Derek McLane '80: "Think boldly"

by Minji Kim

Derek McLane '80 returns for his second and final workshop in set design with a group of about eight students. In the previous session, McLane asked the students to imagine him as the director with whom they were collaborating on a show. The assignment was to come up with set-design concepts and present them in an exercise intended to simulate the actual process of working with a director. In McLane's own words: "What I hoped to accomplish was to engage with the students with how to conceive of a design and to teach them a little bit about what it takes to come up with an idea of a world of a play." See interview below.

How can a student with a liberal arts education prepare for a career in set design?

It prepares you to think boldly about a play or story or musical. What designers do is a visual interpretation of a play. There are certainly skills that you need to do that, and they are presumably learned in grad school. BUT: Thinking boldly and getting into other subjects that have nothing to do with theater or literature is helpful. You need to have a certain amount of arrogance towards the material or maybe more a lack of reverence--that’s probably a better phrase. A broadly based education helps you think boldly and irreverently about the piece. General life experiences certainly help with that too—going to art museums, shows, exhibits—to see how other visual artists have interpreted something.

What is most important to keep in mind when doing set design?

That you’re helping to tell a story—that’s the first thing to keep in mind. That might sound weird after what I said earlier about being irreverent to the literature, but to tell a story, and not thinking too literally.

Are there times you just want to throw in the towel and give up? What keeps you going and how do you keep ideas fresh?

Nearly once in every project. Usually that happens when I feel like I don’t have any inspiration or good ideas. Working on multiple projects helps with that. So if I’m working on Project A and Project B, and I’m on Project A and I’m stuck, I’ll go and work on Project B. I’ll usually realize while I’m working on Project B what I need to do for Project A. Or if that doesn’t work, then I’ll go see something completely unrelated like an art show, and while that’s happening, something will hit you while you’re thinking about something else. The problem will solve itself.

Is there a set that is a favorite of yours?

A couple sets are my favorite: 33 Variations, the set for Ragtime, I Am My Own Wife, The Voysey Inheritance, Rafta, Rafta…which was a totally realistic one, but I loved doing the details. It changes from time to time. Sometimes what I’m working on becomes my favorite.

What do you enjoy most about set design?

The storytelling, yes, but also, I love brainstorming with the directors.

And if there’s a complete disagreement with the director?

We hash it out. When it works out in the end, it’s pretty gratifying.

[Caption: McLane's design for"Rafta, Rafta" was "an impeccably assembled mélange of East and West," said the NYT.]

[Caption: McLane's design for "The Voysey Inheritance" set the tone for the story of a family business gone bad. ]