Derek McLane: All the stage is a world

by Minji Kim

For Derek McLane ’80, all the stage is a world, and he creates those worlds.

Nominated for a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for a Musical for "Ragtime" in 2010 and winner for "32 Variations" in 2009, McLane has a lot to say about stage design. Three decades after his first successful set for "Guys and Dolls" in the Leverett dining hall, McLane returned to Harvard for the OFA Learning from Performers program and talked about his work and creative process Oct. 14 at the New College Theatre.

Born in London, McLane moved to the U.S. when he was 3, later studied English at Harvard, and went on to study set design at the Yale School of Drama, where he went because he "didn’t know how to do anything." From there, McLane traveled the world and quickly went from being an unpaid designer to designing huge international shows in Glasgow, Chicago, and Russia. After two years, he returned to New York, where he now has his own studio.

"I wasn’t happy that there was no theater program here," McLane explained. "But in retrospect I think it’s a good thing—to have students study what they want, do their own thing, learn lots of different things."

The diversity that McLane advocates for is apparent in his set designs. Much of his inspiration is pulled from photography books, literature, and, whenever possible, even traveling to the site. The multiplicity of his inspirational source is reflected in his working style, as he enjoys and prefers working on several projects simultaneously, which enables him to keep each and every one of his ideas fresh and entirely distinct from each other.

Whether it be a giant pajama factory with huge flying buttons, a vertigo-inducing skyscraper arrangement or a surrealistic living room walled in with floating bureaus and chairs, McLane distills the emotion and life of the play into scenic design. Even from the slides, one could feel not only McLane's vast creativity but also the spirit of the play pulsating from the set, an effect that McLane consistently strives to achieve.

"A lot of people ask me if I have a theme, and I don’t know if I do," McLane explained. "But I would say that I always try to create the universe of the play itself in the set."

Derek McLane returns Nov. 2 for a second student workshop. For more information, please contact OFA program director Tom Lee at

[Caption: Derek McLane '80 lectures about his work.]

[Caption: "Design by Derek McLane"]