For set designer Alexander Dodge, it often starts with an image.
In the case of the visual inspiration of Hartford Stage's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," it was the suggestion of a garden maze by director Darko Tresnjak. The result is "an adult playground," says Dodge, a lush green seaside setting in the '20s that is both formal and fanciful.
"I like working with metaphor," says Dodge during a break in rehearsals. He says his sculptured maze of grass hedges is just high and solid enough for the characters in the strange new world of Illyria to hide, frolic and get lost.
"I'm most happy when you can create your own world and make your own rules," he says.
For Hartford Stage's Broadway-bound musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," Dodge thought the metaphor of a toy theater was "kind of great because it was about a serial killer."
In Hartford Stage's "The Tempest," "Darko had the idea of camouflage, of people on the island and the island being very similar and blending together." From that came the abstract world of cursive text overwhelming the space as well as the characters who became literally one with the play.
For "Bell, Book and Candle," which was co-produced with Long Wharf Theatre, Dodge created a bewitching mid-century modern apartment with a flaming red sunken living room tghat became a cozy coven worthy of Eero Saarinen.
They're among Dodge's bold and memorable designs that have earned praise, a Tony Award nomination and last year's Connecticut Critics Circle honor for his dual work in "The Tempest" and "Bell, Book and Candle."
Volume And Joy
"For me, I always try to create a world that the play or opera can live in, but one that has a three-dimensional feel, a space that has a sense of volume, that doesn't feel made up," Dodge says. "Well, it is, of course, but it's grounded in reality and [physical] elements that are true."
Dodge, 41, who carries design in his family genes, creates sculpturally, using models more than sketches to give life to his ideas as soon as he can after talking about the show with his collaborators. Perhaps that is why so many of his sets have such a feeling of solidity, as if entire gardens, houses and entire worlds just landed fully-formed on stage.
"He is the most adventurous set designer that I've worked with," say Tresnjak, Hartford Stage's artistic director, who has worked with Dodge for 10 productions in various venues." "He's not afraid of ideas that are bold and fun. He's not afraid of joy."
Another collaborator, director Nicholas Martin, says Dodge understands a play's dramaturgy "but without all that fuss and stodginess."
Martin, who first met Dodge when he was an undergraduate at Bennington College, has given the designer's career major lifts, including their first Broadway production together in "Hedda Gabler" with Kate Burton in 2001. Other Broadway collaborations were "Butley" with Nathan Lane in 2006, and "Present Laughter" with Victor Garber in 2010, which earned Dodge a Tony nomination.
"When you work with him you know you're going to get a set that will embody a play with the utmost care and class," says Martin.
Since so many of Dodge's designs are so elegant — where a $20,000 set looks far more expensive — he is wary about being compartmentalized as a set designer who only does shows with high-end settings, be it the drop-dead deco of "Present Laughter," the luxe of "The Circle" at Westport Country Playhouse, or the period swank of the homes on the Crescent at Bath, England in "The Rivals."
But he is cautious not to take too many ritzy interior assignments in a row. "I'm happy I do that well but I get a little bristly when people say, 'Oh, you're like the young [designer] John Lee Beatty,' whom I love." I always try to push in other areas. The fun is to do as many kinds of designs as you can and now I'm moving into opera and dance — and doing the gritty and very conceptual designs."
Dodge comes from four generations of designers. His great grandfather, Horace Dodge, one of the two brothers who created the Dodge Company, was the engineer of the car company. (The company was sold to Chrysler in the 1920s.)
His grandfather, Horace Elgin Dodge Jr., designed boats, water cars and, during World War II, military crafts. His father, architect David Elgin Dodge, was an architect at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Aria. His father, now 83, studied under Wright and is one of the last to have worked directly with the master builder.
Taliesin is where the Switzerland-born Dodge, an only child, spent most of his youth.
"I was like any faculty brat growing up with all the students there," he says. "We had the whole of Taliesin as our playground. We lived in an apartment on site until I was in the third grade. Though Wright died in 1959, Mrs. Wright was still there." (Olgivanna Lloyd Wright died in 1985.)
Because of his father's involvement with design, the visual life was a natural gateway for him. He considered a career in architecture for a while but in one of his many theater trips with his family to New York and London, "it just clicked one day that theater is what I wanted to be a part of."
But acting was out of the question. When he was a young teen Dodge was a competitive classical pianist and he suffered from performance anxiety."I would just panic and die."
Dodge went to Bennington College where he studied theater and design, and met Martin, who taught there at the time. He also became friends with playwright Jonathan Mark Sherman and after graduation joined an off-off-Broadway's Malaparte Theatre Company that included Sherman, and pals Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Steve Zahn and Calista Flockhart.
Dodge started doing design for that theater as well as other off and off-off Broadway shows and assisting more established designers.
But Dodge decided he needed more training and, after being rejected once, was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, studying under the legendary designer Ming Cho Lee. At what Dodge called "a brutal boot camp," he learned to think of the life of the play through its characters. "Knowing them well tells you what they need for their surroundings."
As a student he did two Yale Rep designs: Joseph Chaikin's production of "The Glass Menagerie" — which featured a giant rose with a gritty living room plunked in its middle— and Lynn Nottage's "Crumbs from the Table of Joy."
Dodge is no fan of the physicality of Yale Rep, which was a converted church before it became a theater. "It's a tough space for designers. I wish some comet would come and crash into that building."
After graduating from Yale in 1999, Dodge's career was off and running. "Hedda Gabler" in 2001 was a big boost and stunning productions at Huntington Theatre company, where Martin was artistic director, also made his portfolio bulge.
Future projects include two productions at The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis: "Pride and Prejudice" staged by Joe Dowling, and "Tribes" staged by Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford. Also, "The Show-Off" at Westport Country Playhouse. Dodge's personal setting is a home in New York's Chelsea neighborhood which he shares with his husband Charles Stewart, an investment banker. (The beautifully designed residence was featured in an article in the New York Times.) He says his perfect environment would be something like his design for the Palm Springs-set of "Other Desert Cities," one of concrete, glass and wood "with materials that are textured and tactile and volume-based. It's what I grew up with."
TWELFTH NIGHT is in previews and opens to critics May 23. The May 19 performances are canceled. The run continues through June 14. Tickets are $26.50 to $93.50. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.
The run continues through June 14. Tickets are $26.50 to $93.50. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun