L ong ago, a titan of theater toyed with the notion that “all the world’s a stage,” but what about the inverse? “All the stage is a world,” more naturally said, “Every stage is a world,” is well-articulated by another, much more contemporary titan in Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee, currently on view in the Yale School of Architecture’s public gallery.
The exhibit contains more than 60 exquisitely detailed worlds in the form of miniature stage sets, the kind designers use to conceive and plan full-scale theater configurations. The creator-god of Design’s various worlds, housed at the moment in cubic glass cases on boxy white pedestals, is the legendary stage designer, longtime Yale School of Drama professor and spirited octogenarian Ming Cho Lee.
With expert hands, Lee painstakingly fabricated, painted and composed these worlds into existence. He built an ornate, balustered “stone” double staircase, then meticulously damaged and aged it, for the Opera Society of Washington’s world premiere of Bomarzo in 1967. He erected a lonely, dilapidated wood cabin with foliage and vista for a 2005 Long Wharf production of A Moon for the Misbegotten. He scored hundreds of tiny bricks, no two exactly alike, into a plaster facade for a 1966 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Visiting the Stage Designs exhibit, you don’t just experience the worlds Lee created; you also get a sense of the real-world places he created them for. For a model to be useful to a theatrical production team, it must, at minimum, reflect the dimensions and scale of the theater in which the show’s being produced. But Lee often went much further than that, contextualizing his models by including architectural features of specific theaters—their particular seating arrangements (filled by sold-out crowds of cutout audiences), stage-side balconies, scaffolding rigs and catwalks. The circular sunken stage and concentric sloped seating of Ohio’s Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park also exist in a small box in New Haven, Connecticut. So do the angular contours and unusually wide stage of California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Though the models are definitely the stars of the show, Stage Designs is bigger than its miniatures. Production photos show many of the model designs coming to life on real stages over the years, and in the far end of the room, examples of Ming Cho Lee’s first and long-pursued art, watercolor painting, hang proudly. These are more central to the exhibit than they might first appear: Lee’s teenaged apprenticeship to a landscape watercolorist provided the foundation—developing the sharp eye, steady hand and spatial understanding—that would later make his stage work so outstanding.
That was in Shanghai in the 1940s. Lee moved to Los Angeles in 1949 to study art at Occidental College, making his way to Broadway in 1956. His first gig there was as a second assistant set designer to Jo Mielziner, a towering figure of stage design in his own right, and the show was the world premiere of The Most Happy Fella (a revival of which recently graced the stage of Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, coincidentally). Lee went on to design sets for more than twenty Broadway productions, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. But he favored working on off-Broadway and regional theater shows, which received the majority of his output.
Heavily influenced by Mielziner and another set design heavyweight, Boris Aronson, as well as by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Lee has challenged and inspired generations of theater designers, and has been recognized accordingly. In 1983, Lee received the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for the play K2, set on that brutal, unforgiving mountain on the border of China and Pakistan. He also won the equivalent Drama Desk Award that year; won it again in 1985; accepted a National Medal of Arts in 2002; and received a lifetime achievement Tony in 2013. Columbia University theater professor and Lee biographer Arnold Aronson has wagered that Lee is “one of the most influential people in American theater, period.”
Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee doesn’t really focus on spelling out the superlatives, though. It’s an introspective retrospective, with sober, quick commentary from Lee inked into the pedestals holding up a handful of his more formative designs. Meanwhile, the on-his-own-time watercolor paintings, preceding and coinciding with his public-facing theater work, give us a more intimate look at the man than even his earliest stage designs can.
Although three other retrospectives have featured Lee’s theater models—at the New York Public Library in 1995 and in Shanghai and Ningbo, China—New Haven’s is the first one to show his true watercolors. Until the close of the exhibit on February 1, we’ve got special insight into the creation of Ming Cho Lee, creator of worlds.
Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee
“Architecture Gallery” at the Yale School of Architecture – 180 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm through Sat, Feb. 1. Closed New Year’s Day.
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.