Cincinnati Magazine

the Designs of Joe Tilford

This interview appeared in the exhibit catalogue "The Designs of Joe Tilford." It accompanied the retrospective exhibit of his design work at The United States Institute for Theatre Technology's 50th Anniversary Conference. Exhibit curator Deborah Wentworth sat down with Joe Tilford to ask some questions about his professional career, artistic process, and advice for young designers.

Q: How did you get your start in the business?

A: It’s a convoluted story. What got me interested in the theatre in the first place was this: In high school I was a football player. My Senior English teacher needed some guys with muscles for his production of Macbeth, so he gave me a copy and said, “Read this, you might like it.” I was completely blown away. I had never read anything so rich and inspiring. I ended up playing Banquo in his production, and became fascinated with the theatre as an art form.

I came from a modest family. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and education was not valued as much as having a job. I wanted to make something of myself, but there was no money for college – working full-time while going to school was the best way for me to get the education I wanted. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the theatre department at my college needed people who were willing to work hard, and the pay was good enough to support me and pay the tuition bill if I was careful. I found I had a knack for building and painting scenery. 

Word got around the city that I was a hard worker, and I started building for a bunch of theatres. One of the guys I worked for was the resident designer at a place called The Edgecliff Theatre. When he moved on to become resident designer at Milwaukee Rep, he left my name with the management as someone they could hire to build. The management got confused and called me in for an interview to be their new resident designer. The money was better than what I could make building, so I went through with the interview and got the job. I still wonder what they were thinking.

Out of necessity, I taught myself how to design and stayed a day or two ahead of the shop, and as I went along I got a little better all the time. I stayed at Edgecliff for five seasons, designing sets and lighting for everything they produced. I liked the work so much that I quit college. 

Q: Did you ever go back to college?

A: Yes, after designing all the shows at Edgecliff for five years.

Q: Did you study set design in college?

A: Not really. My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of General Studies. By the time I left Edgecliff and went back to school to finish, I knew I wanted to be a designer, and I had already had some success. I took and passed the United Scenic Artists exam while I was still at Edgecliff, before I finished my undergraduate degree.

Q: Did you go to an MFA design program?

A: No. It only took me a year to finish my undergraduate degree after I went back to college. Then the head of the theatre department offered me a deal for grad school. The school would pay me union scale and waive my tuition if I would design a series of shows. He also told me I could take any courses I wanted to take. I took the deal and finished grad school.

Q: You don’t design lighting any longer?

A: Yes, that’s true. I retired from lighting design in 1999. My life was getting way too complicated. I was too busy. At the time there were three things that I was doing: university teaching, designing lighting, and designing sets. I had to give up one of them. I gave up lighting. I don’t regret that decision. I had a great time designing lighting for a lot of years.

Q: Could you describe your set design style for me?

A: I think I can describe what I am interested in as a designer and how that influences my design decisions. I love how humans interact with, and relate to, objects and environments. People see an object on stage and they instantly know all kinds of things because of their experience and understanding of the object. I spend most of my design time pondering how the audience will interpret, or “read,” or try to “get,” what they see on stage. I also love natural objects and the human reaction to nature. 

I think that visual art, and that includes design, can operate like language. Perhaps visual things are even more direct than language. A painting, for example, is the symbol system, the vocabulary, the syntax, the language and the message – all at the same time and all in an instant. The work of the artist is to let that communication happen with clarity.

Q: Any thing else about your style?

A: I like the idea of abstracting an environment by keeping its essence of detail, and seeing if unnecessary things can be eliminated. It can be difficult, because when you discard extraneous things, what’s left had better be authentic.

Q: You are concerned with authenticity?

A: Yes. Authenticity seems to have the ability to communicate with an audience. Architectural detail is important. There are tiny, but critical, details that, if I get them right, draw the audience in and help them get the story. It is important to understand how people live with their surroundings, and their furniture and their belongings, and how that can be visible. It helps tell the story. 

Q: Can you give examples?

A: The July sky in Ah, Wilderness! is one. The painter’s elevation for that sky was a photograph of an actual July sky that we manipulated in the design studio. It wasn’t a watercolor or acrylic painting. My reasoning is this: photography is our modern visual language. People probably see a million photographic images for every painting they see. A photograph of sky has that honest authenticity because people accept it as a captured moment of reality. When I use something with that level of realism in an abstract way, like taking it out of its usual context and placing it on a stage, the results are very strong. It is as if the contextual change of a familiar thing amplifies its communicating power. It doesn’t matter if that thing is a sky or a wall or a tree, as long as it has some properties of authenticity.

Q: Is there a secret to your success?

A: Being willing to work hard and willing to try something new. Some of the best things that have happened to me in my life have been because I was willing to jump into the deep end of something new to see if I could do it. I also have tried very hard to make each year better than the year before in some way that is meaningful to me. There is also this, and it is important – I am fearless about throwing bad designs in the trash and starting over. I have learned to put bad ideas in the garbage until something good evolves.

Q: What is your favorite design?

A: I don’t have one favorite. I am always excited about the next design I am working on. Right now I’m working on the set design for a new musical that will open in London’s West End in about a year.

Q: What is your design process?

A: I study the script a lot. It is important to me to understand the characters and their humanity. It is also vital to understand how the play works as a storytelling mechanism. I do a lot of research into the period of the play and the living circumstances of the characters, and I look for art and images that resonate with me in ways that are similar to my reaction to the writing. After that, I have no process. What I mean by that is that I let the design evolve in whatever way it wants to. Sometimes I will build a series of models, getting closer to the design with each one. Sometimes the floor plan of the set seems to evolve first. Sometimes it is a sketch or a thumbnail that comes along early in the process. Eventually it all becomes clear. I do know that I get all the design decisions done to about eighty percent before I finish anything. That is because every decision effects every other decision. 

Q: Tell me a little about your academic career.

A: It started when I received an invitation to be a guest faculty member for a semester at Cornell University. I found that I enjoyed teaching design and I loved helping students get where they wanted to go. Cornell wanted me to stay on as a full-time faculty member, and I was tempted, but the fit wasn’t quite right. I went to work at Wright State University, got tenured after three years, and stayed there for eleven years, free-lancing as a designer the whole time. I then moved on to Northwestern University, with tenure on appointment, and stayed there fourteen years – again, freelancing the whole time. In 2003 I accepted the deanship of the School of Design and Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts – called NCSA at the time. I have been fortunate to have such wonderful opportunities in higher education.

Q: How do you balance your work at the university and your professional work?

A: You used the right word – balance. It is a juggling act. I take the opportunities that are right for me, and choose how to spend my time. I also have a first-rate team of assistant deans and a great office staff. It is important for me to be a working professional in the theatre – it gives me credibility with the students. And I still teach classes because I love teaching, and I love designing too much to give it up!

Q: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming set designers?

A: Yes. Study architectural detail. Plays most often have something to do with man-made environments. Do new research for every play; even it takes place in a period or era that you think you know by heart. You never know what might stimulate your imagination. Use your imagination. Be bold. Ask yourself “why not try this idea?” a thousand times while you are designing. Wrap yourself up in the story of the play like it is a huge blanket. Also, get rid of your ego – don’t be self-important. You are part of the team that is directing and designing the audience’s experience of the play. Get good photographs of your work!

Q: Any final thoughts about designing for the theatre?

A: Yes, a couple of things come to mind. First, once a few drawing-board skills are mastered, designing is primarily about thinking. What we do as designers is, at its core, pretty straightforward. We read and interpret plays. Then we use that interpretation to build a visual bridge of understanding between the audience and the story. Understanding human nature and how people will “get” what they see is very important. It is also important to know your way around the stage. In the theatre, as in any profession, experience is a good teacher, and what we learn from experience is hard-won and important.

Second, designing is a business that is about people. We are putting human psychology and human stories on stage. I think a lot about the audience, the director, the characters in the play, the playwright, the other members of the design team, the carpenters, the painters – everybody that is involved. They are all important to me, and I learn something useful from every conversation and interaction. I love being surrounded by the level of creativity that is common in the best artistic collaborations. In my career, one of the foremost examples of this is my long-term working relationship with director Ed Stern, Producing Artistic Director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. We are able to take intelligent artistic risks that succeed because we have developed a profound level of trust and understanding over many years and many shows. This kind of relationship is what it’s all about.

Last, I think we stage designers are very fortunate to get to do the things we get to do for a living. We make enormous pieces of art that actors populate, that dozens of people get to work on, and that thousands of people come to see. And we get to work with talented people every day. That’s all kind of wonderful if you stop and think about it.