Setting the Stage: Carey Wong Travels Far and Wide for Inspiration to Create Stage Sets
by Kalyn Kelley
The Peninsula Gateway
December 13, 2006
Carey Wong, a native of Portland, Oregon, began his work in theater shortly after beginning college at Yale. "I wasn't always interested in stage design," he said. "I just found my way into it." Originally a mathematics major, Wong was first drawn to design after receiving a traveling scholarship to England to study theatrical history. "Although they seem very different, they both involve creative problem-solving. It's quantitative versus spatial," Wong said. Before moving to Gig Harbor in 1994, Wong focussed his work on grand opera, including the Portland Opera where he began his career nearly 30 years ago. His theatrical work began 10 years later when he was hired on by the artistic director of the Tacoma Actors Guild, a job which later led to his work with the Seattle Children's Theatre, the nationally-renowned playhouse for children of all ages. Though he is now a freelance designer, Wong recently returned to SCT to create the design for the company's newest play, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Set in the center of a magical forest, the play tells the story of a young boy who is taken under the wing of a powerful sorcerer and is eventually sent away. "I really enjoy working in children's theater," Wong said. "It's a lot like working in grand opera in that you are given a palette to do things that are more fanciful. You can take a non-realistic approach to things." More than anything, he enjoys the freedom that children's theater provides through the wide variety of stories that are told. "Working for children doesn't necessarily mean always doing fairy tales. There is also a lot of opportunity to work with adaptations of popular children's books and adult plays that have been reworked. The challenge, he explained, is finding new ways to present familiar stories to the audience each time. After completing The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is now on stage, Wong flew to Phoenix, Arizona, where he was enlisted to design the set for a local production of The Nutcracker. "It seems like I have 'Nutcrackers' in my future," he said of the experience. Though only his second dance production, Wong has already been recruited to begin work on a design for the Eugene Ballet Company's The Nutcracker. Working in Phoenix, he said, has been a unique experience because of the opportunities he has been given with a total production budget of $1.8 million. "You can do something with that," he said. Included in his set is an inflatable tree that grows to fill the entire stage as well as other inflatable items that grow to oversized proportions during the nightmare vision. "We're using technology that I have never used before," Wong said. But, he said, overcoming budget and time limitations can also be part of the challenge, the fun." Stage design, he said, is a journey that has its own twists and turns and that arrives at its destination on opening night. Preparing for a design, he said, has also opened him up to learning about all sorts of places and people throughout the worldthings he may never have learned about otherwise. "I have learned so much about humanity in the last 30 years. I have been exposed to topics that I would never have naturally gravitated to on my own, had it not been for the nature of the design projects. "In order to prepare for a recent production the SCT play, Tibet through the Red Box, Wong traveled to the East Coast to view collections of Tibetan art and artifacts in order to absorb the feel of the culture and its history. "It's been an ongoing education for me," he said. Despite his vast array of experiences, Wong says he has yet to work on a Chinese play, something he said he would like to do before he retires. "Designers often don't get to choose what they want to design; the projects are chosen for them by others." But, that being said, "I would like the opportunity to do something that reflects my heritage as a Chinese American. Regarding retirement, Wong said that despite more than a quarter century in the business, he will continue to work for many years to come. "It doesn't seem to me like work," he said.