Steve Julian

Steve Julian

Steve was KPCC's host for Morning Edition, an actor, and director from Southern California. He served on the boards of two theater companies and wrote about theater for LA STAGE Times. Steve passed away in April of 2016, and will be sorely missed by the Los Angeles creative community, his family, and friends.

The Art of Design: John Iacovelli Makes the Scene

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The set of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by John Iacovelli.
The set of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by John Iacovelli.

No  theatrical scenic designer is likely to attract a bigger crowd in greater Los Angeles this week than John Iacovelli.

His Joe Turner’s Come and Gone closes June 9 at the Mark Taper Forum. His Sleepless in Seattle runs through June 23 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Iacovelli’s designs can also be seen in The Boomerang Effect at the Zephyr Theatre and in We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 at Joe Stern’s Matrix Theatre Company, two blocks from the Zephyr. Both open on Saturday.

And be mindful: it is not set design, but scenic design, a term that Iacovelli helped solidify as an Ovations Award category a couple of years ago.

John Iocavelli
John Iacovelli

“It’s been a magical two years,” Iacovelli says, leaning forward in an ample leather chair at the Pasadena Playhouse, a theater he knows well. Among other shows there, Iacovelli designed The Heiress for artistic director Sheldon Epps in the spring of 2012 followed by Lynn Nottage‘s Intimate Apparel in the fall.

Iacovelli also managed to fit in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum in March last year. “Godot and The Heiress were basically at the same time,” he says, but the designs could not have been more different.

“I’d done some Beckett with Alan Mandell [who was co-starring in the Taper’s Godot revival with Barry McGovern]. I hadn’t done any work on the design yet, so [director] Michael Arabian, Alan and I went to the Taper. I had this big piece of brown paper, which I still have, and I just drew a circle, the Taper stage.”

“I knew just what to do,” Iacovelli says. “I had done a production in the late ’80s that the director set in Bryce Canyon [Utah], so we had a lot of the Hoodoo architecture. I knew I needed a tree. I needed a rock. But I also needed a mound.”

Iacovelli referred to Eoin O’Brien’s book, The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland, for inspiration. “It was full of wonderful landscape photos of where [Beckett] grew up in Ireland and I saw this mound of rocks and I thought, that’s it, that’s all I need.” The result was a sparse, yet poetic set.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez, took audiences inside a large, late 19th-century Greek Revivalist home, with walls in Wedgwood or Paynes Grey colors and a gracefully raked floor leading to a grand staircase upstage.

A Tisch graduate at New York University with Broadway experience on Jonathan Tolins’ The Twilight of the Golds, Iacovelli knew these houses well. “I used to walk past them along Washington Square near NYU so many times and looked inside those windows. A couple months before working on it, I called up and they let me in one of those houses. It’s now a dean’s house, and I took a tape measure. They were very patient. Everything in it was still original.”

That style, Iacovelli says, was a reaction against the Louis Comfort Tiffany “too much is not enough” scheme. As for the color, “I knew it couldn’t be a red interior like they did on Broadway. It had to be cool and comfortable.” The Heiress was “my shot at doing the perfect box set,” he says.

The set of "Sleepless in Seattle." Photo by Imaneul Treeson.
The set of “Sleepless in Seattle” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Imaneul Treeson.

Yet in the end, it was not perfect, Iacovelli felt. “I told Dámaso recently that I know I didn’t give him the set for The Heiress that he wanted. He said, well, you gave us the set that we needed.”

The pair collaborated again on the current remount of Matthew Leavitt’s The Boomerang Effect at the Zephyr Theatre, after getting their feet wet with the play last year at the Odyssey Theatre.

Iacovelli was nominated for Ovation Awards for both Godot and Heiress, but did not win. He remains unperturbed, primarily because he has the full faith of his colleagues. Alan Mandell remembers working with Iacovelli first in 1986. He writes via email, “I usually make it a condition of any play I do that John does the set. I trust his talent, intelligence and artistry.”

Pasadena Playhouse’s Epps says in an email that Iacovelli can work skillfully in many styles, touching “all of the bases with incredible knowledge, good taste, and imagination. His great passion for the art of the theater and for the work that we do is always evident. It is never just another gig for John, even though he always has so many; he really cares about each and every project.”

Director Phylicia Rashad, whose many collaborations with Iacovelli include August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Taper, agrees. Her younger sister, Debbie Allen, first hired Iacovelli in 2001 for PBS’ The Old Settler, an adaptation of the play by John Henry Redwood. The real-life sisters portrayed siblings in the Harlem Renaissance.

“He’s a gem,” Rashad says by telephone. And fittingly, she had asked that Iacovelli be hired in 2007 when she debuted as a director at Seattle Repertory with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. “John was approved immediately,” she says. (Two years prior, Rashad had been a Tony nominee for her role as Aunt Esther in the Broadway run of the play.)

“Last summer,” Rashad adds, “when I went to the Goodman [in Chicago] to direct Immediate Family in the eleventh hour, the previous design was not to my liking, and John came in and we had that set in six weeks. It helped the playwright [Paul Oakley Stovall] organize the play and bring more clarity to his work.”

Looking back on his design for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Iacovelli feels that his collaboration with Rashad was almost immeasurable. “I knew that by the time we were done, Phylicia owned every piece of molding on that set.” The two will pair up again this fall when they tackle August Wilson’s Fences at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

John Iacovelli’s Scenic Design Work

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Out of this world

From 1994 through 1998, Iacovelli was the production designer for the TV series Babylon 5. “We created over 350 sets,” he says, “and never left the studio.”

Television, he says, informs his theatrical work. “The best example I can give is Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby [at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts]. I was doing the sci-fi show and we had these artisans. I told them that in Peter Pan I needed a cover for a nightlight that would look like a glass shade for a sconce. And as Cathy flies around the set as Peter it can’t crack or hurt her if she flies into it. I needed something solid but made of rubber. So, like alchemists, they came up with this mold and a piece that’s still with the set today.” Iacovelli also won an Emmy Award for Peter Pan Starring Cathy Rigby on A&E.

Babylon 5 was on a limited budget, so the innovative scenic designer called upon his theatrical painting techniques. “I went to rich hues, or what we called ‘spicy brights,’ which the Star Trek shows were not using. I applied for a job at Disney Imagineering once and the guy laughed when he looked at my portfolio. I asked him why he was laughing. He said, ‘when we redesigned Tomorrowland, I told them to look at Babylon 5 because it was the only TV show with color in it’! That made me happy.”

Iacovelli is often asked to explain the difference between an artist and a designer. “My father was a fine artist in sculpture and jewelry and every manner of painting. An artist is more on a personal journey. I used to think Mondrian was a boring artist and then I went to a retrospective at the Museum for Modern Art in New York. I saw that he started painting trees that over time became geometric forms [and] that became his style. I saw his arc over forty years. Many artists have one problem they’re working on and they keep at it, over and over. You could say the sunflowers were that for Van Gogh. An artist is on such a singular journey.”

One of Iacovelli's "Babylon 5" sets.
One of Iacovelli’s “Babylon 5” sets.

But a designer, he maintains, can design only with other people.

Television, Iacovelli says, teaches one to make a decision quickly and to know that it’s the right decision. “I remember working on a show at South Coast Rep with Brian Gale [lighting designer and frequent collaborator, including Sleepless in Seattle and Waiting for Godot]. It was a very simple set in their old second stage space. A desk and chair and carpet on a turntable, but we kept tinkering with it. I was laughing because that was the same day I’d done a dozen sets on Babylon 5.”

Iacovelli recalls turning to Gale and saying, “It’s funny how we spend so much time dealing with one set here, while in television, I make a dozen a day. Then we talked about the fact that doing our work in theater allows us to make quick decisions in television. We’ve already thought through the options and know what’ll work.” (By the way, one sci-fi axiom, Iacovelli notes, is that doors hinge only on Earth.)

Getting unreal

The Heiress and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone aside, Iacovelli often aims to get away from the constraints of realism. He and Gale collaborated on the Matrix Theatre Company’s award-winning 2011 production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. “It’s such a small space, so I abstracted the set, which I never thought I would do, but the trees became metal and we used the brick back wall as a sort of industrial sky. We had grass, brick, the back porch. But the theater gives me permission to do what I don’t do in film and television, which is to not be realistic. The trees looked dangerous, a sinister quality, not like willow trees.”

Iacovelli returns to the Matrix this week for Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, which has its West Coast premiere the same Saturday night as the Zephyr’s Boomerang opening down the street.

Even in Sleepless, Iacovelli attempted to disguise the literal. “When Sheldon suggested we have a bridge with a couple of spiral staircases, I thought, is this too much set to be in more than one place? Then, by painting everything blue and using a color treatment that he thought of, the spiral staircase at the bridge also becomes the one in the boat, and it becomes a staircase in a night club and in an airport, and I think it works. I kept all the lines very square with many boxes of projection screens around the proscenium, which allows the stage to be more of a blank page.”

"Peter Pan"
The set of “Peter Pan” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

In that sense, Iacovelli says, the theater becomes a psychological space to support the actors.

“I just did On the Spectrum [by Ken LaZebnik] at the Fountain Theatre and we had four or five massive projectors. I worried it would overpower the story, but it really helped the dramaturgy.”

He says a producer recently described a space to him as an actors’ theater. “I thought, well, if you can show me where the designers’ theaters are, I’ll sign up. All theaters are actors’ theaters.” But, Iacovelli adds, “the reason we’re here is for the performers and performance, not just because we want to do a beautiful set.”

Getting real

Iacovelli, who has received the LA Drama Critics Circle award for lifetime achievement in scenic design, calls himself a visualizer, not a daydreamer. “Gosh that’s a hard word. What is daydreaming? I do go in and out of consciousness, I notice. I know that in my head, I have to see the set first before I can draw it. It sounds a little California and a little goofy, but I sometimes imagine the set coming to life on the stage. What does this wall look like, in my head, and then I draw it on paper. My life is pretty much a daydream, being in the theater.”

That life takes Iacovelli to the University of California Davis where he is on the design faculty in the department of theater and dance. He is also a visiting professor at the Shanghai Drama Academy.

Epps appreciates Iacovelli’s support in all of their work together. “He is certainly one of my most valued collaborators, and a very special gift to my own theater and to the entire LA theater community.”

“I feel like the job of the designer is to help the director and the whole team to create an environment,” Iacovelli says. “Part of that job is to show them what you’re going to give them. It can’t be a surprise on opening night, so here’s a model, a stage design, a rendering. This is what I’m promising you and this is what I’ll deliver. Of course, there has to be collaboration with costumes, lighting and sound, but I feel that journey is the fun part.”

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave, LA 90046. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through August 11. Tickets: $30. 323-852-1445 www.matrixtheatre.com

The Boomerang Effect, Village Green productions at Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., LA 90046. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Tickets: $20-25. Through July 27. 800-595-4849.  www.tix.com

Sleepless in Seattle, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91101. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through June 23. Tickets: $64-$145. 626-356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Through June 9. Tickets: $20-$75. 213-628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org

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