“It was a little bit of, ‘Careful what you wish for,’ but it was great.” That’s how scenic designer Beowulf Boritt describes the past season, which saw him contributing sets to Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, The New One, and Be More Chill—plus Off-Broadway’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Fiddler on the Roof, Clueless, Freestyle Love Supreme, and Superhero. So how does the Tony Award winner agree to join a design team?
“Honestly, I get asked to do a show and I say yes,” he says with a laugh. “I think that’s true of most people.”
And though this Broadway season was a busy one for Boritt, his range has never been more fully explored. The man who gave Come From Away real trees (“I think they’ve finally stopped [sprouting new leaves],” he says) also brought to life Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre, Mike Birbiglia’s life as a new father, and the high-tech world of Be More Chill’s teenagers. But one thing shines through in all his designs: simplicity.
That may not be the word that springs to mind for the anarchic Be More Chill, but Boritt is serious. “I tend to look at first the whole show and then scene by scene,” he says, “and what do I absolutely need to get across what I’m trying to get across? And can I do that with one or two things?
“In general even my most elaborate [sets] break down to very few elements,” he says, then adds, “some of those elements might be very large…”
The New One falls into that category. A solo show staged at the Cort, Boritt placed the emphasis firmly on Birbiglia by shrinking the playing space with carefully crafted drops on the sides and back of the stage, and adding a lighting grid to compress the space above. And then there was the coup de théâtre: “seven gazillion toys,” as Boritt describes it, raining down on Birbiglia as he wonders if his life will remain the same as a new father.
For Be More Chill, Boritt immediately identified the show’s classic temptation narrative, in this case by technology. So his set reflects that: “The set is a giant computer,” he says. “And the screens are open space where the people are the content. And as we go along, in conjunction with the video design, you see more and more of the circuitry.”
In every case, Boritt leaves ample room for his final collaborators: the audience. Finding the just-right design aspects “makes the audience complicit in the experience of watching the play,” he says. “And hopefully that goes along with all parts of production.”