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Designer Paul Tate dePoo III: Scale, Vision and Meticulous Detail

Michael S. Eddy • March 2021Scenic Design • March 3, 2021

This story can be read below or in our March 2021 digitial edition

Paul Tate dePoo with the model of his design for Turandot at Oper im Steinbruch in Vienna

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Tate dePoo III is a Cuban-American scenic, projection, and production designer. Growing up in Key West, FL, he watched Super Bowl halftime shows and Olympic ceremonies, as well as saw David Copperfield, touring productions, and the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus—all of which made him want to design on a grand scale. He has a BFA from Boston University and in 2012 founded the NYC-based Tate Design Group. dePoo’s recent designs include regional productions looking to move to Broadway among which are Titanic, Bruce Vilanch’s A Sign of the Times, Josephine, and War of the Roses. He designed the festive opening ceremonies for the MUNY’s centennial celebration in St. Louis, where he has also designed Jesus Christ Superstar, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Young Frankenstein, Singin’ in the Rain, and Jersey Boys. In 2020 he won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Scenic Design for Signature Theatre’s Grand Hotel. During this past summer, he was the creative director for the livestream benefit performance ofThe Great Work Begins: scenes from Angels in America in support of amfAR’s Fund to Fight COVID-19. The production was called out as one of the best shows of 2020 by the New York Times. (Go to pg. 24 for more) It is a truly wonderful piece of work. He is currently working on the summer 2021 production of Turandot at Oper im Steinbruch in Vienna, Austria; creating a spectacular set on the world’s largest outdoor opera stage.

We began our conversation with dePoo by asking him about his influences starting out, and there have been several people who have influenced his work and career including scenic designer James Noone, who he trained with when dePoo attended Boston University. “I was Jim’s assistant and his associate on several productions, including Sweeney Todd as a part of Live from Lincoln Center that won the Emmy for Outstanding Special Class Program. When I graduated, I worked for Michael Cotten, who was Michael Jackson’s production designer for This is It. I had my first internship with David Zinn for a year and then I worked with Derek McLane for three-and-a-half-years. Professionally I’ve looked at all of them as major influences. I also think when you get into a production, which influences you look to change constantly. If it is a classical grand mansion then I am not looking at modern artists. I think that is always a variable that’s changing with each production.”

Delaware Theatre Company’s production of War of the Roses

In fact, when he is designing a show, dePoo becomes focused upon the elements of the world he hopes to evoke. “If I’m doing, let’s say the play War of the Roses, I’m going to start becoming obsessed with mansion interiors; the system that creates those architectural guidelines and just observing every single doorframe. Then if you’re doing Sweeney Todd,  you’re looking at all the destruction around the city and it goes from one extreme to the other, I think. It’s funny what your brain starts to be obsessed with; it’s like a ping pong ball, especially if I have a few projects going on. It’s like these multiple personalities of obsessions because they’re all so different and by no means do I ever want to be taking something from another production of mine. I really try to create something that’s unique for each production. People have said that I might have an overarching style, but I always try to challenge myself. I never want to do something that I’ve done before. Which probably is not always to my benefit. I don’t know if that’s an ego thing or it’s just passion but I really try to keep each design separate and unique.”

To keep things unique, you need to constantly be opening your mind to new possibilities; seeing things a new way. dePoo likes to look at the world around him and soak it all in. He thinks everything informs everything else. “I’m just constantly shocked at what I find,” he says. “For example, when you go to see an exhibit or something, you have to go with no agenda. I’m never going to a museum just for a mission. You go there and it just starts to open your brain’s style and technique and artistry. Whether it’s extreme modernism, contemporary pieces, or classical. I’m just shocked constantly at how excited I get at different exhibits, and I’m not even what you would call an art buff. I’m not going to sit here and list favorite artists, but just getting out and seeing different things; it opens your mind. Look up, look at all the details of the world and constantly observe how things are built and how things are designed, because it’s an infinite amount of people that have done everything around you.”

Setting the Course of a Career

Titanic at the OD Company in Seoul, South Korea

As for a show that dePoo thinks really is a milestone within his scenic design career, without hesitation he states, “Titanic. I would definitely say Titanic at the Signature Theatre in Washington DC is one that I am known for.” While working with director Eric Schaeffer on a different musical, that was proving problematic, Schaeffer suggested they do Titanic together the next season. “When Eric asked what if we did Titanic next year. First, I was relieved that he didn’t see me as the problem with the show we were working on at the time. Then I thought, ‘How crazy is this man to want to do Titanicin this tiny little theater?’ At the time, I didn’t really know anything about Titanic. I had never listened to the score or the soundtrack. In my brain, I had manifested that it was a failure on Broadway, and of course it wasn’t. It ran for nearly two years but it was a failure technically in the sinking of the ship. I ultimately, of course, said yes to him because I wasn’t going to say no to my second collaboration with Eric. I listened to the show and thought, ‘Wow. I had no idea what Titanic was since I had not seen the original Broadway version; we had a blank slate.”

Schaeffer’s vision for Titanic was to have the audience surrounded by the idea of a ship. He never wanted to see the actual ship. Going into tech for the show, dePoo thought, “Oh Lord, what are we walking into? I had just left this other crazy show and was this going to be another version of that? It wasn’t. It was proof to me that if one particular production is not the best, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of your career at that particular theater or necessarily with that director. Working again at Signature with Eric doing Titanic put my work on the map. It was then picked up by a Korean theater company that wanted to basically explore the whole idea in a proscenium setting. Titanic was definitely the turning point for me and it started with Derek [McLane]. Derek suggested Eric hire me for that first crazy project, so I’m grateful that Derek basically led me to Titanic.”

Design Technology
Some newer technology is taking hold in dePoo’s design studio he explained when asked about what technology he likes as designer. “Hands down, creating something in the studio digitally, in 3D. Scanning pieces, for instance, for Turandot in Vienna, the world’s largest opera that’s hopefully opening this coming summer. We got very ornate pieces from basically all over the world; intricate little details we ordered from China; little carvings. We were able to scan and edit them digitally, and then 3D print them here in our office. We could then send that file to Austria where they would then get a ginormous, CNC router with a big robotic arm that carves exactly what we have in our studio in this little model. That is a game changer. For us to be able to prepare digital files here in the office for the purposes of a model, which then turns out to be what they directly build from is great. They really built a lot of it off the model; the details. That was a big realization I had with technical directors and producers—our having the capability to do the 3D digital work here in the studio and being able to save that file, while making sure that we’re talking with the shops, so we are properly passing that file off to them without the need to take weeks refining it for their needs. Having that system in place at the front end means we can use it for so many different things; we can use it for renderings, for models, for drafting, and then ultimately, it’s used to build. I think that technology is a game changer.”

As far as interesting materials, dePoo likes to discover what other countries are doing in terms of materials, especially those that we don’t use in the U.S. “I think it’s exciting when I go to Korea and they’re using these foams and different compounds that we’re not necessarily used to in the States,” says dePoo. “It’s so interesting to see different ways of approaching something from one country to the other, but ultimately everyone speaks the same language of getting the vision to its final destination—the stage.”

It is All About Communication
Everyone talks about collaboration with other designers, crew, and staff on productions but for any designer, certainly for a scenic designer, the collaboration with the shops is just as—if not more so—important to the final outcome. “If you don’t have a good collaboration with the shop, it’s not going to be good,” says dePoo. “Even if I don’t know a shop, I try to get to know what their mentality is, what their personality is. I think if you can have a good relationship, a friendly relationship, with the shop it makes the whole process so much easier. It’s about having the kind of relationship where there is an open dialog. Being able to say ‘You don’t have to write the eight-page email. Why don’t you just give me a call or text me? Let’s just jump on the phone.’ Opening that door of communication so that it doesn’t feel like that they’re jumping through all these hoops to get to me.”

That’s what I always want to do with any shop, but in particular, with the shops in Korea, where they have so much respect for a designer. I tell them, ‘You all are incredible artists that are on the other side of the world. You have the freedom to make some decisions.’ I think it is important to just say to them that I know they have done this—in most case—a lot longer than I have and I want to hear if they have an opinion about what would make it better and make their process better. I think that opens their eyes to an open working relationship and it makes it exciting for them because they’re not completely just copying something. When you develop that kind of relationship, you open the doors for communication for give and take basically. I want shops to understand that I’m willing to do that. I’ve been lucky to have worked with incredible and talented friends that are in shops all over.”

Building Out the Team
When it comes to picking assistants or associates, dePoo likes to think outside the box in terms of people’s backgrounds and skill sets. He feels that people’s differences make his team just that much stronger. He notes, “I love talking to architects, interior designers, graphic designers, etc. When people come in and say, ‘I have this ability, I just don’t know theater that well, but it really excites me’, that doesn’t scare me. Yes, there are the technical things of explaining what a fly loft is and what sightlines are, sure. That’s a rigorous process that they have to be brought up to speed. But I like it when there is a designer that’s with me that doesn’t necessarily have to know the textbook of theatrical design. My associate Kaitlin, my lead associate now, she did have a theater background, but she’s from Nebraska and went to school there. She didn’t really have much experience of major productions. I thought ‘Oh, she doesn’t exactly know the history of what was on Broadway, but she definitely has her own vision and technique and approach to the industry that I am grateful for;’ I mean look at myself, I’m from Key West, Florida; that is a two-by-four-mile island and I did not have theater when I grew up.”

In fact, dePoo didn’t see a Broadway show until he was in seventh grade. “I got into the industry because of the circus and David Copperfield when they would tour through Miami,” he comments. “I thought that was entertainment. That and Michael Jackson, the Superbowl halftime show. I came to this also not knowing what La traviata was. I didn’t know what Turandot was. I wasn’t brought up with that because it was never my part of the world. In short, it’s not always the biggest theater fan who we have in the office. I’m looking for someone that has the ability to communicate and we want to spend time together because I’m going to sit here in the office with that someone working on a show for two and a half years. I hope we can go and have dinner or we can get on an airplane and go to Vienna. Someone personable, yet understanding that sometimes I want to be an introvert, or sometimes I’m an extrovert, or sometimes I just want to have dinner on my own. I make that very clear and I find that as long as you’re open about it then we’re good to go.”

Career Path

Tommy at The Kennedy Center

At the start of his career dePoo got a piece of advice that he still finds applicable today. “The head of our department at Boston University, when I was graduating said, ‘Just remember, when you start out, just keep saying yes, and then you’ll one day learn to say no’. I think that is true because you hustle, hustle, hustle, and then sometimes it becomes overbearing with too many projects. Then you start to realize what’s going to make the best product that’s coming out of one individual’s—your—brain. That advice has always stuck in my head. Keep going, go through the hell, and eventually you’ll teach yourself. The universe will help tell you what are the right decisions to be making as you proceed with accepting projects. Also, respectfully knowing how to say no.”

So what piece of advice would he give to someone in the early stage of their career in theater? dePoo goes back to, “Keep going, go through hell, but I think balance is a big part of this. By no means is this industry easy for anyone, and if one goes into that knowing that it’s going to be really hard and they’ve really told themselves that they are willing to go through the Hell, great. I’ve always tried to have a little bit of balance of outside of theater/inside theater, because I think you can get burned out very, very fast. It’s so rigorous when you’re starting out. You’re just like, ‘What in the world?’ When I started out, it was me painting my first show in New York at the New York Music Festival. I built and painted it all in friend’s basement. We had a 16-passenger van delivering it; I got pulled over before we even went in the tunnel because it looked like this big creepy van. I mean, it was like having a mental breakdown. I thought, ‘What the hell is this awful city?’ When I started I would paint a lot of my own sets. I painted one set—my second show—The Maids, at 4thStreet Theatre. I painted that entire thing hot pink in my apartment and stacked it in the hallway. You don’t start with a studio and a team, let’s just say that. It took 10 years to get to talking about the lead associate with me. You’ve got to really work hard, you got to be open to dialog with tons of different personalities and be willing to paint that set in your apartment once in a while.”

Like most designers, dePoo has some shows on his wish list, shows that he’d love to design and theater makers he’d like to work with. He points out two extremes from that those lists. “Plays, I would love to do a series of [playwright] Sarah Kane’s work because they’re so absurd and I’ve never had the opportunity to produce anything of hers. And for a big splashy musical, I’m going to say Beauty and the Beast. I want a really great production of Beauty and the Beast. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it but it was the first musical I ever saw. I know that it comes with a bag of expectations and everyone has their own eye-roll opinion about it, but I think that there’s something that could be done really fantastic with it. I said to everyone in my studio, if anyone ever asks us to do Beauty and the Beast,they have to make sure that I’ve confirmed ‘yes’, and that there’s a budget to do it. It’s a big, huge undertaking and when I look at it, I think, ‘Gosh, that is a ginormous production to take on, for any company.’ I would love to do it on a scale that pushes it in a different direction.”

Scenic Summits
Certainly not intimidated by scale, dePoo cites a few shows that come to mind when asked about memorable designs of his so far.“I’m so excited to make this Turandot [at Oper im Steinbruch in Vienna] a reality. It’s built, it’s already sitting in the space, the whole entire structure’s there,” he says. “I am grateful that I have stared at it for two-and-a-half years and am not sick of it, not bored of it, and don’t have the desire to constantly redo it because that is very common for me. Ken Billington said, ‘Go to opening night, and if you go see one other show during the run, go to the closing so that you can critique your own work.’ Turandot is the one that’s coming up that is a scale that I’ve never been able to work on before.”

“I was always very obsessed with scale, even as a kid watching Super Bowl halftime shows, watching Olympic opening ceremonies and saying, ‘I want to do something like that, like that size,’ and I put that out in the universe and now I’m working on Turandot, the world’s largest opera. This is what I was wanting to do in my life and I’m grateful of that. I’m proud of that. I think maybe I enjoy that scale because I always saw it from afar being from a teeny, little island.”

A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C.

He also mentions, “My Little Night Music at Signature in DC was something that was really shocking and has to be one of my new favorite classics. Also Tommy at the Kennedy Center. That was an undertaking that I thought was going to put us all in the hospital for exhaustion but was insanely gratifying. It was a two-and-a-half-week process to build that entire show, then we had a two-day tech and then we opened. It was just a huge undertaking. When we finally opened is when I saw the show for the first time. I was very proud of us, the entire team, to make something that felt truly impossible happen; and it had great feedback.”

 

Cosi fan tutte at the Santa Fe Opera

He also explained how complex sets can be deceptively simple looking.“Cosi fan tutti at the Santa Fe Opera is an example. That was an incredibly simple, complex set that took three years in the making of creating that simple aesthetic.” Another show he recalls started with a seemingly simple idea and ended with a stunning reveal. “When I’m doing a giant musical there usually is a simple idea that’s behind it that then sort of explodes as a production evolves through the evening.

The Sound of Music at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre

It’s like The Sound of Music I did at Asolo. I love Josh Rhodes, our director, who brought me on to do Sound of Music. He wanted it to feel as if by the end of the evening this family has broken through the walls. That’s where the idea came from; that simple idea. The set was a surround that stayed there the entire evening. The entire production happened inside of this very ginormous, heavy panoramic wall. Within that wall there were quite a bit of elements that were, I would say, simple for The Sound of Music. We didn’t have a big lawn, a giant staircase; there were no additional backdrops. Then at the end, the whole entire wall broke open; the wall that the audience had been staring at the entire evening. You’ve trained them that nothing’s going to happen to that wall. You get the audience trained with a visual vocabulary and then suddenly something fantastic happens.

 

 


Life on the Rollercoaster

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center

That is a bit like a career in the theater; you are doing a show you are used to that show and then it opens and hopefully it is fantastic and then you move on. It is a career that means embracing constant change in what you are working on from day to day, week to week, month to month. Luckily, dePoo enjoys that part of a life in the theater, “Once a show opens you are then going to do something else, something that’s a completely different thematic universe,” he says. “My brain, since I was a kid, is like a ping pong ball going back and forth, back and forth all over. I can’t just sit still in one location. I think that’s what’s so cool about being a designer; that I can get so deep into a show and then it’s done. When it is done, I’m proud of the process and I nod at the set and think, ‘Alright, enjoy your life’, and I say goodbye and then I go on. Of course, that’s also the hardest part because then it’s this rollercoaster, this restart button. Even though all projects are different, there is definitely a reset button that’s mentally challenging. I tell that a lot to young designers. It is a big mental check-in. I think we’ve learned a lot in 2020 about mental check-ins, but you have to constantly check-in and observe the emotions that come with this career. There’s a high on opening night and then there is scientifically, and biologically, a crash that happens. It’s hard when you have to start right back up again at zero, building a show from zero up. You question yourself, ‘can I do this again?’ I question that all the time.” Fortunately for theatergoers Paul Tate dePoo III can and does continually create—from zero—wonderful new designs.

Learn more about Paul Tate dePoo III at: www.pauldepoo.com.

 

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