Theater set design has own rewards

In theory, anyway, it seems easy to figure out how to become a working actor. You perform for a casting director and are judged fit or unfit for a role. But how does a scenic designer get a foot in the door? And why would he go into a profession that often reserves its applause for others?

I got a whiff of an answer in the newly released “Starting Your Career as a Theatrical Designer.” Author Michael J. Riha has interviewed 10 in-demand artists. One has had his work on display at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and another will soon follow.

Those who saw the recent touring production of “Memphis” will likely remember the overwhelming power of the versatile set. David Gallo, the man responsible, recalls that as a child “(I was) fascinated by the concept of scenery. I loved that the world created … was fake; it was just wood and canvas and cardboard.”

Gallo had a tough time at first. His family was not financially comfortable and theater tickets were hard to come by. But his mother wanted him to have some “culture” and made a point of figuring out a way to put money aside. Seeing “Cats” when he was a high school sophomore got him hooked.

He tried learning his craft via the academic route. But he didn’t finish college.

“I certainly learned a lot of wonderful things while I was in college. … I just didn’t have the ability to fit into a traditional training program. I feel like it was actually the structure that was hampering me from developing. … It was working in the field using my own tools and methods when the design process worked for me.”

Gallo’s school connections did help him get work when he began pounding the pavement. And once he got work, more gigs seemed to naturally follow.

His first major theater assignment was associate designer for a world tour of “Tommy.”

“I was meeting general managers and producers and theater owners and all of these different types of people I’d never met before. … (It) opened my eyes to commercial theater and how Broadway works, which is completely different from anything you can possibly imagine.”

Christine Jones, who won a Tony Award for the upcoming “American Idiot” at The Smith Center, stresses the importance of connections (finding your “herd”) and loving your work. If a young designer wants to be a professional, he has to answer some tough questions: “Am I comfortable with being freelance? Will I be fine not knowing – month to month, year to year – what my income is going to be? Am I the kind of person who likes to … find myself in strange towns … or do I really need my home?”

Jones says it took her a while to cope with the uncertainty. But she’s encouraging to new talent.

“If it’s what you want to do, you absolutely can do it. There is no way to predict what your life will look like, but trust that there is a way for you to have a life in the theater.”

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at You can write him
c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70,
Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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