Physiology tells us that our eyes are trained to follow motion, that we tend to ignore what is stagnant. So it makes sense that when attending a play, opera or ballet, most audience members are drawn to the parts of the stage that are moving, be they actors, dancers or elaborate props. But this biological truth might not be so accurate if one were to attend a performance whose stage had been designed by the legendary Ming Cho Lee, because his incomparable set designs must inevitably direct focus off the performers and place it instead on their surroundings.
Many of these incredible designs are on display this month in the Architecture Gallery of Paul Rudolph Hall. It is a large and echoing room with two levels and walls made of ridged gray stone. With exposed beams and visible light bulbs, the gallery itself exudes an air of quiet cool that prepares the viewer well for what proves to be an equally refreshing exhibit.
Lee’s art is displayed using many forms of media — small miniatures of set designs atop museum-style white beams, photographs of productions, early stage sketches, a computer and TV playing alternating images and videos describing Lee’s work and process. The exhibit even features one set piece, a large wood and fabric man playing what appears to be a primitive version of the bagpipes, from a 1993 production of “Carmina Burana.”
Effortlessly integrated into the display of his work (on the wall beside the watercolors, beneath the many of the miniature stage designs) are comments from Lee himself. Some are revelatory, such as one describing the important role watercolors have had in his life — and some are self-deprecating — “Too complicated — Trying to say too many things — A very 60’s design.” These commentaries give the viewer an insight to not only Lee’s reflections on his past work, but also to his intimate involvement in constructing every aspect of the show.
The room is filled with dozens of miniature versions of Lee’s set designs, which show both his exquisite accuracy and attention to detail (underscored by notes like “1/8 inch = 1 foot scale model”) and his versatility. Lee has worked on productions by everyone from Shakespeare to Mussorgsky to Tennessee Williams, and designed for spaces as huge and acclaimed as the Metropolitan Opera and as modest as New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.
His flexibility is particularly evident in one clustered group of four miniature set designs, all for the Arena Stage at Fichandler Theater, which features a performance space flanked by audience members on all four sides. His designs for this stage range from the simple — one unoccupied stool and one barren tree for a 1976 production of “Waiting for Godot” — to the extravagant — a two-leveled scheme involving an entirely glass top floor with furniture and plants visible beneath it, designed for a 1979 performance of “Don Juan.” And then there’s the traditional — a chandelier centered above a round table, surrounded by four chairs, for Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 1995. Finally, Lee leaves us with the abstract — another two-leveled design with slim trees in each corner for Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” in 1982.
This exhibit, meta-artistic in its use of one medium to showcase another, both highlights a great artist’s career and challenges its viewer to recognize one particular aspect of performance art — one that we too often take for granted.