Sometimes you’re meant to know what Bob Crowley does for a living. Sometimes you aren’t.
Sometimes you goggle at his eye-popping, scene-shifting sets; sometimes you scarcely notice them. He can design a Cave of Wonders, as he did for the national tour of “Aladdin” coming to Belk Theater Sept. 10, or a wonderful cave of a Dublin bar for “Once.”
He still creates with paper and pencil, rather than computers and software, as he has done all his life. “I just have a way of working now,” he says in the soft Irish accent left over from his boyhood in Cork. “I wouldn’t know how to retrain myself.”
This method has made him the most honored designer of sets and costumes from his generation: seven Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards (the British version), four Drama Desk awards for contributions to the New York stage.
Charlotte playgoers saw his sets and costumes on tours of “An American in Paris,” “Mary Poppins” and “Once.” But did they really see them? How many figured his Tony-winning design for “Once” merely required him to wander through Dublin pubs and copy details?
He laughs. “I do know what an Irish pub looks like, but I have never seen one that looks like that set. It’s all curved, and the things on the walls are old mirrors. There’s a giant mirror at the back, because the girl had to play the piano, and I wanted the audience to see the reflection of her hands. So you take the essence of a pub and abstract it to make it work.
“Spatial design is not about research, which anyone can do. I’m sitting here (in his London home) surrounded by thousands of books I can delve into, but that’s just one step on the way. Stage design is about carving up the space.”
Taking on ‘Aladdin’
Crowley needed to dip only into his own memory for “Aladdin.” He’d seen this tale as a boy in a “panto,” one of those over-the-top shows designed for children in Great Britain and Ireland. Subtlety’s as out of place there as Camembert cheese on a banana split.
“We had no professional theater where I grew up, though we got tours from England,” he recalls. “The one guarantee I had every Boxing Day (Dec. 26) was the pantomime. I didn’t know about Shakespeare, but I knew fairy tales where you learned about morality or the lack of it. That’s why I did ‘Aladdin.’ I thought, ‘I get to do my first panto!’ I’ve tried to keep my imagination from childhood alive, to bring that kind of innocence to what I designed.
“I hadn’t seen the (1992) animated film when I was asked to do it. I watched the movie, though I knew I wasn’t going to copy it in any way. Certain things you have to deal with — the magic carpet ride, the Cave of Wonders — because the audience will feel cheated if they don’t see those. I imagined I was (designing) this for kids having their first experience of live theater. I knew I had to engage someone who could well be 8 — or 80.”
Yet he wasn’t content to splash colors and fabrics across gaudy backdrops. He incorporated smaller elements audiences take in subconsciously.
Evoke a feeling
“The stage is sometimes quite empty, nothing except the floor and the wings and a tiny, delicate mirage. Or you’ll see the image of the palace reflected, like the Taj Mahal reflected in its pool. We don’t have water onstage, so I used mirrors. Things like that give me as much satisfaction, if not more, as big splashy images. I love images that evoke a feeling or a memory.”
Crowley works happily as a crucial cog in Disney Theatrical Productions’ massive machine. After doing sets and costumes for “Aida,” “Mary Poppins” and “Tarzan” (and directing the latter), he was glad to see Tony-winner Gregg Barnes handle costumes for “Aladdin.”
“Having control of the whole stage picture is the ideal situation, but it doesn’t always work out. If it’s a project in New York and a musical with hundreds of costumes, that takes months of being around for fittings. You’re choosing everything down to buttons on shirts, and it’s kind of minuscule. I’m not saying scenery isn’t detailed, but it’s more contained.
“On a big project like ‘Aladdin,’ you share your ideas with the creative team. If you’re all going in the same direction, everyone trusts his fellow artists to do what they’ve been chosen to do. (Then) it’s a solitary job, just you in your studio. You ruminate on what you can deliver, given a finite amount of space you share with the lighting designer and sound designer.”
He’s not really alone, of course. Assistant Rosalind Coombes (“a genius model-maker and solver of problems”) makes the box sets he dreams up, so producers can see them.
“I’m a complete Luddite when it comes to modern technology,” he admits. “I grew up drawing and painting on a piece of paper, and I still do what I did when I was 5 or 6. The demands of production managers and scenery manufacturers mean I have to deliver something much more electronically sophisticated, so I have brilliant people around me who translate my ideas.
“I won’t design on a computer, because I can’t walk around it. That’s anathema to the stage. For a thousand years, we have been able to do that, and I have to see something in three dimensions before I sign off. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
When: Sept. 10-29 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org
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