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Thinking Outside the Box (Set)

CFA prof’s scenic design work coming to HBO and London stage

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James Noone

James Noone, a CFA assistant professor, is a set designer whose work will be seen soon on HBO and on the London stage. Photos by Cydney Scott

During the summer months, we are revisiting some of our favorite BU Today stories from the past year. This week, we feature articles about theater.

A conversation with James Noone may change the way you look at theater. His iconoclasm begins with the how he describes his work.

“I’ve stopped using the word ‘set,’” explains Noone, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor and head of the School of Theatre scenic design program. “To me, that means fake and artificial. Instead, we try to create a space that allows a story to be heard.” And he’d rather not call himself a scenic designer, preferring “a person who makes theater.”

The distinctions aren’t just semantic. Noone pushes the boundaries of what’s traditionally considered scenic design, and his goal as a teacher is to inspire his students to do the same. He can design the basic “box set,” with a couch and period lamp, and in a 30-year career that includes a long string of Broadway, off Broadway, opera, and regional theater credits (and a Drama Desk award for the original Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde), he certainly has. But the lamp and the couch, he says, “are a small part of what we do.”

Often, they aren’t a part of it at all. “Jim taught me how to tell a story with nothing—to take it all away and see if you can still tell the story, without a ‘set’ engulfing the stage,” says former student Paul dePoo (CFA’10), who is now a successful designer.

“As I tell my students,” Noone says, “the best tool we have is the audience’s imagination.”

He works frequently at theaters around the country, but two upcoming projects are particularly high profile. In December, he re-created the sets he designed for last year’s Broadway production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill for an upcoming television adaptation. Audra McDonald, who won her sixth Tony Award for playing Billie Holiday, is reprising her role in the HBO film, scheduled to air next fall. Noone had to adapt his designs to accommodate the run-down bar where the filmed version was shot.

Last spring, he also designed the sets for a New York Philharmonic concert version of Sweeney Todd, with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, that wowed audiences at Lincoln Center. The production is being restaged in London later this month by the English National Opera, again with Thompson and Terfel in the leads and Noone’s original designs.

This Sweeney Todd, perhaps classic Noone, is an exercise in upending expectations. DePoo, who assisted his former teacher, says that when the show begins, it appears to be “a typical benefit: tacky, overly done floral arrangements, a big curtain, actors in tuxes and beautiful gowns—very snooze-fest.” Then, as the first notes of music are played, he says, “the curtain drops and everything goes to hell.” The flower arrangements are smashed, the performers rip their elegant clothes, a concert grand piano is overturned, the hall is scrawled with graffiti.

Noone smiles as he recalls the crowd’s reaction. “There were screams,” he says. But it wasn’t done just for shock value: the production’s startling design, he says, allowed the audience to hear the familiar score anew.

When Noone began teaching at Boston University in 1999, it wasn’t his first hitch here; he attended CFA after graduating high school in 1979. Growing up in the small upstate New York town of Lake George, he was tapped at age 12 to work backstage with a local opera company, helping out a stage manager who couldn’t read music. He became fascinated by the workings of the scenery, and he chose BU because one of the opera company’s designers had gone there.

Noone (center) presiding over his Scene Design II class for graduate students.

Noone (center) presiding over his Scene Design II class for graduate students. The set designer tells his students, “The best tool we have is the audience’s imagination.” 

He didn’t quite make it to graduation, though. “Some projects came up, some opportunities to work with some important people, and I decided I should go do that,” he says. He’s been working steadily ever since, and his professional network has enabled him to help launch several former students. “I can honestly say I owe my entire career to him,” say dePoo.

Noone’s current stint at the University, he says, involves learning as well as teaching. For this, he credits School of Theatre director Jim Petosa. “Jim has challenged us to think more artfully about our work and to work more collaboratively with students,” he says. For his part, Petosa says that Noone “teaches not just excellence in design but…a process in which students approach creativity from a greater sense of ensemble. He encourages them to participate in the rehearsal room, not just deliver a finished design.” Working with the director, actors, playwright, and other collaborators as a play takes shape, Noone says, allows student designers “to find a reason they’re telling a story, rather than just see themselves as hired guns.”

On a recent Tuesday, presiding over a class of first-year grad students in his cozy, cluttered office next door to the BU Theatre, the soft-spoken Noone coaxes students to find their way into the play he’d assigned them, Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours. The story is set in 1930s Alabama, and Noone asks, insistently, what the students think they need to know about that world to understand the play. “What else?” he asks again and again. He doesn’t rush to fill the silence when the students struggle for answers; instead, he gives them space to ponder, to stumble, perhaps to be uncomfortable. He sends them off with a stack of reading and an admonition not to fear failure: “I think the only way to learn is to fail—but fail with a lot of conviction.”

Outside the theater, just a bit down Huntington Avenue, a row of tall trees lines the street beside the Christian Science Plaza. Noone remembers that the trees were planted, as saplings on his first day as a BU undergrad. It’s exactly the kind of tidy, obvious metaphor he’d shun on stage, but in real life, the trees could stand for his own progression as an artist. As he told his students earlier, “Designers who stop growing are not worth having around. This is an art form that constantly challenges you, makes you experiment and try new things. That’s what’s exciting. That’s what makes it so rich and worthwhile. That’s why I do it.”

1 Comments

One Comment on Thinking Outside the Box (Set)

  • Linda Friedman on 06.03.2015 at 12:19 pm

    Just want to add that he comes from a family fully committed to the Arts and to correct that he grew up Glens Falls, NY in upstate NY near Lake George.

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