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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Drama

Kentuckians in Theater

Scenic Designer Tom Tutino
Bowling Green, KY

Who Tom Tutino is associate professor of theater at Western Kentucky University, where he joined the faculty in 1990. He teaches set design and stagecraft, manages theater production classes, and serves as technical director of Western’s main stage productions. He also works as scenic designer for the Public Theatre of Kentucky in Bowling Green and for theater companies throughout Kentucky—such as Stage One in Louisville—and the eastern United States. He worked full-time as a musician for several years before settling on a career in the theater. Tutino has a Master of Fine Arts degree in scenic design from Boston University.

What “The scenic designer’s job is to create an environment or a world for the action of the play to take place. It always starts with the script, reading the script. The world we create on stage might encompass any culture from any time period in history—or not in history at all, but something we’re creating as a fantasy.”

When/Where “It can go any time of the day or night, and on a few occasions—hopefully few and far between—it is literally day and night when the deadlines get close. In terms of design work, which I do at home or in my studio, I work in the evenings when the rest of the day is finished and there are no distractions. That’s when I find myself most creative. For mechanical things like drafting [drawing blueprints of the set design], I work on that ‘normal work’ during the day, so I can deliver it to people who have to do the construction. I spend a week or so at the theater when the show goes into tech[nical rehearsal].”

How “I work with the director and lighting, costume, and sound designers—that’s where the creative collaboration is—and also with the technical director, scenic artists, and props department. In one sense, the scenic designer ‘directs’ the play before the director does, because the scenery determines where the entrances and exits are, and so on. And to some degree, the director designs the show before the designer does, because the director is also thinking visually.... I like to read the script several times to see what it’s about. I try not to think about the design then. Ultimately, I make some very detailed notes—how many settings, doors and windows, special needs for furniture, props, scenic effects. Then I take that with me to the first meeting with the director. I try not to formulate any strong ideas until that first meeting, and we start talking about the design.”

Why “One of my favorite things about the process is the collaborative part—working with the director and other designers. There is the excitement of continually working on new and different projects. It’s always a different production, even if it’s a play I’ve designed before. There are fresh minds to collaborate with. I always learn something new. My favorite part of the process is that initial period—coming up with the idea of what this play will be like on the stage. It’s just great fun.’”

Getting There “It’s helpful to have traditional artistic skills—drawing, painting, sculpting. You have to be able to communicate ideas visually. You also have to be able to analyze the script and communicate ideas verbally. It also helps to have knowledge of art and architectural history—painting and furniture styles. We have to know a little bit about almost everything. It’s a continual learning process. I’m constantly building up my knowledge of history, art, and architecture.... Having some experience on stage [as an actor] is helpful for anyone working behind the scenes. I worked in summer theaters and as a scenic artist [someone who paints and decorates the set] and carpenter. I was also very interested in architecture. Unlike architecture, scenic design is ephemeral. But that’s one of the great things about live performance. No one else can ever have that same experience [as a single audience watching a specific performance].”

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