Book Review: Drama. David Rockwell’s Theatrical and Architectural Designs

David Rockwell — who has designed the sets for more than 60 theatrical productions, including 27 on Broadway, and has helped create offices, restaurants, nightclubs, playgrounds, and theaters — has now built a book….or staged it. “Drama” (Phaidon, 311 pages, May 2021) presents both his theatrical and architectural designs, reflecting Rockwell’s dual professional practice, and also his long-held personal belief that “there are ideas from the theater that apply to the architecture world, and vice-versa.”

There is something almost theatrical about the book itself; it’s certainly collaborative: its credits read like a playbill, with a director and writers (and a co-writer, Bruce Mau), even a technical supervisor (and also an editor.) It even features a dozen stars: There are texts of interviews with leading figures both in the theater (playwright-performer Anna Deavere Smith, lighting designers Peggy Eisenhauer and Natasha Katz, Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth ) and in architecture (Daniel Libeskind and architecture critic Michael Kimmelman), but also celebrity chef José Andrés and legendary music producer Quincy Jones. It’s a gorgeous, ambitious book — its ambition sometimes getting in its way (or at least, in my way.) 

Much of “Drama” consists of luscious double-page photographs with relatively brief explanations of designs that are mostly, but not entirely, Rockwell’s or his firm’s (the 250-person Rockwell Group.)  Theater lovers will especially appreciate the pages devoted to Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including his Broadway debut in 2000, “The Rocky Horror Show,” of which he writes (in part): “It was our first theater set and the beginning of a career-changing journey, which involved stepping outside of our architectural comfort zone while bringing our expertise from outside the theater to the table. We harnessed the production’s campy energy, highlighted its B-movie charm, and injected surprise….”

 

The book spends more time than usual detailing the design for which Rockwell won a Tony Award, “She Loves Me” in 2016. “The sinuous Art Nouveau storefront is dramatically foreshortened, creating the illusion that it extends far back along its street front lot. To the audience’s surprise, the shop opens up to reveal an expansive jewel box interior. Our design, developed with director Scott Ellis, paid special attention to detail: a railing on the mezzanine re-creates a salvaged Art Nouveau fragment from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a functional, century-old confectioner’s register dispenses real foreign currency, and more than three hundred perfume bottles sit on display.”

He follows that up with this page:

There are just as many photographs and explanations of offices and restaurants. It is worth noting how up-to-date this book is; it includes Rockwell’s design for “DineOut,” a system of pavilions for outdoor dining, currently being used in restaurant rows in the South Bronx and along Chinatown’s Mott Street.

But if “Drama” can be seen as a Rockwell portfolio, it is aiming for something larger. Each design is in the book to illustrate one or more of the design concepts Rockwell has developed over the course of his career. This is clearest in those that illustrate the connection between theater and architecture.

An example of theater inspiring his architectural designAn  “amenities center” for Waterline Square, three residential towers built in 2020 on the Upper West Side, includes a walkway that twists its way midway between floor and ceiling, acting “like an urban stage, allowing visitors to see and be seen.“

An example of the way architecture has inspired his theatrical design: The set of the 2017 production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park used recognizable “design vocabulary” from Washington D.C. (such as the distinctive ceiling of the Capitol Building) to suggest a connection to current-day political tensions. 

“Drama” has its flaws. The book calls the Hayes “the only independently owned theater on Broadway,” Whatever that means, it’s not true. The Hayes was bought by Second Stage, one of the four non-profit theater companies that own Broadway theaters. But, ironically, it’s the book’s meticulousness that poses a bigger problem for me. It is pedantically organized, each of the six chapters focusing on a different “core element” of both architecture and theater, and within each chapter two or three key considerations.  So the first chapter (and core element) is “Audience” (which seems obvious in theater, but Rockwell argues is also important in architecture), and three key considerations within Audience are Seduction, Embrace, and Responsiveness. For the record, the six core elements are: Audience, Ensemble, Worlds, Story, Journey and Impermanence. The topics and subtopics are, at first glance, mostly abstruse shorthand, but there is without question some wisdom that Rockwell imparts when explaining them, and a wide range of photographs to accompany them that have nothing to do with Rockwell and company. (Under “Story,” for example there’s a photograph of storytelling  Maasai people sitting around a campfire.) As often as not, though, I struggled to understand how a Rockwell design for a specific theatrical production or restaurant fit the particular chapter in which it was placed more than any of the other chapters. 

Sometimes though, there is a precise fit, and it sings. The first key consideration under the chapter entitled Worlds is Triggering Memory, in which Rockwell talks about the importance of details. “Unlike film, theater doesn’t paint a full picture for us. It uses familiar fragments, symbols, sounds, and sensations to fire our imaginations ..”

One of his illustrations is his design for the set of the 2011 Broadway production of “The Normal Heart,” the play by Larry Kramer about the early years of the AIDS crisis. 

“As the show progressed, the set, first defined by textured white walls, was darkened, and a projection blanketed the walls with the names of people who had succumbed to AIDS. This list of names grew until it expanded beyond the stage and into the theater itself, suggesting the spread of the disease and the devastating sweep of its impact. The play ends with the walls transformed into a black void, the audience enveloped within a symbol of grief and loss. ‘

Similarly, some of the interviews seem out of the blue. Quincy Jones, it might not surprise you to learn, talks about music. What this had to do with either theatrical or architectural design escaped me, although what he says (about music) is fascinating. Yet the first transcript, which is more or less a panel discussion among theater professor Arnold Aronson, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, and the book’s editor Sam Lubell, couldn’t be more timely. It includes a discussion of the difference between physical space and cyberspace.

Aronson: “We can see theater or opera on our screens, but in person, even if we need to look through binoculars, it’s that we’re in the same space, hearing that sound vibrating in our ears at that very moment. And that’s a different thing. “

Kimmelman: “I think if anything, this situation [the pandemic] might make people hunger more for the experiences that they now understand are valuable to them in a way they took for granted before.”

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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