The original creation of FBP’s The Widow’s Broom brought together local and international artists to the East Side of Providence for the excellent purpose of superlative collaboration. One of those master artists was Rhode Island resident and Tony Award-winning set designer Eugene Lee. With an impressive resume boasting BFA degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago and Carnegie Melon, an MFA from Yale Drama School, three honorary Ph. D.’s, and three Tony Awards for Bernstein’s Candide, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and Wicked, it’s no wonder Lee was inducted into The American Theater Hall of Fame.
Eugene Lee is currently the production designer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live in New York City as well as the resident set designer for Trinity Repertory Company here in Providence. Lee’s Tony Award-winning Wicked creations and critically acclaimed The Widow’s Broom designs prove he certainly knows his way around witches. Before he headed to Wickford to check on his sailboat, I checked in with Lee to find out what makes him tick…
How did you first become interested in set design?
Well, I grew up in Wisconsin and my parents were very into theater. My dad acted on occasion, and my mother made props. I was always terribly fascinated by theater.
My high school had two sides of the building- one for athletes and one for Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). My identical twin brother went toward the latter, but I knew I wanted to be involved in theater somehow, so I wasn’t quite sure where to go. It took a while of experimenting to figure out how to do it.
You have been designing the sets for Saturday Night Live (SNL) since the now-famous show’s inauguration. How did that gig come about?
I was doing a musical on Broadway and living on a sailboat here in Pawtuxet Cove. I got a call one day and it was NBC saying, “We’re doing this new comedy variety show and the producer [Lorne Michaels] would like to meet you.” I didn’t know anything about television, but I thought “What’s the harm?” Now all these years later here I am…be careful what you wish for! These days I’m also doing The Tonight Show and Late Night!
Wow, that’s a lot of work in New York City! So nowadays, how much time do you spend in New York versus Providence?
Well, for the past decade I would say, I take the Acela into the city on Wednesday for an SNL read-through that happens at 3 o’clock, then we work really hard. On Saturday night we do a dress rehearsal and then the live show. After that I have a car with a longstanding driver, Sam, who comes from Rhode Island and picks me up at 11 o’clock at 30 Rock and drives me home in the middle of the night.
So between all of that, how did you become involved with FBP’s The Widow’s Broom?
My wife knows Chris [Van Allsburg] from their time at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. Chris and I had always talked about doing a Nutcracker together and we finally just did, which is great.
We’re hoping to bring the new Nutcracker to Providence very soon! But The Widow’s Broom happened much before that…
Yes, it was the first time in a long time that I actually collaborated with another designer. Chris is a very precise guy, he does beautiful drawings. I enjoyed working with him a lot.
What was your favorite part of the process?
The best part of doing the whole project was Chris [Van Allsburg], because we finally got to work together a little bit. He really is a beautiful illustrator.
I love how simple the sets for The Widow’s Broom are. What was your approach in creating them?
I always say, “Less is more, except when more is better.”
Words of wisdom indeed. Thank you so much, Eugene! See these sets in action at The Vets next weekend- click here for tickets!
This post was written by Kirsten Evans. The author is in her eighth season as a Company Dancer with Festival Ballet Providence. She is also the Company PR & Communications Assistant, as well as the writer of a personal blog, Setting The Barre.