With both a Tony and an Emmy under his belt, it’s safe to say that production designer Derek McLane is at the top of his game. We sat down with the man of the Broadway hour to chat career, the ins and outs of production design, and his current Broadway project, Fully Committed starring “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
LA: Tell us a bit about yourself.
DM: I am a freelance set designer working on Broadway, off-Broadway and in television. I live in the West Village, and have a studio in the Times Square area. Whenever the weather cooperates, I ride my bicycle to work. I love what I do and consider myself very lucky to work with my fellow artists in the field.
LA: The amount of work you’ve done in the theatre world is quite staggering -- with over 300 productions under your belt (and plenty more to come, we’re sure), how do you continuously find a way to produce a beautiful, unique design each time?
DM: Being busy energizes me. In some ways, I find that the busier I am, the more ideas I have, and the more efficiently I work. I have several very talented young designers who work in my studio to help bring these ideas to life.
LA: When a new project comes to your desk, what do you look for in order to accept?
DM: Mostly I want to know that I can succeed at it. There a few criteria. I need to find the project creatively interesting; if it isn’t, it's a non-starter. Second, I need to be given the resources so that I can support the talent in my studio. If can’t do the work myself, and if I can’t find the resources to support the work, I won’t do it.
LA: What brought you to the production design industry?
DM: I stumbled into the field while in college. Someone asked me to design an undergraduate production of Guys and Dolls, and though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I was instantly hooked.
LA: You’ve been a major player in the production design industry for around 20 years. How has the industry changed since you began?
DM: There are more shows being produced each season, and more people than ever are seeing shows. All the Broadway theaters have a show, which was not the case when I started. On the television side, even bigger changes are underway. The broadcast networks have ceded enormous ground to the cable and online networks, and in turn, broadcast has been inventing new live formats—an area where networks have a clear advantage. The live TV musical is one of those formats that presents a tremendous amount of exciting opportunities.
LA: When did you discover you had the talent to make this a career?
DM: Some days I still wonder if I do! While I was designing shows in college, before I had any training, I was just arrogant enough to think I had a talent for this.
LA: Who has been your biggest influence/inspiration in your career to date?
DM: I would have to say two of my teachers from Yale Drama School: Ming Cho Lee and Michael Yeargan. Both brilliant designers and amazing teachers.
LA: What would you say is your biggest career achievement?
DM: There are so many milestones along the way, and as soon as you reach one, you look for another. I do think that when I designed I Am My Own Wife, I discovered a creative voice that I have continued to explore.
LA: Winning a Tony Award is a huge achievement -- what was going through your head when your name was called?
DM: First of all, to make sure I had heard it right and it was really my name. And second, not to trip and fall as I walked towards the stage. And finally, to try and breathe when I got to the stage and looked out at all those faces. I had to take it in for just a beat before I spoke. It was a truly amazing experience.
LA: Did you ever think growing up that you would be where you are now?
DM: Honestly, growing up, I really had no idea. When I wasn’t worrying about my very bad acne, I had thought I might be an architect or archaeologist. I had never thought about going into show business.
LA: What has been your favorite show to work on? And why?
DM: My answer to that changes constantly, and is often what ever I designed most recently. That said, 33 Variations was one of my true favorites, both as a show and as a design. And I got a real thrill out of designing Hans Zimmer’s concert tour, which is now travelling Europe – from the scale of the project to the emotional impact of the music.
LA: When you go to the theatre, is is difficult for you to detach from a critical production mindset and watch the show as an audience member?
DM: Yes. I see the show before there is a seated audience and form very critical reactions. And then during preview performances, I often find myself analyzing the audience’s reactions. That being said, if the show really works, and that audience is really feeling it, I get swept away and forget all about those critical responses.
LA: Now for the Oscars. You have designed the stage four years running -- how did that come about? Did they seek you out or did you have to “audition” for the part?
DM: Four years ago, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were hired to produce the show, and I had worked with them previously on two shows I designed. They were the people who brought me in and introduced me to the Academy. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to ‘audition.’
LA: How do you keep the design fresh and new for the annual event? Do you have a specific inspiration for each one?
DM: I have always looked for new ideas and new inspirations. Some come from things the producers say to me; some from the movies that are in the zeitgeist, and some are from the design and art world. I am always searching for new ideas.
LA: What are the challenges of doing live TV (be it an awards show or live musical) as opposed to theatre?
DM: The scale is so different. In the theater, the viewpoints are fixed; the audience doesn’t suddenly get closer to the set. But on television, it is constantly changing. You have a long shot one second, and then an extreme close up and you have to adjust for both accordingly.
LA: What was it about the Fully Committed proposal that caught your attention initially?
DM: It is such an interesting world. The private workspace, the underbelly of a fancy restaurant, juxtaposed to the glamour of the public space. And the director, Jason Moore, is someone who thinks about design in interesting ways.
LA: What was the particular inspiration for the Fully Committed design?
DM: I was very influenced by the artist Ai Wei Wei, who has done these amazing installations with bicycles and stools. Truly fantastic. And I was also inspired by the old original reservations room at the former Union Square Café, which was tiny and very atmospheric.
LA: What was the thought process behind the waterfall of chairs? Can you tell us the magic behind how they were made to float?
DM: For me, it was more a cyclone or a tornado of chairs to suggest the whirlwind that is created trying to get a seat at the restaurant. The chairs are suspended on thin wire cables — lots of them. Those cables disappear under the lights.
LA: What's your favorite nuance from the Fully Committed set that an audience member might have missed?
DM: I suppose the different wine labels. We used over 100 wine labels on 900 bottles of wine. In laying it out, I discovered that using fewer than that looked fake—you could see the repeat in patterns.
LA: What can we expect to see next from Derek McLane?
DM: I have a couple of projects in London this summer including Jesse Eisenberg’s The Spoils in the West End, several new plays in New York for the fall, and another TV project next winter. I am excited about all of them and the promise they hold.
Fully Committed is a strictly limited engagement at the Lyceum Theatre playing through July 24th, 2016; contact your Attaché for the best seat in the house.