|Timothy Mackabee's set rendering for Vietgone.|
“From the get-go, it was all about design,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I would set up a camcorder, and I would watch the tapes, make notes and realize what I could do to make a better transition. Then I would play with my stage lights from Radio Shack. My mother says she still has those VHS cassettes somewhere, and she says to be nice or she’ll show them to people.”
Mackabee’s mother has much to take pride in: her son is one of the hottest designers in American theatre. His work has graced London’s West End; Broadway and off-Broadway shows; and productions at regional theatres, including productions of The Elephant Man; the musical, Heathers; and ‘night, Mother.
At South Coast Repertory, he’s the set designer for the world premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone (Julianne Argyros Stage, Oct. 4-25).
In this exchange, he talks about his influences, research and designing for Vietgone.
Who was as your mentor—and how does their influence show in your work?
My mother and grandparents are mentors. They encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, presumably why I did it, and kept doing it. I’m sure they thought I was nuts, and would never make any money at it.
What delights you most about your work?
I like when I’m surprised. You can look at drawings and models forever, but it never tells you 100% what something is going to look like in real life.
What do you find offers the most challenges?
Working with a theater company for the first time—you have to get to know the staff and figure out how far the money and resources can go. Always a tricky line—there’s always a learning curve when you go somewhere the first time.
For Vietgone, which is set in the mid-1970s, what kind of research did you do?
We looked tons of research at classic Americana—road trips, diners, billboard, different landscapes. The movie Easy Rider was a big visual reference.
I was surprised at how much I missed in the first reading of the play. We did a workshop last month and, when we read the play, I was blown away.
You and May Adrales have worked before.
Yes—I believe this is our fourth or fifth show together. May is great because she has a lot of great ideas and isn’t precious about any of them. She’s always looking for new exciting ways to do things. I think she’s a great match for this play. And with Qui, I know of him and his work, but this is the first time I’ve worked with him.
What do you do in your ‘off-time,’ when not working on sets, projections or costumes?
Off-time?! I’m usually traveling to the next theatre project.
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