Ralph Funicello '70

Tuesday, Sep 3, 2019

A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Ralph Funicello ‘70

Ralph Funicello has designed the scenery for over 300 productions of plays and operas throughout the world including the Broadway productions of Julius Caesar, Brooklyn Boy, Henry IV (Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Tony Award nominations), King Lear, QED, and Division Street, Off-Broadway productions including Saturn Returns, Ten Unknowns (Lortel Nomination), Pride’s Crossing, and Labor Day, New York City Opera’s La Rondine, San Diego Opera’s Don Quichotte, Murder in the Cathedral and LA Opera’s acclaimed productions of The Dwarf and The Broken Jug. He is an Associate Artist at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and has designed for the American Conservatory Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, the South Coast Rep, the Seattle Rep, the Lincoln Center Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Milwaukee Rep, the American Festival Theatre, the Arizona Theatre Company, the Berkeley Rep, the Denver Center Theatre Company, the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Intiman Theatre, The Huntington Theatre, Kansas City Rep, A Contemporary Theatre, The Guthrie Theatre, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C., The Theatre Royal Bath, Shakespeare Center LA, The Stratford Festival of Canada and The Royal Shakespeare Company. He has received The Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration and awards from the Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle, the L.A. Drama Critics’ Circle, Dramalogue Magazine, Backstage West, and the United Stated Institute of Theatre Technology. His work has been exhibited at the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts in New York City, the University of San Diego, San Diego State University, Tiffany & Co. San Diego, the Chevron Gallery in San Francisco, The Prague Quadrennial, The Milwaukee Art Museum, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and the Exhibition of Stage Design in Beijing. He was the U. S. Delegate to the Scenography Commission of O.I.S.T.A.T. (International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects, and Technicians) from 1996-2001 and was a member of the Theatre Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts from1984-1985. He has held the position of Powell Chair in Set Design at San Diego State University since 1991.

What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?

I am very proud of the wonderful designers that I have helped to train and mentor at San Diego State University. I am also proud of the contributions that I have been allowed to make to the field of set design in this country over the past 50 years. I am grateful to still be working as an educator and designer.

You graduated in 1970 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?

It is very hard to arrange to be in the right place at the right time, but if and when you are, be sure you have the talent, training and ability to take advantage of it. I found that having respect for the needs of my collaborators, directors, and the actors/singers, made me sought after as a designer. Directors and theatre companies often want a set designer they know they can trust to solve the problems that they have created. Also, trusting and respecting the abilities of the craftspeople and artists you are working with goes a long way to maintaining a successful and enjoyable career. This is a very difficult, time-consuming business. If you cannot enjoy doing it, perhaps you shouldn’t. I don’t think one ever wants to be the designer everyone is dreading to work with, no matter how gifted.

How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?

I have lived in California since 1972, and San Diego since 1990, so I have not been very involved with the department. I was invited by Campbell Baird to discuss my work with some of the students in 2004, when I was in NYC designing King Lear for the Lincoln Center Theatre. I enjoyed that very much.

Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?

Yes, I have worked with a number of lighting designers who were alumni. In fact I am currently working with Josh Epstein ‘00 a on a production of M. Butterfly. It seems to be going very well! I also worked with Robert Wierzel four years ago, which was a real treat.

Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?

I think that we must try to maintain a healthy perspective on our work. It was hard in the beginning, when I believed that my whole career depended on each design and failure didn’t seem an option. However, as I gained more experience, I realized, that there will always be a next show. Now, I know not to worry about failure. In fact, sometimes a production that is a really gigantic failure will become a great anecdote, a theatre story that will live on for years, reaching and entertaining more people that the actual production ever could have.

Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.

I graduated from the NYU School of the Arts (pre-Tisch) with a BFA in 1970. That design department would be unrecognizable to the current students. The BFA and MFA students were in the same department and took all of the same classes together. The only difference was if you had a degree from an art school, you did not have to take one fundamental design class. The faculty was also totally different then. My design teachers were Robert Rabinowitz, Ming Cho Lee, Wolfgang Roth, Jules Fisher, Fred Voelpel, and Arnold Abramson, among others. I had Ming as a teacher in my 2nd year, and he then hired me and another student to work in his studio for the summer. After that, I considered myself a professional designer. In the spring of 1970, The Kent State Massacre closed most of the colleges in the country. I had designed the set for the NYU production of the antiwar musical Johnny Johnson, and we got permission to continue on with that production, even though the University was closed. Not having classes did enable me to take the

Union Exam that spring, which was a six-week long exam in those days. I passed! My class also organized the first NYU Design Show and a number of people that had a later influence on my career saw my work there, including Robin Wagner who employed me for a year. Jules Fisher recommended me to Bill Ball, the artistic director of The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. After various interviews, ACT asked me to design three shows for their 1972-73 season, on the condition that I relocate to San Francisco for six months. I agreed, and arrived to find a resident company of 48 actors, performing eight shows in repertory in the beautiful 1300 seat Geary Theatre. There was a union crew, union shop and union painters. And they paid me enough to live on - four times as much as the regional theatres on the East coast were then paying designers. So I stayed in California! My work at ACT led to work at The Guthrie, The Mark Taper Forum, The Seattle Rep, South Coast Rep, and The Old Globe. In 1984, Arnold Aronson interviewed me and included me in his book American Set Design, along with ten of the major set designers in the country. This was a great honor, and I am sure helped me to secure an endowed chair in set design at San Diego State University in 1991. I really enjoy teaching. I find that I am good at it and the financial security it has provided removed a great deal of anxiety from my life.

Talk about your career as a set and costume designer. For example, what do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?

Although my union stamp says “all categories,” I have not designed lighting or costumes in 47 years. I am a set designer. When I lived in the Bay area and worked a lot for ACT, I used to work out of their design office. The company always hired a great assistant and a very talented student intern (many went on to substantial design careers of their own.) They were sort of at my disposal, but if I had nothing for them to do, they would work on another show for a different designer. I moved my studio to my home in 1985. I had never wanted to be a company, employing and being responsible for feeding work to a number of permanent associates, assistants, or staff, and I never have. I now generally work by myself in my studio at home, doing all of the work myself. I enjoy it. I do hire my students to work for me from time to time but that is more of an extension of my teaching. I love the design meetings with directors and other designers and find they stimulate my ideas enormously. I have always found translating the great ideas into an actual object to be the most difficult part of designing. This can often lead to procrastination. For a while, during the 1990s and early 2000s I became addicted to adrenaline. That is, when the pressure of deadlines mounted to a certain point, the adrenaline would kick in and my creative instincts would soar. Ideas would wash over me and all my choices were sharp and quick. I didn’t need sleep and actually did some really great work. But I DO NOT recommend this method. It is not very healthy. Now I try to stay ahead of the work. The process is not quite as exciting, but is healthier.

What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?

There have been many. Designing Dr. Faustus at the Guthrie in 1976, while sharing the design office and shops with Desmond Heeley was pure joy. I would also have to include being nominated for a Tony Award for my set design for Henry IV at the LCT in 2004. You know, you start out wanting desperately to have a life in the theatre and never being sure it will actually happen. When you are sitting in the audience, waiting to find out if you won a Tony Award, you know it has happened.

When did you get interested in theater design and how?

In September of my junior year in High School, I missed my ride home from school and to kill time, I went to the fall organizational meeting of the drama club. They passed a clipboard around to sign up for the crews on the fall production of Take Her She’s Mine. I was too embarrassed to pass it on without volunteering so I signed up for the construction crew. I showed up the following Saturday and my life changed forever. By the end of the fall semester, I knew that I wanted to be a set designer. That production of Take Her She’s Mine remains a favorite memory.

What or who were your influences?

Direct influences were the teachers mentioned above, and Desmond Heeley who was a mentor throughout my career. I would also include the directors Jack O’Brien, Michael Langham, Gordon Davidson, John Hirsch, Dan Sullivan, Carey Perloff, Donovan Marley, and Adrian Noble. I would also have to say the American Conservatory Theatre. When I was a student and shortly after I started my career, my real concern was what other designers would think of my work. Was it innovative – a new approach, etc.? When I arrived at ACT in 1972, I was immersed in a large company of 48 actors, three or four directors and only one other set designer. I soon realized that my real job there was to provide an environment that would help these actors bring these plays to life. If I could do it in an innovative way, fine, but the actors had to be able to tell the story. I have never forgotten that.

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?

From School?

Many of those I studied with and under are no longer with us. I still remember the incredible characters and the crazy times in the East Village in the 1960s. Anything could happen, and did.

From Outside of school?

Desmond Heeley’s voice, certainly, and also, Sam Kirkpatrick, a designer that I met through Desmond.

What are some of your other interests in life?

Spending time with my family and travel.

Any final thoughts?

I am very glad that I missed my ride home that day in high school, and I am also very glad that I transferred to NYU in 1967. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have been given the opportunity in my life to work on marvelous projects with an incredible group of bright, witty, talented, characters. I can’t really think of anything more enjoyable. In the end, it is always about the people.