Selling Out With … Derek McLane

A live broadcast of Hairspray Live! is coming to NBC on December 7. We had the chance to speak with the award-winning theatrical production designer of the broadcast, Derek McLane.

The Harvard grad has worked on hundreds of shows (no exaggeration!), and he just earned two Emmy nominations for The Oscars, where he has served as production designer since 2013, and The Wiz Live!

Here, McLane shares his process when he designs for a production and the best advice he’s ever received, and reveals a couple of skills most people don’t know he has.

Derek McLane

Derek McLane

Selling Out: You have a HUGE body of work in scenic design. More than 300 productions — China Doll (2015), Gigi (2015), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (2014), 33 Variations (Tony Award, Best Scenic Design 2009), Grease, The Pajama Game (2006 Tony Nomination) — to name just a few. How does an English major at Harvard end up where you are now?

Derek McLane: Well the truth is, I had been an archaeology major at Harvard, and while there, I fell in love with the theater and wanted to study it. There was no theater major at the time, and English was the closest subject there was. I was secretly studying the theater.

SO: We’re so excited to see your work on Hairspray when it airs live on NBC December 7. What are some of the biggest differences and challenges between designing for theater versus television?

DM: Lots of differences. On stage, you are designing a composition, that everyone in the auditorium sees from more or less the same vantage point. On a show like Hairspray, the camera is CONSTANTLY moving, sometimes 360 degrees, and so it is less about a composition and more about an environment. That’s difference No. 1. Number 2 is that unlike an audience member, who is supposed to stay in their seat, the camera gets right up close and sees all sorts of the things an audience member in the theater would never see. So there is a level of detail required that isn’t always needed in the theater.

SO: We talk a lot on Selling Out about the benefits of these live broadcasts of theatrical productions. Do you think they are helping people get interested in theater? What show would you like to see broadcast?

DM: I do think that these broadcasts let people who would never have access to this level of theatrical production go see a show — a pretty amazing show, if I may say so.

I would love to see a new musical done live for television. That would be a riskier business proposition but one day it will happen. And I think there are interesting productions waiting to be done of plays — serious plays. Imagine a play that is written, as many contemporary plays are, with a gazillion locations. On stage, they usually need to be done rather simply. But live, you’d have the ability to move from place to place in an exciting way.

SO: You were a double Emmy nominee for your sets for the 2016 Academy Awards and NBC’s presentation of The Wiz Live! There’s no follow-up question. We just wanted to congratulate you! OK, one follow-up question, will you be the first scenic designer to EGOT?

DM: Thank you! It was truly an honor. Part of an EGOT is a Grammy Award, and since you’ve never heard me sing, you probably don’t know how unlikely that is.

SO: What’s your process when you design for a production?

Corny Collins Show Set for "Hairspray Live!"

Corny Collins Show Set for “Hairspray Live!”

DM: I try to come up with ideas, come up with a take on something. In Hairspray, for example, I read the script, and the description of the Turnblad living room says very little in way of the actual details. So it could be anything. In order to get a handle on the tone of that apartment, I need to understand the personality and history of the characters who live there. If you read carefully and listen to the lyrics of the song, the info is all there (maybe that is where the English degree comes in!).

SO: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received when it comes to design?

DM: To be bold. To imagine my ideal, favorite version of a design. If I had all the money in the world to work with and the most amazing theater space to work in, what would I design? Even when the budget is small, thinking boldly usually pays off.

SO: Are you a chronic designer, that is, do you walk in others people’s homes and mentally move things around?

DM: Yes. You might think I judge, but I don’t really. I take mental notes, and file them away. So much of what I do as a stage designer (and this goes back to the question of understanding a character) is pull from my own experience. How do different personalities live? What do their houses look like? Why did they choose that terrible upholstery fabric? So you never know. That fabric might be perfect in the next show I am designing.

SO: Right now on Broadway, which show’s set is your favorite?

DM: I think I’d have to say Matilda. Really great design.

SO: And, finally, what’s a skill you have that most people don’t know about?

DM: I am pretty good at vocal impersonations of people I know. And I am quite a decent fly fisherman. That is about it.

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