Designing by Numbers
Nationally recognized designer Carey Wong keeps local stages intriguing with his personal touches
by Chad Henry
November 15, 1995
Tacoma Opera and theatregoers share something in common with similar audiences from New York to Seattlethey've been privileged to attend a number of fine productions designed by set design wizard Carey Wong.
Wong's dazzling, witty, opera-scale sets are distinctivehis style is his own. Tacoma-based Wong, a Yale Phi Beta Kappa, has an eye-popping resume, and an impressive portfolio that includes set designs for opera and theatre productions in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Memphis, Little Rock, New York, Pittsburgh, Calgary, San Francisco, Anchorage, Knoxville, Berkeley Rep, and numerous other locales.
His sets for Menotti's Spoleto Festival production of the opera, The Consul, were seen on PBS as part of the "Great Performances" series.
Tacoma theatergoers have been privileged to see Wong's lush, ingenious sets for Once on This Island, Irma Vep, I Hate Hamlet, The Quick-Change Room, A Doll House, The Comedy of Errors, Straight Arrows, and A Christmas Carol at TAG [Tacoma Actors Guild], and at Tacoma Opera with La Traviata and Carmen, and coming up, Romeo and Juliet.
In Seattle, Wong's work has been seen at Seattle Opera, ACT [A Contemporary Theatre], Intiman, Seattle Children's Theatre, and The Group Theatre.
A straight-A product of Jesuit schools in Portland, Oregon, Wong found himself drawn to math and science in high school. "When I got to Yale, I was still thinking I'd pursue a career in science. I think I spent about three quarters doing that, and then I realized it just wasn't for me."
Carey ended up at the Yale School of Drama studying stage design under the prestigious Broadway designer Ming Cho Lee (seen recently Off-Broadway with Terrence McNally's brilliant A Perfect Ganesh).
He spent his fourth year at Yale as one of only twelve Scholars of the House, a degree program that allowed a mere dozen students the run of Yale's facilities to create projects appropriate to their field of study. Wong spent part of the year on a grant in England, researching the grandiloquent Stuart court masques. On returning to Yale, he created and produced Ben Jonson's 1620 masque, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moonesets, costumes, music, staging, and all.
Since graduation, Wong has worked as resident designer and production manager at Portland Opera and Opera Memphis. His sets for Gian Carlo Menotti at Portland Opera won him an annual design post at the prestigious Wildwood Festival in Little Rock, Arkansas. And because so many opera companies co-produce or rent productions, Wong's work has been seen at dozens of other locations.
Wong spent a number of years in Portland as production manager and resident designer at Portland Opera. While there, he also created settings for Portland Center Stage, the Portland Rep, and The Musical Theatre Company. Wong migrated from Portland, Oregon, to Gig Harbor seven years ago with partner Tom Campbell, an Associate Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University.
"I have to thank Bruce Sevy at TAG for getting me back into regional theatre. I'd been doing opera pretty much exclusively for years. When I took my portfolio to Bruce, he took a chance on me and immediately offered me a job. A lot of my breaks have come like thatsomeone seeing potential in me and being willing to take a chance. I've been very lucky that way. I've had a chance at TAG to design a really diverse series of shows."
According to Bruce Sevy, because of Wong's ingenuity, hard work, affability, and wide-ranging design ability, his working relationship with Wong has been one of the most rewarding things about TAG.
Wong also enjoys a close working relationship with Rebecca Switzer, TAG's colorful and resourceful property shop foreman. Wong's operatic-sized designs often require a dizzying array of props, furniture, and set dressing that must be built from scratch. Switzer's prop shop is a combination of Santa's workshop and a garment district sweat shop. Walking through the door, one is greeted by the whine of a band saw; the smell of a hot glue gun; the blue flame of a welding torch; a collection of Mr. Potato Head characters; figures from Mexico's Dios de los Muertos; an old fashioned Norwegian Christmas tree being built and decorated with handmade ornaments; shelves of boxes with labels such as "doll parts," "assorted dog collars," and "plastic fish;" a huge chandelier halfway completed; and a fancy l9th-century chaise lounge with the stuffing hanging halfway out. Hanging on the wall in the prop shop is a huge gargoyle head from Irma Vep built by Wong and Switzer made from doll parts, bottle caps, and sundry other articles, all spray painted black.
During one of Wong's shows at TAG or the opera, Carey can usually be found in the prop shop, working with Rebecca and her assistants, or often late night, after rehearsals are over, helping to install the elaborate, detailed set dressing.
How does Wong get his set ideas? "I get most of my ideas from the director. It's just a question of listening. Some directors will give you some kind of emotional or intellectual clue as to what they're after. Bruce Sevy pretty much handed me all the ideas for The Quick-Change Room, A Doll House, and The Comedy of Errors. He had the period, the artistic references, the concept already firmly in mind. That left it up to me to research the visual references and then combine them into a drawing first, and then a scale model built of balsa wood, cardboard, and Styrofoam."
"For A Doll House, Bruce wanted the Helmer living room to look like a Carl Larssen painting. Larssen was a 19th-century Swedish painter who specialized in idyllic, domestic Swedish scenes, all sunlit and happy. He wanted the living room kind of floating in limbo, backed by these huge dark renderings of Edvard Munch's painting, Anxiety." Munch was a Norwegian painter whose most famous painting today is The Scream (so famous I saw it tattooed in its entirety on a guy in Portland, Maine). "And so these dark, troubled figures loom in the background behind the sunny fašade of the Helmer house."
Wong's set last season for Tacoma Opera's La Traviata was a hugely splendid affair featuring giant faux marble columns and a spectacular chandelier built by Rebecca Switzer at TAG's scene shop. "The challenge at the Pantages [Theatre] is that there's no backstage space whatever. You can't really bring anything in or out of the set. Whatever set you start the evening with is pretty much what you have all night, because there's literally no space in the wings or backstage to store anything."
When I asked why Alexander Pantages would have designed such a limited space in such a fancy theatre, Wong says, "The Italian scenic artists they employed in those days were geniuses at creating illusionary painted drops. Everything flew in and out from the fly loft. They would paint [vistas of] whole towns or forests or whatever in brilliant forced perspective. They didn't really need three-dimensional sets such as we're used to today, so they didn't really need offstage space."
As I talk to Wong, he's busy putting finishing touches on the set of A Doll House, and planning his set design for Tacoma Opera's Romeo and Juliet. He just finished Naomi's Road for Seattle Children's Theatre and has five other projects on the drawing board, including next summer's Wildwood Festival.
Does he ever see himself doing anything else? "Well, I guess I could open a bookstore or a hamburger stand or an espresso joint. But really, I don't know how to do anything else. I'll probably just keep doing this until I retire, or until my eyes give out."
Wong is part of the ever-growing community of nationally respected artists that make their home in the Tacoma area. Take the opportunity to see Wong's sets this season at TAGA Doll Houseand Tacoma OperaRomeo and Juliet.