Paul Tate dePoo III, Set Designer

Choreographing Scenery

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Actors and actresses with an upright bass perform onstage

Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker, Harrison Smith as Sam, A. Ross Neal as Moose, Kurt Boehm as Mingo. Photo by Christopher Mueller 

While growing up in Key West, Paul Tate dePoo III celebrated his birthday either at the Ringling Brothers Circus or at a performance by the magician David Copperfield. It fueled a love of spectacle, and by high school, he had created his own two-and-a-half hour magic show, complete with assistants and conjuring an airplane onstage. But in 2005, Hurricane Wilma flooded the island’s performing arts center where he was to perform and damaged his sets. “I realized that my passion was more about creating the project, versus performing the project,” he said. 

He soon made it his career. A set and production designer for theater, opera, and dance, dePoo’s projects have included Rent, Guys and Dolls, A Raisin in the Sun, The Wiz, and Les Misérables. Based in New York, dePoo is a frequent collaborator with Signature Theatre, and received a 2017 Helen Hayes nomination for outstanding set design for the theater’s production of Titanic. He began work on Crazy for You a year ago, and estimates that he oversaw the execution of 30 pieces of scenery and more than 100 hand props for the show. We spoke with him just before he left for Korea, where Seoul’s Charlotte Theater is remounting Titanic this winter. 

A rendering of the scenery of Deadrock Nevada for Crazy for You

Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design rendering of Deadrock, Nevada, for Crazy for You. Image courtesy of the artist 

BUILDING TWO UNIVERSES IN ONE

I think the reason why I do theater versus film is that film can be edited. But [theater] is in front of people—you see it all transform in front of everyone’s eyes. There’s no editing process. So that’s the biggest challenge. It’s figuring out, in Crazy for You, how you get from New York City to the Nevada saloon to the Nevada theater, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and not have the audience get bored because they’re waiting for you to change a piece of scenery. There has to be a very clever way that encompasses the universe; there has to be an overarching home for the set to live in that can accommodate all these scenes. 

The way we did it was [we decided] the universe was Nevada. The way to bring New York City into it was to bring in two massive panels that are basically rear-lit billboard material. I illustrated them in a very period, Broadway 1930s [style], that on top has all these period marquee lights. So there’s a mix of billboard technology of today with very vintage artwork that’s being illuminated, plus all of these other small pieces of electric devices that blur your eye to make it believe there’s the cacophony of the lights of Broadway. 

Those open up to reveal the architecture of Nevada. It sounds simple, but you’re opening and closing four different types of visuals. Whenever you’re designing Broadway onstage, you want as much eye misdirection as possible. Everyone knows the magic of that, being there in real life. You need as much flash as possible. But containing that in the smallest footprint as possible, to open it easily to reveal Nevada, was the biggest challenge. And we accomplished that.

Set design rendering for New York City scene in Crazy for You

Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design rendering of Broadway for Crazy for You. Image courtesy of the artist

CREATING AN AESTHETIC

As soon as Matthew [Gardiner, the director] said that Nevada was the universe, I looked up old Western banks, and saw what porches looked like, and homes [with] gingerbread detailing. I was looking at rough, aged wood. That created a beautiful silhouette of architecture, but when you zoom into it, it’s distressed and deteriorating, and sand-blown from the deserts. So I would start honing in on the fine details of architecture. I am a very architecturally based designer. 

One small detail that’s really exciting is the floor. The audience in the Signature looks at the floor, and you can appreciate the design of the floor. As the set designer, when I do a site visit at a venue, that’s the number one question: does the audience see or appreciate the floor? In some theaters, you absolutely see the floor

every single minute of the evening. Whereas some theaters, if the audience is lower, there’s no point of putting the energy into executing an amazing floor. 

So how do you go from New York City to Nevada? I found this beautiful inlaid marble Art Deco floor. I took the design of it, altered it to be pretty much custom, and then I took away the marble and inlaid it with different versions of weathered wood. It’s this amazing contradiction of a fabulous line design executed by really rough wood. So it gives you Art Deco, and it gives you Nevada at the same time. Clearly we’re not going to redo the floor every time we go back and forth. The easy way out was painting it black and making it very ambiguous. But we didn’t want to do that.

Then there’s this massive Folies Bergère finale, where there’s this big grand staircase. We looked at the artist Busby Berkeley for that. Busby Berkeley was [known in] the 1920s and ’30s for showgirls tiered on massive, wedding-cake platforms, women doing synchronized dancing in pools, huge stage set-ups. It was epic. It was beautiful. That was our inspiration. 

So how do you achieve that after you’ve taken up every square footage of the stage? The way we did that was we made this massive staircase that’s cut up into four pieces. That gets assembled onstage in front of everyone while they are being misdirected by these massive Follies costumes. So there’s magic right there, of the costumes misdirecting the audience while the stage is being transformed and delivered in front of their eyes. It’s like, “Oh my God, look at that massive headdress,” and you end up staring at that, and then you look onstage and, “Oh my God, how did that staircase get onstage?” That’s the most exciting part of all of this.

Actors and actresses perform in Crazy for You

Danny Gardner as Bobby Child and the ensemble. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS

I’m basically the architect for everything you see physically onstage—both the architect and the interior designer. I’m usually the one that’s producing an overarching rendering that other departments then collaborate on. Then there’s another version of [the rendering] that I go back to and alter based on those conversations. It’s not out of the ordinary for a costume designer to say, “What if we did this with your set? What if we made that a little more metallic, graphite silver with inlaid glitter for the finale that will support all the white glitter costumes I’m doing so that the costumes pop?” The lighting designer and I are friends, and I can say, “What if the lighting does this at this moment?” There are a lot of working parts that go into it.

The challenging part [of my job] is it goes from a huge, broad, zoomed-out scope. Then I have to zoom into every single detail and have [the team] build it. As a production designer, you have to have that eye for all. So we provide drawings and draftings that say exactly what kind of molding goes where, and what kinds of paint treatment goes there, to what kind of fabrics we are going to use to upholster furniture and pillows. However, I’m not the person that’s building or sewing the pillows. There’s a whole team that’s behind me that executes that. I have a very close relationship with all those members of those departments. So there’s props, there’s paints, and there’s scenery. Every day I’m getting calls or text messages of photos saying, do you like A or do you like B? It’s a constantly evolving process of all departments. 

Hopefully it looks like it’s effortless, and this world just dropped down in Signature. The goal is never, “Look at that fabric on that pillow.” [The goal] is more, “Well, of course that’s the world—there wouldn’t be anything different.” 

BACKSTAGE LOGISTICS 

A set designer doesn’t just end with the design. I do the whole world—how it moves, how it dances onstage, how it transforms from one to the other, how it efficiently goes from scene to scene. It’s choreographed scenery. In the process of a show, I’m sitting there with the director saying out loud, “I think that that could move two seconds earlier and it should land when the music does this.” I had to logistically think how do we fit in [lighting designer Jason Lyons’] lighting equipment physically? This was a small stage. He also needs equipment that’s in the air—it takes up about 50 percent of the stage overhead. So there’s that conversation. 

A designer can usually say, “Who cares about how it functions?” But in a musical theater setting, it has to be all about efficiency. How many conversations have we had about how will the headdresses fit backstage because the scenery’s in the way? Do we cut the headdresses? No one wants to do that. So we figured it out. [The actors] bend over and duck their heads the entire way [to the stage]. We literally have an area where they can straighten their backs back up, and come onstage and look like they weren’t ever crouched over trying not to ruffle the feathers. It’s all backstage choreography.