In our society, some actor’s names are household words. Most people can name a film director or two (or more). Some playwrights and screenwriters are known by name. Quick — name a set designer. Or a costume designer. (Without looking at the title of this post!) Unless you keenly study film credits or the small print of theatre programs, you’re not as likely to be able to name someone in those lines of work, yet they are essential to a good movie or a successful play.
As this article in The Princeton Review states, “the set is a silent supporting actor,” and the set designer must have knowledge enhanced by research and combined with artistic vision to bring that “silent supporting actor” to life. Costume design, too, is an exacting art that does so much more than simply ensure that an actor on stage or screen is wearing clothing appropriate to the period of the piece. Arts Alive points out that costuming can give the audience information about “a character’s occupation, social status, gender, age, sense of style and tendencies towards conformity or individualism.”
And so, as we go behind the scenes in set and costume design, I’d like to introduce you to Tony Walton, who is arguably one of the best in the field.
From the red petticoats peeking out from beneath Mary Poppins‘ demure white “Jolly Holiday” dress to the bright colors, unique costumes and stylized urbanicity of the set of The Wiz; from the sterile, almost post-apocalyptic grayness juxtaposed with mid-century modern futurism of Fahrenheit 451 to the carefully individualized costumes and warm, opulent, yet ominous setting of Murder on the Orient Express; from stage to screen and back again, Tony Walton has done it all. Nominated multiple times for Oscars, Emmys and Tonys, he is the only costume and set designer to have won all three awards. Obviously, the man knows his stuff, and even a cursory glance at his film credits and his stage credits indicates his extreme versatility. Note that he also directs stage productions (sometimes doing both production design and direction.) He also has somehow found time to illustrate children’s books (such as the Dumpy the Dump Truck series reviewed here in January), teach university classes, speak at conferences (one is coming up this weekend) — the list goes on.
In this “Behind the Scenes” month, I believe Tony Walton is a great example to show that there is as much talent behind the camera or backstage, as there is in the public eye, on screen or treading the boards. He took an early natural skill for drawing and love of telling a story and parlayed it into a successful career. He hasn’t let himself be pigeonholed in terms of the types of projects he works on, nor the work he does on those projects. All this inspires me, as I have an imagination that “gallops madly off in all directions” to quote Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, and I find so much to write about, so much to do, so much to absorb, so much to share.
I was delighted to discover that there is an interview with Tony Walton available as a free podcast on iTunes, in which he talks about his amazing career, and about what a costume, set, production designer does. This interview is part of the American Theatre Wing “Downstage Center” collection of interviews, which offers a rich array of delights. I’d urge you to find the interview of Tony, and listen to it. It will be an hour well spent. (Simply go to the iTunes store, search “tony walton” and scroll down to podcasts. Several of the results aren’t really about this Tony Walton, but the ones that are will make the sifting worthwhile.)
Another iTunes podcast of great value is the twenty-minute introduction Tony gives to a screening of Murder on the Orient Express, for which he did costume and production design. After you have listened to that introduction, watch the movie. You will notice so many things that will enrich your experience of the film.
Thank you, Tony, for all you have given the world of stage and screen — and the audiences thereof — with your imagination, your art, and your talent.