Sunday, June 12, 2016

Remembering Desmond Heeley (1932-2016)

As a young teen, I joined a high school theatre party in the early 1970s to see a performance of the new Broadway musical, Cyrano, starring Christopher Plummer. I was experimenting with costume design at my arts high school but was pretty sure that it was what I wanted to do. Seeing this show clinched it. Desmond Heeley, the visionary theatrical designer, designed the costumes; I devoured them through my opera glasses and wondered, “what am I looking at - I don't know, I can’t tell what that it's made of but it's gorgeous and I want to do that too”. Desmond, who passed away yesterday, was a master of theatre, imagination, color, silhouette, composition, depth, texture, emotion, mystery and magic. When he chose to embellish, he liked to use common humble materials like old lace, dross that was underfoot, hot glue, string, shells, utensils, broken CDs, paint and glitter to create the most beguiling textures and structures, on props, scenery and costumes. Up close it might look like a craft project gone terribly wrong, but onstage and under lights it was alchemy. It grew out of his work as young properties maker who had little to work with materially, so resourcefulness and invention helped to get the job done.

*You can click on the photos for a better and larger view. I am defeated by blogger's formatting, so my apologies for a choppy reading experience.*

These photos are in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, photographer unknown. Christopher Plummer as Cyrano, Leigh Beery as Roxane and Mark Lamos as Christian, Palace Theater, 1973.


In late teenhood I discovered opera and began to frequent the standing room line at the Met. One snowy night I was one of a few people in the house for a performance of Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, a then-new production designed by…Desmond. The opera is a deeply symbolic piece that I didn’t really understand but felt its power because of the staging and especially the look of the production. I remember Jerome Hines, an immensely tall bass as King Arkel on his throne, wearing a robe made layers of what looked like rope macramé, fishing net, hot glue, glitter and the shavings from a wood shop, stretching from his head down his body and across the floor for tens of feet, a sculpture of texture on a body that made for an extraordinary stage picture and underscored the heavy, timeless tragedy of the tale.

I was only able to find photos of Teresa Stratas as Melisande and Raymond Gibbs as Pelleas - look at the decoration on his costume. What is it!?!

Fast forward to the late 1980s after design school and the start of a long working relationship with costume designer Richard Hornung, who had been one of Desmond’s assistants, and of whom he remained very fond. Richard was another wonderful artist and old soul, and once he heard about my Desmond worship, he encouraged me to contact him using his name as an entry point.

Richard Hornung

His studio was a jumble of set models, drawings, paintings and art supplies, and an amazing sample maquette of a red-headed Queen Elizabeth in ¼ scale.

A sculpted head atop armature wire and a buildup of paper, the clothing made from supplies at hand, embellished with fairy dust, glitter, lace, gold paper, beads and whatever little sparklies he could find. At that very moment the windows at Tiffany’s displayed his royal queen dolls, which in my opinion would have upstaged any jewelry, even Tiffany's.

Dumbledore was Desmond, for no one resembled a wise wizard more than he with his snowy beard, dramatic eyebrows, twinkling dark eyes and merry expression. He was welcoming and friendly, a modest bear of a man, offering tea and biscuits amid the brushes and pencils.

This wasn't just any old interview. It lasted for three hours and was the beginning of a thirty year long friendship. Desmond showed me round his studio and what he was working on, treating me like a colleague rather than a beginner. I'd brought my final costume design project from NYU, The Tempest, and he showed me HIS 1982 Tempest, same year as mine, which he had pretty much directed as well as designed, so thorough were his paintings of every major moment. That was the most important afternoon of my design life. It was like meeting Michelangelo, a genius who was gifted as a designer in more than one discipline, who wasn't grand and could get down and dirty and make everything himself if necessary, brilliantly. Here was a gentle genius with a wonderfully wicked sense of humor and a kind and generous nature, who taught and inspired students and colleagues wherever he went.

Desmond was an English scenic and costume designer, storyteller and gifted craftsperson. He told me that he was of Italian descent, adopted by an English family and he adored and celebrated English style and traditions. He came to the US after starting out as an apprentice at the Shakespeare Theater Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His aptitude for costumes, properties, and painting was noticed by director Peter Brook, who asked him to design the costumes for a production of The
Lark by Anouilh, in London.

Later, as Peter Brook's assistant at Stratford, he designed the costumes and properties for the now legendary production of Titus Andronicus with Sir Laurence Olivier. He worked from then on with the most accomplished talents in English theatre and with the best ballet, opera and theatre companies such as the Old Vic, Glyndebourne, Sadler’s Well’s Opera and abroad at La Scala and in the US on Broadway and in regional theatre, opera and ballet. 

You can read more here in this excellent bio at the ABT website.

Desmond's aesthetic is considered outdated today, but he was truly versatile, designing frothy Donizetti and Strauss opera and operetta, Shakespeare and ballet, and an ice show, sometimes all
at once.

Margot Fonteyn, 1978

The Snow Maiden, Houston Ballet

The Duenna, Center Stage, Baltimore

Don Pasquale, Metropolitan Opera, 1978

Much as I wanted to, I never assisted him, but we stayed in contact over the decades and he continued to be an inspiring kindred spirit. I think he felt guilty with the knowledge that it was his fault that his stunning Cyrano set me on the path to a difficult but often rewarding career. I cherish the time spent in his company, talking on the phone, the stories, the advice ("forget the home improvements/cleaning up/doing anything else - just start painting!"), the occasions when he came to see my own work onstage, the many cards of his sketches that he used as correspondence that I have pinned all over my studio, and the gift of two beautiful paintings.

At one point I designed and made hats for children based on pieces I designed for an opera and sold them at Barney's and other retail venues. I sent him the photos and he called me immediately, delighted by the idea, commanding me to get better pictures taken and offering to collaborate with me on baby blankets that he had ideas for. I missed that opportunity to collaborate with him, but work and life was too demanding (ah, eternal regret!).

A few years ago I lucked out and found 4 sketches by another gifted Englishman, David Walker, at the Pier Antiques Show. I hadn't heard of him or seen his work ever before, and in the last moments of the show, these four sketches called out to me.

I sent Desmond photos of these witty sketches on tracing paper, found upstate in an antique shop and beautifully framed by the seller’s mother.

Typically, he sent me a sketch of Walker’s from his own collection, of Lydia Languish, a character from one of my favorite plays, “The Rivals”. Walker's style is not unlike Desmond's - they were both technically accomplished and could render a streamlined sketch or an overstuffed one - whatever was called for. I noticed that Walker didn't spend money on fine paper for this show, one of many that he designed during his own amazing career, but the sketches are masterpieces anyway.

Their costume sketches often contained background elements, which most designers don't attempt. I love the little line drawings and notes for the costume shop next to the more fleshed-out costume figures. 

    David Walker,  Every Good Man Deserves Favour, Stratford, UK

David Walker, The Rivals

Desmond Heeley, Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Guthrie Theater.

His style is painterly and fragmented, suggesting possibilities for fabric and trimming without getting too specific before getting to the workroom. The background offers a nice contrast color-wise and makes the scarlet so much richer. He "lit" his sketches and they had great depth.

Desmond's last major project was the set and costumes for The Importance of Being Earnest, presented on Broadway in 2011, directed by Brian Bedford, who also starred as Lady Bracknell.

Looking at this show was like seeing Desmond's brain depicted onstage - he painted this drop himself at the age of 79, and every scenic surface was painted, even the patterns of the upholstery. Wilde's setting was brought to life by the ultimate example of brilliant scene painting, a valentine to Edwardian romance.

There's a lovely interview about it here.

Tony Award, 2011 season

It's not my intention to offer a comprehensive portrait of Desmond's life and work - he deserves a coffee-table sized book, frankly. Google offers many interesting links, including these wonderful video interviews. I encourage anyone reading this to seek out what you can online if your interest is piqued. It will be well worth the time!

With Desmond at the Irene Sharaff Awards in 2013, when he was honored with a lifetime achievement award. Some lifetime and achievement!

I'd like to take a moment to speak up for art in the schools. I was blessed to have been a student at the High School of Art and Design in the 1970s. It still exists as a specialized art high school and it had a rich selection of artistic rotations - package design, fashion design, architecture, photography, theatre arts, illustration, painting, costume design, (my major) and others that I have forgotten. We had a fantastic drama club with an energetic teacher at its helm, who put together theatre parties to various Broadway shows that were quite affordable. I was already majoring in costume design, but because of this club and the money in the school budget to fund it, I was exposed to one particular Broadway show that featured the work of this man that I would not have seen otherwise.

For me it led to a calling and many years doing work that I love with my hands, inspired by the
great poets, playwrights and composers. I can hardly think of a better way to live one's life.

If a young person is NOT taken to a museum, concert or play, or is not offered shop, art or music classes, they might miss out on the life they might have lived and the world would not benefit from what they might otherwise have created.

I was fortunate to be able to call dear Desmond a friend and was the lucky recipient of treasured advice, stories, and inspiring art talk. He nagged me to stop doing anything that wsn't drawing, painting and making art. His last years were spent dealing with illness and pain and it became a happy project to send him diversions and as long as his energy permitted it, we chatted on the phone. He was always gracious. "Musn't grumble," he reminded himself, ever the good soldier, in the face of discomfort. Unable to work, he remained interested in everything and delighted in watching Antiques Roadshow for its nostalgia and any costume drama he could find on TV or via DVDs given by friends. Four years ago I was making a trip to London and he had a list ready of museums for me to visit and new artists to discover. As recently as a few weeks ago he talked about some upcoming films that he thought I should see, that he'd heard were good. I will deeply miss his passion for art and for just carrying on and living in the face of physical limitations.

Let us not grieve, but rejoice that we were gifted with the miracle that was Desmond Heeley, his artistry and ability to make theatrical magic for decades. Rest in peace and know that your legacy lives on. All good teachers achieve immortality; their lessons are passed down from teacher to student; those students become teachers, and on it goes.

Another interview and a quote worth singling out:

"I've done lots of lectures and show-and-tells… I can't call it teaching. What I like to call it is raising enthusiasm."