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Meet The Artist: ‘DISGRACED’ Scenic Designer John Ezell

Meet The Artist: ‘DISGRACED’ Scenic Designer John Ezell

John Ezell is the Scenic Designer for ATC’s exciting Arizona premiere production of Disgraced. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Ezell to discuss his work on the production.

ATC:
Your original background is in painting. How did you transition from painting to scenic design?

Mr. Ezell:
I knew I wanted to be a scenic designer when I was seven years old. There was a great summer theatre in Forest Park in St. Louis, where I grew up. I was mesmerized by those musicals, and I knew I wanted to do whatever that was.

There was no theatre program at Washington University at the time, so instead I studied art. You see, I knew what I wanted to do at a young age, so I had a long time to plan, and I thought, I’m going to need to know how to draw and to paint. I got a really good art education, which turned out to be something of an advantage when I got to Yale – I had the technique. But then, the disadvantage was that I hadn’t read nearly as many plays as my classmates who’d studied acting and so forth had, so they were ahead of me there.

ATC:
You’ve worked with ATC on a number of productions in the past. Can you talk about your relationship with ATC?

Mr. Ezell:
I’ve done six shows at ATC now – Hair, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, Ten Chimneys, Next to Normal, [title of show], and now this. I met David [Goldstein] at Kansas City Rep, and we met for coffee, or something or other. We just have a shared sensibility, I think. The one thing I tell my students about building a career is to get to know directors. That, more than anything else, is what helps your career – relationships with directors who share your sensibilities, your way of approaching scripts.

ATC:
How do you begin work on a show like Disgraced? Is your process different depending on whether you’re designing a straight play or a musical?

Mr. Ezell:
Shows are like people. You can’t use a cookie-cutter approach; you have to get to know them individually. The scripts all have problems – well, weaknesses – and strengths. So you work to minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths. And that’s true of any show, so it’s not really about the “type” of show it is. You start fresh with every show.

ATC:
What particular strengths or weaknesses are reflected in the set design for Disgraced?

Mr. Ezell:
Well, this is the whitest set I’ve ever designed. We’re usually cagey about using white on a set because it’s difficult to light, but I wanted to anticipate the messy emotional climax of the play through the set. It’s sly, though. Subtle. The apartment is antiseptic, organized, comfortable, wealthy. The couple’s whole lives to this point are so modulated, and it’s reflected in their home.

Diego Velasquez's PORTRAIT OF JUAN DE PAREJA (left) and model of Amir's portrait from DISGRACED.

Diego Velasquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja (left) and model of Amir’s portrait from Disgraced.

ATC:
There are a number of references to art and artists in the script. How does that affect your process?

Mr. Ezell:
Yes, art is very specifically referenced in the script, and the artwork I chose for the set is specific too. For the main portrait, I wanted it to resonate with the Velasquez, of course. The Muslim tile-inspired piece required a lot of research. I decided on a garden motif – the Muslim religion doesn’t allow depictions of human or animal forms, so it’s mostly geometric shapes and patterns. There’s other art on the set as well. There’s a Turner seascape, a Constable. The seascape isn’t mentioned specifically in the script, but these characters would have art in their apartment. [Emily] would like these pieces.

ATC:
Aside from the art pieces, are there other specific set elements you hope audiences notice?

Mr. Ezell:
I did a lot of research on these Upper West Side houses – I even have photos of the street and address of the apartment I think the play takes place in. My “helper” with the set, so to speak, was a man named Warren Platner. He was an architect, furniture designer, and interior designer. He revived a number of classical buildings in New York and houses in Connecticut, and he had definite preferences for features in a room. For example, there are a lot of louvered shutters in this set, and there are a couple reasons for that in my thinking. First of all, Platner loved shutters. If you look at examples of his work in rooms that he’s done, he always introduced shutters if he could. But of course on the stage, shutters are wonderful for light and patterns of various kinds and textures. They also suggest to me, maybe subliminally, the kind of Islamic sense of protecting women, and keeping women closed indoors or in courtyards.

ATC:
Like the screens you see in Islamic architecture? You can look out, but people on the outside can’t see you.

Mr. Ezell:
Exactly. There’s another thing we’re doing is using mirrors on the stage. We usually don’t do it, because it can be very problematic. It’s a lighting challenge. You know, the maid brings a silver tray out on stage, and it explodes in flashes all over the walls. David Cuthbert, the lighting designer, knows what he’s up against here, and it’ll be very interesting to see what he does about it. The mirrors are there as the result of a conversation I had early on with David [Goldstein]. He suggested them to me when we were talking about the early sketches of the design. He thought, I think, there was a metaphoric value in the mirrors, to do with identity and perception – not to give too much away.

ATC:
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

Mr. Ezell:
I do, but I think it would spoil an important plot point for your readers if I described it in too much detail. Suffice it to say, I find the climax very powerful.

Set of Arizona Theatre Company's DISGRACED. Photo by Tim Fuller.

Set of Arizona Theatre Company’s Disgraced. Photo by Tim Fuller.

Comments

  1. David Kader says:

    I just returned home from attending a performance of DISGRACE and from the moment we sat down === the set for the play was already arresting. it was so white, and so clean, and so ordered, and so constructed — mirrors and glass and shutters ——- that it was full of tension. It was clear that something explosive was going to take place — and even though I read a review of the play in the local paper and so knew it was a work of immense seriousness … the set suggested something much tamer might occur ….. or again — surfaces can deceive. We skate on such a thin veneer of civility and even of civilization. Amazing set … extraordinary performances and play. Many thanks to one-n-all.

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