A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Beowulf Boritt '96
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
I have 3 shows running on Broadway currently- A Bronx Tale, Come From Away, and Sunday in the Park with George. Coming up is Prince of Broadway with Hal Prince and Susan Stroman on Broadway, and a revival of Young Frankenstein with Susan Stroman & Mel Brooks on the West End. I never imagined such an embarrassment of riches, and feel very lucky.
You graduated in 1996 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
Be pushy. You can overdo it, but it’s hard. This is a business full of hyperbolic extroverts and if you can’t stand out you’ll be passed over. I’m not naturally extroverted, but I taught myself how to turn it on when I have to. Being a nice person, and a hard worker, and having a modicum of talent are also important, but sadly less important than selling yourself well.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
Not hugely. I do portfolio reviews when I’m asked and I’m able to. I keep dropping hints that I’d love to guest teach a class or a few- but so far, no takers!
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
Jo Winiarski (’03) was my long-time associate until she was wooed away by the world of TV. Alexis Distler (’08) has been my main associate for the past 8 years. So, obviously both have worked well! Jason Lajka (’03) drafts beautifully for me often, and Caite Hevner (’10) is frequently my collaborator on projects that involve video. Given her brilliant design for Great Comet, I am proud to say Mimi Lien (’03) assisted me once, years ago, on a small show! I usually come to the design show, and like a lot of the work.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
I never worked as an assistant much, for better or worse. I tried it, did not like it, and consequently was not a very good assistant. Instead, even while in school, I designed every little show that I was offered. Sometimes 30 in a year when I was starting out. I got lucky and some of those led to bigger and better things, and some of those bigger and better things led to even bigger- and so on. Getting a commercially successful show is really all luck, but the more you do, the more likely any one project might lead to something else. The downside of not assisting is that my first Broadway design was literally the first Broadway show I ever worked on, so that was a steep learning curve with no safety net. But I guess it worked out ok.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
Schedule. It’s very hard to keep all the balls in the air at once, and work on multiple complicated shows all at the same time. I try to be very disciplined about it, and hire assistants I trust to make sure pieces don’t fall through the cracks.
2nd is probably to constant search for my next job. I’m booked for about a year ahead right now, but somewhere down the road is looming unemployment if I don’t find that next job!
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
I really think it’s some of the extraordinary artists I’ve gotten to meet and work with: Hal Prince, James Lapine and Susan Stroman especially. They’re 3 very different, and very brilliant directors who have taught me a lot. I’ve also been lucky enough to do shows with Steve Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown, Jerry Zaks, Bob DeNiro, Warren Carlisle, John Rando and coming up Mel Brooks. All have different signatures and I’ve learned different things from each of them.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I liked to draw and make dioramas when I was a kid. And I liked doing the school plays. In High school, I interned at a little summer stock theatre in Gettysburg, PA, and realized I could combine the two things with theatre design, and I fell in love with it. I thought I would become a college professor and really credit NYU with bringing me to NYC and exposing me to the professional world of theatre.
What or who were your influences?
I think all my NYU teachers influenced me in different ways. But I think seeing some of Robin Wagner’s work on Broadway in the ‘90s really made me fall in love with the grand spectacle that Broadway can provide.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices?
I really think it’s the people who told me, early on, to be pushy or the profession would pass me by: the set designer Marge Kellogg & the then GM of the Public Steve Cohen.
What are some of your other interests in life?
Since I’ve been so lucky to work a lot, I have to say that I really cherish a quiet evening at home with my wife and my dog. My only honest hobby is reading for pleasure. I read history and biography voraciously. I guess, in the past 3 months I’d have to add a degree of political activism to my list of non-professional interests. I always voted, but wasn’t active beyond that until this year. That’s changed, bigly.
Any final thoughts?
Be bold and dramatic. I find a lot of stage design awfully tame and un-interesting. Of course some shows need simpler things, but all design can be interesting. Don’t be bland, it’s boring.