This past summer I sat down with scenic designer Derek McLane to discuss the inner workings of his craft and his journey navigating the industry. He is the mastermind behind Hairspray Live!, Broadway’s current smash hit Moulin Rouge, and many other award-winning productions. You can see more of his work on his website.
Interview conducted by: Katie Constantine
Edited by: Morgan Moore & Katie Constantine & Catherine Harlow
TFG: How did you get into scenic design?
McLane: So I kind of stumbled into it when I was in college. Somebody had asked me…I had a little construction experience, you know, as a summer job working on house construction. And so somebody in college asked me to build a set, and I did that. And I thought it would be really interesting to design one. So I was an undergraduate at Harvard and there was no theater program there when I was there, but there was a lot of theater. And so I was able to start designing student productions and I designed a lot of them when I was an undergraduate and really, you know, fell in love with it. And I didn’t really have any skills so, you know I was just passionate about it, and so I went to Yale Drama School after that and I studied set design. I studied set and costume design there. And then got an MFA and then I moved to New York.
TFG: Did you ever envision another path for yourself?
McLane: Not really at that point. You know, prior to that, I had thought I would be an archeologist, but you know, the minute I sort of started designing sets I was hooked and I sort of said screw this archeology stuff, I want to be a set designer.
TFG: Take me through your process. Do you start with a sketch? Research?
McLane: Usually research. Sometimes I just draw something if I sort of immediately know what I think it’s going to look like. You know, it can be either. But I would say most of the time its research and sort of saying, you know…trying to develop what the world of that show is. Whether it’s a single place or whether it’s multiple places. Whether the design is going to end up being abstract or not. Yet I still need to sort of understand what the visual vocabulary of the thing is going to be. And so research is really useful for that. Sometimes it’s research that’s place-based, or period-based. Sometimes it’s more emotional than that. It really depends on the piece. There’s no sort of rule for that, it’s sort of whatever seems to work.
TFG: Do you collaborate with a lot of people during that time?
McLane: Well, I have a small studio where I’ve got some associates who help me with that stuff. They help me do the research, then we get to building models of the set. They help me with that and then I always collaborate with the director all the way through. Usually the first conversation I have is with the director. You know, the director is usually the one that asks me to do the show, so you know, I usually…I say, “Tell me what you have in your head,” you know, “Do you have any images in your head?” Often they don’t, but then I’ll say, “Tell me what it is you love about this play.” So I ask the director what drew them to the piece, or why they were interested in it. Or, you know, sort of what story they wanted to tell with it. Even if they say they don’t have an image for the show, you usually find out a lot in those answers.
TFG: So they end up having something in the works, they just don’t really realize it?
McLane: It might not have anything to do with the way it looks, but it might have to do with how they want it to feel, or even just hearing some emphasis, you know, in the story, what part of the story particularly interests them. Because ultimately, my work will be more successful if it feels like it’s really well integrated with everything else. And so, you know, trying to make it all feel like one vision, I think, is really ultimately the goal.
TFG: Was there ever a time where that was kind of harder to get to, that kind of integration?
McLane: Yeah, [there are] some projects where that doesn’t really happen. Usually, it’s a show where there’s…you know, I mean I haven’t had this experience in a long time, but if there’s like a real disconnect between the writer and the director, or if they are…you know, if the piece is just not, sort of, ready. Sometimes there are pieces that people start working on that aren’t really ready for full production. And you can kind of run into that; where the thing doesn’t really know what it wants to be yet.
TFG: What do you do with that then?
McLane: Well, ideally, get them to postpone the production until those questions are answered. But you know, the other thing, the only thing you can do as a designer is, you can ask tough questions and say, “This thing bothers me, this doesn’t feel right. I wanna get to the bottom of this.” And you know, if you’re right, that’s usually helpful for the process.
TFG: How long does it usually take you to create a scenic design from start to end?
McLane: It really depends, as the shows are so different. Some shows are really big and complicated, and some shows are simple. So you know Moulin Rouge I started on two-and-a-half years ago and of course, you saw it in Boston so you know that a little over a year ago we had a version of it there. But it’s pretty typical to work on a big musical for a year before you get to an audience. And not to say they haven’t been done faster than that, they certainly have been and they can be, but that’s more typical. I’m doing a play on Broadway this winter that opens in January that I’m just starting on today. That’s obviously a much shorter process. I’ll need to have a version of the design done by mid-September so that there’s enough time to go through the budgeting process and actually get it built.
TFG: Who sets those deadlines? Is that you, is that the director, the producer?
McLane: I mean in that case, it’s really the…well the deadlines, I mean we kind of set the deadlines together. They’re kind of based on common sense. It’s sort of like, if the show opens on this date and we need to start rehearsals on stage on this date, you just work backward and say, you know, it’s gonna take this much time to load the set into the theater and set everything up, and it’s gonna take this much time for the shops to build the show before the load-in, and it’s gonna take this much time for budgeting, and it’s gonna take this much time to design it. So you just kind of divvy up the time that way.
TFG: Is it different for the Oscars, because I feel like that would be a whole different beast of an idea itself?
McLane: Well, the Oscars are incredibly fast. They are actually…the work I’ve done on the Oscars has been faster than most theater stuff.
TFG: So Moulin Rouge is a marathon but then the Oscars are sprints?
McLane: Yeah! I mean, I’m not doing the Oscars now, but when I did do them that was definitely the case. You know, from start to finish, it was often like three or four months.
TFG: Have you ever had a situation where halfway through a design, maybe building it, you suddenly changed your mind, or you ran into an instance where maybe it can’t happen, maybe you can’t do the things you wanted to do and you have to adjust?
McLane: Well changing your mind, sure, yes. If it’s really late, it’s not possible really. I mean the truth is, you can often think of other ways to do a show and if you actually think that’s a better way and it’s too late, that’s a painful experience. But that’s not usually the case. In terms of things not being possible, that’s pretty rare because usually by the time you get to building the set there’s been enough, sort of, problem-solving and discussion that involves other people. When you look at what it costs to build a set, you discover a lot of the issues. You know, in order for somebody to decide how much they’re gonna charge to build it, they have to really understand it and they have to actually then start to have a bunch of conversations about how the thing is going [to] be built. And in doing that, it usually forces a lot of questions. And then the next thing that happens is, you know, after you solve that, there’s still another process, which is that the shop that’s going to build the scenery usually does all their own shop drawings. So they take my drawings and they make their own construction drawings. And when they make their construction drawings, they discover all sorts of things, structural things, that they have to then solve.
TFG: Interesting. So when you did the Oscars, there’s not as much of a storyline, obviously, as a Broadway show or musical. Do you find it harder to make a set when you don’t have a clear storyline to go off of?
McLane: I find it…it’s probably easier to tell a story because there’s a kind of logic behind that. The challenge of designing something like the Oscars was that, because there is no specific narrative, there’s no specific story, it’s sometimes a little hard to know where to start. And it’s also, in a way, harder for everybody to evaluate because you’re not measuring it against a script, you’re measuring it against just simply whether you like it or not. And so it’s a very different job.
TFG: And then for things like Hairspray Live! or like The Wiz Live that seems like everything needs to be rapidly done, rapidly moved, right? How do you go about that, as opposed to something that’s more static?
McLane: Well The Wiz and Hairspray Live! were actually the opposite. The Wiz was conceived of like a Broadway show so that we had a stage and we moved all the scenery on and off of it. Hairspray Live! was done on a backlot at Universal, NBC Universal. So we used their backlot and we shot about half of it on the backlot and then we built the other half, approximately, as sets inside a sound stage. And some of the sets we also built inside rooms in the backlot so that you could go inside and outside in a single building. So that was a very, very different…that was a very different kind of thing. So actually there wasn’t that much moving scenery in Hairspray. Hairspray really was about the camera moving from one place to another.
TFG: I assume you have to account for where the camera will be when you’re building the set.
McLane: Yeah. That was a big part of that planning. And also, where the sets were in relation to one another because, you know, we had a script, and we knew that one scene had to be in this space and that 30 seconds later another scene was happening in another space and just literally making sure that the actors have enough time to get from one space to another. You know, we were literally out there with stopwatches three months ahead of time having people walk from one spot to another and seeing, can they make it?
TFG: For Moulin Rouge, what made you decide to actually build the models instead of just having a painted backdrop?
McLane: Well, I knew that if it was just flat and painted it wouldn’t have the same richness or depth. I mean, the audience can tell the difference. Even if they don’t consciously know the difference, they feel it. And so that’s really why.
TFG: The Moulin Rouge set literally comes out into the audience so it’s not just the normal stage. Was that something the director specifically wanted or was that your idea?
McLane: Yeah, that was something…well, it was something we started talking about really early on. Alex Timbers, the director, really wanted…you know, when you’re talking about how to sort of capture the energy of the movie, which has a lot of moving camera pans and frame shots and has an almost frenetic energy at times, we wanted to figure out a way to make that work on stage. So Alex suggested that we make this thing really environmental, that we encompass the audience as much as possible.
TFG: Very nice, very cool. That with the elephant in the window too.
McLane: Yeah, well, that was really my idea to put those out there, but he totally embraced the whole thing, so.
TFG: That’s great. What skills do you feel like you’ve had to build on the most from when you started as an undergrad until now? What do you think are the most important skills to build on?
McLane: Well, the ability to draw is really important because you’re going to use that every day. It’s really hard to design a set if you can’t draw it. I mean you can make a model of it, but at some point, you know, drawings are what the carpenters are going to work from when they go to build it. And so being able to communicate that way. But also, in a way, drawing is a way that you end up thinking as a designer. You know, writers write sentences. And designers draw things. That’s really kind of what we do. And it’s not just the communication, part of the process of design is actually connected to drawing it. And it’s where you kind of work out things. And so that was something I really worked on, you know, early on was developing my drawing skills. When I went from Harvard to go meet with the faculty at Yale saying that, you know, I wanted to go study design, basically, at my interview, they said, “We think you’re a promising designer but your drawing skills leave something to be desired.” And so basically they said, “If you promise to study drawing from now until the time you come to Yale, we’ll accept you.” And that’s what I did. But you know, it’s something I’ve continued to work on my whole life, really, is to be able to draw better. And so that’s one thing.
I think the other skill that’s maybe even more fundamental than that, and this is a skill that’s really hard to teach, it’s really a skill that…I mean I think it’s sort of innate for some people and I think it’s just something you develop over time, the ability to read a play, to read a story and visualize how that will play on stage. That’s a really, really important thing. Like, if you can’t really do that, you can’t design a show at all. You know, and it’s not to say that there is one way to visualize it, of course not, there’s an infinite number of ways you can visualize something. But to be able to visualize something that is doable, that people respond to, that feels contemporary, that feels detailed enough that that audience can believe in it but not so detailed necessarily that it feels fussy, those are all, you know, sort of, really, really important parts of being able to read and imagine a play.
TFG: Do you think someone builds that skill over time through just doing it?
McLane: It is something you build over time. I mean, it certainly was part of what was taught at graduate school, but it’s also a thing you just develop by trial and error and you get to understand it better and better the more you do it.
TFG: When you were developing your drawing skills, did you take some recreational drawing classes?
McLane: Mm-hmm. It’s funny, I didn’t really like the drawing classes that they had at Harvard. So I ended up taking an intensive drawing class for a whole summer that met five days a week for something like four hours a day. That was so intense, I was just sort of living and breathing drawing. You know, that’s all I did.
TFG: Was it drawing that was specific to set design, or…?
McLane: It had nothing to do with set design and then I also took classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in the evening. I’d go to these studio art classes in the evening that were like two hours, a couple of nights a week, of drawing.
TFG: Do you do all your drawing on a tablet? Was it a hard switchover?
McLane: Yes, I do a lot of drawing on a tablet. But until the tablets became good enough to do that, which is pretty recent, I didn’t bother. I mean, there were ways you could draw on a computer, you know, 15 years ago, but they were so cumbersome that I didn’t do it. I would just draw with a pencil and paper. And I still do that too sometimes. It all just sort of depends on my mood. I mean the good thing about, like, using an iPad to draw now is that it’s pretty close to drawing on paper in terms of how the stylus responds. And you know, there are programs where you could all draw…you know, if you use an iPad, draw where it’s pressure-sensitive and so it doesn’t feel…it used to feel totally mechanical. Now it doesn’t feel that way anymore. It’s much more like real drawing.
TFG: Do you recommend getting an MFA if someone wanted to go into set design?
McLane: Yeah, I mean the degree itself doesn’t matter, and nobody cares that I have an MFA. A director’s never asked if I have a degree or not. But the training matters, absolutely. There are some successful designers who don’t have training, but most of them do have a bit of training.
TFG: What were your first steps after graduation from Yale?
McLane: I moved to New York and I started calling set designers who I’d heard of and telling them that I wanted to assist. It wasn’t that hard to find assistant work and I started assisting them. I got work assisting a bunch of different designers. And that was great. I learned a huge amount that way. I learned from watching them work and helping them and seeing how they did their jobs.
TFG: Is there anyone who was your biggest inspiration at that point?
McLane: Well, I assisted a designer named Robin Wagner, and he was then the biggest, most successful designer of Broadway musicals. He did A Chorus Line, Dream Girls, and a lot of the really big musicals of the time. And so I assisted him and it was great. I learned a huge amount from him.
TFG: Is there any new piece of technology/software/app you recommend to someone who’s up and coming and only has a certain sum of money or resources?
McLane: I mean, if you wanna get started as a set designer, aside from learning how to draw by hand, which is the most important thing, learning how to draft scenery in a CAD kind of program, like AutoCAD or one of the similar programs, is kind of key. Like, these days, you can’t be an associate set designer without knowing how to draw in one of those programs. So anybody who’s working in New York, really, as an associate set designer knows those programs. But if you wanted to start work and you didn’t know that program, that would be sort of crucial. I guess my advice would be that there’s a lot of technologies that are important and we have to learn them, but some people are overly seduced by technology. As a designer of any kind, whether you’re being an associate set designer or designer in your own right, [what’s important is] keeping your eye on the art and developing your art skills. Because that’s really, at the end of the day, what’s gonna distinguish you from the, sort of, rest of the pack. There are a ton of people with computer skills, and it’s not to say you don’t need computer skills, you do, but the thing that will make you extraordinary are the art skills.
TFG: Is there anything you wish you knew when you were breaking into the industry?
McLane: You know, I would say for a long time, I tended not [to] think big enough. I think I was too hampered by the limitations of things, the financial limitations, the spatial limitations, and not thinking ambitiously enough.
TFG: Do you feel like there’s more opportunity in New York or L.A.?
McLane: While there is some theater in L.A., it’s not really a theater town. So if you want to be a theater designer, I would not move to L.A. Not to say that there are some good theater designers living in L.A., but as a place, there’s just not nearly as much going on there. So as a place to, sort of, go get started, it’s kinda rough.
TFG: So New York’s the place to be?
McLane: Yeah. And it used to be that, you know, for film and television, you had to go to L.A., but that’s not even really true anymore because there’s so much production in New York right now. I mean, I believe that there’s more serious TV stuff being made in New York than there is L.A. at the moment.
TFG: What about London? People always talk about the theater scene in England.
McLane: London is huge. There’s a giant theater scene in London.
TFG: What’s your favorite thing about scenic design? What keeps you coming back to it?
McLane: There’s an element of every show that’s a bit of torture, that moment where you’re starting on it and you go, ‘my god, how do I get started on this thing,’ and that’s sort of depressing, but also conquering that is always rewarding and it always seems different. For whatever reason, every project seems different. Every project takes on it’s own life, and developing that moment where the world of the show comes into view and you feel like you’ve created the visual life of a show is, like, that sort of achievement is so satisfying.
TFG: What type of shows do you like to do most?
McLane: I like to do anything that’s good. Anything that just clicks with an audience. That’s the most rewarding thing. I mean, it’s hard to predict that early on so you never really know, but that is, for me that’s it.
TFG: Do you ever pick a random afternoon to go to one of your shows just to be with the audience and see their reactions?
McLane: Definitely. Yeah.
TFG: That must be really fun.
McLane: It is really fun.
TFG: Any new ventures coming up?
McLane: I’m doing a new musical, Almost Famous. We’re doing an adaptation of that. It’s really exciting. It’s at the Old Globe theater in San Diego. It has some of the songs from the movie, and then it has an original score by Tom Kitt. He’s done a really clever job of writing sort of in the style of all the songs we associate with the movie. It’s really quite seamless.
TFG: That sounds great!
McLane: Yeah, I’m really excited for it.
You can read more about Derek McLane’s latest musical Almost Famous here. Also, if you find yourself needing some uplifting shows to watch during these unprecedented times, check out McLane’s Hairspray Live!, The WIZ Live!, and The Sound of Music Live!