Yale’s School of Architecture and School of Drama are teaming up this fall to present “Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee,” a retrospective of the award-winning designer and Yale professor’s work in theater, opera, and dance. The exhibit, free and open to the public, will be on now–Feb. 1 in the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, 180 York St., in New Haven.
Since the 1960s, Lee has been one of the world’s most celebrated and influential set designers, particularly during his tenure with the New York Shakespeare Festival and at the New York City Opera. He is renowned for his meticulous attention to precision and detail, and his models have been described as works of art in themselves. Organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee” will showcase some 65 of these models, along with sketches and photographs selected from the nearly 300 productions he has designed.
“We are delighted to collaborate with the School of Drama in bringing this exhibit to Yale. Over the years, many architecture students have elected to study with Ming, attracted by the extraordinary architecture of his stage craft,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
Widely regarded as the “dean of American set design,” Lee has influenced generations of students. For more than four decades, he chaired or co-chaired the design department at Yale School of Drama, where he has taught hundreds of design students since 1969.
“Ming Cho Lee’s contributions to the art of theatrical storytelling, as a designer and as a teacher, are far-reaching,” said James Bundy, dean of Yale School of Drama. “This retrospective is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us at Yale, and all of us in the field, to celebrate his distinctive artistry — a legacy which will undoubtedly inform, instruct, and inspire generations to come.”
Lee introduced a new architectural vocabulary to American set design. His innovations included scaffolding, steps and platforms, collage, and non-traditional materials. He also popularized the fully painted scenic model as an instrument for exploring space, color, and light.
In addition to more than 20 Broadway productions, Lee has designed sets for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Martha Graham, Pacific Northwest Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Taipei), the Public Theatre (New York Shakespeare Festival), major opera houses around the world, including Covent Garden (London), and most of the major regional theaters in the United States, in particular the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Lee has also been an architectural consultant for resident theaters, including the modifications of the Yale Repertory Theatre on the historic site of the former Calvary Baptist Church, and the Iseman Theatre, the School of Drama’s black box theatre; the PepsiCo Theatre, the opera house, and the blackbox theatre at the State University of New York at Purchase; the Patricia Corbett Theater at the University of Cincinnati; and The Public Theater.
Throughout his career, Lee has received numerous awards for his work, including Tony and Drama Desk awards for outstanding set design, an OBIE Award, the Helen Hayes Award, and the National Medal for the Arts in 2002, the highest official arts honor given to Americans. He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998 and received a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
“Stage Designs by Ming Cho Lee” is based on retrospective exhibitions in 1995 (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), 1997 (National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan), and 2011 (Shanghai Art Museum and Ningbo Museum in China). It has been curated by Ming Cho Lee; Michael Yeargan ’72 M.F.A., adjunct professor and co-chair of design at Yale School of Drama, and resident set designer at Yale Repertory Theatre; and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, the Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg Curator of Exhibitions at the Shelby Cullom Davis Museum, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The presentation at the Yale School of Architecture has been designed by Ming Cho Lee and Lee Savage ’05 DRA, lecturer in design at the School of Drama, and the School of Architecture’s director of exhibitions, Brian Butterfield ’11 MArch.
The exhibition at Yale is jointly sponsored by the Yale School of Architecture, Yale School of Drama, and Yale College, and is supported in part by the Tobin Foundation for Theatre Arts, with additional in-kind support from Long Wharf Theatre and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
An related publication, “Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design” (Theater Communications Group), by Arnold Aronson, professor of theater at Columbia University School of the Arts, will be available in spring 2014. Illustrated with more than 500 images in both color and black and white, this publication chronicles Lee’s career from his early training in China to his 300 scenic designs and esteemed teaching career.
The Yale School of Architecture Gallery is open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. On Nov. 21 at 6:30 p.m., Aronson will present the lecture “Ming Cho Lee and the Transformation of American Stage Design” at Hastings Hall (180 York St.)
Ming Cho Lee
Lee was born in Shanghai, China, in 1930; his father, Lee Tsu Fa, graduated from Yale in 1919. As a teenager Lee studied Chinese landscape painting, and in 1949 he came to the United States to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. Initially interested in the art department, Lee found himself drawn to the theater, where he turned his talents to stage design.
He moved to New York in the 1950s to become an assistant to one of the most renowned designers of the day, Jo Mielziner, whose poetic realism dominated mid-century American theater. Lee also assisted the Russian-born Boris Aronson, who introduced Constructivism to the American stage, and whose sculptural approach to scenography was significantly different from Mielziner’s. Lee was also inspired by the aesthetics of German playwright and theoretician Bertolt Brecht, particularly Brecht’s rejection of decorative effects in favor of a utilitarian approach.
Lee brought together these influences to create a structural and sculptural approach to design. His work evolved over time toward a neo-expressionist pictorial style typified by sharp edges, geometric shapes, bold use of color and contrasts, and often surreal amalgamation of interior and exterior imagery.
His aesthetics and ideas, which include a passionate belief that art should be politically and socially engaged, have impacted virtually every aspect of theater production and creation, a legacy perpetuated by his students and colleagues.