How Did You Get to Be You, Mr. Boritt?
In lo these many decades I’ve been interviewing, I’ve always concluded with the same question.
“Let’s pretend it’s the day the article comes out. Before you start reading, you look to heaven and say, ‘Oh, I hope that writer knew enough to put in the part about --’ About what? What MUST be in any article written about you?”
And Beowulf Boritt, the recent Tony-winner for his set design for ACT ONE, came close to pleading when he said, “Could you mention how important my grandmother and my wife have been to me?”
Certainly, Mr. Boritt. Never mind that Moss Hart gave immense credit only to his Aunt Kate; we’ll let you praise your two female muses.
Whenever young Beowulf went to Bolton, Massachusetts to visit Nana, she made a distinct impression on him. “Anita Marie Wilson Norseen Hooker is a proper New England grande dame who likes things to be nice and beautiful. She always insists on the perfect place settings. Even in the ‘80s when NOBODY was dressing for dinner, she had us do it. Often my cousin and I would go into the attic and find formal wear to put on.”
Some kids might have complained more than Martha in VIRGINA WOOLF? Boritt saw it differently: “It was as if we were having a party every night. It built into me a sense of theatricality. She encouraged me artistically to express myself and bought me my first set of oil paints. My parents encouraged me, yes, but my grandmother was the big influence.”
Nana apparently wanted her grandson to succeed in ways that she could not. “She went to Wellesley in the ‘30s as an art major and designed sets,” he says. “Her success there gave her a chance to work in the fashion department of Marshall Fields in Chicago. But her father, a steel magnate in Boston, didn’t think it was ‘appropriate,’ so that was that.”
Now Ms. Hooker is 99. “Her mind is not in bad shape, for she understood that I was up for a Tony. I even talked to her in the limousine on the ride over. I delighted her by mentioning in my acceptance speech that she had attended Wellesley.”
So Boritt wound up doing what Nana had been denied. “She isn’t able to come up to ACT ONE, but I’m very glad that she got to see my design for SPELLING BEE.” Even then, she was very frail, so Boritt prefers to remember Nana as the feisty woman “who drove to see my set for MACBETH when she was ‘only’ in her eighties -- and got a ticket for doing 90.”
And if Nana hadn’t set Boritt on the path to appreciating theater, he probably would have never run into actress Mimi Bilinski. They’ve been a couple for 22 years and married for 11 of them.
“Mimi made me write out an acceptance speech just in case I won,” he says. “I owe a good deal of my career to her, for I’d originally planned to be a college professor who taught set design. Mimi wanted to stay in New York, yes, but she was also more ambitious for me than I was for myself.”
They met at Vassar during a production of TWELFTH NIGHT when he was Aguecheek and she Maria. “Yes, I was a drama major then,” he says, “although I did design a Liz Swados musical there.” Professor Ted Gesek liked his work and urged Boritt to apply to two graduate schools for design. “I went to NYU,” Boritt says, “because I didn’t get into Yale.” (Hey, you New Haven savants! Bet you’re sorry now!)
His professional life began in 1994 at the Gettysburg Theatre Festival, where he would design for three seasons. It was a nice return for the kid who’d been an intern there during his years at Gettysburg High. At that school, he’d already designed the set for BAREFOOT IN THE PARK and had played Victor Velasco, too.
That same year he designed six shows for Summerfun, a stock troupe 12 miles west of Manhattan. Take it from this long-term New Jersey reviewer: Boritt’s sets for DEATH AND THE MAIDEN and THE GOODBYE GIRL easily surpassed what Broadway had seen.
ACT ONE, however, is the biggest project he’s ever tackled. “Last year at this time I got the call from James,” he says, citing playwright-director Lapine. “He said ‘I have a peach of a job for you, but it’s going to be really hard.’”
Boritt looked on the bright side. “Usually when you design, you don’t know what theater you’ll be in. Knowing all along that we’d be in the Beaumont made it much easier. And when James said that we wouldn’t need the actual set until February, I figured we didn’t have to bid it out until August. So we had time.”
He used it. “My first impulse was very different,” he says. “Considering that James wrote the play like a movie -- a two-minute scene in place A, a three-minute scene in place B – I knew we couldn’t have two-minute scene changes. So I thought we’d be better with an empty theater with tables and chairs. I built the model, but then literally the night before the meeting, I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment that you always hope for and don’t usually get: a three-story structure with all these rooms.”
And yet, when Boritt arrived for the meeting, he showed Lapine his initial idea first -- and heard after ten long seconds, “You got anything better?”
Chances are Boritt wouldn’t have won a Tony for that design. On the other hand, he did get a Tony nomination for the sparse treatment he gave THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, so you never know. “I went from minimalism to maximalism,” he acknowledges.
Luckily, Lapine liked the second idea, and Boritt was on his way to his tenth Broadway credit, which started with SPELLING BEE in 2005. In between, he’s designed approximately 350 productions on four continents.
“But ACT ONE was so big that it was exhausting,” he concedes. “My associates Alexis Distler and Buist Bickley and I were so weary that we slept on the beds on the set.”
There were problems. “George S. Kaufman’s house needed an I-beam to support it so that the floor wouldn’t be bouncy. We had to add decorative details to hide the beam. The set looks like it has wooden beams but those are five-inch square steel posts painted to look like wood. Everything that looks like wood is made of metal and vice versa.”
The luxury of time didn’t turn out to be too luxurious. “They were still painting it when we had to get the turntable loaded in. It was so big it took quite a while and they hadn’t finished painting the set yet so they had to get the turntable out from under the rest of the set. They took the whole thing and put it up on big chain winches and hoisted it up to the ceiling and disassembled the turntable out from underneath it. The entire 30,000-pound, three-story tall thing was in the air with 35 painters climbing through it. My biggest fear was that the set would overwhelm the play’s tiny scenes. Only one critic said it did.”
And he did check. “Oh, I read reviews,” Boritt admits. “When a critic gives me a bad review and I think it’s accurate, it really gets to me because I feel like I’ve been caught doing something naughty.”
Advice to upcoming set designers? “Be personable,” he says. “So many designers aren’t. Some who say they want to meet me come to my studio where they mumble and can’t make eye contact. Their work is good, but they can’t relate to other people. I go up to a theater fair that’s held every year at Fordham and I purposely don’t introduce myself because I have a name tag to do that for me. As I look at everyone’s work, only a few talk to me. You’ve got to be gregarious.
He’s not through. “And don’t second-guess yourself, either,” he adds. “When I saw METAMORPHOSES on Broadway, I realized that I would have never suggested an onstage swimming pool because I would have assumed that someone would have said no. I’ve gotten over limiting myself. Now I let someone else say no and not me.”
Fine, but even if you have as much to say as Hamlet and are about as shy as Evita, there’s still the work. “You can work as an assistant to get basic set design skills, yes, but launch into designing tiny little shows,” Boritt says. “And if you can actually get on stage and build them yourself, you’re more salable. I’m a good carpenter who can build sets and paint. I can sew and make costumes.” To paraphrase an ON THE TOWN lyric: and what’s more, baby, he can weld.
ON THE TOWN is not irrelevant to this conversation, for Boritt designed last year’s production at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield. Now he’s enhanced it for the upcoming Broadway run. Unlike many who suspect that the newly renamed Lyric will be too large for Bernstein-Comden-Green classic, Boritt says he likes the venue. “It IS a big show,” he insists. “There are 29 in the orchestra and 30 in the cast who will fill the stage.”
No one’s more surprised than he that his biggest hit is ROCK OF AGES. “It’s paid off my mortgage,” he says, sounding a tad bewildered at the five-plus-years run.
But Boritt earned his keep on it, for it went through three different versions from off-Broadway’s New World Stages to the Atkinson and then the Hayes. “Believe it or not, the Atkinson has a narrower stage than the one we had at New World,” he says. “Then when we moved to the Hayes, we had to cut chunks off it.”
And the movie version? “I saw it in an airplane. It was better than I expected.”
— Peter Filichia