Imagining the Scene

Christopher McCollum on Set Design

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

From the outside, the home of set designer Christopher McCollum looks like any other in its tony central Austin neighborhood and gives no hints to the imaginative wonders concealed within its walls. McCollum, with his lanky strides and easy manner, took me on a quick tour of the inside while coffee was brewing. We passed by tidy room after tidy room, which amazed me because his designs for Austin Musical Theatre's staging of West Side Story at the Paramount Theatre and Austin Lyric Opera's production of Andrea Chénier at Bass Concert Hall were both within weeks of being mounted; I expected more chaos in his home -- projecting, I suppose, my own haphazard work/living space onto McCollum's. It was hard to believe. Then we stepped into his studio. Color photocopies of cityscapes, alleyways, and fire escapes were tacked all over one wall. A drafting table dominated the room and had loose paper scattered about the top of it. Model pieces and parts were carefully and not so carefully arranged on a series of bookshelves. This was a place where a person could seriously get down to the business of creation. The West Side Story model captured my eye. Full of intricate layers of mat board, photocopies, and paint, this was a piece of art, yet one that could only live out its full potential onstage. Admittedly, I have long been in awe of McCollum's skill, artistry, and imagination, both in half-inch scale and glorious full size, and may not be the most impartial judge.

I first met McCollum when I was assistant stage manager for Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre's production of Weldon Rising. "Plastic," I remember him saying as he described the set. "We're going to seal the audience in." A very cool if very odd idea that completely fit the show's theme but wouldn't be the first idea to leap to the mind of your average set designer. But, as many Austin audiences have learned, McCollum isn't your average set designer. You never know quite what to expect from a McCollum set. From the Weldon Rising plastic to the magical dollhouse of Austin Musical Theatre's Peter Pan to the building that subtly grew in the background of Frontera's ...And Baby Makes Seven to the homage to Laura Ashley in Critical Mass' The Birthday Party, McCollum has proven that he can find an arresting and intriguing visual regardless of a show's genre.

West Side Story
photograph by Todd. V. Wolfson

Given McCollum's background, his abilities become less of a surprise. He was raised in Austin theatre, taking classes at the Austin Recreation Center when he was 11, working backstage at Zachary Scott Theatre at 13. By 16, McCollum decided that he wanted to be a set designer, based on the realization that he enjoyed backstage life and would have "more input than a performer would." He earned a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon and worked off-Broadway during summer breaks. By his final semester, he was working on a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle in San Francisco.

But his journey has not stopped there. Through a series of self-described odd happenstances, McCollum ended up in Europe, working on another Ring Cycle and eventually hooking up with groundbreaking theatre maker Robert Wilson. In 1993, though still working with Wilson, who was in Houston at the time, McCollum found himself back in Austin scouting the city for freelance gigs. Luckily, he hooked up with Ann Ciccolella, Austin Circle of Theatres executive director and all-around theatre guru, who got him two gigs with Project InterAct, Zachary Scott's professional youth theatre company. Weldon Rising followed shortly thereafter, and the dominoes of success began to fall for McCollum.

Set Designs by Christopher McCollum

For the last four years, his work has never ceased to intrigue and amaze me. Each set is uniquely suited to the theme of the script and the space in which it's produced, a feat that always stumped me when I was slogging through my undergrad design classes. Perhaps my appreciation for this difficult role comes from all those tedious hours spent building models or drafting flats that turned out as dull as the vellum they were drawn on. Which is why I wanted to pick McCollum's brain. I traveled to his home prepared to grill the designer about the details of his work on these upcoming shows and the source of his ever-expanding imagination. I didn't, however, get the information I came for; I couldn't get past McCollum's fear of exposing his secrets and his unwillingness to spoil some of the shows' scenic tricks. But I gathered more intriguing material about not simply one show or one idea, but a general approach to design. I gained as well a guidebook to some of the shows on which he has worked in the past four years and a piece of theatre theory that I thought about for hours after our meeting.

Austin Chronicle: How do you approach a play? Do you approach opera or musical theatre differently than a straight play, or do you generally go through the same process?

Christopher McCollum: I think the process is about the same. Each of those types of productions have certain special needs that you have to keep in mind, but I think the way that I think about the design for each is pretty much the same. I'll read it, listen to it. If it's not a show I'm familiar with, I try to see what's really being said and talked about. From there, it differs with the piece. It depends on who is directing and what their approach is. There's a lot of talk about the piece before you start putting anything down on paper. And other people will come in with ideas. You want to find a common ground and find out what have been common, or even dissimilar, experiences of or reactions to the piece. Sometimes I'll already have something, like I saw this postcard and it makes me think about the piece. But it could be just a postcard of a fishbowl, not necessarily something concrete.

AC: Do you find that you want to surround yourself with things that call the show you are working on to mind, like a postcard or a picture?

CM: I usually have piles of books and things (gestures toward wall). These are actually things I went through for the model for West Side Story. Spent a fortune on photocopies. I altered a lot of things. This is more like the rejects that I didn't end up using, but I thought I might need it for something. It wasn't so much for inspiration as it was a resource to go to if I needed something and didn't want to go make 20 more photocopies.

It's more books. I tend to look at photographs a lot. I try to find something that may be inherently dramatic. For West Side Story, there was a postcard -- I'm giving away all of my secrets -- that, spatially, seemed to sum the show up in one picture. Sometimes there are pieces like that. Other times, it's just a collage of different things. A lot of times it's figures and not so much architectural. People might think, Oh, it's a building interior or a room, but a lot of times it's not that. It's more of an attitude, a sense of lighting.

(McCollum hands me a black-and-white postcard showing two men isolated in a pool of light in an alley criss-crossed by fire escapes and an L-track, evoking West Side Story's feeling, if not its essence.)

AC: The Weldon set -- wrapping the whole inside of the theatre in plastic -- where did that come from?

CM: That's actually one of my favorite designs. Just in terms of production and design, I felt really strongly about it. And it seemed to make a really, really strong impression on audience members. I had some friends who said when we sealed the entrance at the beginning, they couldn't breathe. They got claustrophobic. And we turned off the air conditioning and it got warmer. We really hit a wonderful balance between what's being talked about in the script -- the action -- with a look and a feeling. It's one that I'm proud of, not just my work but Vicky's [director and Frontera artistic director Vicky Boone] and all the performers'.

Actually, that design came through a lot of discussion, talking to Vicky about images and feelings and trying to capture the essence of the script. That was sort of a layering of things that synthesized. I did a very rough sketch, very quickly, after Vicky and I had been talking for a while. It was sort of an exploded ground plan; it wasn't as cut and dried as a ground plan, it was more illustrative. That was pretty much the design. It all sort of came together at that point, except for some futzing.

AC: Have you ever looked at a design and shuddered because it didn't look quite right on the stage?

CM: There have been productions that I didn't care for as much, where I didn't feel a personal interest like I did for Weldon. Silence, Cunning, Exile I agreed to do [for Frontera] without reading the script, because I just enjoyed working with Vicky and thought, Oh whatever Vicky does is great. Then I read the script and it said nothing to me. I think what interested people in the play, which also interested me, was Diane Arbus as a figure. I think the idea behind the script was quite intriguing, but I just found the script to be bad, to put it bluntly. I didn't feel there was anyone there I should care about. I didn't feel it was a journey I was interested in going on. But it was very demanding in terms of having many different scenes and locales, so I approached it in a way that was more like a puzzle, which a lot of plays turn out to be like. It's a more technical approach. I thought the design was okay; it wasn't like, I should have done this another way once it was up. Basically, I was glad to be done with it and to not have to look at it anymore. But I didn't feel like it was real inspired. It served the production fairly well and the space that Frontera has to work in, but I felt if there had been somebody who was more inspired by the piece, he would have done more service to Vicky. Vicky was very engaged with the play and inspired by it and I wasn't. In a certain way, I feel like I'd let her down.

AC: Have any other designs been favorites of yours?

CM: Well, Weldon is always real high on the list. And Sisters Rosensweig, I think, because everyone enjoyed that space so much. It was a good-feeling kind of play and came together on all levels. I really enjoyed ...And Baby Makes Seven just because the play was so delightful and warped.

AC: Was the building really growing?

CM: Yes, it was. In between scenes, it would kind of creep up. It was such a warped, bizarre, funny play. And again, wonderful performances. I really enjoyed Peter Pan, the product of Peter Pan. It was quite difficult to get it all done, but I thought it turned out really well. It was on a whole different level because I love musicals. And I like the sort of bizarre things like Weldon that I've gotten to do. I've been lucky that I've gotten to do all of those.

I also meant to mention Hedda Gabler. I've many times felt that it was sort of neglected. I felt it was a real strong production that wasn't as well received as it should have been. It was weird. It wasn't like people didn't like the production, but everybody seemed to criticize the play. We didn't write it. I think that the production brought out a lot of that stuff, but it was more like, Maybe you should go back and read the play.

AC: That was at the Dougherty Arts Center?

CM: Yes. We had some curtains, but then we had this giant sofa and we just used the walls of the theatre. It sort of opened up, so at the end it was this vast, black space. It's a nifty space.

AC: But it's kind of a weird space.

CM: It's weird, but I think we used it. Hedda went out the exit doors directly up center, and that's where she shot herself. We didn't have a lot of money and we didn't want to build a lot of stuff. But where is she going to shoot herself? We didn't want her to shoot herself right onstage. So it was like, Take her outside. And it was real cool. There's a loading dock out there so there's this kind of light at night that's very strange. I just loved that. That against this 19th-century super-constructed plot-driven play, I felt, was really interesting.

AC: Do you have a space in town you like to work in?

CM: I love the Paramount as an audience-going experience. Of course, having grown up here, I have really fond memories. As a kid, that's when they were doing all of the organizing, trying to save it from destruction and oblivion. I saw a national tour of Equus there. I think it's a beautiful place for an audience member. It's hell as a designer trying to pack everything in because there's almost no offstage space. They have fly, but they don't have that many, and it's a hemp system, which is very old. That kind of limits you. But it's nice to design shows that people are going to experience there. There's nothing better than walking in to Peter Pan and seeing the little orchestra. It's like being on Broadway, almost. It has that same feel.

I like the Kleberg [at Zachary Scott], for certain shows. It's a nice, intimate space. As everybody knows, we're sort of space poor now. I enjoy the challenge of Hyde Park, but it's like any place if you've done it a couple of times, you start to feel you've used all of your solutions for the space and think, What am I going to do now? That may end up being the case with the Paramount as well. Again, there are only a couple of ways to solve the problems that it offers.

AC: For you, what is the experience of theatre?

CM: It's something that, for me, is very specific in and of itself. It's very different from television and it's very different from film, which is why I work in theatre. There's something suggestive about theatre in a way that film and television are hard pressed to reduce themselves to. What I mean by that is that it can offer you impressions of the world without having to create everything down to the last speck of dirt. Somebody was pointing this out to me -- I think John Conklin -- that theatre is more like a novel, or it can be. If you read a novel and you're descending on a city from above, down to a window and into somebody's room -- in a book, all it says is that we are above the roofs of the city and came in through a window. As a reader, you're filling all of that in. Or not, depending on how much you're interested in or how much your imagination is working. But if you're going to make a movie of that, you have to pick out which city it is, the color of the roof, are there curtains on the windows? We have to do that in theatre, but we can get away with a certain amount of suggestion in theatre that you can't in film.

It's that sort of magical quality that theatre has. It encourages us to use our imaginations and that tends to be my favorite kind of experience, that encouragement for us to use our imagination in ways that are both known to us and unknown to us, use the corners of our imaginations that we hadn't thought to explore. A lot of times when I'm disappointed in theatre, I think it's because I'm being given too much information. My own imagination and creativity are being censored in a way by not allowing me to imagine other things.

West Side Story runs Nov 13-23, Tue-Sun, 8pm, Sat & Sun, 2pm, at the Paramount Theatre. Call 469-SHOW for info.
Andrea Chénier runs Nov 21-24, Fri, Sat, 8pm, Sun, 3pm, Mon, 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 472-5992 for info.

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