"I always like to take the road less traveled"
interview with Brian Sidney Bembridge
to Widowers' Houses
TimeLine Associate Artist and scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge began working with the theater company during the 1999-2000 season. He created scenic and/or lighting designs for A Cry of Players, Hannah and Martin, It’s All True!, Pravda, Martin Furey’s Shot, Copenhagen, A Man For All Seasons, Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, The General from America, The Children’s Hour and now, Widowers’ Houses. Just as rehearsals began, TimeLine’s Artistic Director PJ Powers (PP) chatted with Brian (BSB) about his extensive design work at TimeLine during the last eight seasons, and the very unlikely way in which he got his foot in the door at TimeLine. Read his complete biography here.
Award-winning scenic and lighting designer, and TimeLine Associate Artist, Brian Sidney Bembridge
(PP) Working in the theater, you just never know where your next job will come from or when opportunities will arise. That was certainly the case about nine years ago when TimeLine was in its infancy, and you and you and I were working a glamorous retail job during the day and doing theater at night. Can you talk a bit about those days and how you got started in Chicago and at TimeLine?
(BSB) My ex-wife and I moved to Chicago not knowing a soul. I met with a few production managers and artistic directors, but no one had seen my work or heard of me, and my résumé had a mere three designs listed on it. I was walking downtown and saw Anthropologie, a store I had never seen. I thought it had a great look about it, something new. I ended up working as a salesperson and designing displays for them, and that’s when you and I met.
I would always try and head to the back where you worked to chat, because you would always make me laugh. One day you had mentioned that you were starting a theater company. “We have a designer who we are working with, but we should stay in touch,” you said.
I eventually left Anthropologie to style for awful catalogs, and then I landed a design job as an assistant designer at BRANCA, an amazing design firm on the Gold Coast. I ended up having to leave that job to make a feature film back in North Carolina, Muppets From Space. I returned seven months later and ended up designing two shows right away, one of which was designing lights for A Cry of Players at TimeLine. That was my first professional lighting design.
(PP) Yeah, I don’t know that I realized that you hadn’t designed lights much before that; not sure if you made that quite clear while we were chatting in the stock room! You designing at TimeLine obviously has worked out well, and that was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. So, what was it that made you move to Chicago in the first place?
(BSB) I came to Chicago because a fellow designer at school told me about what a great theater town it was and Franco Colavecchia, a teacher of mine, had just left The Theatre School at DePaul to teach at my school, the North Carolina School of the Arts. We had long talks about theater here and the awfully windy winters on the lake. I grew up in New Hampshire and had traveled the world growing up, but somehow I never made it to Chicago. I instantly fell in love with it.
I came here because I wanted to learn about myself as an artist and as a person through my own experience. And I think I always like to take the road less traveled. Almost all of my colleagues went to New York or Los Angeles.
(PP) While your career is still rooted in Chicago, you are now getting work around the country. What is it that draws you back to the Windy City? It can’t be the money.
(BSB) I love designing theater in this town. I love the small spaces, the columns in the middle of theaters, the bathroom on the other side of the stage, and I also love the larger houses in Chicago.
But what I love most is the family that I am a part of here. The work is often driven by a company or ensemble and is often not producer-driven. I think you find new and refreshing things without the money issue. It is much more inclusive than any other city. Everyone is invited — designers, technicians, actors. There is a level of equality in this family.
(PP) For the last few seasons in particular you have designed a significant number of TimeLine’s shows. Again, it isn’t because of the money. So what is it that excites you about designing here?
(BSB) This is one of my few very special families in Chicago. I lost my professional virginity at TimeLine — can I say that? This is a very special place for me. This company is full of creative, caring people. I helped paint this theater black when TimeLine was moving in.
You and Brian [Voelker, TimeLine’s Managing Director] always let the director and me push the company to new visual levels. I know that playwrights who see their shows at TimeLine are impressed with the professionalism and artistic integrity we give to every production.
(PP) You’ve certainly transformed the space each time you’ve designed here. I often hear comments from audience members that it seems like a different theater whenever they walk in the door. That is partially due to the fact that you almost always find a new configuration or relationship between the audience and the stage. Why is that so important to you?
(BSB) It really is one of my favorite things to do. I love creating a new experience for the audience. Sadly, for us, it always means building new platforms. I think that Copenhagen has been the most successful at this thus far, but I loved the height we used for the audience for A Man For All Seasons.
(PP) Do you have any favorite TimeLine plays, either ones you worked on or that you just saw?
(BSB) Hannah and Martin is one of my all-time favorites. We conceived that piece from scratch. It was the first production I worked with Jeremy Cohen. I thought we did something extremely different for TimeLine. It was very exciting. And we had the chance to do it two more times [at the Theater on the Lake and in a remount at TimeLine]. I loved the process of Copenhagen and thought the team’s work was spectacular, as was the final act, in particular, of The Children’s Hour. I think one the most impressive shows I have seen here was Martin Furey’s Shot, thanks to Mike Tutaj’s projections.
One of my all-time favorites is Gaslight. I absolutely loved that production. Everything about it was spot on — the sets, lights, acting, [David] Parkes, sound. Perfection.
Martin Furey's Shot, 2005.
(PP) So now we’re tackling our first Shaw play with Widowers’ Houses. Shaw certainly isn’t new to you. I know you’ve worked on his plays at Writers’ Theatre and elsewhere, but tell us about your approach to this play and doing it in our space.
(BSB) Kevin [Fox, the director] and I really wanted the audience to be on top of this play. It is a huge challenge to figure out how to create the two locations that Shaw created. He actually wanted three locations, but we have decided to narrow it to two.
I also think it is important, as I often do, to create a visual world that a modern audience will connect to. My hope is that there are visual subtleties that could be in your world today as well as in the world of the production. I don’t want to create an extremely period piece that would separate the audience from the stage. My hope is that you will see that this story is today and yesterday and will probably happen tomorrow, without change in society, humanity.
(PP) So what was your process or inspiration to come up with this design?
(BSB) The entire idea started with an image from this book of cool hotels around the world. When I opened it to a hot-pink room with white furniture everyone looked at me wide-eyed. There also was a white room with patterned furniture. I thought that was so interesting. I very much wanted to stay away from Dickensian England. There is a lot of pattern and color in this period.
(PP) Our production of Widowers’ Houses is filled with designers you’ve worked with quite often at TimeLine and at other theaters. How is that relationship helpful in the design process?
(BSB) It can allow for a very open process. There were some disagreements during the design process, but when you have a relationship with your team you can be open and dive into each other’s areas. It is a great thing when you have a team you have worked with before.
(PP) So now we’re about to start rehearsals. The design is completed on paper, and we all think it’s a good idea in theory. How do things continue to evolve and change throughout the rehearsal and tech process? What involvement do you like to have in altering or executing the design?
(BSB) One never knows how the blocking will work. We might have to move the furniture around, but on a set like this there is not that much that can change. The wall is what it is. The set dressing is what we can really change out. We have talked through the show thoroughly. There are a few questions left to decide in the rehearsal process, but nothing major.
(PP) Anyone who has ever worked with you — or even tried to get you on the phone — knows that you’re one of the busiest people in town. You somehow find a way to juggle tons of projects at once, and you’re doing it at theaters whose budgets vary greatly in size. How and why do you do that?
(BSB) It goes back to loving the family/people you work with. If you were to look at my résumé you will see that it is very rare that I work with a director or company [only] once. I find people in this business who I connect with. It is almost impossible for me to say no to directors I love to collaborate with, like my closest-of-friends, John Langs. We have designed more than 12 productions together in the last 10 years.
It is never easy, and I make mistakes all of the time. I am fortunate enough that people can see past my faults and focus on my work and our friendships. Sometimes I cannot comprehend how I juggle six or seven productions at once.
Hannah and Martin, 2003
(PP) So, specifically, how do you make it happen? Do you have routines each day? Is there a typical “day in the life of Brian Sidney Bembridge?” Other than dodging my phone calls to talk about your design going over budget, that is.
(BSB) Typical is far from my life. It all depends on if I am in tech for other shows at the time, and if I have assistants. While the coffee is brewing I check the notes from the previous day’s rehearsals, if they did not come in the night before. Then I will e-mail my assistants. This all happens between 6:30 to 7:30-ish in the morning, or a little later if I was in tech the night before. Then I work at the desk for a few hours or head out to tech — this is when I dodge your calls. I am usually at one or the other unless I am at a meeting. Late at night after I get home from tech, I work a little more. Then I let the rerun of the news put me to sleep.
(PP) What’s your favorite part of the design/production process?
(BSB) Getting started is always my favorite part — the boiling pot on the stove.