|Designer Ralph Funicello.|
Sitting near the back of the house, set designer Ralph Funicello looks approvingly at the design for his 38th production at South Coast Repertory. Each design, from his first (Da by Hugh Leonard in 1982 and directed by David Emmes) to Red (also directed by Emmes) has been distinctive and stunning.
For Red, Funicello started his research by poring over the only two photos of Rothko’s Bowery studio. During a wide-ranging conversation, Funicello talked about how he created the Red design, how he originally got into theatre and how he is helping create the next generation of artisans.
|Mark Harelik as Mark Rothko on Funicello's set for Red.|
The real studio walls were painted a dirty white and he built fake walls, covered them with canvas and attached two-by-fours that had pulleys to raise and lower the paintings and move them around and position them in various ways. David (Emmes) and I decided we didn’t want a white room. We wanted a room that was the color of a Rothko!
In the set, the windows, the pipes, the mural-hanging apparatus, the rolling frame Rothko used to paint on—those are accurate to the original space. Of course, there are various tables for paints and supplies. We even found an old Maxwell House coffee can, the kind you would turn and open with a key.
Designing for the Segerstrom Stage: “One of the challenges of the Segerstrom is that it’s a wide space. For Red, I brought the walls in and then back, so the space feels smaller. I also took things up above, which is a trick I learned here in this wonderful space.
One thing we wanted to achieve with the design for Red is the idea that you walk into the place where these great paintings were created; there’s an excitement that comes with that. It’s like the line in the play, where someone walks past Rothko’s house and says, ‘I wonder who owns all the Rothkos?’”
Sitting in the audience during previews: “I know that performers are the direct link between the playwright—what s/he is trying to say—and the audience. My design is part of that link. So when I sit and watch a preview, I look for things that could help the performance more: What still needs to be finished? What could help better explain something? Is someone having difficulty because of set or props and what could I do to help? I look with an eye toward problem-solving.
Finding an outlet: “As a child, I had a creative imagination. But then I fell in with the wrong crowd (laughs). In high school, I once stayed after school, attended a meeting of the Drama Club and signed up for the construction crew. My father had been a house carpenter, so I knew how to cut a straight line and bang a nail without bending it, so I became the master carpenter pretty quickly.
What I really love about theatre is the social aspect of it: a group of people can come together and accomplish something incredible.
To say that design changed my life just doesn’t do it justice. I went from being a confused, aimless person to being completely dedicated. I had found something that I loved to do.
Paying it forward: “I studied with Ming Cho Lee at New York University’s School of the Arts. As a teacher, he took a lot of people who came in with their dream to be a designer—and he helped make those dreams come true. When he hired me for work one summer, that’s when I felt I had become a set designer. My other mentor is British set and costume designer Desmond Heeley.
Now as Powell Chair of Set Design at San Diego State University, I’m in the position of helping my students achieve their dreams. I provide them with the stimulation to see what the possibilities are for the worlds they create and then let them find the joy in designing them.”
Find out more about Red, on the Segerstrom Stage (Jan. 22-Feb. 21, 2016).