In his first year studying architecture in college, David Rockwell recalls that one of his earliest projects was the interplay of form and lighting in a townhouse. He told his teacher that he first wanted to write the story of the people who lived there, why they were there and why they were living together. The teacher rebuffed him. “That’s a distraction.” To which Rockwell replied, “Not to me.”
The emotional human element has always been foremost in Rockwell’s extraordinarily prolific and multi-disciplinary career, which now consists of leading a 250-person architectural and design firm that has built or designed hospitals, parks, playgrounds, airline terminals, restaurants, theaters and hotels.
But amid all of this cross-fertilization, it’s arguable that set design ranks high, if not pre-eminent, on his resume. Growing up as the son of a community theater director in Deal, N.J., Rockwell experienced early doses of stage magic that, for the last two decades, has meant a passionate immersion into the world of set design. For the 2018-2019 season alone, the Tony Award winner has designed no less than four shows: “Pretty Woman,” “The Nap,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Tootsie.” All the while, he was renovating the Hayes Theatre on Broadway and collaborating on The Shed, the 200,000-square-foot arts facility in Hudson Yards, with lead architect Diller Scofidio+Renfro.
Though it might not apply to his punishing schedule, Rockwell says that one of the leitmotifs of everything he does is the notion of empathy. “How people live and interact in buildings and theater and an interest in those eccentric edges — which didn’t get filed off in school — has continued to be an ongoing exercise,” said the 63-year-old artist. “That’s what has always interested me, whether in the community theater in Deal, the marketplaces of Guadalajara, Mexico, or Broadway.”
In a wide-ranging interview with ALL ARTS, Rockwell discussed how a mindful preoccupation with an audience has held him in good stead and honored the pacts he forged early on in his life.
How does architecture differ from theater in terms of connecting with an audience?
In theater, collaboration is tremendously important and someone once asked me, “What’s so great about collaboration. It’s just compromise.” In the world of architecture, honoring the audience is not a given in the sense that most architects and a lot of architecture is about form. It’s an independent exercise. Every architect wants to create something that is timeless but to get to timeless you have to be willing to go through timely and that may or may not work. But if you try to go [directly] to timeless, you’re missing part of your time.
Theater is both timely and, in the sense of the revival of a classic, timeless. Do you approach both in the same way?
One of the first questions I ask of every director I’ve worked with is, “What do you imagine the audience feels at the end that is different from what they came in with? What is the transformation in terms of the audience’s knowledge of this world?” In retrospect, I’ve found that the most important thing is to create places that engender a sense of empathy. So everybody who is working on a show is always pushing and prodding to see how the audience will track and follow what we are trying to do.
How does this idea of empathy relate to your set designs?
Theater is a memory machine and you can’t separate out what it looked like from how you felt and how it sounded and moved. When you create memory, all of that is happening together. That’s the ultimate in empathy because it requires every creative artist to be in sync with each other. So when [the set for] “She Loves Me” opened up, yes, that would have been a beautiful moment on its own, but the fact that it deals with these characters with their inner and outer lives, and that the set moves in time with the music and the choreography, that enhances the experience. And the same thing happened with “Kiss Me, Kate,” so that what appears to be a spontaneous movement is what takes a lot of planning.
In “Kiss Me, Kate,” you had to design two worlds: the backstage reality of a troupe of actors who are putting on “Taming of the Shrew” and then the world of “Taming of the Shrew” itself. What was the biggest challenge?
One was looking for the style of the show within the show. I looked at drawings of late ’40s animation in which the quality of every one felt very spontaneous and that led to the style of those drops that play in contrast to the backstage world. Scott [Ellis, the director] and I fell in love with these beautiful romantic backstage images but when we looked at them, we weren’t convinced that they were a world in which funny would really land, what the comedy of the show would demand.
How does the idea that sets can contribute to the humor in a play apply to “Tootsie”? [It has multiple settings as it weaves the story of a troublesome actor who impersonates a female to land a job.]
We wanted Michael’s apartment, which was layered with many places to get in and out, to come as close to the audience as possible. So the furniture, the sofa, the chair and the kitchen unit were put on extenders. I think it’s easier, in terms of comedy, to overcome this very big space. We wanted to create an apartment that felt cramped but was a full stage wide and believable so you could have this big Neil Simon comedy living inside a big musical. The city stays as a character but it’s of human scale where the actors are the biggest things in it. The agent’s office was added in New York and a lot of it was driven by Santino [Fontana, as Michael] and Michael [McGrath, his agent] and how they wanted the interaction to be.
How does New York City, as a character, differ perhaps from other representations in other musicals?
Every design decision was based on the notion of creating a New York that was imposing but also friendly and warm. The skyline is designed as painted muslin that sits in front of light boxes, so that the windows of the buildings can come and go. They are all in a kind of watercolors because I told Scott that I thought it would be nice if the skyline wasn’t quite so masculine. Even though the shapes are still heroic, there would be a kind of softness.
Did you intend for that to jibe with the feminist intent of the show?
Well, that intent sort of emerged with the writers. But it was certainly one of Scott’s main intents that the first time we see Michael as Dorothy we believe it. I felt that the skyline needed to be the kind of skyline that worked for that empowerment story as well.
Can your notion of empathy in design extend to one of your most celebrated achievements, the Dolby Theatre [formerly the Kodak Theatre], which is the home of the Oscars?
When [director] Billy Condon approached us about doing the Oscars, I did a lot of research and it was clear that the Oscars had gotten away from its original mission, which was to honor the community of filmmakers. I had discovered going back into its history that if you lost, you probably left, so that by the end, a lot of the [nominees] seats were filled with seat fillers. So we ripped up the seats in the Kodak to have the nominees sit in an environment that was part of the set. We wanted to create a room in which people didn’t want to leave, create a room with a feeling of community. It really worked. It was the year of “Slum Dog Millionaire” and Danny Boyle [the director] gave a shout out in his speech to the incredible environment in the room.
Top Image: The company of "Kiss Me, Kate." Photo by Joan Marcus.