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An Active Experience: A conversation with designer Mark Wendland

Michael S. Eddy • February 2020Perspectives • February 5, 2020

Sketch for Wendland’s design of The Rose Tattoo

Scenic designer Mark Wendland, based in New York City, has worked on Broadway to off-Broadway, as well as with a number of regional and opera theaters across the country. He has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play with 2011’s The Merchant of Venice (also nominated for a Drama Desk Award) and the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for a musical with 2009’s Next to Normal. He was awarded a Henry Hewes Design Award in 2008 for his work on Next to Normal, Richard III, and Unconditional. Other nominations include The Lucille Lortel Award, LA Stage Alliance Ovation, and Drama Logue Awards. His Broadway credits include The Rose Tattoo, Six Degrees of Separation, Significant Other, Heisenberg, If/Then, Talk Radio, Death of a Salesman; work with off-Broadway theaters include The Public Theater, Second Stage Theater, MCC Theater, Playwright’s Horizons, Classic Stage Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, and more. Regional theaters and opera stages where he has designed include Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mark Taper Forum, The Old Globe, Goodman Theatre, San Francisco Opera, Skylight Opera, Long Beach Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and more. Wendland graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and currently, along with his design career also teaches at Fordham University in New York City.

How did you get into theater?

I was one of those kids who was incredibly socially awkward in high school, and I didn’t know how to make friends. Then I discovered theater, and I was like, “Oh, there’s this activity you can do that it’s like enforced human connection.” I teach now, and I always say to the students that theater is one of the few art forms that you cannot make by yourself. You have to get together with people and talk and communicate. It’s basically the human connection is the thing that makes the art, and I think that’s what I discovered when I was in high school. So yes, it was a way that I could make friends. But also, I should say, I graduated high school in ‘79, and back then, it was like being gay was mysterious to me. It’s like I didn’t understand that at all. It was just not something that there was an open conversation about in public. Being in theater; it was part of the social thing bit it wasn’t just about making friends, but it was like, “Oh, here’s a world that I fit in.”

What or who have been some of the influences in your work?

I’ll tell you what, the one person who really has had the greatest impact on the way I think about theater-making is my friend Brian Kulick. He was at Carnegie Mellon as a directing student when I was there as a designer. I think he was there as a grad director, and I was undergrad, and we never even had much of a conversation when we were at school. But when he got his first professional gig in L.A., at the Mark Taper Forum, he got me a gig working with him. That was very, very, very early in my career and basically, he remembered some shows I did. So early in my career, we did many, many, shows together. I never went to grad school, but I always felt like working with Brian was my grad school. Each show was a little case study in ‘how do you think about a play? How do you structure a play? How do you go about visual storytelling?’ Those years that I worked with Brian were incredibly formative and the way he thinks about play-making is still the way I think about play-making.

Talk a little bit about your approach to design in order to ensure you’re supporting the narrative. 

There’s no one way to design a set. There’s no one way to direct a play. Just as there’s no one way to write a play. Everybody’s unique and has their own personal way into a text. On my website there’s a section that’s called Sketches and that is a little bit of a window into my process. When I read a play, I think about the meeting with the director I have in a week and what am I going to bring to them? What I do is I make a little breakdown of the text. Like an outline. Write down my scenes, and then say who’s in those scenes, and what physical things do they need to touch? And then usually what happens is I’ll draw for myself by hand. I’ll do like a little drawing of the theater. If it’s a proscenium or a black-box or whatever. Just the parameters of here’s the size of the proscenium, here is where the backs of the seats are, here’s the back wall. Here’s what the theater looks like empty. 

And just the way my brain sort of percolates is I’ll do a little thumbnail that shows okay this scene calls for two women sitting and talking and I’ll draw that. But there’s something about the sort of meditative practice of spending the hour making sure the proscenium has been drawn properly, doing this whole antique drop point perspective thing by hand, with the ground plan and section; by the time you’ve done that, and you start drawing the little people, just something clicks. It’s my way of getting to a more meditative state where you’re thinking about the play on a level subconsciously. And I will find I am thinking about putting a window here or Oh, you can just do this scene with a slash of light, and you don’t need anything more than the slash of light. That’s sort of my early stages process.

Then once I’ve met with the director with these little rough thumbnails, I’ll flesh it out into a design. The sketches on my website are when I have moved into the design. I usually do those sketches before I will move into a model because for me there’s something—particularly for proscenium theater—it’s something about doing this two-dimensional proportional thing of like here’s the size of human being in relationship to the slash of light, or whatever it is. That, for me, is very informative. Whereas when I move into a model, I sometimes find a model is clumsy. It’s so hard to get your eyeball where the audience’s eyeball really is in a model. You’re looking at a model as a sculptural thing, but it’s very difficult to really view the model from the perspective of an audience member. For me, in a sketch I know, that because of drop line perspective, that I’m drawing from sitting in the row and this is the audience view. After I do the sketch, I’ll move on to a model so that I know what it looks like in three dimensions. But for me, the two-dimensional exercise is important in my process.

Do you have a favorite scenic solution you designed, something that just really worked in your opinion?

This is so random, but it’s the first thing that came to my mind. And you’re going to be like, “What?” but this literally is one of the things I’m proudest of in my career. I really was like, “Oh, I’ve lived this long working with theater and I finally have like been able to solve this conundrum.”

It was for Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a contemporary adaptation of Three Sisters that we did at Williamstown. Last fall they mounted it at MCC in their black box space and we completely redesigned it and reconceived it, but it was originally in the Nikos Stage at Williamstown. We had done the show originally with an intermission, and that’s how I designed it. Like I said it was designed for a black box, so it’s a platform with all this props and furniture everywhere. And it was very Chekhovian, with big heavy metal divan and a table and all these props that are littered all over the stage by the end of act two. 

However, in previews we figured out that this would work so much better if we did some strategic cutting of the text and just ran straight through without an intermission. But that was a huge dilemma because act three was just like basically two cots on stage and a washstand. But act two ends with the stage literally littered with kids’ toys and balloons and all this furniture; just all this detritus on stage. Everyone was a bit freaked out with, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’, and the thing I’m proudest of is, I came up with a strategy to solve the change without the intermission and how to tell a story. In Three Sisters’ act three there’s a fire off stage, so I was like, if we’re running straight through without intermission, why don’t we have the sound design be fire truck alarms and have a police bubble light lighting effect and make it seem like there’s a fire happening. That way we basically had the entire cast—14 people or so—running for their lives and grabbing whatever was on stage and taking it off with them as if they’re saving it from the fire.

It was a big ask for these actors to do this big scenery change. We first staged it, for an hour, with stand-ins before the actors got there, so we could show the actors how it could work. At first it seemed impossible and the actors were all freaked out but then they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is hysterical’. It was so funny, and they made it their own. They really filled in what their characters would do. My favorite, favorite thing is what one of the actors at the very end of this crazy, crazy thing did. It was his job to be one of the people setting one of the cots back and he took the comforter that covered it and very slowly smoothed it out and then ran offstage. It was—to me—just great theater. And I contributed to figuring out how to make this impossible thing be possible. It was nothing to do with anything technical. It was just how to make an exciting theatrical moment. I was a little hostile to like actually trying to plow through without an intermission but then once we did it, I was like, ‘Oh, everybody’s right’. So, the play is so much better without an intermission, and I helped do that.

Is there something that makes a design a Mark Wendland design?

I’ll tell you one thing that makes directors who I work with for the first time ask ‘What?’ or give me the fisheye. I’m always big on obstacles. I like things that get in the actor’s way and seem counter intuitive. They ask, “Why is that there? That’s making me move in an uncomfortable way?” A lot of my designs can be a bit more; like withholding of physical storytelling. Like an actual piece of wall, or door, or whatever you think might be in the more like quotidian telling of the story visually. But I always try to add something that the cast member has to interact with, or touch, or move around because I feel like that ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s grounding. That the physical act of having to interact with that obstacle creates a kind of physical tension.

So that’s the one thing that directors will often ask me about, “Why put those tables in that position?” or “Why is there a chair there?” And my answer is usually because I like that you don’t have the freedom to use the whole space. You have to move in opposition to this object. Also, the obstacles that I will often put in the way are abstract. And I think that’s sometimes why people are like, “Why is that there?” You know, because it’s not a table or chair. It’s a weird wall, or whatever. And I’ll always be, “It’s there because you have to move around it.”

It’s about even trying to do something that’s real life. It’s more about creating theatrical movement; it is not a ballet. If you could just move in a straight line, it would be a dance piece. If you have to move in a zigzag, it’s just creating… It goes back to something I heard long ago. I always feel like when you watch a movie as an audience member, you sit in a chair and as the two-hour movie unwinds your body just slumps down more and more so by the end of the movie your head is on the back of the seat, your knees are up against the seat in front of you and you’re just overwhelmed by the visual experience. But I always feel like in theater, you want to work for the opposite to happen to the audience. As a theater-maker you want to create the feeling in your audience that their body posture is leaning forward more and more and more, so that by the end of the experience, their butt is up against the back of the seat, their head is locked leaning forward and they’re really sharing the experience. They are figuring it out; they’re trying to piece together what you’re saying, what you’re doing on the stage. And I sometimes feel like by giving less visually, creates an active experience in the audience’s mind. And I guess it’s the same thing with what I’m saying about placing these obstacles. It’s creating the sense of ‘Why are they moving in that way?’. It creates a sense of tension that as an audience member makes you lean forward questioning, ‘Why is that?’.

For me it’s all an exercise in making the audience an active participant in the creation of the piece, as opposed to the kind of theater where everything is filled in. And I’m not saying that kind of play is not enjoyable. It’s just I think there’s room in the American theater for the kind of play where you have to be an active as an audience member as well, you have to be an active participant in trying to piece together what’s going on. There’s the mystery of that kind of theater and the tension of that is exciting, to work on and for the audience.

When I read a script—you know those scripts that are written like a movie that have a hundred locations and 50 characters and you know there needs to be a bed and a couch and a spaceship and an elevator; when I read those, I’m terrified. But then I’m like, ‘yes, I simply must do the show’. Because you know that when you get through to the end, is going to be the most amazing thing you’ve worked on. Because the thing that seems impossible is the thing that’s always the most revelatory, for you as an artist and the most revelatory for the audience, because they can’t believe they’ve been taken on this journey. And even though when you read it, you don’t know how it’s humanly possible to do the show, as a team, you all find a way. In the way that I present obstacles for directors and cast members, playwrights are the heroes presenting those obstacles as well to all of us. That is what is exciting; every production is unique and how you create with those obstacles is different every time.  

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