on what became a less decorative approach to design. “My favorite building in the world is The Pantheon in Rome. That simple geometric shape and use of space,” he pauses. “But then I also love the Chrysler Building.”
Mom was in a volunteer chorus at the Memphis Opera. At eight or nine, she’d take him to dress rehearsals. Boritt remembers being flummoxed watching a stage hand push a 20-foot boulder across the stage. He smiles. His grandmother had been an art history major at Wellesley. She made scenery for the college drama club and excelled at fashion design. It was she who gifted Boritt with his first set of paints, lavished him with encouragement, and along with his mother, taught him to sew.
There were no art lessons. On his own, he experimented with mediums. Dioramas were built with blocks, Legos and clay appendages stuck to Playmobile figures. “I’ve always been into more sculptural stuff,” he says. “I don’t use 2D on my stage if I can help it.” His parents cleared a bottom shelf in the den where the boy switched out scenes. The Lord of the Rings books were particular favorites to manifest. “I think that’s what interests me in the theater. At its heart it’s a person saying words to another person.”
Another nascent skill was woodworking. His mother is a trained cabinetmaker, his grandfather was accomplished. Several family houses were renovated. At a very young age, Boritt was allowed to use hammers, saws, and power tools. “There was a sense in my family that if you needed something made, you made it,” he says.
Beowulf Boritt, 2005
When school plays were an option, he acted, acquiring an appreciation for theater. It was during a season of summer stock at Gettysburg College he met a scenic designer professor and realized the craft was an actual job. Returning to Gettysburg High School, Boritt enthusiastically volunteered to make the next year’s sets. For the musical Cinderella he ambitiously built a coach “out of 2x4s and a lot of rope patterns glued on and painted gold.” It had wheels, a 2D horse and was big enough to ride in.
Vassar followed. The drama syllabus was “basically a literature course,” he says. “I took some acting, built a few sets, and wrote my thesis. The plan was to teach scenic design, but my girlfriend, now wife, Mimi Bilinski, said she didn’t want me to be an academic.” He moved to New York and attended NYU Graduate School. That entire first year was spent on paper projects. Boritt tells me he thought he’d go out of his mind. Answering an ad, the young man designed costumes, then a set in the South Bronx. “In the early nineties getting to and from Arthur Avenue I was sure I’d be killed,” he says.
Costumes – Left: for Titus Andronicus; Right: for Turandot
Professor Eduardo Siacanco, whose work was “frilly; lots of swirly lines, lace, frou-frou,” encouraged Boritt to be more decorative. “I liked him, but resisted because I wanted to do something conceptual and serious. Eduardo said, ‘Just because it’s pretty, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an idea behind it.’ I learned how to approach embellished design from a conceptual angle. My bread and butter is musicals these days and very much influenced by that.”
After graduation, he did some adjunct teaching between design jobs, but when offered a full time position in Pennsylvania, “Mimi put her foot down. If he was going to BE a set designer…” She echoed one of two pieces of early advice by which he lives: Take the financial hit if necessary but work at what you do – i.e. don’t drive a cab or wait on tables.
“I did a downtown play about an Italian family fighting with each other,” he says. “It was one of the first times I encountered a pushy playwright and a director who wouldn’t stand up to him.” The designer built a big, awkward looking house neither he nor the director could stand. Two days before the first preview, Boritt came in early, went up on a cherry pickier lift and “smashed my way through it knocking holes in the entire set. I hung the broken part kind of crookedly above it. Cheap 1970s paneling was easy to break.”
“It looked fantastic,” he pauses. “It was a play about an unhappy family. I was venting, but it also solved a problem and turned out to be a good lesson. More of my sets than I can name have been askew. Drama tends to be about things askew/broken, so I frequently mirror that in some way in the visual.”
Hamlet in Central Park
Boritt designed four shows for Kenny Leon. The director’s Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park was seen through a political fisheye. Taking place in contemporary Georgia, it featured a large Stacy Abrams for Governor sign. Hamlet, which followed, was consciously set a year later. Leon suggested to Boritt that the production should be “turned on its side” visually indicating social upheaval and environmental issues. The Abrams sign returned cast off on the lawn; a jeep was abandoned in receding water, Kronberg Castle was notably askew.
Beowulf Boritt and Kenny Leon in Tech
“Breaking something looks more like a broken thing than a scenically designed broken thing…” If he wants something weathered and worn, the designer will go at it with a baseball bat, chisel, and hammer. Today he’s carrying a bat gifted him by carpenters during a Public Theater production in 2019. (He finally broke the first one.) It has “Grendel Basher” carved into it somewhere beneath the dents and gouges.
For Prince of Broadway (2017), Tevye’s cart (Fiddler on the Roof) received this treatment on the sidewalk of 47th Street. Boritt then splashed it with dirty paint washes and amber shellac. He drew a crowd, some of who volunteered to help. The garbage cans and even pianos in New York, New York (2023) were similarly beaten up. “The upside is that Local One stage crew is amused,” he chortles.
Tevye’s cart; “Aging” a dressing room table for Harmony
“Hal (Prince) and James (Lapine) were like fathers to me.”
Eminent scenic designer Ming Cho Lee organized something called Clam Bake, an open exhibition at The Lincoln Center Library to which every graduate school in the country sent designers. Each student got a table and a bulletin board. “It was like a coming out party. Producers, designers and directors would attend.” (When Lee died, alas this ended. These days there are local events, but nothing national.)
Hal Prince made it a point to go to everybody’s stall. “There must’ve been 60 or 70 students,” Boritt notes. The legendary producer/director took a resume from everyone so no one would feel left out. The ones he liked went into the right pocket, others into the left. Back at the office, he wrote each hopeful designer saying it was nice to meet you, thanks for sharing your work.
Boritt showed an intricate model of Love’s Labour’s Lost including an intricate Elizabethan tree house. (They existed.) The set stood on an electronic turn table. “Hal pushed the button and was delighted. He loved things like that,” he tenderly reflects. Using Prince’s letter as an excuse to stay in touch, the young man wrote every six months or so.
His pro-action exemplifies a second credo: “What’s normal and polite behavior in the rest of the world is not enough in the theater. You have to be a bigger personality, a pushier person, more dramatic – or get ignored…I was a wallflower in those days. I watched people around me and taught myself to do it. It doesn’t come naturally. A lot of creatives who get ahead are the same way…”
Several years later, Prince asked him to design LoveMusik (2005) about Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill. He rejected the young man’s first concepts. Taking a risk, Boritt suggested painting the entire stage bright red. “It pushed us into a more theatrical world. The first scene was Lenya rowing a boat across the stage to Weill on a dock, but the floor was bright red so clearly you’re not in the real world. I thought either he’s gonna love it or he’s gonna fire me.” Prince loved it. “I use a lot of black on stage, but red is a go-to for passion, for extreme feeling.”
The two also worked together on Paradise Found (2020) based on a Joseph Roth novel at Menier Chocolate Factory in London. “It was poorly produced and perhaps not a very good piece,” he comments. “I was trying to do a Hal Prince Broadway show in a small space. We designed too much scenery. Hal’s memory of the tech was me standing on stage screaming, “Fuck this fucking, fucked, fuckhead theater!”
Hal Prince and Beowulf Boritt (Photo: Dan Kutner)
“Hal was a force of nature. I first started working with him in my thirties. You walk into his office and the history of the Twentieth Century is on the wall. It’s overwhelming. He was a bulldozer. He never hesitated. If he was wrong, he’d just change it days later. As we worked together more and more I realized just because he said it didn’t mean we had to do it and it didn’t mean he was right…I miss him in a thousand ways.”
In 2005, The Putnam County Spelling Bee moved from Barrington Stage to Second Stage Theater. “I remember reading the script and thinking, this is stupid, adults playing children…” Boritt’s agent talked him into it. James Lapine directed the New York production. Charles Isherwood then of The New York Times wrote, “Beowulf Boritt invests an antiseptic space with cheesy warmth.” Lapine and the designer worked together on three more Broadway shows.
Putnam County Spelling Bee (Photo: Joan Marcus)
“James is prickly, quieter than Hal. He can get very frustrated. Hal stayed in charge by yelling and screaming. James does it by keeping everyone off balance. When I was young that was hard to deal with. Now it just washes off. It’s a technique. I love the man dearly. It’s like your father or brother giving you shit. I’ve had a real artistic meeting of the minds with James.”
James Lapine and Beowulf Boritt (Photo: Jack Shear)
“He’s intelligent and calm, very chill, unflappable,” Lapine tells me about Boritt. “I’m not the easiest person to work with. I can make people flappable …I’m not a social guy, but what we do is very intimate. Projects are all consuming, often with a gun at your head…It’s like making a baby.”
The Model for Act One
At the start of working on Moss Hart’s autobiographical Act One (2014 – written and directed by Lapine), Lapine said, “I have an image of a young man trying to break into the business, running up and down stairs, banging on doors.” Boritt’s three-story set on a giant turntable offered lots of stairs and doors and according to him, “not much else.” “Hal used to say, ‘Everyone will imagine his own wallpaper,’” the designer quotes. (Boritt earned the Tony Award – Best Scenic Design for a Play.)
Act One: Santino Fontana, Andrea Martin, and Tony Shalhoub
Boritt also designed Lapine’s Flying Over Sunset (2021) “It should be somebody’s brain on drugs,” Lapine advised of the unusual piece of historical fiction. “I thought, let me make a big circular space. Our brains are kind of round. LSD fucks with your perception of things,” Boritt comments. When Botticelli’s The Return of Judith to Bethulia comes to life in a Rexall Drug Store meant to look like the perfume floor at Saks, we know we’re not in Kansas anymore. Simulating depth and movement, a marvelous ocean scene used so much dry ice it “fell into” the audience. Small fans were surreptitiously placed to blow it off. Critic Marilyn Stasio called it “trippy.”
Flying Over Sunset: Michele Ragusa, Kanisha Marie Feliciano, Laura Shoop, Harry Hadden-Paton, and Robert Sella
Flying Over Sunset
Putting it Together
“I read the script, sit down with the director and just talk,” Beowulf Boritt, scenic designer says. “What’s important dramatically, what’s the feeling you want it to have, is there anything not obvious in the script? If it’s a one set show, it’s easier, but a musical say with 25 locations gets trickier. I start with a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle – how do I make it all fit together?”
“Then I think does it need to have projections,” he continues. “I might also talk to a lighting designer as soon as I have a plan…there’s going to be something here, here, and here. Something’s going to obstruct. The ceiling could be an issue. Almost invariably I’m doing a set that blocks some of the positions they’d like to have for lights.”
On the Town
Also in consideration is the time it takes to change a scene. Librettist David Thompson tells me director Susan Stroman famously gives Boritt seven seconds! With shows that feature a lot of dancing, the nature of the floor is paramount. The designer had to change i.e. rip up and replace the stage floor for On the Town (2014). When a show is revived with a new set, furniture must accommodate original choreography. Compromise is constant.
Yiddish Fidder on the Roof with the Torn Paper
Boritt believes scaling back is more difficult than going big. “I strive to find the crucial elements to tell the story.” Sometimes minimalism is met with surprise. Joel Grey who directed Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (2022) remembers the producer’s initial reaction to Boritt’s pared down set as, “This is it?” “And it was,” Grey says. “That simple, perfect. He’s wondrous. ” “Torah” was written on a paper panel in Yiddish. Every night, it was physically torn away by Russians depicting the Pogrom and replaced with a new one. It was, as Prince might say, the engine of the musical.
Chair configurations for Scottsboro Boys
For Scottsboro Boys (2010), director Susan Stroman conceived a minstrel show. Every location would be constructed out of nine chairs. “It was Wolfie who came up with what we could do with just chairs and planks to make it dramatic,” librettist David Thompson comments. “Actors on stage built and rebuilt. He’s a fount of ideas and tireless… There’s no ego.”
Scottsboro Boys: Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon and Company
Visibly economic, Scottsboro was actually immensely complicated. Not only did its cast need to memorize blocking, vocals and dialogue, but also configuration of the chairs. Numbers were put on the backs of the furniture where audience couldn’t see. Each arrangement was a series of digits. Actors carried pegs in their pockets to hold the chairs so they would be sturdy. “When they dropped their clothes to enter prison, it was reassuring to hear the thunk of pegs,” Thompson says.
“Every night we had six big guys jumping around on wooden planks made of aluminum trusses and I’d just cringe, waiting for one to break,” Boritt tells me raising his brows. “If something really breaks, you have to shut everything down to fix it, so you could lose a day of tech. That kind of time is golden. Years ago, I calculated that every 15 minutes of tech time at a Broadway theater cost about $5000. Probably more than that now.”
Little Dancer: Joeseph J. Simeone, Michele Ragusa, Michael McCormick, Wendi Bergamini, James A. Pierce III, Juliet Doherty, Lyrica Woodruff, Polly Baird, Jolina Javier and Nina Goldman.
“The set of Little Dancer (produced in Washington, D.C.) had to open up, but we couldn’t use tracks because dancers en pointe might catch their toes and trip,” he says. “It was hung from above and able to rotate by way of giant trusses. One of them rotated a piano out on stage. Placed incorrectly, it got wedged between two pieces of scenery and began to move. There was a crunch. That sound is horrifying. I think it took me 30 seconds to get to it.” The piano survived. A piece of wall into which it careened did not.
Lynn Ahrens, Dancer’s lyricist tells me, “Beowulf captured Degas’ vision of light, color, and brushstrokes. …I would call it an example of a set designer collaborating with a character—in this case, Degas—to bring the artist’s vision ‘to light’ in a new way—on the stage.” Research included travel to museums and walking Montmartre in Paris. (“I went to my 1st and only Yankees game when working on Bronx Bombers and spent a lot of time roaming the Bronx for A Bronx Tale,” he says citing other research travel.)
A Bronx Tale: Rory Max Caplan, Dominic Nolfi, Bobby Conte Thornton, Keith White
I am always doing what I cannot do in order to learn how to do it (Pablo Picasso)
Boritt says his math is terrible, but his geometry is good. What aboutmechanics? “I just have to know what’s possible,” he says. “The truth is most theater technology uses the same kind 0f motors. It’s not terribly complicated stuff. Unless I’m doing something weird, really heavy (initially the steel fire escapes in New York, New York went through the show deck which had to be repaired) or it has to move really fast, I don’t actually have to know much.”
How do you feel about authenticity? “Authenticity should only be used when it’s right for the play,” he explains. “Of course, someone in the audience may see something’s wrong and it will pull that person out of the story. It’s just kind of instinct. If I can make it accurate and it doesn’t mess anything else up, I should make it accurate. If it’s more important for the story that I mess with it, then I do… Furniture is cheaper to buy it than build it. A room is cheaper to make. I don’t do a huge amount of super accurate stuff. I don’t get hired for those kinds of shows.”
Therese Raquin: Gabriel Ebert, Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan
What about the challenges of water? “Water is a pain in the butt,” he notes. “Almost every time you do water on stage you need a giant sheet of rubber. If people will be in it, you need a heater. The problem is you can see through it. On stage, it’s hard to keep it silty. I paint the liner and put weeds in.” During one show, water leaked to the basement doing some damage to structural beams. After another, it flooded a second theater below. “Water finds a way,” he shrugs.
The original design for Mike Birbiglia’s The Old Man and the Pool was to have real water. It was going to be the cross section of a pool the whole length of the stage with a Plexiglas front. The preshow would be Birbiglia swimming laps. “It was his idea!” Boritt tells me grinning. Hopping the show around the country, the performer decided they were doing too much, thus the curved wall of an ersatz pool which also stood in for other things.
For the apocalyptic If There Is, I Haven’t Found It Yet (2012), there was a wall of real rain as one entered and a moat filled with water across the length of the stage. As the story progressed, furniture is tipped into it. Meanwhile, the entire stage filled with water up to the actors’ ankles. It was problematic, but when talk rose of eliminating the effect, star Jake Gyllenhaal threatened to quit.
If It’s There I Haven’t Found It Yet (moat is out front) Jake Gyllenhaal, Bryan O’Byrne, Annie Funke & Enid Graham
Hudson Scenic, with whom the designer has worked many years, solved water issues with a pool liner, then a layer of steel like roofing material, then another pool liner. Water is also heavy. You have to make sure a stage can hold it. “When you’re working with a designer, you’re looking for a level of interest. Beowulf is involved with everything that goes on in the shop,” Nick Mazzella, head of Hudson tells me. “He shows up. It’s a collaboration. Beowulf’s not different, he’s special.”
Easter Eggs: A theatrical term for hiding things on set few can see and fewer know about.
“When I was a little kid, I loved elephants, so early on I started hiding them on sets,” ‘he says. Like the Ninas hidden in Hirschfeld’s celebrated caricatures. (Hidden names of his daughter.) New York, New York (2023) had more than 13 of them. The Elephant in the room? There’s one on Francine’s window sill, one among the radio equipment at the station… there’s an elephant ash tray. Some directors never know.
An elephant hidden on the set of Harmony
In New York, New York, Boritt wrote John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ names and birthdates on a featured beam. Kander tells me he was tickled but told the designer “Fred lied about his age. He always said he was ten years younger.” Boritt changed 1928 to 1938. (John Kander and Fred Ebb collaborated on part of the score to the film New York, New Yorkand notably authored the song. Ebb is deceased.)
One backdrop depicts the San Remo Apartments on Central Park West where Ebb lived. His windows on the 14th floor are lit. An intermission photo shows a young John and Fred walking through Washington Square Park. A 1940s automat image is doctored to include a yellow sweater left on a chair. His wife Mimi had told him she forgot her yellow sweater the first time she visited Horn & Hardart.
See the yellow sweater?
Boritt’s dog’s name – Natasha – is on the hot dog cart in New York, New York and a bratwurst brand in Harmony. There’s a scene in the former at little café bar. Printed inside menus is a drink named after every person who worked backstage. In the music booker’s office, posted bookings were all people who worked on the production. Call Susan Stroman for XYZ.
Vignette sets of The Prince of Broadway each featured the original designer’s name hidden somewhere. Boris Aaronson was written in the projected birch trees of A Little Night Music and on Tevye’s cart (Fiddler on the Roof). William and Jean Eckart’s names were on the awning in She Loves Me and on the lockers of Damn Yankees. Eugene Lee’s name was in an advertisement at Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop. (Sweeney Todd).
The Outlet in Hand to God: Sarah Stiles, Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, and Michael Oberholtzer
During Hand to God (2015) one night, a drunk audience member jumped on then stage and tried to plug his phone into an outlet. Ever since, Boritt tries to put a fake outlet downstage right in homage to that moment. “I was on Google last night trying to locate an antique German electrical outlet for Harmony,” he says. “The only one I could find was in Lithuania and I didn’t think it would get here in time, so I ended up having one 3D printed.”
Alexis Distler, his devoted assistant for 15 years, says she’s rarely seen him lose his temper – even in China when a fire curtain no one mentioned required moving a set ten feet upstage. “The theater jack-hammered a hole in its back wall, built a bamboo hut in the parking lot outside and put a $10,000 projector inside,” she recalls, still somewhat stunned. Examples of his sensitivity and kindness bring tears to her eyes.
Alexis and Beowulf doing Tech on Hamlet
Her boss also gives her opportunities. Distler designed Public Works’ Tempest in Central Park this summer. She had to interview, but came highly recommended. He regularly makes himself available to young people for advice, sometimes inviting them to a tech rehearsal and has set up a grant organization for young theater designers called The 1/52 Project:
What’s Past is Prologue (Shakespeare)
At the 76th Annual Tony Awards, Boritt took home Best Scenic Design of a Musical for his outstanding work on New York, New York. John Kander says it was the most elaborate set in which he’s ever worked and “dazzling.” Kenny Leon tells me he threatened to scream should the presenter not call the designer’s name.
At Hudson Scenic with painter Irina Portnygina (Photo by Amy Wortman)
“New York, New York was about young artists in New York striving to create a life,” he says. “I wanted to show both what was unpleasant and difficult about the city, but also what was inspiring about it.” A year into the project with two sets rejected, Boritt had a month to come up with an entirely new idea and was visited by Hal’s spirit. “Dumb ass, make things simpler,” he was told. “I don’t really believe in the supernatural, but it solved the show for me.”
The New York, New York Company (Photo by Paul Kolnick)
The designer suggested to librettist David Thompson and director Susan Stroman that they form the Whispering Arch (in Central Park) with suitcases. Thompson responded, “That’s it. New York is about people, not architecture.” The set became all about people. Boritt stripped away buildings and left what people stood on, fire escapes. “Every window implied there was someone living there. Painted drops became the fantasy…” Structural relationships are not always accurate, nor is the scale. “Our eyes are amazing.,” he says. “They zoom in and do close ups for us all the time.”
Anna Uzele and the New York, New York Company (Photo by Emilio Madrid)
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Harmony (Off Broadway, 2022; Broadway, 2023) inhabits a series of arches now with connecting roof. (There were construction restrictions at its last venue, the Museum of Jewish Heritage.) This makes things harder for lighting design. “Light is gonna bounce everywhere and you might see things reflected you don’t want to see,” he explains.
Ignominious inspiration here was a cell phone. “Once upon a time, Fascists came through the radio,” he says. “Now they come through cell phones. The shiny black surface was my jumping off point. There’s a sense of beauty and a sense of doom.” (Down the rabbit hole?) Two Golden Ratio prosceniums are formed by light bulbs which create theater within the theater.
Negotiations ensue between set, lighting, sound and projection designers. The light is this big, can you move that piece of scenery two inches upstage? We need to put a speaker over here and it’s this size. In some cases there are LED projections behind the set which is also scaled in accordance with panels they can ‘”see” through. With all the adjustments, Boritt endeavors to keep the set looking the way he wants.
In his newly published Transforming Space Over Time (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books) Boritt addresses the dynamics of six productions from concept to completion. The designer then interviews each director with whom he worked. It’s full of photographs and drawings, beautifully designed, and fascinating. He closes with: “The highs have made the lows more than worth it. I love what I do, and that, more than anything, has animated my work …”
The word “theater” comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. A great set, however, draws one in with more than vision. It influences thinking, affects emotion, creates cohesion. Beowulf Boritt is a great designer.
Opening Top: left to right: On the Town, Act One, Flying Over Sunset
Bottom left to right: Scottsboro Boys, Follies, Much Ado About Nothing
All Uncredited Photos – Beowulf Boritt