Oregon Shakespeare Festival designer for a half-century says he’s still learning

Richard Hay
Richard Hay

Richard Hay has designed Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) theaters and sets for more than 50 years. In recent OSF seasons, Hay designed “Animal Crackers,” Coconuts” and “Tartuffe,” to name a few. He is currently finishing his design for “Anthony and Cleopatra.” This is the second of a two-part column. The first was published on March 5.

EH: You have designed sets for the entire Shakespeare canon?

RH: Actually I designed the canon twice. There are 36 plays in the canon. Some I have designed several times: Three of “As you Like It,” four of “Hamlet,” and a lot of the popular Shakespeare plays more than twice. I didn’t complete all 36 plays twice until last summer when we did “Richard III.” I had to wait a long time for that.

EH: You’ve also designed interiors for the three theaters here at OSF. What elements do you consider when you design the interior of a theater?

RH: I think that an important thing is the audience/actor relationship. One way of achieving this is having them actually in the same room with each other, which means invariably some kind of thrust stage. A major effort in establishing that relationship is its feeling of closeness: that the audience member feels as close to the actor as possible.
EH: What are your tools?
RH: Pencil and paper. I do not design on the computer. However, we are in a computer age, and the shops require CAD (computer-aided design) drawings for everything. There’s an associate in the scene design studio who converts my pencil drawings to digital drawings. I myself use pencil, paper and paintbrush.
In order to present the design ideas for the first time to a director, it’s usually with what we call a “white model,” no color on it, very small scale. It can be rapidly assembled, cut and pasted with glue, so that you can tear it apart and change it in conversation. After that “white model” conversation, the next stage is to create a model which is four times that big. If that gets approved, I usually paint it, so that it becomes the guide for the painters. This whole process can take months.
EH: What’s your next project?
RH: Right now, I am working on “Anthony and Cleopatra,” which goes into rehearsal in about a month. I’m just finishing up some drawings for props that we need to build. We have a large stock of furniture, that I will look through, to select what we can recycle into our shows. In “Anthony and Cleopatra,” there are a lot of things that have an Egyptian look to them. I have to design those. It’s a show I’ve done before, but it’s the first time that there is such a strong focus on ancient Egyptian design. I’ve had to do research that I’ve not had to do before.
EH: Why is theater so vital to some of us?
RH: It’s the human story happening in front of you, in flesh and blood, in the same space. I love designing for the theater especially because it’s never the same. Something is always new; it’s always a learning experience. With every production that I work on, I’m faced with having to learn about some aspect of culture, society, the world, that I wouldn’t know about. It’s life-long college class, in a way.
I’ve had a very lucky life in the profession I’ve chosen. I love what I do. I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to do it. I’d like to die with my boots on.

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