Set Designer’s Interview – David Dwyer
By Jacqueline Lawton
Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, tell me how long you have been a set designer.
David Dwyer: About 22 years, give or take.
JL: Next, in terms of your work in general, is there a style that defines your work, or a signature of some kind--something that invariably shows up in your work or otherwise defines it?
DD: I’m not sure if I have a particular style; my style adapts and is dictated per the needs of each production, but what I’ve been told is a signature of mine is that I have a flair for making designs work beautifully under extreme circumstances of space, time or budget… sometimes all three. However, sometimes I wish I didn’t have such flair!
JL: How did you first get interested in set design? Why did you decide to get into theater? Have you worked for television and film?
DD: I suppose I was like many children in that I had dreams and visions of one day becoming a famous actor. I began acting in community productions as a child, and by the time I reached college age I had about 25 shows under my belt. The dream of being an actor persisted until as a young adult I worked a summer as an actor in summer stock where I quickly gave up that notion when the realities of life as an actor set in. I designed my first set while a senior at Kirtland High School in Northern Ohio in 1988. I am the son of a Pipefitter and consequently learned many practical skills from my father in building and repairing just about everything. Somewhere I inherited some artistic skills, and well, scenic design, for me, seems to combine my practical and artistic skills, along with the driving interest in the theatre I developed as a youth.
My work in TV and film has been limited, I’ve worked on a few TV News sets, but I’d love the opportunity to do more.
JL: What excited you about designing the set for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at the National Museum of the American Indian?
DD: What excited me with this design, as did the design of The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu last spring, is the wonderful process of discovery. It is the journey from limited knowledge of a group and their culture to a deeper understanding of a people and their struggles and the trials of individuals. Then, the challenge to represent those discoveries visually in the design.
JL: How did you prepare for the set design for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What was your inspiration? How much research goes into it before you even sketch your first drawing?
DD: Research, research and more research- that is the key to any good stage design, and certainly it is the case with this design. I draw my inspiration from a variety of sources. In the case of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, being a contemporary play, most of my research comes from image searches online, with a few other print sources. I have literally spent hours and hours in research. There have been a few key images from which has sprung the inspiration for the scenic design.
JL: In your experience, how true is the final set to the ideas you get during or right after the play reading? If changes do occur, how much of this has to with how the actors ability to use and access the set? Also, does the set or costumes impact your design at all?
DD: When I first read a script often the ideas or pictures I get in my head are beyond the budget or simply impossible to build, as the ideas develop, and are refined through discussions with the director, the set is shaped into the final design. At this point, the set for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is in it’s fifth or sixth incarnation, (while most of the production team has only seen the last two), and I’m sure there are more changes to be made. Naturally, part of my concern as the set designer is the traffic patterns and ability of the actors to move fluidly around the stage. When I envision a set in my mind, I try to see it as the final product: with actors in costume saying their lines, under the lights, moving about the space. All the designers for a production need to collaborate in order to have a unified production.
JL: What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?
DD: The biggest challenge by far has been finding research images of the interior of contemporary reservation homes.
JL: Finally, what advice would you give a young person interested in becoming a set designer?
DD: Design everything you can. Take many, many art classes and build your skills. Find a designer whose style you like, and learn all you can about their process and how they got to where they are- never settle for the easy way out, but take the design to the next level.
In the words of Scenic Designer David Gallo “If you can be happy doing anything else, do it.” Meaning this is a challenging career; you have to love it.