Meet the Artist
A Discussion with Set Designer Alexander Dodge
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
Perhaps you’ve seen Bell, Book & Candle, The Tempest, Twelfth Night or A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage and marveled at the beautiful sets. They are all the work of award-winning set designer Alexander Dodge. Dodge – who was born in Switzerland, raised in Arizona and now resides in New York – graduated from Yale School of Drama with an MFA in Design. By his own description, his work “balances analytical, architectural thinking with an almost boundless sense of imagination, aesthetic maturity and understanding of theatre.”
Dodge frequently collaborates with Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak. Their most famous collaboration is the Tony-Award winning musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which debuted at Hartford Stage in 2012 before transferring to Broadway. Dodge received a Tony nomination for Best Scenic Design for his work on the musical last June. His first set design for Hartford Stage was for Zerline’s Tale, directed by Michael Wilson, in 2008. Dodge’s vast resume includes many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including his 2010 Tony-nominated set for Present Laughter; Old Acquaintance; Butley; Hedda Gabler; Modern Terrorism; All New People (written by Zach Braff); Trust; and The Water’s Edge.
Dodge has also designed sets and costumes for opera, including Il Trittico for Deutsche Opera in Berlin; Cosi Fan Tutte for the Minnesota Opera; Der Waffenschmeid for Staatstheater am Gaertnerplatz in Munich; Lohengrin for the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest; and The Flying Dutchman in Wuerzburg, Germany. He is also collaborating once more with Tresnjak on The Ghosts of Versailles for the Los Angeles Opera in February of 2015.
Here, Dodge speaks with Hartford Stage about working with Tresnjak, designing the set for Private Lives, how he conceptualizes a scenic design, and more.
You grew up at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where your father studied – how much did that influence your decision to pursue a career in design?
It was probably the most impactful experience in determining my career path. As a boy, I wanted to be an architect just like my father. Being and playing all around the incredible desert campus of Taliesin West certainly had influences on me I didn’t even realize at the time. And, boy was it fun to go exploring! But, in addition to architecture, my father has a great love of the performing arts. We would go to the theatre, opera, ballet, and concerts all the time starting from when I was at a very young age. I loved it but eventually knew that performing on stage was not for me. When I finally realized I didn’t have to be on stage, but could still be a part of the action, is when it all clicked. Love of architecture plus love of theatre seemed to equal set design.
Who or what are you most inspired by as a designer?
Architecture is what I frequently look at for inspiration – contemporary modern architecture, in particular. Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry are architects whose work is very influential to me. The ways they manipulate volume and the way the human body interacts with it is so fascinating to me.
You have worked with Darko Tresnjak on 10 productions to date. What do you find most interesting about working with him?
I am happy to say that the collaboration with him on projects over the years continues to become more and more fulfilling and satisfying. We manage to really inspire and engage each other during the process. The creative sparks fly and the next concept ignites. Because we share similar tastes and aesthetics, it allows for a creative shorthand of sorts when we work together. We get to work in broad strokes initially that allow for a strong take on whatever piece we are working on.
What do you look for from a director when you begin your design process?
Anything. It can be as simple as an image or a conceptual idea but something to get the ideas churning – something I can run with and start working on.
What was the most challenging aspect about designing the set for Private Lives?
No intermission. Early on, Darko wanted to have the piece run without interruption. I thought that was a great idea at the time. But then I started designing and some of the logistics proved very challenging. Lucky for me, I have the incredibly talented team at Hartford Stage that was key in making this happen.
Can you take us step-by-step through the creative process in designing a set?
I always start with the text. I like to read the script all the way through quickly, as though I am seeing the show. Usually, there are impressions from that first reading that really inform where the design will head. I try not to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty yet. Meeting with the director and discussing the piece follows. Then, it’s gathering research. I like to look at lots and lots of images from all over the place – books, online, my own photographs, or even movies. It all depends on the project. I may do some napkin sketches, and then I usually jump into a model and start playing with three-dimensional forms pretty quickly. These days I build a virtual model which has been a great tool for me. As I am often designing the next show during the tech of another, being able to do this work on the computer has been revolutionary. It is so much better than it used to be, sitting in the back row of a theatre with a little light, cardboard, foam core, glue and X-Acto knives. Usually, there are some revisions, and then we go into budget and more revisions, and then we finally go into build – in a nutshell, more or less.
What is the greatest difference between designing a set for a theatrical production versus an operatic production?
Usually scale. There is an epic quality about working on an opera that one doesn’t always get in theatre productions. The “Gesamtkunstwerk” – or total work of art – that one has in the opera can be so thrilling and satisfying as a designer.
How would you define your work – what makes it specifically an “Alexander Dodge” design?
I feel it is too subjective a question for me to answer. I feel like I just try to serve the work. I imagine it is easier for someone from the outside to see something like that.
Of all the sets you have designed, which one is your favorite and why?
I get asked this question all the time. And I guess I am lucky that my answer is always the same. My favorite design usually seems to be the one I am working on at the time.