Set designer is having a banner year
"The Iceman Cometh," with scenic design by Kevin Depinet, is on stage at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Updated: August 22, 2012 1:30PM
By all rights, Chicago-based theatrical set designer Kevin Depinet should be lounging on a beach somewhere, recharging after a year of living in creative overdrive. But he is not.
Instead, when we chatted recently, he was nursing some painful dental surgery and speaking animatedly about one of his many works-in-progress — his collaboration with director Gary Griffin on a revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” the Stephen Sondheim musical that will open the season at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
But before we get to that, it is worth considering some of the projects for which Depinet created sets during the past year. The list (and this is just the tip of the iceberg), includes:
— “The Iceman Cometh,” with its three dramatic shifts of perspective, at the Goodman Theatre.
— “Timon of Athens,” with its chilly, high-tech opening and radically different sandy beach second act, at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
— “A Little Night Music,” the model of simplicity and elegance at Writers’ Theatre.
— “Oedipus el Rey,” with its prison fencing and blood-stained brick wall, at Victory Gardens Theatre.
— “The 39 Steps,” with its winning suggestion of a Victorian era London theater, at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace.
— “The Taming of the Shrew,” the lovely, relatively bare bones set for Chicago Shakespeare’s first season of Shakespeare in the Parks.
— “Detroit,” with its heightened sense of real estate on fire, at the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Depinet also is business partners in XL Scenic, a museum exhibition design company created with fellow Chicago set designer Todd Rosenthal [they are both big guys, hence the XL or Extra Large logo]. And they worked on “MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition,” the hugely successful interactive show that closes Sept. 3 at the Museum of Science and Industry and then heads out on tour.
“I normally do about 15 or 20 productions a year at theaters of various sizes — from the tiny Writers’ Theatre bookstore space to the Goodman,” said Depinet. “But this year was pretty crazy, with so many things back-to-back, yet somehow I pulled it off.”
Depinet, 31, has been designing since high school. He grew up in Carmel, Ind., where he was involved in wrestling and football. But his high school also had “an amazing theater program, complete with design teachers and a theater tech department.” And he got hooked.
“I always had an appreciation for the theater and storytelling, and I loved reading,” said Depinet. “And I knew about building things because my dad builds custom homes, and I myself made some awesome treehouses.”
At Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Depinet majored in art, studying both sculpture and furniture design. He then headed off to Yale for graduate study. While there, he asked his professor, designer Michael Yeargan, for contacts in Chicago, because his wife, Amy Jackson (a set designer who works mostly in television, including on the TV series “Boss”) was then headed to graduate school. Yeargan mentioned Todd Rosenthal.
“I wrote and asked him if he needed an assistant,” recalled Depinet, who now shares a studio in Evanston with Rosenthal and another top-notch Chicago set designer, Jack McGraw. “Then I built a model for him, and things just clicked — in large part because we have similar attitudes about life and work.”
He also “clicks” with many Chicago directors.
“Both Gary Griffin [with whom he collaborated on “Follies” last fall] and Rachel Rockwell [with whom he is working on the goofy musical “Xanadu” this fall at Drury Lane Oakbrook] are very visual, and very smart about how design can propel the storytelling,” he said. “They see the set as another character in the show. And as with all the creative people I work with, including William Brown and Robert Falls, I’ve learned to listen to them with two ears while speaking with just one mouth.”
For “Sunday in the Park,” inspired by Georges Seurat’s masterful painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the challenge has been to find ways to make a solidly proscenium-oriented show more adaptable for Chicago Shakespeare’s thrust stage. One solution involves creating a greater sense of the artist’s studio.
“At Drury Lane [where “Xanadu’ opens in September] the challenge is to try to pull its very wide stage space down to human proportions,” explained Depinet. “That’s what I try to do in all my designs — get the scale of the human being to look right. It was the same with ‘The Iceman Cometh’ — finding a way to make the people more present in the first act, and then much smaller in the world in the third act.”
This season, Depinet also will be designing “Singing in the Rain” at Drury Lane (opening in November), and teaming up with one of his favorite directors, William Brown, for TimeLine Theatre’s “Wasteland,” the world premiere of Susan Felder’s play about a soldier held prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Asked to name a “dream project,” Depinet said simply: “Every project I work on turns into that for me. I just become a believer.”