Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Designer Behind "Red"

Designer Ralph Funicello.
SCR and Funicello

Ralph Funicello has designed sets for SCR since 1982. Here are the plays.
  1. Da
  2. Good
  3. Buried Child
  4. Highest Standard of Living
  5. Going for Gold
  6. Speed-the-Plow
  7. Kiss of the Spiderwoman
  8. Happy End
  9. Twelfth Night
  10. The Miser
  11. Hedda Gabler
  12. Dancing at Lughnasa
  13. The Misanthrope
  14. She Stoops to Folly
  15. The Taming of the Shrew
  16. Six Degrees of Separation
  17. Death of a Salesman
  18. Old Times
  19. Misalliance
  20. Private Lives
  21. Tartuffe
  22. The Piano Lesson
  23. The Education of Randy Newman
  24. The Circle
  25. Major Barbara
  26. Safe in Hell
  27. Brooklyn Boy
  28. A View from the Bridge
  29. The Real Thing
  30. Hamlet
  31. Taking Steps
  32. The Happy Ones
  33. Saturn Returns
  34. Misalliance
  35. Elemeno Pea
  36. 4000 Miles
  37. Zealot
  38. Red
It’s a Saturday afternoon and the Segerstrom Stage swarming with activity: props are being carefully put in place; canvas frames are being set against the walls; an Adirondack chair is being positioned in a well of light; high windows are letting “daylight” in. This is the first day of technical rehearsals for John Logan’s Red and the New York City Bowery studio of abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko is getting its finishing touches.

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.
Imagining Rothko’s studio: “This Bowery building still exists, it’s an old gymnasium. The interior doors I designed for the set are based on what you can see through the actual building’s main doors. Rothko rented this particular space for the Seagram murals because he needed a large area where he could put all the paintings next to each other. Self-absorbed doesn’t begin to describe him, but, as I read about him, I found that he had a very complex process to make the colors on those canvases vibrate against each other.

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).

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