Few artists get the chance to recreate artwork that has had an effect on their own craft. British set designer Christopher Oram, who is nominated for a Tony for his work in Red, got to do just that with the Mark Rothko murals intended for (yet which never became a part of) New York’s Four Season’s restaurant. The play features Alfred Molina as the American painter who squares off with his young assistant (played by Eddie Redmayne) over the elements of art, as well as the struggle for student and teacher. The minimalist production, which is up for seven Tony awards, including Best Play, rests on the shoulders of two actors and the massive canvases on display in Rothko’s Bowery studio. In a phone interview from London, Oram (who pulls double duty as the show’s costume designer) told Stage Rush about the building sets in one week, the luxury of being picky about projects, and keeping tabs on a show once it’s opened.
What were your thoughts or reaction when you found out you were nominated?
Very excited. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I don’t consider my work to be flashy like [the work that the Tonys tend to recognize]. What I do is make the play work, and that’s good enough or me. When it gets recognized, that’s good for me too.
What does the Tony nomination mean to you?
I haven’t done a good amount of work in United States. To work on Broadway is a major achievement, as is to be recognized at this high level. The play itself has been successful in connecting with audiences. I believe in it, and in the writing. When it was offered to me, I felt it was an important and exiting play and wanted to be a part of it very much. As a set and costume designer, you read a new play and you try to asses if you like it and if the audience will like it. It’s difficult with new works, because with works of Shakespeare, you know there will always be an audience for it. Red is unique and has no history as a piece. You’re looking to create an audience for it that will be interested in the subject matter. It’s great to find a play that makes a connection.
What are some of the responsibilities of set designing?
Design is a discipline and it covers everything about the piece. These days, there are fewer boundaries to each person’s work. The crossover between lighting affects video designers, which affects set designers. I worked very closely with Red’s lighting designer, Neil Austin. The description of Mark Rothko’s studio was key about how he controlled life. I knew I had to have close dialogue with Neil about how I would design the space, how he would light the play. Read more