Debra Booth is Director of Design at Studio Theatre. You can see her latest Studio Theatre creation through June 28th with Jumpers for Goalposts. Since 2001 Debra has designed some of Studio Theatre’s best and brightest productions. A small sampling of her wide range of designs include Belleville; C**k; The Apple Family Plays; Edgar & Annabel; Bachelorette; Moonlight; Blackbird; My Children! My Africa!; The Pillowman; Caroline, or Change; Fat Pig; A Number; Afterplay; The Russian National Postal Service; Far Away; Privates on Parade; and many others. Last season Derbra got off of 14th Street for a hot minute to design Freud’s Last Session two blocks over on 16th street at Theater J.
Her international work includes premiere operas Marco Polo (Tan Dun/Martha Clarke) in Munich, Hong Kong, and New York and The Hindenburg (Steve Reich/Roman Paska), which toured Europe. Regionally, Debra’s credits include the premiere of Lost Boys of the Sudan at Minneapolis Children’s Theatre; Marisol at Hartford Stage and the New York Shakespeare Festival; Trying, The Illusion, and Happy Days at Portland Stage Company; the New York premiere of Angels in America at The Juilliard School; The Game of Love and Chance at the Berkshire Theatre Festival; Broken Glass at Philadelphia Theatre Company (Barrymore Award nomination); and Moon for the Misbegotten at Yale Repertory Theatre. She has also collaborated on projects with Estelle Parsons and Al Pacino for the Actors Studio. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Design Grant and a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.
To say that Debra is a master of her craft is probably an understatement. There are many words to describe her designs, but one that comes to mind is immaculate. Her attention to detail takes the design to a whole new level. I was fortunate to be on crew for Freud’s Last Session and for those of you that saw the show you might recall that Debra’s design really captured Sigmund Freud’s office. Everything down to the smallest of knick knacks on the desk added to the atmosphere as Deborah collaborated with her longtime Studio Theatre colleague and props mistress Deb Thomas. Jumpers for Goalposts is just the latest example of one of our area artists giving it her all and creating something visually stunning every time. I am looking forward to the many design jobs Debra has coming up. I know none of us will be disappointed with the final product. Brava Miss Booth!!
Why did you choose to go into stage design as opposed to performing or some other part of theatre?
I started out with the intention of becoming a writer—never really considered the theatre on the way, I was bored and didn’t find the solitary nature of writing that satisfying somehow. I stumbled on a summer class in college that was taught by a lighting designer, Gil Hemsley, and an opera director, Karlos Moser and I had one of those moments in life where I knew I was home, and completely changed direction. It was very shortly after that I knew I wanted to be a designer. I have always been both left and right brained…writing certainly satisfied some things but the theatre really required more from me…. plus it is a collaborative form…so while I have very independent responsibilities, I am never without a talented team of artists to work with. I have to say, I never wanted to be a performer but I did perform, and probably did every job there is in the theatre to learn about it. It has always served me well to understand to some small degree what other people are doing around me at any given time. The rhythms of work in the theatre are very different person to person, job to job and to work in a truly collaborative way…you need to understand and work with that.
How did you come to work at Studio Theatre?
It was a very dear friend, Helen Huang a long-time costume designer at Studio who first introduced me to Joy Zinoman in 2001. Joy hired me the next season and she and I have done many shows together over the years. It is a very special relationship with a high level of collaboration. It was Joy who first paired me with David Muse when he came to direct at Studio doing Blackbird and Reasons to be Pretty. After David became artistic director, I continued designing at Studio and at some point during work on Bachelorette, he surprised me by asking me to join the staff as Director of Design and here I am.
How long does it take you from first idea for a set to final approval and completion?
The process is lengthy—at least for me. It does depend on the material but 3 months or so is probably average. I tend to be rather nuanced and do a lot of research before I can really begin work—it has to rumble around my brain. There is a deep need to understand the specific world of the play to form a kind of visual narrative—that is real, supportive and seamless—as if the events unfolding are, in retrospect, inevitable but we travel into so innocently. There are models, drawings, research, meetings, etc. There is also much back and forth with the director and with the technical artists too. So this can easily take 3-4 months of work. I need time but I like to live with world of the play for awhile.
Of the many productions you have designed at Studio Theatre, Can you please pick one or two that presented the biggest challenge design wise?
This is a good question, I hope its not glib to say ‘whatever one I am working on is the biggest challenge’—I often feel that way. But, in retrospect, it was a long time ago…my first show with Joy (a challenge in and of itself) a British musical, Privates on Parade—which takes place in Malaysia in the 1940’s. There were many locations, and we stuffed the very petite Mead theatre to the gills with scenery and even a rickshaw and a sometimes naked cast. I don’t know how we did it….oh yes, and then there was the monsoon on stage….water every where. It was so much fun and only my 2nd show at Studio, I fell in love with the place. Then there are other kind of challenges like C**k or Dirt which are so distilled to just be essence of place—without being specific. Those are tough too—you tread the line of “suggestion” without saying where you are—very restrained. They are all challenging in their own way.
What are your next few projects at Studio Theatre or elsewhere?
My next projects at Studio are this beautiful Irish play, Moment by Deir-dre Kinahan with Ethan McSweeney directing; Sorry and Regular Singing by Richard Nelson—Studio’s 2nd installment of the Apple Family Plays directed by Serge Seiden and that wonderful, wonderful cast; and Constellations by Nick Payne and directed by David—an intimate two-hander about a physicist and a beekeeper. I am also doing a summer project with the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont—Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily—just for fun and silliness with friends and a little time out of the city.