November 1 - Late Twentieth Century American Scenic Design - The Modern and Beyond


Ronn Smith, "Chapter 7: American Theatre Design Since 1945," in The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Post World War II to the 1990s edited by Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby p. 514-34 (reserve book)

In Arnold Aronson, American Set Design

In Ronn Smith, American Set Design II

Arnold Aronson, "George Tsypin: The Stage is a Dangerous Machine," and "Afterword" in Looking into the Abyss, p. 206-26

Eileen Blumenthal, "Julie Taymor" in Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire. p. 7-53
(also peruse through productions taking special note of The King Stag, Oedipus Rex, Titus Andronicus, The Lion King, and Titus.)

Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication" in The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Hal Forster p. 145-54

Media (optional)

View Julie Taymor's Titus (DVD Available in DML)

Additional Materials

Frank Rich's 1983 review of K2 which is still remembered today for Ming Cho Lee's design.

Motivator Post and Images

Motivator: Sara

It seems, at least according to Ronn Smith, that this week ushers in the beginning of another new design aesthetic, one characterized by sculptural, textured, and symbolic qualities. If nothing else, we certainly see further advancements in lighting technology, what might be described as an increased emphasis on costume design, and (also furthered by technological and media developments) an increasingly globalized sense of theatre and design. The Smith chapter is useful as an introduction to various factors shaping the postwar theatrical environment, identifying certain aspects that emerge as consistencies within the work of the otherwise quite varied designers we read about.

Increased educational opportunities led to the ability to form the types of professional networks attested to in several of these chapters devoted to individual designers, while the proliferation of more regional theaters offered new occasions for work even as they themselves derived in part, or at least were influenced by, economical considerations that also impacted the designs implemented. Perhaps most notably, or at least most interestingly to me as I read, was the breadth of work supplied by these designers across disciplines and in response to the rise of new types of theatre, spectacle, and media. So ultimately what I'm trying to say is that the Smith supplied a really good context for understanding these developments as evidenced by the highlighted designers who, naturally, grapple(d) with certain problems distinctly and turn(ed) out unique and personal design solutions.


In his introduction, Ming Cho Lee also pinpoints this visual and conceptual multilayering and eclecticism among his colleagues, as well as a persisting emphasis on collaboration. In general I just found it fascinating to discover how each designer described his/her process, both in terms of the words he/she used and in the particulars he/she described, which really showcased the variances and commonalities among their approaches. In some ways we're seeing the recurrence of some of the questions that have arisen throughout the semester thus far, for example regarding the involvement of the audience, the conception of and approach to the dramatic space, and issues of reality and illusion.

Along that vein, it's interesting to note the diverse responses to, and in some cases embrace of, film as an expressive or theatrical medium. Where Eugene Lee finds the freedom to pursue his imagination, Beatty draws a distinction between the "gimmicks" of theatre and the "cheating" permitted by film and television. The crossover between media may be most pronounced in Taymor's work—it seemed that virtually every production described was on the verge of being adapted into a movie, but more to the point, her experience with film apparently influences her theatrical stagings (and vice versa) in a very particular way. I'm completely taking Blumenthal's word for it when she describes how Taymor creates "filmic effects" on stage with regard to scale and angles, but it sounds pretty cool. And let me just say that Taymor's personal story is completely incredible. Also, I really like her sketching style and am intrigued by her use of ideographs as a determining factor in her performances.


These designers' use of various media, the wide range and free mixing of their sources of inspiration, the multivalent nature of the references they make in their own productions bring me finally to the subject of postmodernism. My man Baudrillard likes to bury his points (that he sometimes doesn't quite make) beneath very large words in a manner that is occasionally beyond me, but I can definitely relate to at least portions of what he writes, and he certainly raises interesting questions. However I do have a problem with the way he assumes the voice of all humanity and makes (at least to me) some seemingly baseless assertions. But that aside, I'm sure we all have experience with “inescapable overexposure,” the inundation of information, sounds, and images that characterize our technological, multimedia-oriented lives. What Aronson's afterword describes is the resultant development of a new way of seeing which necessarily affects our expressive forms. While he recognizes that theatre must retain an element of "local flavor" and a grounding in the present (perhaps easier said than done), he suggests that theater is inherently more "connected" because of the presence of the stage, the spectators, and the physicality of the actors. This last, arguably, is easily manipulated with lighting, costumes, certain modes of acting and gestures, and the use of puppets; think of the intentional confusion with just such notions that Taymor explores in Juan Darién. The stage, as we've discussed, is also not so easily defined—many of the designs described this week break far beyond the boundaries of its standard conception. As for audience, Baudrillard examines a loss of community and a deteriorating sense of the present in even our day to day lives—what then of a theatrical medium that already plays with notions of temporality and illusion?

So how does theatre represent and respond to all this? How does it retain an intimacy with and create an affect in an audience that is increasingly inwardly focused, that expects instantaneous gratification and spectacle? How does theatre not lose its essence, whatever that may be, as it adopts and/or exploits these methods of communication and exploration? And how in the world does it endure the death of representation as described by Mr. B (what does that even mean?)



1. Robin Wagner, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, 1982. You guys, I really wanted to see this set in motion, but I couldn't find any other images or anything else.
2. The Magic Flute, directed by Taymor and designed by Tsypin, 2009.
3, 4. Models for War and Peace, Tsypin, 2000.