A Conversation with Designer & Educator Michael Yeargan

by Howard Sherman
Designer and Educator Michael Yeargan (Photo: Howard Sherman)
Designer and Educator Michael Yeargan (Photo: Howard Sherman)

From his days as an elementary school student in Texas enraptured by opera to his Tony Award-wining scenic designs for The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, Michael Yeargan has been creating worlds for audiences on stages across the U.S. and in Europe. Throughout that time, he has also been teaching generations of set designers as a member of the faculty, and now co-chair of the design department, at the Yale School of Drama. In a wide-ranging interview with Stage Directions' contributing editor Howard Sherman, Yeargan spoke of his start building shadow box sets while still a child to the intricacies of his celebrated designs; Stage Directions will be sharing several portions of that conversation in coming months, both in print and online. In this excerpt, [which has been edited and condensed for space] Yeargan traces the line from his opera work to his series of collaborations with Bartlett Sher in New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, which in addition to his Tony winning shows, includes The King and I and My Fair Lady.

Howard Sherman: Is your process different when you’re working on an opera than when you’re working on a play or a musical?

Michael Yeargan: It is in a funny way. When you’re designing a play, the first row can be three feet from the edge of the stage. With an opera, you have to allow the distance of an orchestra pit, usually. Even a musical on Broadway, most of it is under the stage, so you’re closer. But in an opera, the picture is bigger, usually.

That’s why working with [director] Andrei Serban was so interesting, because he had never done opera. He didn’t even know opera. He approached it just as a theater experience and then he fell in love with it. The productions that we did for the Welsh National Opera were amazing, because he approached it as his kind of theater, and it completely rocked and shocked people because it didn’t depend on the same approaches that more conventional people had done.

Has the majority of your opera work afforded you a scale that’s usually greater than what you can do in a theater?
A little bit. The first thing that I do, on any show, any place, is make a model box. A model of the theater. A lot of times, if it’s complex, like the Vivian Beaumont, I’ll make it myself. Because by making that model, you feel like you really get to know the space. You make the audience and suddenly you put in the proscenium face and you’re, like, gosh, that’s the relationship between the two. 

Then you put a person on the stage. You start, and you work around that person. You put a chair next to the person. You put a sofa next to the person. You put a ruined building, whatever, and you build out from the scale of the person, or I do. As you become more experienced you sort of do that by rote. I mean, that’s just part of your make up. But, at the Metropolitan Opera, whenever I go back there, and I’ve done maybe 10 shows there now – and I’m working on Porgy and Bess right now for them – whenever I go back, I can’t believe how big it is. 

It’s ‘This can’t be right. Have we got the scale right? Is that really the relationship?’ The Met stage has this gold valance above it, like a swag, that fills in in the top part of it. It was always part of the architecture of the auditorium and it brought your eye down. Now everyone wants the opening filled up with black at the top and people seem to buy that. But I always feel it’s better when you’ve got something there to bring your eye down that’s part of the auditorium.

A corollary to scale is budget. How do you scale your thinking for spaces when you do a show at, say, the Westport Country Playhouse versus the Metropolitan Opera?
That’s an incredibly complex question. If it were just about the scale of the house, or the scale of the theater, it would be one thing. But what it really gets into is how much the labor is paid that’s going to be doing it. The minute you hit Broadway, the minute you hit a union shop, the minute you hit the Met, which is a completely unionized theater, you end up in a different kind of playground.

If you’re designing at the Westport Country Playhouse, there are very few painters that can do the kind of thing that you would want to do. So you now are getting into a lot of digital printing and things like that that are making that work better. But that’s more expensive. The more experience you have, of course, the more you just know what’s going to be expensive and isn’t going to be expensive. 
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Playhouse

But, at the same time, you can’t let that get in your way. You have to just design. I’ve got this vocabulary in my mind of imagery that I spent a lifetime building up, intentionally, unintentionally, things I’ve seen. You just sit down and read the script and, for once, when you first read it, draw a little square and put what you’re seeing in your mind when you read those words. You go through it and think, ‘Wow, okay, yes. It could be this, it could be that. Oh, this is like The Cherry Orchard.’

There’s a movie that goes on in my mind. I read the words and I see something. You can call it a vision, or sometimes it’s more like a ground plan, because I used to always be great at ‘he’s got his back to the audience and that person’s talking here’. You try to get all of that down. Sometimes I never even show it to anybody. That’s the selfish pleasure part of it. Then you talk to the director and they may have a completely different idea. 

You’ve mentioned the early relationship with Andrei Serban. You’ve worked for over 30 years with Mark Lamos. And now you’re very well known from the collaborations with Bart Sher. I’m wondering what you gain in an ongoing relationship with a director.
I feel like my career has been a series of collaborations with directors. The wonderful thing about it is that after the very first one, you relax because you really know each other. You know how each other thinks. You start to build a vocabulary of things, and an aesthetic that you like. 

In 1985, Mark Lamos and I did both The Tempest and Twelfth Night at Hartford Stage. I had never done Shakespeare before. I remember Mark saying, on Twelfth Night, “Well, you know, we’ve done this set.” We had had all these ideas and this stormy sky. And he said, “But I don’t really have a center entrance. I need a center entrance.” We were in the theater, so I said, “Well, why don’t we just cut a hole in the sky?” And he looked at me like I was a crazy person. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’ll just go up there, take some scissors, and we’ll cut a perfect square opening in the sky.” He said, “No one’s ever done that before.” So that’s the way.

That led to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mark and I, we’re like soulmates or something. We’ve both gone on and worked with different people. But we’re great friends. He’s like my best friend. And, you know, I could email him in the middle of the night about some piece of music that I’ve heard and we’ll end up in a conversation that goes on for three hours. “Well, did you hear this recording?” “Did you hear that recording?” So that’s one tack. 

Then Elijah Moshinsky, who was a great British director at the time, with all these Shakespeare plays for the BBC, saw my work in Wales and asked me to do a La Boheme for the Scottish Opera with him. That led to a whole string of work together.

A lot of your work has led you to the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. Does that stage offer you different opportunities than any other places?
It’s a very specific stage. The closest may be The Olivier at The National in London, because it’s so big. The thing about the Beaumont is that it was originally designed by Hugh Hardy and Jo Mielziner as a repertory stage where they could do five or six plays at the same time. That’s what they did for a long time. Everyone said it didn’t work. But it’s so big backstage because they had the room to store all those different productions.

When we first started doing Light in the Piazza at The Goodman, it didn’t work at all. It was square. We were dealing with a proscenium stage. We started with the square buildings and it just didn’t ring true. It didn’t come together. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s that. They’re going to get somebody else’. But Bart was very loyal. He stuck with me, and he said, “We’re going to do it at the Beaumont. One of the things I need is I need a piazza. We’re doing The Light in the Piazza. We don’t have a piazza.”

I went to see the Beaumont. I think Mark was doing The Rivals at the same time at the Beaumont. And I remember walking in there and, it was all stripped out, because they were just starting to put the set in. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is as big as the Met.’ And, in fact, the proscenium, ultimately, is almost exactly the same. 

So we wanted to be able to use the whole thing. We didn’t want to just pin it down. One of the things we discovered was that, because there’s been so many advances in sound design, you were able to use the depth. You were able to have Kelli O’Hara way at the back of the space. And, because we had Scott Lehrer doing the sound, he makes sound sound really natural, not just blowing you out of the theater.

No one had ever really used the stage that way. Everyone had always tried to push everything down. Create a wall of some kind and play on the apron. The secret to that space is that you’ve got an enormous space upstage in a proscenium, but then, downstage, you’ve got this thrust that’s very intimate. The audience connects with it. So I find you have to design there in a way that, whatever you’re doing upstage feeds the downstage space.

There are very few people that are ever going to see a show there from head on. When you’re in a proscenium theater, you’ve got kind of a clone of vision where everyone pretty much sees it the same. But in the thrust, it wraps around. So using a diagonal gives everybody a kind of different sculptural view of it. But it was a breakthrough for Light in the Piazza that changed the whole nature of that design. So that was thrilling.

So there’s a physical commonality, perhaps, to how you and Bart have approached that space. Is there an aesthetic commonality?
It changes show by show. Because I think each show is so different. I mean, the difference between Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, which was the next one we did in there, are night and day. Light in the Piazza was all architecture. Whereas, the first thing Bart ever said about South Pacific was, “I just see a big sand dune, a lot of sand, one palm tree and then, you know, a local lady selling souvenirs. And then the American Army completely invading it and destroying the beauty of this natural space.” It’s a staging area. And that’s all he needed to say.

So we ended up with half of an airplane. We ended up with a palm tree and an enormous dune that the soldiers could jump over when they came in. And then it fed the whole thing. So each one is a different sensibility. 

What is it to take a design that’s acknowledged as successful and place it into a different structure? 
You have to bite the bullet. You have to de-thrust it. You just redesign it. But you’re using the same elements that you had. For example, with The King and I, it opened up with a boat because Bart felt it was so important. It was right, dead on, that you had to see her arrive there. That you had to see this English woman with an English captain and her English little boy on this boat pull in and then surround that boat.
Kelli OHara in The King & I  (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

At the Beaumont, they ran down the aisles, this Asian community. So you had that confrontation of east and west right at the very beginning of it. That boat, at Lincoln Center, was 60 feet long. And it’s split in three pieces so it could turn around and be taken off, and part of it stayed as a kiosk and other things.  

So we had to capture that feeling when we did it on a proscenium stage. And it works. We made the boat smaller, the proportions of the set were smaller also. We adjusted down.

With some of these musicals, they were written to accommodate scene changes. As a designer now, encountering this work that was crafted to deal with physical limitations, does your work now have to incorporate that? Or do you have to think about how you can do more to erase it?
You don’t necessarily think about how to erase it. But you have to think about what you’re trying to say with the piece today. Design sensibility has changed so much today. The classic example is My Fair Lady, which was a very famous design by Oliver Smith. He used two turntables to accomplish things, very elegantly. Bart was adamant. He said, “I don’t want to be stuck in that study all night long.” So we knew, from the very beginning, that we wanted a study that was going to turn around.
The company of My Fair Lady  (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I have to go back a little bit. With South Pacific, it was the first time that a Broadway show, in years, had used the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. It was almost a 30-piece orchestra. The only place you could really put the orchestra at the Beaumont is down under the stage in the pit. But then they’re going to be covered by the stage.

So I said, “Well, there’s got to be some way that we can see them. Why don’t we just pull the floor back and see them at the beginning, so people know that they’re really there and that they’re not listening to canned music from across the room.” So we designed this floor that could track back and reveal the orchestra.

At Lincoln Center, everybody said, “You’re so far over budget. If you don’t lose that, it’s going to be a big problem. The orchestra, they don’t want to dress. They have to dress in tuxes.” There were eight million reasons why we shouldn’t do it. And Bart said, “No, we’re going to do this. If I have to cut our own palm trees, if I have to cut our own blinds or something, then I’ll do it to make that happen.” So we did it. No one knew about it. They kept it a secret. I remember when we showed the model to Mary Rodgers [daughter of composer Richard Rodgers], who is one of the most wonderful people I ever knew in my life. She was just blown away by it.

And when that floor pulled back for the first time in a very specific moment, everyone went bananas. I mean, they were applauding. People were crying. Every time I run into someone who saw South Pacific, they don’t talk about the palm tree, they don’t talk about the houses. They talk about when that floor pulled back. And the orchestra loved it. They started the second act, and when it pulled back, it was almost like a big band concert playing the entr’acte. It became such an integral part of the show.

So, then when we did The King and I, people said, “Are you going to have the floor pulled back?” So we did the opposite. It was open at the beginning for the overture. And then it actually closed with the boat coming on. And then you come to My Fair Lady. People asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?” And Bart said, “I’ve got an idea. I want to put the orchestra on stage for the ballroom scene.” I said, “Well, how are they going to get back into the pit?” He said, “I don’t know. But we’ve got to.” Well, that affected the whole design because it’s an enormous platform that had to be motorized so that you could take them off.
The cast of My Fair Lady   (Photo: Joan Marcus)

And the secret to it was, of course, that it’s at the top of the act. So the curtain goes up. You can get them up there. And then, at the end of the scene, you do a transition back into the study so they could go on an angle to this vast upstage left space. And stay in place until “You Did It.” But then there’s the long book scene between Eliza and Higgins and during that section, is where they get off and they go back down. It came off without a hitch. But it affected the whole design – it is a big chunk of real estate that we had to deal with backstage. 

Are there any designs that you have done that, looking back, you wish you had done differently?
The one that I really loved, and I’ll tell why, was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. They say it was a huge disaster. It was a huge flop. And I don’t think it was such a flop. I feel like that the stage was too small for what all that show had to do. There was so much going on in it. I think that we should have tried it out someplace where we could have simplified it.

At one of the last performances, I was there with friends. And this lady came with all these papers and stuff, and sat down next to me. And she was writing. I asked, “Are you a critic or something?” And she says, “No, I’m a Tony voter, and I love this show. I’ve seen it two or three times.” And she continued, “You know, my mother would have loved this show.” And I said, “Oh really? Who was your mother?” She says, “Lucille Ball.” So I thought, ‘Okay, that’s vindication enough for me.’