This is an archived article.

October 13, 2005

Design for (stage) living: Broadway set designer comes to UW

Aspiring set designers in the UW School of Drama are going to be studying with a teacher who knows his way around Broadway — and pretty much everywhere else good theater is made. Thomas Lynch joined the school this fall after a 30-year career as a freelance set designer based in New York City.

Lynch’s designs for Broadway, Off-Broadway, international opera, national tours, and London West End have most recently included the Metropolitan Opera’s highly praised production of Handel’s Rodelinda featuring Renee Fleming, the Broadway revival of A Raisin In The Sun with Phylicia Rashad and Sean Combs, Susan Stroman’s long-running Contact, the dance musical Swing!, and the premiere of Arthur Miller’s last play, Finishing The Picture.

He has produced over 200 designs in major American theaters, including Arena Stage, Goodman Theater, A.C.T. (San Francisco), The Guthrie Theatre, American Repertory Theatre and The Mark Taper Forum, as well as the Seattle Repertory Theater and the Seattle Opera.

“Tom Lynch is an extraordinary addition to the highly respected faculty of the UW School of Drama,” said Sarah Nash Gates, executive director of the School. “He brings a broad scope of experience which will be of great benefit for our students and in turn, the community.”

Recently, Lynch has taught — first part time and then full time — for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I had not known, until I started teaching four years ago, that I would enjoy it so much,” he said. “I had kind of resisted the idea of teaching, but I found I really loved it.”

Lynch won’t be abandoning his first love, however. He will still be doing “the design work I really want to do.” But his base will be here in Seattle, where this year he is teaching exclusively graduate students in the MFA program in set design.

“One of the things that really attracted me to the program here is that students in all the design areas — costumes and lighting as well as sets — meet together once a week, so they know what the mutual concerns are,” Lynch said. “I think fostering that collegiality so early on is fantastic. Added to that, there’s a link with the directing program — which many schools don’t have. I’m looking forward to seeing how that can best be used.”

Lynch considers himself fortunate that he was able to step out of his own MFA program at Yale University and straight into a professional career almost immediately. Fresh out of school, he was hired for a mainstage production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. And within a year, a “tiny little review” he’d designed for some friends moved from Washington to Off Broadway, and finally became the Broadway musical Tintypes.

Pretty heady stuff for a guy who started college thinking he wanted to be an architect, and who didn’t take any undergraduate theater classes. But he did get involved with some shoestring productions staged in places like dining halls and squash courts. “It gave me a taste for the rather quick project, compared to the architectural project which of course is a much longer thing,” Lynch said.

He wound up getting an undergraduate degree in painting — something he’d always enjoyed — then took a couple of years out to travel and do a summer theater project with some friends in his native Asheville, NC. But ultimately, the pull of set design was too strong. He went back to Yale, where he did his graduate work with Ming Cho Lee, someone he calls “the greatest educator I’ve known in any context.”

And then it was on to success in the theater world. Lynch says he begins any design project by talking to the director. “I always think of plays or musicals or whatever as an event,” he said. “It’s a live event. The audience is dedicating their hours and dollars and their hearts and minds to witness, to be a part of, an event. So I need to find out what we’re all aiming for. Then I can begin working from the text, with the director, to put down what might be a good physical vessel for the event to take place in.”

That means he gets out his sketchpad, and as he works, he thinks about what is absolutely necessary for the characters to tell their story. From sketches he moves to models, then finally to elevations.

“I love working with the minds of my colleagues on a piece,” Lynch said of the process. “To be working intensely with the director, other designers, the stage manager and others on the common goal of making an event successful on whatever terms it wants to be successful, is pretty thrilling.”

But some of his love for set design, he admits, is the “private satisfaction of seeing the physical product there on stage, of having an idea and seeing it realized.”

Now some of that satisfaction will be transferred over to his students, an experience he’s already had at NYU.

“What I have most enjoyed about teaching is watching students grapple with and aim towards expressing their ideas in a tangible form, in a sketch or model,” Lynch said. “I feel what I can do is to help clarify what it is they’re trying to do. It’s really exciting for me. It’s a kind of profound fun. It’s not lighthearted fun but a profound satisfaction.”

At the UW, Lynch will be the inaugural Floyd and Delores Jones Professor of the Arts, a position that rotates among the academic arts units — art, dance, drama, DXARTS and music — on a three-year basis.

- Nancy Wick