To David Boechler, there is such a thing as too much research. A novel thought, coming from the man responsible for the gritty, period-authentic set and paint-soaked costumes of the Canadian Stage production of Red, the Tony Award-winning play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and his young assistant. Granted, Boechler spent hours going through old photographs and other documentation of Rothko’s studios and paintings. “But at some point,” he says. “You have to let your imagination take over. Too much research takes some of the intuitiveness out of your work.”
A long-acclaimed set and costume designer, Boechler brings this approach to all of his endeavours, from theatre festivals like Shaw and Stratford to ballets in Canada, Boston, Stockholm and elsewhere. Always, he aims to merge the artistic elements with the realistic demands of live performance. “You’re keeping two balls in the air – the imaginative creative ball and the practical work-a-day of how this will work,” he says. “You’re constantly taking the imaginative and placing it on a ground plan and seeing how it works.” Here, Boechler walks us through both the ground plan and the imaginative world he created for Red, right down to the smallest pigment.
David Boechler at work, putting some finishing touches on the walls.
The stage is transformed into a gymnasium in New York’s Bowery, which is where Rothko set up his studio in the late 1950s. “That’s all the info I needed. I didn’t even really need to see a picture of it.”
The set, in miniature. Boechler had to envision a set that could move across the country to theatres in Vancouver and Edmonton. “We didn’t end up having to compromise too much,” he says.
This filthy paint cart came up again and again in photos of Rothko’s studios during Boechler’s research, so they recreated it down to the caked-on jars and 50s-era brushes and tins. “I just like how dirty it is,” he says. “I like watching it roll around. There’s a real authenticity to how the space feels.”
“I really latched on to the textures in the space,” says Boechler. “We have a lot of reference photos and we’ve gotten very close with the feel of them with the paint cans and brushes right beside the cigarettes and booze. All through the studio.”
Paint-splattered burner plates, tools, rags and a working sink.
Boechler treated the floor to look like its already splattered in paint, but he’s also still working out how the set will change over the show’s five-month run (it closes in Edmonton on March 4). “How do you maintain consistency of a floor that gets soaked in paint every night?” says Boechler.
Rothko look-a-likes hanging from the 70-foot ceiling. The fly system at work.
Stacked “Rothkos.” The play takes place while Rothko is working on his famous murals for the Seagram building’s Four Seasons restaurant. It was hard enough to gain permission to create reproductions of the paintings; they can never be presented on-stage with an unobstructed view.
Backstage paint mixology. All of the paint is carefully measured and prepared before each show. One of Boechler’s biggest worries with all this red paint is that the stains on the set and costumes will end up pink. “There’s nothing pink about this play,” laughs Boechler.
“In this play the costumes are secondary,” says Boechler. “They really just set the period and establish character.” He imagines that neither of the characters have any clothes that don’t have paint splattered on them.
Photography by Raylene Knutson & Ashley Ballantyne.