Spotlight on the Arts
11:35 am
Thu January 9, 2014

Imaginative Worlds by Ming Cho Lee

A scale model for Boris Godunov (Coronation) 1974 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
A scale model for Boris Godunov (Coronation) 1974 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Credit Yale University School of Architecture

Resembling a village of delicate toy theaters, "Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee" fills the large ground floor gallery at the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven. 

With over 100 works in the collection, the exhibition, which runs through February 1, is more than a retrospective featuring scenic models and drawings from Mr. Lee’s brilliant career in the theater. It is a three-dimensional textbook on craft, and each glass case protects a precious piece of Lee’s imagination and evolving creativity.

For theater lovers and practitioners, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. As you peer closely into each glass case to explore Mr. Lee’s imagined worlds for "Hamlet," "The Tempest," "The Glass Menagerie," "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "Waiting for Godot," and so many others from both the classical and contemporary repertoire, your curiosity will be awakened and delighted. You’ll often wonder: just how did he see that?

Born in Shanghai, Lee began as an artist of landscape paintings. He moved to America to work in the theater, and became an assistant in the 1950s to Broadway designer Jo Mielziner, his mentor. Strongly influenced by the aesthetics of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Lee was the resident designer of Joseph Papp’s new Shakespeare in the Park in 1962, and conceived original landmark productions of "Hair" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

Photo essay by Mike Dunphy and Ed Wierzbicki:

Although he worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway with designs for "The Shadow Box," "Angels in America," "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf," and his breathtaking design for the play "K2," Lee’s work in regional theater over the next four decades proved pivotal to the movement’s artistic growth and following as it evolved into an alternative to the New York scene. He designed for Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, Arena Stage in Washington, Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and many others.

In addition to his own creative work since 1969, and until his retirement in 2005, Lee led the design department at the Yale School of Drama. He has taught and mentored a new generation of designers who today work across the globe.

The collection of scenic models in the current exhibition -- each set in various scales, delicately painted, and built with an assortment of materials -- are miniature masterpieces that reveal Lee’s complex creative process. Fascinated with dramatic storytelling, Lee turned dialogue into an imaginative physical space where actors and directors could play. His models and sketches became the first glimpse for a production team: they are a working springboard not only for theater, but for some of the world’s great opera and dance productions.

Lee’s powers of interpretation transformed the art of American scenic design, especially in his use of scaffolding, steps and platforms, collage motifs, and non-traditional materials. In the process, he explored how vertical levels on stage could empower storytelling; and he also exposed theatricality instead of hiding it, unlike much of the design work in earlier American realism.

When Lee wasn’t working in the abstract, he combined selective realism and a heightened theatricality to create a believable, but atmospheric world. An example is his famous 1974 production of "Boris Godunov" for the Metropolitan Opera.

Going one step further, the exhibition also includes Lee’s personal thoughts on the decisions he made regarding many of his design choices. As you investigate and admire each model, you can read Lee’s to-the-point self-critiques regarding a given project. A variation on "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," Lee seems far more critical than pleased with most of his concepts.

In addition to Lee's scenic designs, the exhibition also includes two dozen of his non-theatrical watercolors. This practice is a loving craft that dates back to his teenage years in his homeland, China.

The exhibition runs through February 1 and is jointly sponsored by the Yale School of Architecture, the Yale School of Drama, and Yale College. It is supported in part by the Tobin Foundation for Theatre Arts, with additional in-kind support from Long Wharf Theatre and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.