When it comes to the craft of theater, not everything can be learned in a classroom. There’s a long history of theater professionals sharing their knowledge with younger generations. At Wright State University, the Musical Theatre Initiative continues that tradition through its Legacies Series. Last fall, the Legacy Series brought set and costume designer Tony Walton as a guest artist. He’s worked on Broadway and in Hollywood, winning three Tony Awards, an Oscar, and an Emmy. Community Voices producer Debra Oswald tells the story of Tony Walton’s visit to Wright State.
If you haven’t heard of Tony Walton, that’s because he’s always behind the scenes.
"Audiences will know his work from his films and from his stage work," says Joe Deer, Director of the Musical Theatre Initiative at Wright State. "Things like Mary Poppins, and All That Jazz, and The Wiz and on stage the original productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Chicago, and Pippin and many other shows."
Here’s the kind of thing Walton does. When he did the costumes for Mary Poppins, he put her in a black, very proper, Edwardian overcoat. But when she takes it off, you can see a bright red lining, suggesting she has a secret life beyond the nursery. Turns out Deer has a special connection to the film.
"My dance teacher when I was growing up was one of the chimney sweeps in [Mary Poppins]. The special pleasure of seeing this beautiful design by Tony Walton and this man Bobby Karl who had such an impact on my life is kind of a magical thing."
Deer met Walton through a production of Anything Goes both had worked on when Deer was a dancer on Broadway. He knew Walton was a perfect choice for the Musical Theatre Initiative’s Legacies guest artist series.
"Tony is a complete designer," says Deer. "There’s not a toothpick on stage that he hasn’t designed, or selected, or had created. When you see a design by Tony Walton, you are seeing an entire world that he has imagined and created."
On the day of Walton’s visit, over 200 students and theater fans fill the seats of Wright State’s theater. They listen as he recounts working with Walt Disney, Patti Lupone, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Stephen Sondheim, Alec Baldwin, Michael Jackson, and others.
Walton takes pride in not having a signature style. His designs are unique to the essence of every production. He came to this approach while alone in a London gallery. He was looking at his own drawings on exhibit there when he had a realization.
"This looks like the work of one guy who wants to be stylish and witty and graphically loose . . . how boring! Maybe there’s a way I can change my style and try to be several different designers in one," says Walton.
Although the magic of theater is achieved through lighting, scenery, costumes along with the actors, Walton believes there needs to be space for the audience’s imagination.
"It’s a great shame, that since the days of Shakespeare we have progressively spoon fed the audience as much information as they can tolerate, in the scenic environment and every other way," he says. "I’d love to tickle your minds into thinking that if there’s a way to bring the audience fully, or at least 50%, into the entire experience, it’s so much better for everybody."
Walton took questions from the audience and a student asked him about the made-for-TV adaptation of Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman.
Walton says that translating the well known stage play to film was not so much difficult as, "I would say it was fascinating."
Arthur Miller had said the play was about the breakdown of the American dream. That gave Walton an idea for the set design. His wife had been a frequent model for the famous illustrator Norman Rockwell. Walton thought, "What’s more American than Norman Rockwell? What if it’s an exploded Norman Rockwell?"
He used the sort of props that Rockwell used in his paintings. He also created highly textured walls that have gaps instead of meeting into corners, a reflection of Willie Loman’s fragmented mind.
At the end of his presentation, all the students scramble onto the stage, encircling Walton for a group photo. His wife starts for the stage stairs to help him down, but a student has already linked her arm in his. He asks if she will be in the theater department’s production of No, No, Nanette that evening. “Yes,” she says. “I’ll be wearing a red wig. Look for me.”
A few days after Walton’s visit, I return to Wright State to see No, No, Nanette. After the play, I talked to actress Meredith Zahn about her impression of Walton and what she learned from him.
"I got to talk to him and he gave me some feedback. He saw the show and said I reminded him of Jane Krakowski when she was young and that I should look her up and look at things she has done and steal some of her habits and singing style and dancing style and acting quirks," says Zahn. "He absolutely loved [the production]. He said it was peaches and cream, like desserts, which is what everything is designed to be with the costumes and the sets. Everything is meant to be bubble gum and light and cotton candy and that’s exactly what he got and what he loved about it."
Deer was happy with the visit, too. "He is completely humble. Yes, he’s done extravagant, remarkable designs for movies like The Boyfriend and The Wiz. But he’s also done things where he would load up props and costumes and set pieces onto his car and drive across the country to bring those elements to a theater that he was designing at because he just wants to make theater magic."
This spring, in a cost-cutting measure, the Legacy Series at Wright State’s Theatre program was cut, but then re-instated when a private donor stepped in to save it. The next event in the series is a faculty dance concert that runs from Thursday, April 20th, April 23rd through Sunday and features the work of visiting artist Llyod Culbreath. Culture Couch is our occasional series on the arts, made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.