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London Theatre 2016

Theatre holds a special place for me whether as a reviewer or just an audience member going along to a show to sit back and just take it all in. NICE FISH was on my radar for a few weeks before I was able to see it but now I wish I had seen it sooner. The audience is instantly drawn into the play early on through Todd Rosenthal unbelievable set and director Claire van Kampen exceptional direction and music. Nice Fish takes hold of its audience and never lets them go with Louis Jenkins & Mark Rylance’s text stunningly poetic, funny and emotively vulnerable, this is theatre you never forget.


We spoke with Tony & Olivier award winning set designer Todd Rosenthal about his work on Nice Fish.


Hi Todd, thanks for talking to The New Current. Nice Fish is having an incredible run on the West End, how did you get involved with the production? 


Mark asked me to design the first production at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. I have designed a number of productions for that theatre.


What was it about Rylance's and Jenkins' text that spoke to you as a designer? 


I live in Chicago. I live right on lake Michigan. I am very familiar with the landscape, and I understand why Mark and Louis continue to be drawn to it. I stare out my window in mid winter and I feel like the explorer Shackleton. The vista is both awe inspiring and serene. At times it is quite mystical. 


Your set for Nice Fish is beautifully detailed and the perspective is incredible, how did you come up with this concept? 


We were inspired by a photographer Catherine Opy. She created a series of images of frozen lakes with the shoreline way in the distance. The shore was a tiny sliver with ice huts extending back in perspective. The houses on shore were mere specks. We loved the sense of perspective and tried to make the sense of distance the primary focus of the design. Hence the puppets and miniatures.


What was the biggest challenges you faced designing this set? 


In London it was trying to fit all the mechanics into the deck and clearing the architectural structures below. 


How did you get into scenic design, has it always been a passion for you? 


I took a year off from college and out of a whim decided it would be fun to work at a scene shop in my native town of Massachusetts. I always loved to draw and build models so it was natural fit. 

Nice Fish.webp

"I now have a group of assistants that help me to draft and build models."

What was the very first set you design? 


I designed a production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano in college. The set was very bad, but I loved the piece. I covered the walls with newsprint, which, at the time, made me very nervous, because walls aren’t usually covered in newspaper. I was drawn to the lack of rules with design. 


You debut Broadway production, August: Osage County, won you the Tony and Olivier Award what did it mean for you to get this type of recognition for your work? 


My mother runs theatre trips to London. So, I grew up in a family that worshipped the London theatre scene. Being the first American (I believe) to win the set design Olivier was very unexpected. 


How much has your approach to design changed since you started? 


Same level of panic, but after a while you develop a proven method of approaching problems. The biggest change to my approach is that, for a long while, I did most of the execution myself, mainly the drafting. Very long days. I now have a group of assistants that help me to draft and build models. I have less control, which is unnerving, but I am less frantic.


What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you've learnt from the projects that you've been part of? 


Meet deadlines. This heads off many problems. 


Is it hard to let go of a project once it's completed? 


It depends. If the design is successful I have no issues moving on. If there were problems, and the design didn’t quite work, I have a hard time moving on.


For anyone who might be wanting to study set design what advice would you offer them? 


Learn to draw by hand before relying entirely on a computer. The marks you make with a pencil define you as an artist. And, pursue a wide net liberal arts education. Many young designer focus on a career in theatre too early. Ones life experiences, and knowledge of the world are far more useful to a designer than ones knowledge of stage craft.


And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from your work? 


I hope my designs make the audience believe that the characters in the production lived a life before they set foot in the theatre.

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