When Broadway went dark last March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo billed it as a month-long shutdown, which even then would be the longest the marquees would go dark. Now, just over a year later, we are beginning to see the glimmer of live performance’s return. This pandemic rocked the theater industry and has left many of its artists – especially its emerging artists – stuck in limbo wondering what is next.
Christian Fleming is an emerging theater designer who recently was named this year’s USITT Scene Design Award winner. Each year, USITT (United States Institute for Theater Technology, Inc.) recognizes a promising scenic designer with this award. As Broadway schedules its return and producers and directors begin to forge exciting new creative teams, we are excited to see what Fleming creates next.
The following is an excerpt from the interview.
What does this award mean to you?
It is amazing to have my work recognized and a welcome affirmation that even though the industry is dark the future is bright. Graduating into an industry shutdown caused me and many of my peers to reflect on how we will help the industry realize we exist when things return. My work being featured and recognized by a great organization like USITT will only help me get noticed. I feel really grateful for the mentorship the faculty at Carnegie Mellon gave me and for nominating me. I know that I wouldn’t be here without all of their tireless guidance and them challenging me to grow as both an artist and a person.
What made you want to be a designer?
I was the kid hooked on animated Disney movies and watching them until the VHS tapes wore out. Those movies fostered a love for visual storytelling and understanding story through character. It’s a natural transition that I gravitated toward the theater, especially musicals, because I’ve always been excited by the more expressionistic modes of storytelling inherent to theater. I strive with each design to find innovative storytelling solutions that activate the audience’s imagination because when activated they become directly involved in the story.
Has your background as a director influenced work as a designer?
My experience as a director arms me with an intense appreciation for the process, an intimate understanding of how to tell a story and use all the elements available to a production, and a critical eye to see when something might be exciting, but isn’t contributing to dramaturgical clarity. I believe that design, like directing, is all about storytelling. Specific choices about the world and characters create context for the story and when done effectively help the audience comprehend and know what to focus on.
How does the audience inform your artistic process?
Everything the audience sees, hears, and feels needs to be curated. It is too easy to get lost in conceptual ideas and forget that the audience is not in your head. So by breaking down each production with the audience’s experience in mind, I distill the high-level esoteric ideas into actionable decisions.
Is there a production that exemplifies this philosophy?
With “The Light in the Piazza”, it was important that the design transport the audience to the romantic world of Florence – just like the central characters. Since we are most familiar with scene changes where furniture travels horizontally, having the furniture float in and out beautifully captured the sweeping romance and helped transport the audience to the new, but familiar romantic world. It was stunning to see scenes end and the furniture of the world slowly float away as strings and harps arpeggiated.
Do you have a typical process when beginning to work on a design?
Every design always begins by getting familiar with the story, characters, and themes. I think a lot about the central dramatic question posed and invest in dramaturgical research to dive into the socio-political and ideological questions the script poses. I try though to limit any initial notions because I want to come to initial conversations with the team with an openness about how we together want to approach it. Each team brings a unique perspective on how the production will reveal new aspects about our world and the human condition. Once there is a direction, I distill visual inspiration to find the visual poetic essence of the production.
What do you think the industry will be like when Broadway returns?
While the industry has been at a standstill, I believe it has provided a moment of reflection. The recent backlash against Scott Rudin (Broadway producer, who has had to step back due to allegations of bullying) shows a shift occurring within the industry towards supporting the artist. Importantly, the ‘We See You WAT’ movement has done amazing work to expose the racism faced by BIPOC artists and demand substantive change. I hope this shutdown will lead to a revitalized return where the industry addresses and eliminates the systemic barriers and inequalities that have created such hardships for the working artists that make the industry function. We need to see greater equity and representation on design teams and the work/stories produced and I hope to help that happen.
What would be your advice to younger designers?
Broadway Actress and Producer, Ashley Kate Adams wrote masterfully in her book “#BYOP: Be Your Own Producer” about the power of taking agency over your artistic career. I believe this is an incredibly valuable lesson: Don’t wait to create. Be your own producer.
Christian Fleming is a Manhattan-based set and costume designer. He holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. His work has recently been seen at Pittsburgh Festival Opera (Rusalka), Pittsburgh CLO (Game On), and Pittsburgh Opera (Afterwards: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined). As the nation went into lockdown, he was designing a production of the Britton opera, Turn of the Screw.