Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Anna Louizos, the 2013 Tony Nominee for Best Set Designer for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, who also designed the set for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It was so educational to learn about what goes on that the audience doesn’t even realize is happening. It definitely brought a new appreciation to my eyes. Read on for our convo!
Thank you for meeting me! Since Camp Broadway is about showing kids theater and how to get into the business, could you start out telling me about your early theater experiences?
I’m from California originally, and I went for two years in a small women’s college calls Mills College in Oakland, and then I transferred to NYU, because I wanted to come to New York! I knew this is where the theater was. I studied drama as an undergrad because I was interested in acting back then, but I always had an interest in set design. I took some courses, but I didn’t know there was a profession that existed. Coming from a small town, you kind of think that everything just happens magically and the actors do everything, but now I know that’s not true! There are so many people involved from the producers and the casters to technicians. Theater is a huge collaborative effort. Working on the crew on shows and building the scenery opened my eyes to how many other aspects of theater I was interested in. Once I took some design courses, I was told that NYU had a great program, so I thought “Maybe I should do this!” I got into the program and I started assisting designers and that’s when I really got a first hand experience about what professional theater people do.
How long did it take you to get where you are today?
It took about 30 years to finally find my way to do this. Finding ways to make money, because you can’t make money doing this business at first, it was very hard. So I worked in restaurants. I got to do a show occasionally but it was not my income. It took many years to finally be able to do it with an income. You think about starving actors but not starving designers!
You obviously were a big theater person growing up, what was your favorite show?
We used to have cast albums and we’d put them on and act out the show, which was always fun because you got to be someone else.
I unfortunately didn’t get to see your Tony-nominated set for Edwin Drood, but I have friends who saw it and they said it was phenomenal. Can you tell me a little about it?
That one used a lot of old fashioned painted scenery, and we embraced the classic theater design from the 19th century. Using paint drops, and we exploited what lighting can do with painted drops. There’s a simple technique that you can do with painted scenery to make it look dimensional. You light it and back paint some areas of the backdrop, then you light it from behind and you can make it look like the windows are lit, and the buildings are solid. It’s old-fashioned theatrical painting but it’s very effective! And no matter how many times you see it, when you see that technique done well, it’s magical.
You know, it’s a unique art form, theater, and the thing I think is so incredibly magical about seeing these things live on stage, performed by living people right in front of you. It’s a living thing! And you have to pay attention; because it’s gone the minute they do that scene. It brings all of your senses into play in a way that no other art form does. It’s here and then it’s gone. It’s wonderful and sad.
So when you were designing the set for Cinderella, did you have an inspiration like you did with Edwin Drood?
We wanted to create a fairy tale world for this show, we didn’t want to copy any particular style. We looked at a lot different visual research. We had big binders full of research full of architecture ideas for every part of the set. And then the director and I had long conversations about what we wanted. We looked for inspirations. And then we looked for things like special effects, like the dragon, the animals, and riding horses.
The making of the set:
The Horse that Prince Topher rides in on:
I had to figure out how to make it appear that he’s on a horse, because he comes in riding on a horse, but the script didn’t specify whether the horse was real, fake, two guys in a costume…(laughs), so I came up with an idea for him to be on an armored shape of a horse but four men would be carrying him. And originally, they were actually supposed to be carrying him on the horse on their shoulders, but it became so difficult because the actors are all different heights, and it would be difficult if a taller guy was on that night, holding the horse. So then we came up with the idea to have the horse on wheels and a stand. And when the understudy for the Prince went on, we had to make sure the horse would fit for him.
The inspiration for the horses pulling the carriage came from vines because what evolved from my conversations with Mark [the director] was that nature was very prevalent in this show. So, for this carriage to spring from a pumpkin, we still wanted it to feel organic. We didn’t want it to look like just a pumpkin. We wanted it to look like leaves and vines, almost like a cabbage. And the wheels had vines as well. The wagon had pumpkins on it. And the pumpkin grows and then explodes. When the carriage moved, the horse’s legs did too, but it’s actually the coachman on a bicycle pedal.
We wanted this production to be new and not like anything anyone had seen before. It took many tries. The trees were…how many trees did we design? (laugh) We had boxes full of tree ideas. There were at least ten variations of trees. We wanted the trees to originally come out into the audience and hang over the audience. But it was too expensive, so we ended up with what we have now. Some of the trees are hiding places for characters, which was tricky. We did for the one coordination for the dress, where [Cinderella] leans against the tree and suddenly she’s wrapped around with all of these additional dress layers. We were clever in how we camouflaged the tree and the dress, so you couldn’t tell them apart.
So it seems like it was a highly collaborative effort. How long did it take?
It took about a year.
Is that how long it normally takes?
If you have the luxury of time, a year is great. Normally you have less time. But since we didn’t go out of town to try it out, they opted to do workshops rehearsal where they would present the show to investors. We had two. One was just choreography, and the other one was a full on workshop production where we had plywood representing what would be the arches or trees.
Is every show as collaborative as Cinderella?
If you have a Broadway-caliber team, and especially if it’s a musical production, you do need to collaborate a lot with everyone because so much is at stake, especially money. So you have to make sure everything works together. That’s why the models of the set are so important, because it’s all to scale.
My father is an architect, and he has to submit something and be chosen to design a building, is it the same for you and sets, or do they come to you?
You don’t design on spec like with architecture, you get hired first. It’s usually based on the relationships you have. I’ve worked with the producer many times, same with the director, and they choose you, and you say let’s do a show!
There’s a lot about personal relationships in this business, and there are so few who get to do this, because there are so few shows. That’s why you see the same names over and over. And it’s hard to get into that “club”, like I said, it took 30 years. I’ve only been making a living doing this for ten years. Ten years ago, Avenue Q opened on Broadway and that’s the first show I did.
Do you help with the touring productions of the shows you design as well?
Normally the first leg of the tour, because we’re teching it for the first time, since it’ a new set, normally. Usually tour versions of sets have to be simpler, because they have to go up and come down in a day, so it’s almost more complicated in a way. You have to figure out how to make it so it can come apart. So, looking ahead to do a Cinderella tour, the set would have to be very simplified. Automation makes things more complicated because the floor has to travel with the show. Pushing things on and off is different, but the way these things magically come across the stage is like a cable car, there a cables in the deck, and motors run and takes the set piece on and off stage.
What about at the Tony’s?
What they used to do is actually build scenery for the Tony’s for each show, but now what they do is an LED screen and they film the set and put it on the screen with some three-dimensional pieces.
You’ve done so many different types of sets, but they all start the same, right?
Yes, pretty much. Like In The Heights, nothing moved. All that moved were the counters that the audience pushed out.
What goes into being a set designer from start to finish?
My job starts way before the actors are even chosen, I work with the choreographer, and the lighting designer, all the designers work in advance. Once the show is open we’re basically done though, we just check in. And then we’re on to the next one!
So have you seen it since the opening?
We check on the show, we try to see it every few weeks or so, but technically it’s been good. Every night the end of the show, the Stage Manager writes a report and he emails it to us. One of the arches didn’t turn into it’s position a few nights ago and so that was in the report, and then that had to be serviced. But other than that it was a virtually flawless show.
Do you have anything coming up after Cinderella?
I have a show in Dallas, called Fly, it’s a musical. It’s a Peter Pan musical, but it’s more about Wendy.