Arts & Culture » Theater

Built to Suit: Renowned set designer John Ezell never met a play he didn't like


The St. Louis Rep doesn't have a resident scenic designer, but John Ezell is the next best thing. Over the past nineteen years Ezell has designed some of the Rep's most colorful and imaginative sets — nearly forty productions in all — including Emma, which opens next week. The former St. Louisan (he now lives in Kansas City) is the subject of an impressive retrospective, Bold Strokes and Finesse: The Stage Designs of John Ezell, on view this month and next at the Des Lee Gallery downtown. The exhibition is sponsored by Washington University, where Ezell did his undergraduate work in the 1950s. He recently talked about his singular life and prolific career.

Dennis Brown: What are your earliest theater memories of growing up in St. Louis?

John Ezell: My grandmother lived across from Forest Park, and various relatives would drop me off at the Muny. I was sitting in the free seats before I had a pair of long pants. But it was during the day that I was most fascinated by the sounds of the scenery being built and painted. The backstage area was like a forbidden territory that one couldn't enter, and I really wanted to figure out how to get in there.

How did you get your first job as a designer?

I went to Yale. The contacts I made there, I have used for the rest of my life. While I was still at Yale, I designed summer stock in Berkshire, Massachusetts. The year after I graduated, I was the resident designer at the Williamstown Festival. That was a learning experience. Frankly, I wasn't quite ready for it. I had good design ideas, but I didn't know how to use my time to the best advantage. Also, collaboration did not come naturally to me. It took me a long time to learn how to collaborate with a director.

Some of your most evocative designs in the gallery show are the front curtains for the Asolo Theater productions of The Show-Off and Of Mice and Men. Is the front curtain a scenic dividend that we've lost as we've gotten away from proscenium theaters?

I think so. As a kid growing up in St. Louis, watching plays and especially musicals downtown at the American Theater, it was always the show curtain that excited me. I especially loved the thematic show curtains. For me the attempt has always been to try to encapsulate the kind of theater experience the audience is about to have. Robert Edmund Jones, our great progenitor of American stage design, said that a set should look unfinished until the first actor walks in the door. The same is true with a curtain. You don't want to give away the story, but maybe you can tease the audience a little bit.

Is there a play you wish the Rep would do so that you could design it?

I would love to design The Innocents [William Archibald's adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw]. Jo Mielziner's original set on Broadway is such an icon in American design, it would be interesting to see if one could escape the perfection of his set.

Is it more challenging to design a new play than a classic that numerous designers have already explored?

It can be, because with a new play there's no precedent. Precedents are valuable to a designer. It is said that all stage design is derivative of something else. You don't have that with a new play. But often you instead have the playwright. Emma has just concluded a six-week run in Cincinnati. We had the playwright, Paul Gordon, an absolutely brilliant guy, with us the whole time. We were getting constant notes. That can be a very exciting and challenging experience.

Is it easier to design a play that you like than one that you don't?

Absolutely. But just now I'm trying to think of a play that I don't like, and I can't. 

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.