Behind the Scenes
an interview with set designer Ray Recht

by Monty Montgomery

Bob Cacioppo, visionary co-founder and artistic director of the Florida Repertory Theatre has done “8 shows in 8 years with Ray Recht” and considers it “an honor to work with an artist of such high caliber.” Cacioppo says, “Florida Rep is known for our sets and Ray Recht is the artist whose sets set the bar for excellence.” Co-founder and leading actress, Carrie Lund Cacioppo adds, “When concepts get thrown at you quickly, as they do in mounting a show, and artists are able to speak the same language—as Bob and Ray do working together—that’s a great plus!” Both Cacioppo’s agree: “Ray Recht is the real deal. We’re lucky to have him as a collaborator”. Obviously, there’s a lot ‘behind the scenes’ to Ray Recht, man of grand illusions and theatre magic, here interviewed in his upper west side New York City apartment before one of his many happy returns to Fort Myers:

I understand you’ve done set designs for Florida Rep previously and have at least two shows planned with them this season?

Ray Recht: Yes, I’m doing sets for their October-November production, Dream, a musical tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer and his fabulous songs [co-created by legendary singer Margaret Whiting and her husband Jack Wrangler] and then a play called Golfing, with Alan Shepard in January.

How long have you been doing set designs?

I finished my graduate degree—an MFA in Scenic and Lighting Design—at Yale University in 1972, and have been doing theatrical sets and lighting ever since.

How did you get into that originally?

I sort of backed into it. In high school I always liked drawing and art, but I also loved math and science. And back then, you were encouraged to do what you had aptitude for, so I went to study architecture, but I chose to go to Carnegie Mellon University which has wonderful fine arts programs. As it turned out, I really liked architecture when I got there, the designing parts anyway, but not so much the structural, engineering parts. I kept flip-flopping. I designed buildings that looked like they belonged in a factory in a mill town or else they were so fanciful that there was no way to build something so bizarre and strange. I couldn’t find that perfect kind of Frank Lloyd Wright middle ground.

But, they had a wonderful theatre and theatre design programs there and I thought, “Wow! This is really exciting!” because you could build something you could see in your own lifetime. So I switched, then graduated and went to Yale Drama School for graduate study.

What do you consider yourself—primarily a set designer, a lighting designer or some other category?

I am a set designer and I’m also a lighting designer. I do both. I’ve done both for many years. In fact, while I was in Yale graduate school, I designed the American premiere of the Bertold Brecht/Kurt Weill musical, Happy End. That was my first professional production. Then, right out of graduate school, I was hired to be the resident designer at Center Stage in Baltimore.

What are the parts you like most about set designing?

First of all, I like the fact that there is intellectual involvement. You’re dealing with a script which is an exciting personal creation by somebody. You’re working with a director to interpret that script and communicate it to an audience. I love the mental gymnastics involved in interpreting and visualizing something from the printed page to a live, three-dimensional graphic experience on a stage.

On the other hand, what are the parts that aren’t as enjoyable or rewarding?

Well, as in any field, there are always some things that aren’t so rewarding. But you just have to deal with it. Often you’re handling budgets or specific financial constraints that sometimes can be frustrating. When I was doing designs for television as head of an art department, in charge of all sorts of logistics, you had to be careful not to become fixated on some minute, incidental conceptual frill, no matter how dazzling, that could jeopardize the whole production budget. I’ve worked for different networks a number of times; for years I was a designer for Another World [the soap opera] then for about twelve years I designed quite a few of the settings for Saturday Night Live spoof commercials.

What exactly is the set designer’s contribution to a show?

I think it is creating a visual environment for the script that supports the actors. What we do as designers is vital, whether it’s a very simple set or complex. What we build supports what the actors are doing and helps them tell the story to the best of their ability, and our working with directors helps them visually tell their vision of the story to the audience. That way, when the audience comes in, they are visually excited as well as attentive and engaged with what they are hearing.

What sets from shows you’ve seen have impressed you especially?

There have been lots of them that inspired me. Many of the shows that Jo Mielziner did, the concept of the design, the way he evoked the places and captured the quality of the plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, settings for those three plays jumped out at you. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman jumped at me. Tony Walton’s a wonderful contemporary designer. He’s won a lot of awards. He brings a certain playfulness to his designs, that started back when he designed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was marvelous. Robin Wagner’s work on A Chorus Line was powerful, clean, terrific.

There are a lot of designers out there doing wonderful things. I saw a show called Metamorphosis that was so brilliantly created with very simple elements to tell the story with images, pictures that stay in your mind. It had a pool and rocks that lit up golden wherever the actors stepped. It had wonderful visual images that supported the play completely. Sometimes a designer may get carried away and you wind up saying, “Wow, that set is so neat, but it isn’t doing anything aesthetic for the play”. I also think the production of Tommy with the projections constantly shifting and changing the images was so innovative and incredibly exciting, and so relevant to the content. The recent production of Cabaret, actually set in the Studio 54 nightclub, was wonderful and completely appropriate.

How does working on New York productions compare with working outside the city on a revival in regional theatre?

It’s not so much whether it’s a revival or a reproduction of a show because, most times, directors and actors bring their own new visions and fresh talents to any show. The main difference when you’re working in New York, you’re working for a producer who is putting on just that production, that one particular show. Therefore, all the focus, all the energy and finances are to mount that show. If something comes up that you have a real good reason why you need it, then you may find money freed up from some other area for your request because mounting the show correctly is so important. When you’re working in a theatre like Florida REP, you’re working with an institution and they are putting on a series of plays and they want to be there next year. So, basically, the limits are less flexible. You can’t have the attitude “Get the show up at all costs!” and burn out the cast and crew because they’ve got another show to do afterwards.

How do the original playwright’s descriptions or notes by the original set designers affect what you might do somewhere else with the same show?

Basically, when I’m designing a show, I look to the show as the primary source of information. I look at the script and if an actors says “I’m going to turn on the faucet and get a drink of water…”, that lets me know there’s got to be a faucet and running water somewhere. Whereas, in the script, if there’s a little blurb that the playwright wrote, or the stage manager made a note, “Stage Left there’s a sink with a faucet”, but in the play no one ever uses that faucet or sink, I feel I have the option to not put it in because the audience will never know one could be there.

What I do is read what the playwright has written very carefully. Many times they are writing a play and there might be something personal or autobiographical in it, something they saw once that inspired them to do it.

Whatever information I can get that inspired them, obviously, can also inspire me. Oftentimes, on the other hand, plays that get published and wind up being done in a revival or somewhere else are using the original stage manager’s script, which also has a description of the original set. Those directors and those designers got together and, based on the amount of money they had, the theatre they were doing it in, the cast they were working with, came up with a look, which may or may not transfer to the theatre I’m doing it in or to the director’s vision who’s now doing it or the cast now being used. That’s why it can be dangerous to go by what was done before: it may not be applicable the next time.

Let’s say a director is “looking at Julius Caesar” and he thinks “politics nowadays is run amok with people stabbing others in the back”, literally, and he wants people to get the idea that “this isn’t dead history they are looking at—it could be a coup d’etat in any kind of country” so he wants to update Shakespeare. I’d begin working on what area of the world the director is inspired by, how they dress, what they look like, what the buildings look like. Then I go back to Shakespeare and look at what he writes. When he says they’re in the halls of so-and-so, I think “he’s talking about a large area, he’s talking about outdoors or indoors”, and I try to synthesize and visualize those actors saying those words within some kind of design.

How did you get started with Florida Rep?

As is usually the case with designers, Bob Cacioppo, the artistic director hired a director to do a show and asked him if he knew anybody he’d like to work with. Many times a director will bring someone into a project because they’re comfortable with him. And the director of that show said, “Bob, there’s this guy I’ve worked with before, he’s really good”. Bob contacted me, we talked over our thoughts for the production and he hired me to do the show. I did the show and had a good time doing it. People had a good time working with me, it was very successful, and Bob said, “Wow, I’d like to work with him” and invited me down to do another show that he was directing. We got along great and, well, it keeps going that way.

I’ve designed several shows Bob has directed. The first was on Sanibel, when he and Carrie were at The Old Schoolhouse Theatre, Bell Book and Candle. And I’ve done a number of shows other people have directed as well at Florida Rep.

What happens, what’s the process, after you’re contacted to do a show?

Basically, Bob will ask if I’m interested in doing a particular script. If I don’t know it, I’ll read it first to see if there’s something I can find exciting or interesting about the lighting, about the script or the story. If I do, I’ll say, “Yeah, I’d like to work on it with you” or the director. Then I wind up reading the script many, many times to have a thorough understanding of what the playwright is trying to say and what we want to say and want to emphasize and how we’re going to do it. Then there’s a period of extensive research on what it looks like or could look like, where maybe some art or artistic renderings might inspire us to go a certain direction.

We meet often and talk more about the play, evoking images to make the “where we’re going to go with it” decisions. Then I go back and begin doing sketches and floor plans so I can get reactions from the director by asking, “Now that I can show you something, does this look like what we were talking about?” At that point I’m able to refine and determine the design concept. Once we have that totally worked out, we make sure we show it to Bob if he’s not directing it because he’s the artistic director, to make sure he’s comfortable with the approach we’re taking. I then do working drawings which go to the shop so they can build the set. I do lists and drawings and sketches of all the props so people can find the props or make them if they have to. I do paint elevations so people know how to paint different parts of the set. I send fabric swatches down if there are going to be curtains, tablecloths or anything like that, so they can find fabrics locally to use. The people working in the shop are constantly in touch with me, sending me digital photos for my approval or reactions and I’ll end up selecting certain things.

Then I come down to Fort Myers when the show is loading into the theater to make sure everything is working properly and to make whatever changes the director feels may be needed. Like checking the props, does it look right, does it work well, or should it be replaced with something else. All along, the play keeps evolving and growing as a result of the rehearsal process, even in technical and dress rehearsals, till it opens.

When you’re reading a script, what triggers your thinking: “I want to do this show”?
One key thing is if I enjoy reading the script. If I find it boring or banal, then I get very concerned that I’ll have the fortitude to read it as many times as I’d need to. What excites me about designing is the interpretative process, you know, working with writers’ words and translating them into three dimensional visual space with a director. Let’s face it, some plays are pretty much “pap” and I don’t know if I can get too excited trying to visualize that and bring it to life onstage. If the writing doesn’t grab me, if I find the characters two-dimensional and the situations unbelievable and I don’t see any theme or point to it that would make me involved, I start asking myself “why am I going to spend my time doing this?”

I love working on theatre and opera. I prefer that to working on commercials or in television. There’s more lead-in time, more depth.

And though on a film you spend a lot of time on it, there’s not as much interpretation that goes into it. However, there are some films I worked on that were very interpretative, so I take that back. I guess I just love being in the theatre, creating the scene, the environment, the audience, the actors, sharing the experience of people seeing it live. It’s wonderful!

How do you feel about the transitory nature of your work—sets for today’s show disappear when it closes?

Well, after my first year of doing it, I got over the fact that the show wasn’t around after a while. But, if I’ve done my job of creating exciting visual imagery, that will live on in someone’s mind. I look back on shows I’ve seen, and certain pictures of shows I never saw, with imagery so exquisite that I remember them the same way I would remember a great sculpture or artwork. Theater has moments that are powerful and long lasting. Hopefully, I am helping to create those kinds of images for audiences so that 10 years from now they’ll be sitting around talking about “Oh, remember that moment when this happened?” What that character and situation meant because the whole picture was so meaningful, it made an impact. That’s what it’s all about, it doesn’t have to last forever!

How have computers changed the way you work?

You get a certain sense of convenience which allows us to work at a faster pace. Not necessarily to do my work, but when I find images, instead of having to send them through the post or Fed Ex, I can now Email them and they can get them in five minutes and get on the phone and talk about them rather than wait 24 hours or more. The downside of that, of course, is everybody thinks you’re available to respond immediately without taking actual time to ponder or even think, which I believe is very necessary.

I also actually use the computer to do all my drafting and drawing. That doesn’t save any time creating the original, but when you want to edit, it is much faster. It gives you more freedom to make changes because you don’t say, “Ugggh! I’m going to have to redo all of that to make that little change, is it going to be worth it?” Now, no matter how small or big the changes may be, you can do them so quickly. I use Auto CAD 2000and PhotoShop.

How’s working on Dream?

It’s going very, very well. It’s a great show. It’s designed, drafted up, and the shop is starting to build it already. I’m finalizing some sketches for props, we’re well into the process. Working with Jack Wrangler is delightful. He has wonderful ideas and is very open to my ideas; they mesh very well together. I saw a video of an earlier Mercer songs production he did before this show originated, which I thought was very well done. I have met Margaret, but she is not as active in this production as she was with the original version on Broadway. Her voice is certainly a tremendous inspiration, for sure, to everyone involved — throughout the project.

What do you have coming up next, down here or up north?

Up north, I’m doing a play called God’s Daughter, with the Abingdon Theatre Company, an Off-Broadway company, In Florida, I’m doing a show with the Florida Stage Company in Manalapan, near West Palm Beach, called Ice Glen, then I’ll be coming back to Florida Rep to do Golfing with Alan Shepard, a really intriguing comedy. I’m also on the faculty of Marymount Manhattan College, where I’m supervising scenic design on one show and designing the lighting for The Crucible.

What’s the best way for young people to prepare for a career in scenic design?

First of all, they should study in school. The scope of designing is so broad, trying to pick it up on the job nowadays is very difficult. I know there are some wonderful designers who had art backgrounds and learned designing while working as someone’s assistant and saw how other people did it and they became wonderful designers. I think an easier, more thorough route today is through study. Understand design history, where it’s coming from, where it could go. Learn from people, learn your craft and assist professionals, masters so to speak, and do it wherever, whenever you can.

I always tell my students to be a good designer, you must first be a good observer. Look around. See where you are – what’s happening and how you’re responding so you can build up a file of images in your own mind that you can draw on when you “are creating”.

Were you ‘artistic’ as a child?

Actually, I was. I began sketching and drawing and painting when I was about 7 or 8. Nothing earth-shattering! But I enjoyed doing it. I think my job is exciting. Exciting and fun. Not a joyride or barrel of laughs all the time, but it’s something that I can get passionate about, excited about. There’s a thrill of discovery when you come up with something, an idea you know is going to work. It can become very addictive. I enjoy my work very much. At this point, I don’t know anything else I’d want to do.

What are the skills someone who wants to be you in the future should have?

There are certainly a lot of skills sets a designer needs. I already mentioned drafting and making sketches. You also really have to understand construction, painting, drawing, color theory, all that goes into the professional choices you’ll be making. You have to be able to do sketches so you can show a director what something could look like. You have to know lights and be able to paint rather well. Beyond the theoretical insights, one has to have the ability to execute concepts and thoughts and then communicate them clearly to others, maybe to an artistic director, such as that favorite one of mine we all could name. •

from the September-October 2004 issue

"I love the mental gymnastics involved in interpreting and visualizing something from the printed page to a live, three dimensional graphic experience on a stage."

Set design for Master Class
by Rey Recht