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A PLSN Designer Roundtable

Bryan Reesman • Inside TheaterJuly 2021 • July 9, 2021

Clockwise from top left: Toni-Leslie James (costumes), author Bryan Reesman, Jiyoun Chang (lighting) and Beowulf Boritt (scenic).

Beowulf Boritt, Toni-Leslie James, and Jiyoun Chang Reflect on their Return to Theater

Theater is coming back to life after 15 months in lockdown. Numerous off-Broadway shows have been activated or re-activated, while many productions along the Great White Way are planning to re-open in mid-September. In order to bring the magic of live theater back, casts and crews are gradually getting back into the swing of things. Following our great pandemic, which is not over yet, important precautions and protocols have been put in place to protect those working on shows.

PLSN conducted a Zoom roundtable with Tony Award-winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, Tony-nominated costume designer Toni-Leslie James, and Tony-nominated lighting designer Jiyoun (Jiji) Chang to talk about returning to live theater, how they are juggling multiple projects, and how they feel about the safeguards that are in place. Boritt and Chang are working on Merry Wives at Shakespeare In The Park, Boritt and James are reviving Come From Away on Broadway and tackling Chester Bailey at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, and Chang has Letters Of Suresh, a Second Stage show, going up in the fall.

The set takes shape for Merry Wives at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in NYC’s Central Park.

PLSN: Now that live theater is returning, you’re all juggling projects. Did they open up very quickly, or has its been gradual and you were anticipating when they were coming back?

TONI: We’ve been talking about coming back since we went away. I have six shows that are all supposed to open in September, and I have four associates. So we’re going to work it out. But it’s a little frightening…frightening and exciting at the same time. There’s going to be a lot of negotiation with production managers and directors about how we can show up and support the work and also how that time is going to be divided.

BEOWULF: That’s what I’m finding too. The cycle that’s coming up…the same periods that are busy in a normal year are busy, but it’s stuff reopening, stuff we’ve all been working on. You don’t have the opportunity to say ‘I’m not available’. It’s just happening and you get sent the dates. And when the dates for two or three different shows are the same series of dates, there’s nothing you can do about it other than hope people are understanding. Some are and some are less understanding, I’m finding.

TONI: I’m finding the same thing. So basically, I’m hedging my bets between those who will be less understanding. Because those who are understanding, we had to put in the contract that my associate can come. I gather a certain amount of trust because of the way I put together my process. I put together a full production package that allows everybody to work whether I’m there or not. It allows it so we do all of the heavy lifting before we even start rehearsal so that the process will run smoothly. But like Beowulf said, there are some who are going to be less flexible than others, and in that case, I’m trying to make sure that my strongest associate is in position for when I need to go away. All of my associates are strong, but now I have new associates and two of my long term assistants who just got into the union this year, and I don’t want to throw them to the fire.

JIJI: A lighting designer is a little different from costumes, and that’s because I have to physically be there in tech. I never really had an associate focus lights for me or be the tech for me. I don’t like it. So I’m always trying to be good about it because I really have to. They are moving Slave Play to Taper in L.A. The director said right away, ‘Can you have an associate come? Just let me know if this can work between you and your associates. So it was very generous offer to begin with, and I may actually take that offer.’

BEOWULF: It’s tricky especially for a set designer, but probably somewhat for a costume designer. We sit in tech for 12 hours and maybe we’re needed for 10 minutes of that. But for that 10 minutes you actually are needed, and it’s useful to be there.

TONI: That’s true. I’ve always been in-house. I’ve been trying to think of a time when I hadn’t been. I have an associate, Devario Simmons, who puts up Come From Away, and I show up for tech and then we go through fittings. We may do fittings on Zoom if he is in London because I teach so I can’t always be available. That’s why our process is so tight. At the beginning, it is to allow work to go on when I’m not there. The only time there was a show where I absolutely could not be in-house, I made my associate my co-designer. So Devario Simmons and I are co-designers on Thoughts Of A Colored Man because I haven’t seen it. It’s an amazing piece, and basically it’s his show so that’s why he’s my co-designer.

PLSN: Jiji, for Merry Wives, how has it been lighting something outside rather than lighting indoors?

JIJI: Very different. We have to wait until the sun goes down, and then we can work to 3:30 in the morning. With this show, I think commuting will be a little tricky. My friend offered me a place near near that the theater, so I may stay there for a couple of nights. I used to commute back and forth, but with this particular show because it’s an outdoor theatre, it’s going to be a little tricky.

PLSN: You really have a lot less time to hang your lights and do things when you’re doing your show on this summer schedule.

JIJI: They start quite early. They’re going to prep the show a month ahead of time. Then we’ll have a four to five days of focusing because we have to wait until the sun goes down. The rehearsal begins at noon, and I like being in the rehearsals. So even if it’s during the day, I can’t really do much, I want to watch it. I usually build a lot of looks ahead of time, so I can actually see it right away. But it’s long hours no matter what. We can’t really have assistants longer than eight hours a day. We have to be very mindful of that.

PLSN: Obviously, things are opening up quickly now. Toni and Jiji, you’re neighbors in New Haven, and Beowulf you’re here in New York. There’s a bit of commuting involved to your different shows. We’re getting to a place where people are coming back in. What kind of safety protocols have been put into place? And how safe do you feel so far with everything that’s going on?

BEOWULF: I have had more Q-tips shoved up my nose than I care to remember in the past six weeks.

JIJI: Working in the Park, I had to go to a demo at a shop. They asked me to take a test, and it had to be 72 hours before. They also booked me for a rapid test so that they were sure that I was okay to get into the space. I was in the Park and it’s outdoors, but still they’re limiting how many people are in the Park. It gets a little bit crazy, but at the same time, you definitely feel safe.

BEOWULF: You would think it would make it easier with Covid because it’s outdoors, but just for me to walk by and look at the deck being built, I’ve got to get a Covid test before I come. Even though I’m not even going to be within six feet of someone necessarily. I mean, it’s good that they’re doing it. Thank God in New York it’s so easy to get the Covid test. Now there’s three places within a block of my apartment where I can just walk in and get a rapid test or the longer one, but Come From Away, you must have dealt with it even more.

TONI: Oh man, we were tested every day. Temperatures taken. A form protocol that you had to sign out. Temperature taken before you left the hotel, temperature taken and a Covid test when you arrived at the hotel. That was every day. It was fantastic. I felt very safe, and I have no problem with those protocols at all.

BEOWULF: It’s good. I wasn’t in the bubble. But even to come in and do a paint call day before they had bubbled, I had to get a test three days before and then they swabbed us on the street before we came in that morning. There was some app we had to use to scan before we came in, but you had to pull your mask down for the app to work, which seems like a flaw for a Covid app.

PLSN: How much extra time in your day does this all take up in terms of the process as compared with before? All the protocols and social distancing – how much does it slow you down?

TONI: Well, not really for me because here in New Haven I just go over to Yale. They still have it set up in the parking garage. Every time I’ve been tested there before I had to go into the city, I was the only the only person there, and it was great. I don’t know how it will be because we have an apartment in Fort Greene. So when I’m working in the city, I don’t travel that much. I came into the city for fittings and everything else. My daughter and her husband and my grandchild live two blocks away. I couldn’t face going back to my Brooklyn apartment. I hadn’t been in it. I’ve only seen my apartment twice since May of 2020, and we’re fortunate to be here. It’s so weird. I’ve just gotten used to the openness, and Jiji will tell you the neighborhood’s really pretty. There’s a lot of trees, and it’s a walking neighborhood. It’s going to take me a while to be closed up in an apartment, and that’s because of Covid. That’s the strange thing to me, and I realized that we’re fortunate to have this opportunity, incredibly fortunate. But I can’t be closed up in an apartment.

BEOWULF: The time thing has been interesting for me. It’s actually bitten me more than I expected in a couple of ways. The Park show, we’re not teching until the very end of June, which is about five or six weeks later than the first Park show would normally happen. So we started building the set exactly when we would have if we were teching in early May because there’s social distancing and so on with the carpenters. They didn’t decide to do Merry Wives until about February 1. They had some other thoughts of what might happen in the summer, so I literally cranked out the basic design in three days because we had to keep on schedule to get it drawn so they could start building it. That’s been tricky.

My associate Alexis Distler and I normally don’t work in the same room that much. She works in her apartment, I work in mine, and I send her stuff. But when I’ve built a model of the show, normally she and I would spend an hour or two going through it together and just talking through how it all works. In this case, because of social distancing and all that, I had to just hand it off to her in a cab and she took it home with her. We actually ended up with some big errors that weren’t really her fault. It was just stuff we hadn’t talked about. She got it all done and suddenly we’re like oh wait, this doesn’t work, this isn’t right. She had to go back and redo a big chunk of the technical drawing because I think honestly she just opened the wrong file because we didn’t look at it together. She got the whole thing done before we caught it. So it’s weird where even something as simple as not being able to be in the same room for an hour has caught up with us and made things harder.

PLSN: I imagine the initial process when you start is actually by yourself and then you meet with people and start working on it.

BEOWULF: Saheem Ali is the director for Merry Wives, and he and I have known each other since he was a freshman in college. But this is the first time we’ve actually designed a project that’s going to fruition. We were supposed to do a Park show that got canceled last summer by the pandemic, so we had to do the entire process by Zoom. I would take videos of the model with my phone, and you would hear me talking and trying to move the model and hold the phone at the same time. Jiji’s seen these weird, janky videos. But that was how we figured out that. Some of it is actually good, but some of it is a lot harder. You just can’t sit there together and work things out the way we’re used to doing it.

PLSN: What other challenges have you guys been dealing? Is the main one being the fact that all of a sudden all this work is coming in now? And everyone’s trying to get back into the game really quickly?

JIJI: Toni and Beowulf have been very busy dealing with five to six shows at the same time. I’m just doing two or three shows here and there, and I’m having actually a very hard time focusing on one thing. Because I’ve been at home so long, it’s just weird to manage my time. My little one is in and out all the time, and I feel like trying to finish the Merry Wives plot was like some weird task. Whenever I tried to do something, something happened that kept me from doing it. That’s the hard part for me now, managing time and how to focus on things.

PLSN: Time has been relative in Pandemic World. Someone’s birthday might have been two weeks ago, and you thought it was three days ago.

BEOWULF: It feels like things that happened two years ago, I can’t tell if they happened 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, but somehow the past year time got so elastic that I get very confused about things that happened a year to two years ago.

TONI: Come From Away Australia, which was two years ago, feels like it was five years ago. I can’t believe it. I agree with Jiji. I’m doing revisions for Chester Bailey up to three o’clock in the morning. It’s only two damn people in this show. It’s just that I decide to do it at one o’clock in the morning. The difficult thing for me is I become co-chair of Design here at Yale in July, and now I am on top of my schedule. I’m in interminable meetings. It seems like I’m in meetings all the time, and I’ve been doing portfolio reviews, sometimes three or four times a week. I’m meeting a lot of great instructors and a lot of great schools and a lot of great students, and that’s part of now Yale looking outwards instead of inwards. It’s a good thing. This is my problem because I have a great deal of work. I’m really fortunate to have this work lined up, and I accepted two new shows. One was Chester Bailey. The other one is a brand new Christmas Carol at the Guthrie because I love working at the Guthrie and I’ve never done A Christmas Carol. But now when my agent keeps saying we have to talk about your schedule, I’ve been avoiding it. That makes me worried because I feel like I’ve done something wrong, and now I’m getting ready to be punished because my schedule is packed. Work will continue. Now that we’re opening up it’s going to continue, but I’m afraid to accept a new gig that I really want to do because I have to fulfill these old commitments.

PLSN: On each the shows you’re working on, what’s the most challenging thing you’ve dealt with so far?

TONI: I have a big musical that’s going to Chicago in October, and it’s going to open on Broadway in the winter. It’s big, and we have a whole new script and a whole new leading cast. It’s a huge turnaround. We’re trying to figure out, what do we need? How many new people are going to be in the cast? How many new costumes do we need? There are new scenes, there are new people, it’s set in 1860. I’m afraid of the rush in time to get that up. That’s the one show that scares me the most.

JIJI: There’s one show that Toni and I are working on, supposedly… [laughs]

TONI: I want my f*cking contract!

PLSN: That’s gonna be the headline for the feature!

TONI: I don’t care!

JIJI: I can’t really mention anything about it. It’s really driving me crazy. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I think the fear is that people are scared to produce something. Although things are opening up and they know things can be done, the commitment is not there. I feel like [if] you don’t even trust and you don’t even give us a contract, where should we go?

TONI: This is the bottom line. The director is phenomenal. But the director doesn’t have a contract, and if they don’t have a contract… It’s all women of color, and you’re expecting all of us to work on a Broadway show without a contract. I’m not working on a show without a contract, particularly not a Broadway show.

BEOWULF: I think it’s just across the board. I think we’re all running into that same thing, and I think part of it is theaters are understaffed. They’ve let people go, and they haven’t brought them back from furlough yet. And a lot of it is exactly what Jiji and Toni just said, they’re scared to make the commitment. But they know that they’ve got to get designers working if the show is actually going to happen six months from now. I was in a place on a project where the design had been approved by the director, approved by the theater, my assistant drafted it, and I had paid her for the drafting, and the theater still hadn’t sent me back my contract or paid me any money. The production manager got kind of hurt when I raised hell about it. Finally I said, “Look, at this point, I’m supporting this show. I’ve been out of work for a year, and you’re asking me to shell out money to pay my assistant who’s done work to meet your deadlines.” And they finally got their act together. But my agent has said it’s just been across the board, and that happens to designers anyway. We constantly get working and don’t get contracts. My drop dead is always I won’t turn in the drafting to you until I have a signed contract. But often I’ve done everything up until that point.

TONI: It’s absolutely true. And the whole thing is my work is all electronic. I may be the only one where it’s easier to present and do everything electronically because I use a costume illustrator. One is in L.A., the other one’s in Virginia, former students of mine, both brilliant. I send them all the pieces of the design, they send me back the sketch, we put it in Dropbox, we put in the budget, we put everything in there. So now the thing is you could get caught up with giving too much information and not getting paid. One thing I know is that all of us want to work and want to move along. In the show that we’re working on, I’d love to work on it but I have to stay firm. And the other thing [is] I teach. So one more or less show is not really going to affect me that much. I get to make a statement, but I’m making a stand for all of us because I can. We have no recourse if this all goes tits up, then we won’t get paid and the union will say, ‘Well, why were you working without a contract?’ It is clear in the union by-laws: “Do not work without a contract”. And we continue to do it.

BEOWULF: We all have to do it all the time because if we were actually to wait for the contracts to come in, we would have no time to design the show. Part of it that is really why we’re doing it all. We would have to rush and do it in a week or something.

TONI: It’s brutal.

BEOWULF: The pinch is worse right now because we’ve all been out of work for a year, and there isn’t some other project that’s footing the bills. You’re suddenly starting everything up from scratch. It’s interesting which theaters are willing to kind of repay you a whole fee and which ones are like, “We already paid you two-thirds. You have to come back and do this for nothing now.” It’s an interesting negotiation, and the theaters are hurting too. I don’t think it’s cruelty necessarily. They also have had no income for 14 months. It was an unprecedented situation.

PLSN: I hear Broadway is coming back at 100%. Will Shakespeare In The Park be back 100%?

BEOWULF: The last I heard Shakespeare In The Park was at 25% which is like 400 people in the Delacorte. It’s not a financial problem. I think it’ll feel a little like a desert. I’m assuming by July when there’s an audience in there those restrictions will be less.

TONI: I wish they had left the mask mandate up because it’s going to be a while before I stop wearing my mask. That’s one thing. It’s going to be awhile before I stop wearing a mask among the crowd. I’m happy everything is opening up, but I do think it was a little too rapid.

JIJI: The Roundabout is making a lot of renovations with the HVAC system, and I’m glad they are using the money to make something better for us to be in the space. Otherwise, they can’t have an audience.

BEOWULF: I don’t think people understand how razor thin the margins on Broadway are. Even something like Hamilton couldn’t come back at less than 100% capacity and survive. Even the biggest hits couldn’t do it. Any other show, you’re just barely eking it out on the best of days.

PLSN: Have you guys talk to your colleagues in Europe or in any other countries to see what’s been going on and how they’re handling this situation? Like the West End?

BEOWULF: I have a show opening in the West End in June. Be More Chill was running off-West End before the pandemic. It’s somewhat surprisingly jumping to the West End in June. It’s another show that is opening late. They’re doing just a short little run [of 10 weeks] which is nice.

TONI: Are you going over?

BEOWULF: I can’t go over because I think it’s during Chester Bailey. I tried to get my associate to fly over to do it, but there’s a five-day quarantine and he couldn’t fly over till the day before load-in. So by the time he’s out of quarantine, the loading would be done. No, we’re still trying to sort it out. In the usual British way, they’re saying, “Oh, the carpenter will do it. It’ll be fine.” I’ve heard that before.

PLSN: Are there any life lessons that you can impart to younger people wanting to get into the business? But then also, are there any lessons you’ve learned through this whole pandemic experience? Any new things you’ve had to deal with that might help you in future shows?

BEOWULF: I think just how fragile our industry is. We’ve all read about how in 1685 the plague shut down London and the Globe Theater had to close. I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us it would happen in our lifetimes, and certainly not for 14 months. I think some people who also do film and TV work were able to jump to those things, and I keep joking that all the sound designers were able to do Zoom plays and things like that. I did the set for a Zoom reading in the fall, but that’s not design the way I know it. I ended up writing a book about design during the pandemic, because I was going bananas, and I’ve been working on it anyway. But I took the time to just buckle down, and I spent nine months revising and editing and chasing a publisher and all of that. But I think I would have lost my mind otherwise because there was no creative outlet for me anywhere.

TONI: I’ve taught all the way through it. I just started teaching at Yale, and 6 to 7 months into teaching here Covid shut everything down. We’ve only had one faculty meeting that I recall, and then once Covid hit, we started meeting every week [virtually]. And man, that was incredible. I think that was beneficial for us getting to know each other and becoming stronger as a program. Because like all programs, no program in the world is perfect. I was new, but even people who have been teaching together for so long didn’t really know each other. That was the incredible benefit of teaching with Covid. For the first time, I’m a little bit trepidatious about whether I can get myself back into the speed of the flow. Because my mind wanders.

We have Flying Over Sunset coming back together, and then I have shows that were designed… We have Birthday Candles, and it was going up in the spring [of 2020] with Deborah Messing. And I designed that show. We shopped it. We did the first two weeks of fittings, and then we shut down. Then in the middle of July, Roundabout had my assistant and my P.A. go in and return all the clothes. Now, I go and I click the link for the purchase item, and it’s gone. So I have to actually redesign that show. But I’ve been paid for it.

BEOWULF: The one thing I like better, honestly, that’s come out of all this is production meetings by Zoom are so much better than in person.

TONI: Yes!

BEOWULF: We do these production meetings at The Public and it’s great. They are so efficient on Zoom. You don’t have to put your video on. You can mute yourself and do something else while they’re talking about the sound department or something that I don’t care about.

TONI: I think production meetings should be held on Zoom. I think it’s far more efficient.

BEOWULF: It’s travel time. I figured to get anywhere in New York takes at least a half an hour. So if I have an hour production meeting and half an hour travel on either side of it, it’s two hours out of my day instead of an hour.

TONI: You can still be working while you’re in the meeting.

BEOWULF: Yeah, it’s great.

 

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