‘Tales’ designer Douglas Schmidt lets space speak

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Douglas Schmidt was the set designer for ACT’s
production of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.”

The interior of Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Martin’s hillside home in San Francisco looks like the set for a 1950s urban comedy. The interior of their weekend home above Stinson Beach looks like a set from the plays and operas that Schmidt, 68, has designed during a long career in New York, San Francisco and points in between. His work can be seen in “Tales of the City” at ACT.

On set design: The way I approach any design project is that I let the space speak. It wants to express in a subtle, almost subliminal way the emotional climate of the piece, the characters’ needs and anxieties, the relationships that are being played out on the stage. All of these intangible elements have to be expressed.

On interior design: Somebody said once that “a beautifully designed and well-ordered interior is the sign of an inferior mind.” I subscribe to that. You look for a feeling. Does it express the people who live there? If it doesn’t have a comfortable feeling of being lived in, then it doesn’t succeed.

On putting it to practice: The house in Stinson Beach is populated with bits and pieces from old shows. In the early part of my career, I did a lot of traveling around, and I would be propping in all these strange places. I’d see stuff that might not work with the show but was a nice piece of furniture, so I’d buy it.

On floor space: There is a gigantic Chinese rug in the living room. It’s like 20 feet long. It was a major piece of scenery from a show when I was the resident designer at the repertory theater at Lincoln Center in New York. I’ve been dragging it around for 35 years until it found a home in Stinson Beach.

On effect: When someone walks in, they’re pretty gob-smacked. It’s not like most of the beach houses out there, which tend to be open and austere with tons of light. Our place looks like a barn. We describe it as “the Adirondacks meet Malibu.” It’s perfect for my collection of old furniture and props.

On getting started: I grew up in Cincinnati. In high school I was overly ambitious and adapted a stage version from a James Thurber book called “The 13 Clocks.” I not only adapted it, I directed it and cast it and designed it and starred in it. My megalomania started early on.

On direction: I’ve been a set designer for my entire career. My very first trip to San Francisco was an aborted production for ACT when Bill Ball was running the company. It was right after the White Night Riot. The production manager put me into the hotel under an assumed name because I just happened to share the name of the lawyer who defended Dan White successfully.

On “Tales of the City”: There are 50 scenes and 32 locations. The first time I read the script, I said to the director, “Do you know there are six beds in this script? How are you going to fit six beds on the stage?” In one case there was a love scene on two beanbag chairs because the bed issue was just impossible to deal with. You always have to compromise, but we ended up with very good props.

On tales in the city: People have asked me to do it (home interiors). It’s such a labor-intensive process. You’re dealing with personal tastes that might not be your own, and I find it extremely difficult to have to submerge my own aesthetic and buy a piece of furniture that I just wouldn’t have on a bet.

– Sam Whiting,


This article appeared on page V – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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