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Tony-Nominated Directors and Designers Share the Secrets of Their Collaborations

The design for the Broadway revival of “The King and I” grew out of an impulse to subtract decoration and add a great big boat. For the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” it developed in a weeklong studio session with actors, a few props and some cardboard boxes. The Broadway transfer of “Fun Home” got storyboarded with a scale model of the theater on director Sam Gold’s dining room table. And “An American in Paris” didn’t find its look and sense of movement until after the first idea got summarily rejected by a producer.

Ask this year’s Tony-nominated directors and designers about the way these theater artists collaborate, and they’ll make one thing clear: There’s no template.

“There are no rules to it at all,” says director Stephen Daldry, the nominated director of “Skylight” who teamed on both his Broadway shows this year (“Skylight,” “The Audience”) with designer Bob Crowley, himself up for a whopping four Tonys (sets for “Skylight” and “An American in Paris” and costumes for “American in Paris” and “The Audience”).

If this season’s nominated director-designer squads have anything in common, it’s that a lot of them have worked together multiple times, over many shows and several years, to arrive at a collaborational shorthand and a shared aesthetic.

“The real key for me is working with the same people over and over and over again,” says director Gold, who on “Fun Home” faced the unusual challenge of entirely redesigning the show for the in-the-round space of Broadway’s Circle in the Square. On board to help him was nominated set designer David Zinn (also a nominee for “Airline Highway”), with whom Gold estimates he’s worked some 20 times.

“I like to find people who share aesthetic taste with me and understand what I want from a theater experience, so when I start a project there’s a huge set of assumptions we don’t need to talk about,” Gold says.

The benefits of an ongoing relationship between the director and the designers are probably best highlighted by the nominated team of “The King and I,” whose director, Bartlett Sher, has become almost synonymous with the designers who are his most frequent collaborators: Michael Yeargan (set), Donald Holder (lights), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Scott Lehrer (sound). After their high-profile, Tony-winning revival of “South Pacific” in 2008, the team has worked on everything from operas (“Faust”) to plays (“Awake and Sing!”) to new musicals (“The Bridges of Madison County”), with most if not all of the same team attached.

Over the years, the group’s shared aesthetic has come together with more tacit mutual understanding than anything else. “A show’s design is in the same historical conversation as I am with a piece,” Sher says. “We’re all playing with all these different vocabularies that tell us where we can interpret. But we don’t know how to talk about that. Everybody’s just doing it.”

On “American in Paris,” the show that yielded designer Crowley two of his four Tony nominations this season, the designer reunited with Tony-nominated director Christopher Wheeldon after designing ballets for Wheeldon including “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Winter’s Tale.” “Over time, we’ve developed a style that’s incredibly fluid,” Crowley says. “There’s a choreographic element to the design. The scenery, in a way, dances like the people onstage.”

“Our designs usually happen very quickly,” Wheeldon chimes in. “After hours of procrastination.”

With or without procrastination, a long lead time to develop and shape design ideas is a vital part of the process, most designers say. When artists collaborate frequently, upcoming projects can work their way into their ongoing exchange of ideas.

“There are people who think we can all just do it in two weeks, that I just sit down and make some sketches,” says Yeargan. “That’s not the case. A design is a living, breathing organism that slowly grows and grows.”

“You can spend days on terrible ideas,” notes Marianne Elliott, the nominated director of “Curious Incident.” In that weeklong work session with designer Bunny Christie and the actors, she recalls, they devoted a lot of time to working out a way to convey the protagonist’s subway journey with drumming — only to nix the idea and go in another direction. “It sounded like a great idea, but it was rubbish.”

“You have to be very, very sure about the early design decisions you make for a show,” Crowley says. “If you haven’t gotten off to the right start, you’re in trouble.”

Nonetheless, as a project moves forward, flexibility is key as directors and designers together balance the changing needs and requirements of the staging.

Take the creatives of “On the 20th Century,” who include nominated designers David Rockwell (set) and William Ivey Long (costumes). They had to grapple with the fact that the Roundabout Theater Company revival had initially been slated for the Stephen Sondheim Theater, but the ongoing success of “Beautiful” there mandated a switch to the much-smaller American Airlines Theater.

Oh, also there’s a giant train onstage.

“We must have spent five or six meetings playing with models for that opening scene,” says Rockwell, up for Tony Awards for his sets for “20th Century” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” both directed by Scott Ellis.

Talking about their collaboration, the “20th Century” team, which also includes choreographer Warren Carlyle and Holder on lights, underscores the intricate interplay involved both in crafting the look of a show and in making individual moments work.

Long, for instance, takes his cues from the set. “I initially trained as a set designer, and the set design has to come first for me,” he says. “The world has to be created and then I come in and populate it.” For “20th Century,” Rockwell’s choice of wallpaper guided Long’s selections of fabric patterns, which, combined with the lights, helped nail a sequence in which a character played by Mary Louise Wilson temporarily fades into the background.

Long’s choices had similar ripple effects. A decision to forgo flapper dresses for the song “Babette” affected the range of motion available to Carlyle’s dancers. “For the first time in my life, the clothes led the choreography,” Carlyle says.

In addition to the sets, costumes, lights and sound, projections have become an increasingly important design element. This year the Tony nominators have taken notice, with video and projection designers for both “Curious Incident” (Finn Ross) and “American in Paris” (59 Prods.) sharing nominations for set design.

Ultimately, the technical needs of the overall production and the physical needs of the actors’ blocking all converge on the directors and designers, who must balance the two at all times. “As a designer, you’re the linchpin between what’s happening in the rehearsal room and what’s happening with the rest of the production,” says “Curious Incident” set designer Christie.

With roles so vital, it’s no wonder creatives gravitate to collaborators they already know they like. But there’s another simple reason for artists to reconvene on multiple projects: They feel they bring out the best in each other. “King and I” lighting designer Holder, for instance, has worked with Julie Taymor for 20 years. “With Bart and with Julie, I do my best work,” he says. “It’s not like I can relax and just phone it in. It’s just the opposite.”

69th Tony Awards
June 7
Radio City Music Hall

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