How Scenic Design (and Designers) Evolve with Time
By Brian Bembridge
In 2003 I was introduced to Arden Theatre Company, because we were bringing a show called Hard Times from Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago to the Arden. Lookingglass is a company that Terry Nolen admired and supported while he attended Northwestern University with several members of the Lookingglass company back in the day.
I was still new to Lookingglass and Hard Times was my second design with the company in their regular season. I had designed two other productions outside of their standard season, which was how I met Doug Hara, a now consistent collaborator of mine who recently directed Metamorphoses and is now appearing in Stinky Cheese Man as Jack.
I was mostly working in Chicago, so it’s funny to look back at heading to an unknown theater. I remember missing a flight to Philadelphia for tech, so I was a hysterical disaster, worried I would get fired. Flying is just a commute today; sometimes I fly in and out of Philly, Louisville, or Atlanta in one day just for a meeting.
The staff back then is a little different from the staff today, but it is family here Arden. And yes sometimes we disagree and argue over silly things, but in the end it’s FAMILY.
I was designing lights for Hard Times, directed by good friend and Lookingglass Artistic Director Heidi Stillman. We were excited but nervous as we were out of our element in this new city, this new theater. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn Perlman, the amazing Technical Director here at the Arden. We hit it off immediately, and today he is a good friend. He and his wife Alison Roberts, the Costume Supervisor, and Courtney Riggar, the Production Manager, are family among many others here. Arden Founders Terry Nolen, Amy Murphy, and Aaron Posner (emeritus) were and continue to be thoughtful at cultivating this family at the Arden.
I kept in touch with Terry after I left Philadelphia when email was still young, and he always took the time to respond. Five years later I got a call from Matt Pfeiffer (who recently directed Funnyman), someone who is now family, asking if I would design Go Dog Go; of course I would! Matt and I didn’t know each other but we knew of each other; it’s a great thing about theater. The people you meet and the friends you make are better than your best design. They ground you.
I was picked up at the airport by an apprentice named Scott, his name will come up later, and was dropped off into a theater full of love and laughter and excitement, and this was a show for younger kids. I learned some, I taught some. It was a beautiful experience.
I came back to design Romeo and Juliet with Matt, with whom I would design a fabulous production at Theater Exile the following year. Next came sets and lights for Cat and the Hat, Beauty and the Beast, Macbeth, Funnyman, and one of my most proud theatrical experiences in 20 years, Metamorphoses. This was the first show I experienced at Lookingglass when they premiered it in 1999: a show that said theater is not just a stage, a show that had the same designers as those on Hard Times. Designers that elevated me, that taught me the ropes, that shared their truths in theater. It was a show that brought me full circle with Doug Hara directing, whom I met designing sets, lights, and costumes for our four person Hamlet at Lookingglass.
Our team of artists, designers, craftsmen, technicians, and actors blew the walls and ceiling off the Arden. What everyone gave every night was above and beyond any other show I have worked on. The care and trust and love was felt when one entered into the theater. It will never be forgotten.
All of this history brings me to show TEN. Ten shows is a lot for a punk artist who doesn’t live in the city in which the theater inhabits (although I want you to know I feel part of this community, whether they want me or not). I have a mass of thoughtful friends, family, and artists. I even told this to the Mayor one night as I was having dinner in Northern Liberties. I was having a beautiful dinner with the chef at Fernando’s when he walked by us to use the restroom. I had to stop him on his way back to his table with his wife to say thank you. I put out my hand and grabbed his shoulder and thanked him him for supporting the arts in Philadelphia. I reminded him we had met in Chicago at Chicago Ideas Week a few years before where I had thanked him previously. He had no idea who I was, but his eyes perked up when I said “Arden”. We talked for a minute, and I said I’m sorry and didn’t want to keep him. He thanked me and finished his dinner. They waved on their way out. (A side note: the other Mayors walked out the side doors with security, but this Mayor walked out through the lobby, on his own, without any security, and that spoke to me as to who he is as a human.)
Show number ten: Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. So fitting and an honor to revisit the show that honestly shifted family theater at the Arden in 2006, originally designed by my friend Matt York, a brilliant designer.
So remember Scott, the apprentice who picked me up at the airport on my first trip back to Philadelphia, in this long telling of my life here? Well this actor, friend, and artist, is THE Stinky Cheese Man among many roles in this incarnation. What I love about theater, about the Arden, about Philadelphia is that it all comes full circle more than you think.
I am now on a plane commuting once again. A place where I get to collect my thoughts. A place where I look at theories of life and love and art. I left Philly only two weeks ago and I have already opened a show and I’m in tech for another. This is the life designers lead. Seven day weeks are so very common.
This show has been a gift of laughter and absurdity for the director Matt Decker and myself. Theater is a gift and a giving art that all ages should see and share. Thank you Arden Theater Company. Thank you Terry and Amy. Thank you Glenn and Alison and Matt and Chris and Courtney.
Here’s to ten more!!!
Xoxo Brian B.