John McDermott's miniature set designs on shelves

Associate professor of theatre John McDermott has designed sets for more than 250 shows off-Broadway and regionally since 1992.

The path he took to his profession was paved with talent, hard work and a bit of serendipity, and since 2013 he has shared his knowledge and vision with Adelphi students aspiring to make their own mark on the theater world.

We asked Professor McDermott about his career journey and his latest set design, for the off-Broadway production of the 1909 play Chains, by Elizabeth Baker, produced by the Mint Theater Company in the summer of 2022.

Can you share the story of how you came to study theater design and work professionally in the industry?

I was almost 30 before I began my work in theater design—I had been a chef for most of my 20s. Some friends and I opened a restaurant, and I also worked year-round at the Black Dog Tavern on Martha’s Vineyard. I had a side gig as a sign painter there for several years too.

When I moved to western Massachusetts one August, I had a hard time finding work in a kitchen, as most jobs were already filled by returning college students. So I pivoted. I opened a used bookstore, managed a kitchen in Northampton, and then took a job as a waiter. I had little experience waiting tables, but found that it took less of a toll on me and gave me more free time.

I decided to go back to school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study art history with the goal of learning to restore paintings. After 12 years in noisy kitchens, I longed for a dark room, by myself, with a single light, a paintbrush, and very slow work. When selecting my major, it was suggested that I start with theater, take art history classes at Smith [College] and Amherst, and then consider grad school or a museum conservatory program to fulfill my wish.

My path shifted when I took a class with an excellent costume design teacher, June Gaeke, who saw that I could draw (a skill honed by my three years of hand painting signs on the Vineyard). For the next few years, I designed the costumes for five or so shows, and decided to change directions toward theater. In my last year there, a new set design teacher was hired for grad students, and I was accepted into the class. I designed the set for one show before I graduated, and I was hooked.

A year later I went to grad school at the University of Washington, where I strictly designed scenery, and that has been my focus ever since.

What is your process when developing and building set designs?

I research a lot—both visual research of the time, period and place, and emotional research about the characters in the play. I try to figure out who “owns” the space and what the space says about the characters or the situation. To do this, I make a point of talking with the director a lot—about everything, not just the play. I try to understand how they work and what they want in a physical production.

I sketch, then I build a model—usually many of the same set before creating a fully colored scale model with all furniture—to present to the director and other designers. I go on to draft every single piece of the scenery on paper in ½-inch scale.

Every detail is important. I usually visit the scenic shop where the set is being built to explain what everything should look like, showing them the model and going through plans. When the set is installed in the theater, I work closely with the full team to make final adjustments. Once the set, lighting and costumes come together, we need to fine-tune it all to be sure everything meets the vision.

How did you become involved with the set for the show Chains?

I worked with the Mint Theater Company once before, with the same director and costume designer, and was invited to design Chains when it was set to open in the spring of 2020. I declined—I had made the decision to take 2020 off from freelance designing to just focus on teaching. In 2019, my mother died, I earned tenure and I got married. During all of that I still designed more than a dozen shows, and I was in need of a break. So another designer was hired.

Some people thought a year break in my résumé would look bad, but as it turned out, the pandemic came along and changed everything. In the spring of 2022, Mint asked me again if I was available to design the show, as the other designer was not available for the crucial tech and dress rehearsal period, so I jumped on board.

What was your inspiration for this set design?

My inspiration for designing the set for Chains, which was written in 1909, came directly from the script. Older plays written in this naturalistic style often had characters doing very specific things in very specific places on the set, and I have learned to obey these directives like a road map. I studied this period (Edwardian England), and relied heavily on photos and ground plans of typical homes, customs and songs from the era compiled from the Mint Theater’s excellent dramaturg, Amy Stoller. I have a strong affection for the 1880–1920 period and so I knew what the style should look like—very pointedly lower middle class, but aspiring to better themselves.

The trick of this design was that there are two locations: Three of the four scenes take place in the home of the lead characters, who aspire to climb the ladder, but scene three takes place in the solidly middle-class home of the parents of one of the characters, who are a little bit conservative. The set became a sort of trick box, with walls opening and closing and sliding all in view of the audience, to take us in—and then out of—the third scene. The scene changes were all done by the actors, and I was very happy and surprised when the transformation got a round of applause every night. More than just an interesting element of the set design, though, it served to wake up the audience a bit to what was happening. It drove home the deeper subject of the play, which was the desire to change and, sometimes, the inability to do so because of life’s circumstances.

When did you begin teaching at Adelphi, and what drew you to teaching?

I joined Adelphi’s faculty in the Department of Theatre in 2013 as a visiting professor. I was asked to try it out, and my life was ready for some change. It was an opportunity to try something new, which, as one can tell from my biography, I am drawn to.

Can you tell me about the classes you teach at Adelphi?

I teach Scene Design; Drafting; Prop Construction; History and Application of Theatre Technology; and Research, Rehearsal and Production, and I have taught First-Year Seminars on culture of the Great Depression, a course called Singing in the Rain, and one on criticism called Everyone’s a Critic.

I think my favorite class is Drafting, because we have begun to lose our connection to a tool that can—in a systematic way—explain the universe on a piece of paper. I love to see students create a view of an object in many different flat views, then in a more three-dimensional, orthographic view and say, “Wow, I drew that!” When I first discovered what a detailed piece of drafting could explain (I still remember that eureka moment in 1992), I realized I also wanted to explain that sense of discovery to others. We go to the theater to dream while we are awake, and it begins for me with a pencil and paper.

This story was featured in the Fall 2022 edition of Scholars and Artists of Adelphi University. View the full newsletter, which highlights the scholarly and creative work of Adelphi’s faculty members.

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