SET DESIGNER CAREY WONG PROVES THAT FAIRYTALE ENDINGS ARE NOT JUST FOR KIDS
by Nhien Nguyen
January 2, 2008
Carey Wong's job as a freelance set designer is one that every 9 to 5 worker fantasizes abouta job where every assignment is like a brand new experience.
Fantasy comes to life in more ways than one for Wong, whose latest project challenges him to help bring the classic tale of The Neverending Story, a book first published in Germany in 1979 and then a popular hit film in 1985, to stage at the Seattle Children's Theatre.
Working closely with director David Bennett and other designers, Wong's simple yet striking sets create a world that brings young Bastian (Gabriel Baron) out of his ordinary life of bullies to a wondrous journey to save the far corners of Fantastica, along with unlikely hero Atreyu (Michael Place) and his happy Luck Dragon, Falkor (Hans Altwies).
For the Seattle Children's Theatre, there were many challenges with the stage adaptation; the first was that many people have very firm visual images of what they associate with the story, which this production team did not want to duplicate.
"We wanted to find our own way to tell the story of the book," says Wong, who has been designing sets for over 30 years.
The other challenge, Wong says, was that the story travels to "so many different places with so many different characters" (some of which fly). To give a sense of distant places traveled, Wong designed antique maps on the floor, similar to maps of the earth, but somewhat more abstract, like graphic impressions of the land and the sea.
"We wanted to tell the story visually, not in an old-fashioned kind of way, not like a storybook way," Wong says. "This was a sleeker, more minimalist telling of the story."
Wong's minimalist aesthetic was influenced by his mentor, the prolific set designer Ming Cho Lee. Wong, a fourth generation Chinese American, was intrigued by Lee's style, which was "often very austere and stripped down."
"As Asian Americansas Asianswe do have a certain way of viewing things," Wong says. "I have no way of proving it, but it's kind of genetically imprinted on youyou gravitate towards certain shapes or certain colors and combinations of things."
Wong is quick to note that most Asian cultures, besides Japan, aren't really "austere and stripped down" in their aesthetics. He says, "Most Asian cultures are exuberant, opulent, and elaborate."
Wong's design style, which is quite versatile, alternates between being very simple and cleanlike The Neverending Storyto something much more detail-oriented and decorative, like in opera.
"I feel at home and comfortable in both of those worlds," Wong says.
Wong is able to navigate seemingly opposite worlds, from his first love of math to his life-long passion for set design. Originally pursuing a math degree at Yale University, Wong realized that "there were a lot more brilliant math majors out there than me," and explored other areas like literature and theater.
"Some people think math and stage design are really far apart as far as vocations to pursue," says Wong, "but they are both ultimately about problem-solvingone is quantitative (math), and the other is spatial (stage design)."
Wong's first experience in stage design was in high school, when he was "coerced" into designing the scenery for a production, and "hated doing it." A college senior thesis on theatrical design in London finally sealed his interest in stage design. After dropping out of graduate school in theater to get more practical experience, Wong landed his first job at Portland Opera where he worked for eight years and designed 12 productions.
With opportunities to travel to other sites and working with the many production companies in Seattle, Wong is never bored with his craft of set design. Wong says, "I've really enjoyed this life."