For DTC's The Tempest, Beowulf Boritt Designs Epic Visuals

Nobody walks out of a theater humming the scenery. But when it comes to the scenic designs of Tony-nominated Beowulf Boritt, plenty of theatergoers and critics leave shows singing his praises.

Boritt has been in and out of Dallas a lot over the past few years, designing sets for Dallas Theater Center productions at Kalita Humphreys and the Wyly Theatre. He did the massive, water-drenched scenery for The Who's Tommy three years ago (artistic director Kevin Moriarty's first show for DTC), gave last summer's It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman a giant comic book look, and lined a basketball court with Greek columns for the world premiere of the musical Give It Up! (since retitled Lysistrata Jones and headed for Broadway).

Now Boritt is working on sets and costumes for DTC's current season opener, Shakespeare's The Tempest. The style of the play will be contemporary, with actors in modern dress; instead of a shipwreck, the castaways will be survivors of a plane crash.

That's just one of the projects on Boritt's busy schedule. He has 10 shows in the works, including the London production of the musical Rock of Ages and the new Toxic Avenger, which will premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre before going to New York. His Tony nomination this year was for his scenery for the acclaimed Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys.

We caught Boritt, 40, by phone on a break in his New York office before flying to Dallas for a day at DTC.

Is it easier or harder to be doing both scenery and costumes for The Tempest? Boritt: It's somewhat easier. Only thing harder about it is that it's more balls to keep in the air on a single project. My time in Dallas is limited. My schedule is packed when I'm down there. This week I'm flying down Wednesday morning for costume fittings. I fly back to New York Thursday evening. And then I leave for London to do Rock of Ages. If it's easier it's because I come up with the look of the show and don't have to negotiate with someone else.

Was there one show that really launched your career as a big-time Broadway designer? The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I did the scenery for the summer stock production in Massachusetts, then the off-Broadway production and then the Broadway version. That show sort of changed my life. I'd been working in New York for about nine years. I had some successes and was making a living, but I hadn't broken into the big time. I knew a lot of producers and they all kept telling me they were waiting for the right project to come along to hire me. The month after Spelling Bee opened on Broadway, they all suddenly had the right project and called me. I worked steadily for 18 months after that.

What makes someone want to be a theatrical scenic designer? Did you make little dioramas as a kid? The story I tell, and I don't even know if it's all true or not, was that we lived in Memphis when I was a kid. My mother had trained as an opera singer and sang in the chorus of the Memphis Opera. When I was about 7, she took me onstage of Verdi's Macbeth to watch them change the set. I saw a stagehand move a 20-foot tall rock and push it across the stage like it weighed nothing. That was my first memory of being aware of stage scenery as a thing. I also loved drawing as a kid. I covered my parents' kitchen with drawings. I fell in love with theater in high school and the two interests just combined.

What are the best and worst parts of being a professional set designer? The best thing is it beats the heck out of a real job. I'm my own boss. I can pick and choose jobs. There's constant variety. I get to work on great pieces of art. The Tempest is a great thing to spend a few months investigating. You also suffer through bad plays, too. But if you don't like the project, it's over in a few weeks or months.

The worst part of the profession, or the part that's most wearing on me, is all the travel. It's interesting seeing different parts of the world but I'm away from home sometimes 90 days a year. I've worked in Melbourne, Beijing, and I'm headed to London. At some point, living out of a hotel gets a little old.

Do you navigate the world through the eyes of a designer, wishing you could redesign things and places? I do take note of things. I note details most people don't catch. We constantly have vacation pictures of things with my wife's hand next to something for scale. The first time we were in England, probably in Stratford, we went to a wattle-and-daub house, a woven mud and twig house where I saw a bit where the plaster had broken off and you could see the twigs underneath. That's a great detail. I took a picture of that. I'm always coming home from overseas with pictures of light switches and outlets.

Is Beowulf your real name? My father was Hungarian and didn't have a good grasp of American names. Hey, it was the 1970s. My nickname through high school was "Norse." Now when I meet people, they always say they expected me to have a big beard.

What's your favorite set in a current Broadway show? A show I'm really fond of is Wicked. Honestly, I tend to be pretty bitchy about other set designers' work. Stuff I really admire is stuff I wouldn't have come up with and it works. Eugene Lee did this crazy wacky thing with his Wicked designs, all the gears and clocks. Like an old factory. It gives the show a different quality and different tenor than a traditional musical theater set.

Does it bother you if your scenery or costumes aren't mentioned in reviews? No, I don't think it does. But if a critic says something nasty about me and I agree with them. I feel like I've been found out. That's happened a couple of times.

The Tempest, featuring Beowulf Boritt's scenery and costumes, plays September 9 to October 9 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets are $12 to $25 at 214-880-0202.

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