Lissa Tyler Renaud[1]

U.S. Theatre Designer and Painter John Warren Travis
U.S. Theatre Designer and Painter John Warren Travis

After a full and impressive career as a designer of theatre sets and costumes, John Warren Travis, 81, is now a painter. His designs for the stage were always markedly painterly, and his paintings are noticeably informed by the theatre—sometimes by the physical stage space, at other times by its underlying dynamic. Then, too, his paintings are very often responses to poetry—which he also writes—so it’s no surprise that his most celebrated theatre designs were for plays that required a great deal of knowledge about, and sensitivity to, poetic language.

John Warren Travis’s work is an important and integral part of the West Coast legacy from a long period of astonishingly rich theatre activity and experimentation: he completed his MFA at Stanford University in 1967 and became Professor Emeritus from UC Berkeley’s Department of Dramatic Arts in 1994. His designs have appeared in over 150 productions at major West Coast venues, including American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco), Ashland Shakespeare Festival (Oregon), Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), Oakland Ballet (California) and for San Francisco Ballet at the San Francisco Opera House, among many others. He also made vital design contributions to the nationally-known Berkeley Repertory Theatre as it moved on and developed from its romantic original digs in a converted shoe store; his designs were similarly key in Berkeley Shakespeare Festival’s transition to the California Shakespeare Festival.

Farther afield, John Warren Travis’s designs for UC Berkeley’s Cyrano de Bergerac were shown at Lincoln Center (Scene Design USA, New York City); designs for UC Berkeley’s War of the Roses were exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial; his Judevine designs for A.C.T. were featured at the Theatre International Exhibition in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. His designs for San Francisco Ballet’s Badinage, with music by Stravinsky, toured Europe.

The critics have shown their appreciation for Travis’s work over the years—work which has so enriched the overall West Coast theatre experience, translating old and new play texts into visual worlds for countless audiences. Travis has received: the Bay Area Theatre Critics Awards for his designs for Cymbeline and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, both by Shakespeare (California Shakespeare Festival ); the Los Angeles Theatre Critics Award for The Trouble with Europe, by Paul D’Andrea (Mark Taper Forum); and West Coast Dramalogue Awards for Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (Ashland Shakespeare Festival) and for The Lady’s Not for Burning, by Christopher Fry (ACT).

John Warren Travis enhanced the University of California at Berkeley as a distinguished teacher of Costume Design and Costume History, and with his founding of the Costume Study Collection.

Today, John Warren Travis continues to develop his painterly theatre designs along with his paintings—not for a physical theatre but as an artist’s discipline, as philosophical engagement, as a way of being, as a response to the world of ideas and to the world. We can only hope that this profound body of work, both past and present, will be a part of our theatre’s future.

LISSA TYLER RENAUD: You were just telling me the artists you are influenced by. Was there an equivalent in your theatre design life? Designers whose work inspired you?

JOHN WARREN TRAVIS: Leon Bakst was the earliest designer to have a big effect on my work. This was, of course, while I was studying at the University of Texas in the early 1950s. Subsequently, as I learned more about the Russian Ballet, and its reach by Diaghilev into utilizing artists such as Picasso (Parade) and Matisse (Le Rossignol), I began to think of theatre design as crossover art. From Art to Theatre.

Almost all of my early work in the theatre was involved in some way with utilization of fine art painters, whether as inspiration for the design of a particular production—for example, the palette, or style… I believe I have always been influenced by the world of fine arts and their historical movements and figures.

The clear relationship between architecture, art, and dramatic literary style and structure from period to period was brought out strongly by my teacher, Douglas Russell—an insight I have nursed all of my working career.

The first real theatre designer to influence me was Dick Hay, now a famous designer at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival [in Oregon]. It was his focus on spatial theatre design rather than pictorial narrative scenery that made me want to move more from just costume design to also design theatre scenery. The mise en scene.

What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with directors, or with other designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production?

Collaboration: noun. To be literal and state the obvious: the act of laboring together! It is exactly what the theatre is about and, truthfully, after the director, it is the designer who is the collaborator-in-chief, the visual arm of the director—a fact I never questioned in my early years, but an essential fact. A designer is the crossover and go-to person who has to collaborate with the director, but also with the actors, the staff who are executing the designs, with the other designers and even the playwright. These are relationships that are built by delicate rituals. On every production. The variations are infinite. Each has a different weight and emphasis, depending on all the other participants. I think the costume designer has the biggest job in coordinating and collaborating. The actors, in all their variety, need tremendous help and consideration. Within one costume, you have 30, 40 decisions to make. A set design can be involved with only a handful; one set may have no more than twenty.

In my later years, as I moved more into painting and drawing, I have missed the collaborative aspect of the theatre. On one hand, I relish the chance to be totally responsible for a work, but always I secretly yearn for someone to participate and help with decisions. It is almost difficult to talk about. It is what you do by necessity. Collaboration with the playwright is what is important, finally.

The essential question of all collaboration—no matter the individuals, their experience with each other, and certainly roles will shift and change according to the talents and strengths or weaknesses of the individuals—is this: What  is the role of the playwright in all these collaborations?

The essential collaboration is with the playwright—this is the cornerstone. Director and designers can meet and talk, but it will always come down to: will the production suit the play? Is the play able to stand the approach? And this thought will lead us to the subject of criticism.

Remember: Shakespeare was the greatest collaborator. His language, his grandeur—the simplicity of focusing on character, story and language. In his lack of specifics he allows for the designer to be released. I am freed by collaborating with Shakespeare still today. In Richard II, I felt like a sculptor.

Costume rendering by John Warren Travis for Richard in Shakespeare’s “Richard II” at Zellerbach Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley (1982). © Image courtesy of the artist.
Costume rendering by John Warren Travis for Richard in Shakespeare’s “Richard II” at Zellerbach Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley (1982). © Image courtesy of the artist.
Alexander Kinney in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” Premiered March 6, 1975 at Zellerbach Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley (USA). Direction by Robert Goldsby; costumes by John Warren Travis. © Dennis Galloway for the Department of Dramatic Art, UC Berkeley.
Alexander Kinney in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” Premiered March 6, 1975 at Zellerbach Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley (USA). Direction by Robert Goldsby; costumes by John Warren Travis. © Dennis Galloway for the Department of Dramatic Art, UC Berkeley.

What, if anything, are the challenges of, or the obstacles to, such collaboration? What part of the design process did you like least and how did you overcome it?

Collaboration in the theatre can be so intense. So many concepts, so much labor. Believe me, some of my collaborations were painful—probably no more so than what other designers have faced, though. The ego balance in all these endeavors is a delicate balance. A balance that haunts our artistic life. Everyday in studio.

Forgive me for my tone in some of this. There were and are many wonderful people involved in these projects.

Working with staff and realizing designs; there is many a slip. Being able to communicate to staff through sketches: this is a chief concern. It approaches collaboration. Maybe the way to begin all design is this: minimalist.

Start with the minimum. You can have just an actor in space under lights.

Can you describe a successful collaboration you had?

I did Glass Menagerie with Michael Leibert directing on the main stage of the new Berkeley Rep. I could collaborate with Michael and Tennessee—I was thrilled. I was responsible for the sets and costumes. Michael and I had worked together on countless shows in the old shoe store and now, in the new theatre. He trusted me, and besides, this was Williams, and it was easy to assume a poetic realism. I was confident I could find the right look. It was: all systems go!

It is a delicate play. How many times had I seen lab scenes? How many film versions? How many productions? The play, so overdone, is truly wonderful and poignant.

I vividly remember designing Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore for the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, in the old Encore Theatre—and Williams came out and read the script to the company. Williams reading a genteel Southern lady was not Tallulah Bankhead, or female-impersonator-in-dive. He was simple and touching.

I searched for a style of production for a new space, and a new time. Remember, we were moving a play first produced on a Broadway proscenium theatre to a new theatre with a thrust stage. To use pictorial backdrops with a semblance of some interiors placed in front was wrong for this new theatre and for the times.

The original script specifies slides. Why give them up? Williams is scenically explicit. The ground plan is set, the St. Louis environment. I thought of some landscapes with apartment buildings. Of St. Louis from the 1930’s. I went there and saw Williams’ apartment. Amazing: Edward Hopper.

I developed some ideas along the lines of the Svoboda designs for the Ahmanson production of Three Sisters, with Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier.

Set rendering by John Warren Travis for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. © Image courtesy of the artist.
Set rendering by John Warren Travis for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. © Image courtesy of the artist.
Set rendering by John Warren Travis for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. © Image courtesy of the artist.
Set rendering by John Warren Travis for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.
© Image courtesy of the artist.

The walls were string, as an homage to Svoboda. He used it as an enlarged scrim weaving. We had patterned projections, inspired by the language rather than by anything explicit. Michael loved the idea. The strings became telephone lines. When lit from behind, and from certain directions, the string walls became solid. Again, Michael liked it. The lighting designer was inspired by the possibilities. This whole collaboration was people experienced at working with each other. We were longtime collaborators—used few words.

The thrust stage at Berkeley Rep kicked out all kinds of realistic scenery approaches. I loved working in it. It always put actors into the same space as the audience. When Dick Hay was my teacher at Stanford University, he said that the greatest periods of theatre history were when the actors and audience shared the same space. For example, the Greek theatre.

We created an environment where the actor was in the middle of the thrust, close to the audience. A place that, instead of being real, was illusory and fragmented— a place for memories to emerge. The use of the strings created a spatial locale—a universal place, not as topical as a movie reality. It worked beautifully in the time: post-camera photorealism.

Costume rendering by John Warren Travis for Laura in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. © Image courtesy of the artist.
Costume rendering by John Warren Travis for Laura in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 1982 production of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. © Image courtesy of the artist.
The Gentleman Caller (Tony Amendola) and Laura (Kimberly King) in “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. Premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (USA) on Dec. 7, 1982. Direction by Michael Leibert; sets and costumes by John Warren Travis. © Photo by Ken Friedman
The Gentleman Caller (Tony Amendola) and Laura (Kimberly King) in “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams. Premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (USA) on Dec. 7, 1982. Direction by Michael Leibert; sets and costumes by John Warren Travis.
© Photo by Ken Friedman

This was also an attempt to find a mode of production for Berkeley. The play, when produced on Broadway, could never be called political. In Berkeley, everything was political. Really, the challenge was interesting. It is 1982.

I will say that the production of Menagerie succeeded in balancing the kind of realism of the costumes and furniture—you really had to have glass animals!—with the abstract environment. Real projections of the St. Louis apartment exterior on the string scrim of our set were mesmerizing. Williams specified them. A real critic would delve into this request—the why, the how, and whether our choices served the story.

I hope you see how I tried to solve the underlying conflict of the play: reality versus memory. Real versus the memory of the real. The ideas regarding the role of women emerged. The heartbreak of this great American play.

In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage?

There is marvelous coverage of social issues in the U.S.A.

During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?

Regarding my work, most criticism tended to be toward concepts and balance of set and costume. For example, there was criticism that my sets were too strong and powerful, and served as platforms for the costumes—or distracted from them. But I always felt I veered toward too simple sets, to empower the costumes.

Writing a synopsis of a plot, and picking individual performances to describe, and giving value judgment is the work of a reviewer/journalist. It is op-ed writing, an opinion piece. Take it or leave it, the “money review.” It is coverage and reporting to sell papers. Usually the reviews say nice things about the scenic elements. Often unfairly.

A review is not criticism. I think it is right to say that great criticism can seldom be involved with criticizing weak or puny works of art. Why waste time? Great criticism is enlarged by rational, rhetorical prose, by really questioning how the production serves the play. By tracing the merits and finding the virtues in the production.

I never read reviews. The old saying goes, “If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones.” I have some trusted friends whose opinions I listen to. A few of them are academics, with critical-thinking skills. They are not reviewers; they are never personal; we always talk concepts in relation to the play and the director’s ideas. There is many a slip between ideas and execution.

The theatre reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle—Paine Knickerbocker—he would come and review productions of Berkeley Rep on College Avenue. He found his way to this theatre in an old shoe store on College Avenue. To the Magic Theatre on Shattuck Avenue. He said many grand things about my designs and helped me begin my career. He put Berkeley Rep on the map.

Spaces were changing: actor-audience relationships were shifting, conceptual productions took the place of realistic productions. Let the movies do all that. The Sixties: interesting times. And somehow, some of my ideas, and those of some of the people I worked with, were right for the times.

Time has taught me that creativity lives in odd ways. Critics are not important unless one smart guy with literary gifts sees the opportunity to enlarge ideas about art and thinking. By being positive. There will always be critics. The artist has a choice whether to rise or be dampened.

Final thoughts?

It is truthful to say that often, going to the theatre, I am uncomfortable. Feelings arise. The theatre world is for me, in a way, some strange beast. But I have never given up the theatre. How could one? I am continuing the practice. I have moved to another stage. I have always been involved in plays. In many ways I still am. I am as intoxicated and thrilled by great painting as I am by great poetry. I work with the knowledge that great poets and painters gave and gave. It is their lot. As a painter, poems are my text. Poems are plays. Narratives of the soul. Narratives of the mind. I am on a stage of mind and paper and paint and color.

Slideshow: Portfolio of Paintings and Scenography by John Warren Travis

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[1] Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). Renaud was guest speaker and master teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010 and 2011. She is currently writing a chapter for an international volume honoring Stanislavsky’s 150th birthday (2013). Renaud is Co-Editor of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.

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“Some Strange Beast”: A Painterly Designer’s Search in Paint and Text — Interview with John Warren Travis, U.S. Designer