It’s one of the oldest stories on Broadway: talented guy from the hinterlands succeeds on the Great White Way only to discover what is so special about home. Michael Riha reprised this story in 2011 when he spent one harried month as the assistant designer for a Broadway play and a Met opera.
Riha, who teaches set design in the drama department at the University of Arkansas, signed on with Tony Award-winning designer Christine Jones to help with set design for a Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and for a staging of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. During a month of designing, drafting, soldering, gluing, cutting, coordinating and revising, Riha saw that he’d been teaching his students much of what Broadway professionals do every long, demanding day.
“No detail is too small to be concerned with, and no idea is too large to consider,” Riha said.
For example, the design team for Clear Day was working on a short scene that included only two lines of dialogue. The designers had not seen the lamps, furniture and cocktail glasses needed for the scene until the set pieces were wheeled in, just nine days before the preview performance. Discussion ensued about the look, down to the cocktails.
“When the prop artist began to talk about the choices she made, everything was based on the story and made to enhance and support the characters and that particular moment,” Riha recounted in his blog. “Eventually, some minor adjustments – trim details, new cocktails and scaling down the chairs a bit – were made to help the set pieces ‘live’ in the world of the moment better. The changes were small, by most accounts, but absolutely necessary to bring them into the vocabulary of the rest of the design.”
Riha, who has been designing scenery and lighting for more than 20 years, both at the university and in professional theaters throughout the Midwest, has developed a style “rooted in the characters rather than simply providing location.” One factor: he’d started his theater career as an actor.
“My training emphasized the importance of people who are telling the story, and my scenic style reflects that approach,” he said. “I value the relationship between the designer and his peer designers as well as the director. Open communication, sharing of visual information and an understanding of the importance of a unified vision are all priorities when I approach any design.”
So, what did Riha discover in Manhattan that made him appreciate his work in Arkansas? He worked with committed professionals, people who design sets and lighting and costumes – when they can get the work.
“They don’t know from show to show when they’ll get to work again,” Riha said. “I learned to respect the fact that I get to do theater 10 times a year at the university.”
Back in Arkansas, immersed in another season of the University Theater, Riha hasn’t left Broadway completely behind. He has a book coming out in 2012 of interviews with 10 top designers, all in scenery and lighting. He hopes his book will be an inspiration for students who wonder whether they have what it takes to design at the highest level.
“Oh, yes, it is possible to get to New York from Arkansas,” he said. New York designers, he found, are looking for assistants who have a good spirit, unflagging energy and the kinds of skills he’s teaching his students.
Read more about Riha’s design in New York and beyond.
Stage design for University Theater’s A Christmas Carol, winter 2011, by Michael Riha.