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A Day in the Life of a Broadway Set Designer

Category Broadway

|by David Sheward |

Anna Louizos creates Broadway magic with her stage designs for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 'Cinderella.’ Find out what it's like to step into her world

One of the most dazzling aspects of the new Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is the gorgeous set — the grand palace with its sweeping staircase, the quaint town square where the villagers learn of the ball where the prince will chose a bride, the heroine’s humble cottage which seems to be a part of the enchanting forest which surrounds it, and, of course, the immense clock which will announce the end of Cinderella’s magic spell at midnight. To bring this fairy-tale world to life, the challenge isn’t just about artistry and imagination, it’s also the complex symphony of timing and engineering that goes into the dozens of seamless scenery changes every night.  And to pull it off, the show’s producers called upon one of the best in the business, set designer Anna Louizos.

After years of cutting her teeth on smaller Off-Broadway productions, including Tick…Tick…Boom, a musical from the late Jonathan Larsen (Rent) produced in 2001, Louizos is now one of the most in-demand set designers in town. She first made it to Broadway when two of her shows moved there from Off-Broadway in the same season—Golda’s Balcony, a one-woman play starring Tovah Feldshuh as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, and a little something called Avenue Q, the brash puppet musical that went on to become a megahit. Her subsequent Broadway work has included In the Heights and High Fidelity, for which she received Tony nominations, as well as The Mystery of Edwin DroodThe Performers, CurtainsIrving Berlin’s White Christmas, and Steel Magnolias.

We think she has a pretty incredible job. To get an idea of what it’s like to be a Broadway set designer, and to find out how her amazing stage worlds come into being, we recently followed Louizos around for a typical day in her life (it was a Wednesday).

Set designer, Anna Louizos backstage at Cinderella (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Set designer, Anna Louizos backstage at Cinderella (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

9:30 AM
Louizos arrives at her studio on W. 125th Street in Harlem. The space, a small one-bedroom apartment, is a working office and the living room is taken over by Anna’s three young assistants, Hilary Noxon, Rita Leduc and Adam Karavatakis. There are models and drawings everywhere, but all neatly catalogued and arranged. Several containers hold discarded set pieces and resemble children’s toy boxes full of dismantled doll houses. Hundreds of notepads, sketches and renderings—everything to do with a production—are filed by show in huge cabinets.

Anna begins by going over upcoming projects with her staff. The most important scheduling that needs to be done is for Honeymoon in Vegas, a new musical based on the 1992 film comedy, starring Tony Danza and Rob McClure (Chaplin). The show is set for the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey in the fall. “I need to plan ahead,” Louizos says. “I know when the set has to be ready and when it has to load into the theater, so I have to back up from there. You pretty much need five weeks to safely build any set. But the more time you have, the better.” She confers with Hilary about how much time it would take to create the design, build a model for the director, get the scene shop to build it, and install it in the theater.

Adam enters with the scale model for the set of another project, Fly, a new version of the Peter Pan story from Wendy’s point of view, for the Dallas Theater Center. He’s just returned from the rehearsal studio to show the director the model. Now, he is working on ground plans for Anna’s set design to be sent to the Las Vegas headquarters of Foy, the company that executes all the flying for shows which require aerial action. The plans will enable Foy to create a 3-D version of the set so they can plan when to fly the actors in.

12:00 PM
After bidding goodbye to her staff, Louizos hops on the B train downtown to the Broadway Theatre to check on the Cinderella set before the 2pm Wednesday matinee. She leads this reporter and photographer on a backstage tour. The storybook atmosphere of the musical is not apparent as all the various components that make up the set are broken apart like pieces of a giant jigsaw and stored in the wings. The door for Cinderella’s house is on one side of the stage while the interior is on another. During the show, they will revolve on turntables and meet to form the scene. Other pieces of scenery fly on and off stage—the magic carriage, the Prince’s horse, the stalls for the peasants in the village square. While showing her guests around, Anna confers with the head carpenter to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Below the stage in the theater’s basement, Louizos shows us an elaborate cable system which moves the complicated scenery. “The cables run through the deck, which is eight inches tall and covers the stage. The set pieces are on wagons that have wheels underneath to travel and they are pulled by the cables,” says Louizos.

Asked about her creative process and collaboration with the show’s director Mark Brokaw, Louizos explains, “After the book and the score are completed, the director’s first conversation is with the set designer because we have to create the world in which everything else exists. Shortly afterwards, the costume designer and then the choreographer. But first, it’s about the space.”

“The process begins with Mark and I having a conversation about how he sees the show and the atmosphere of the show,” she continues. “He brought a number of images to show me and I brought a number of images to show him. We looked at what we had in common. We said what we did and didn’t like about each other’s images. We found a way into the piece that way. The trees figured prominently from the very beginning. He had this strong image of a forest with chandeliers and a woman in a beautiful gown in the middle of it. That was our departure point.”

Choices were made for the palette of the peasants and the village, which was influenced by the paintings of Brueghel. “A lot of olives and oranges were used,” she says. “For the trees, we settled on a moderately colored palette that feels like a forest with hints of metallic, silvery color which were underpainted on the surfaces of the trees, also the arches of the palace so they would have an organic feel.” Cinderella’s house was originally two stories high, but this proved to be cost-prohibitive. Louizos redesigned the house so you can still see the trees through it and added vines so it would seem to be a part of the forest’s landscape.

While the actors gather onstage, signaling curtain time is approaching, Anna kisses Santino Fontana, who plays the Prince, goodbye as he gets ready to run through the fight choreography for his opening battle with a giant monster. For safety reasons, the actors repeat their combat moves before every performance.

1:00 PM
Back on the subway to the studio, where the staff sits down together for lunch. Adam is still working on the Fly drawings. Hilary is building a scale model of the Robert E. Lee house in Arlington, Virginia which will be used as a donation box for the historical site. Rita helps with the office business, keeping the calendar together, making deposits, restocking art supplies and running errands.

3:00 PM 
For the rest of the afternoon, Louizos continues working on the model and drawings for Flyand the model for the Arlington House with the staff. While showing us around her studio, she explains how she get started. Louizos was initially interested in pursuing a career onstage, but when she came to NYU after transferring from Mills College in California as an undergrad acting student, she also developed her offstage interests. “I took a scene design course at Mills and my teacher said, ‘You really should think about going in this direction. NYU has a really good program.’ When I came to NY and saw what their grad program was like, it intrigued me. I also saw that New York is hugely competitive. There were more talented people vying for acting jobs. So I started assisting set designers and did enroll in NYU’s graduate program for design.”

5:00 PM
The production stage manager emails a full report on that afternoon’s performance of Cinderella. This goes to the director, the producers, the choreographer, and all the designers, detailing all the aspects of the performance. “It goes over if there were any problems with the set, how the audience responded, if anybody was sick, if anybody got injured, all those things,” Anna says. Today, the report says the light bulbs were changed out and things look brighter. Audience responses were especially terrific at all the right moments.

6:00 PM
Anna and the staff quit for the day. “We try to keep normal hours,” she says. After work, some days, she’ll meet her partner, Robyn Goodman, one of the Cinderella producers, for dinner and a show. “Robyn is a Tony voter, so we see everything,” Anna explains. The previous evening, they attended the opening night of The Big Knife. But, this is a night off, so she’ll just relax and watch TV back at her apartment.

12:00 AM
A report on the evening performance of Cinderella comes in via email. There’s also one for Avenue Q which is still running Off-Broadway at New World Stages. Anna reads both reports—there’s a prop update on new flower pots (“No breaking issues. We have touch up paint for the pots and glue for the interior.”), and she finds out that Q won in the Off-Broadway collecting category for the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising effort.  And on that news, she calls it a night.

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