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The Mind of Eugene Lee

From Trinity Rep to Saturday Night Live, this scenic designer keeps building new worlds

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A ring of the bell at his stately brick home on Angell Street brings Eugene Lee to the door. Sporting jaunty yellow suspenders, he leads the way through a garden oasis, complete with glass greenhouse, towards his carriage house studio. A friendly black lab bursts through the screen door after him, gripping a throw pillow in his teeth, hoping to play. Eugene good-naturedly sends him back before mounting the narrow steps of the studio, the portal to his particular brand of magic.

The upper floor of this carriage house is a dreamy space with a whitewashed ceiling, full of old wooden desks, dangling antique lights, hanging bikes and framed memorabilia. A drafting table, a few model sets, and drawers marked with play titles – Treasure Island; Streetcar; Camelot; West Side Story – offer hints as to the nature of Eugene’s work. The prolific scenic designer has been setting stages for decades, from regional theatres to Broadway, television to film, all around the world. While his collaborators and colleagues now rely on computers and digital printing, he still drafts designs with pencil and paper. This is his preferred place to do so, here in Providence.

Eugene traces an interest in set design back to his childhood in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small town on the border of Illinois. His parents both participated in community theatre – his father onstage, his mother backstage. By the time Eugene reached adolescence, his town had built a new high school with a few theatres in it. His identical twin brother became the head of the audiovisual department, while Eugene began honing his skills in production design. “I spent most of my time in the theatre,” he recalls, and always backstage – he never was keen for the spotlight. (“I can barely talk to you!” he jokes). His additional training led to BFAs from Carnegie Mellon and the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Yale Drama School, though he doesn’t remember attending too many classes.

As Eugene describes his career, he’s been doing the same thing ever since high school. “I’m not much for change,” he explains. Exceptional talent aside, this may account for his longevity with certain gigs as well. Locally, he’s been the resident set designer at Trinity Repertory Company since 1967. In TV, he’s been the production designer of NBC’s Saturday Night Live since its inception in 1975. But he’s always game to take on new projects as well, often juggling four or five at a time. A few recent designs include sets for NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers, as well as a production of Oklahoma! at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY.

The piles of photographs and isometric drawings in Eugene’s studio convey the scope of his work. Here’s the striped stage he designed for Lady Gaga when she performed on SNL, along with her signature. There’s the set he loved creating for a 1984 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo at the Frank Lloyd Wright Theatre in Dallas. Here’s his proposed design for a new façade to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in which engravings of exhibits appear to be busting through the wall. (“So far no one has taken me up on that one,” he notes.) There are galleys from his memoir, The Adventures of Eugene Lee, which he initially wrote back in 2007 and recently revised to include more adventures. And here’s an article about him in the Yale Alumni Magazine, which Governor Raimondo clipped and mailed to him with a kind note. “Only in RI!” he chuckles, touched by the gesture.

Eugene believes in letting the script inform the design, and keeping the focus on the performers rather than the set. It’s a philosophy that has served him well over the years, as evidenced both by the bustling pace of his career and by the accolades he’s racked up – such as three Drama Desk Awards, three Tony Awards (including one for the set design of Broadway juggernaut Wicked), and induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame. He also doesn’t consider too many theatre spaces sacred architecturally, and isn’t afraid to tear them up to serve the work at hand. One exception: the original Trinity Rep location at Trinity United Methodist Church, which he didn’t think should be touched. However, he recalls rather fondly how he “messed with the RISD auditorium right away.”

Eugene remains humble about his accomplishments and somewhat confused by public attention. “I don’t know why anyone’s interested in me at all,” he confesses. But get him talking, and colorful anecdotes from a lifetime in show business follow. He reveals a running gag used on SNL during backstage hallway shots. For unclear reasons, such shots usually include a chorus girl, a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln, and a live llama. He laughs, “If we go outside the studio, nine times out of ten we have to order up the llama.”

At least one of Eugene’s stories borders on a tall tale. Even when Eugene rolls out the plans for the cottage he’s designed in Whiting, Maine, and reveals that it’s currently under construction, it’s hard to buy his explanation for why he’s building it. Eugene claims that SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels recently bought a batch of pencil-making machines at an auction, and suggested that Eugene run his new pencil factory. Since the factory will be in Maine, Eugene figured he’d need his own house nearby. “No one believes me,” he sighs, but later adds, “I think we’ll see pencils by Christmas. I certainly hope so.”

Given his upcoming projects, it’s questionable how much time Eugene will have for pencil production. As of press time, he’s working on the projection box for a New York art installation called “Dead Girl Vampire Cats.” Created by filmmaker Cindy Kleine, the piece is described on her website as “a somnambulic landscape of a woman trapped in her home with her cats during a blizzard.” Eugene is also designing a stage for the CityLab conference in Paris this October, at the personal request of businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. SNL returns full swing in the fall as well, which means that Eugene will resume his practice of taking an Acela train down to New York on Wednesdays and returning to Providence via chauffeur Saturday nights for the duration of the show’s season. He has design work to do for Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and possibly for the touring production of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical Bright Star. In the spring, he’ll revisit Ragtime for Trinity Rep, having previously designed the Broadway show.

Eugene expresses no desire to move to New York, in spite of all his professional pulls there. “New York is crowded,” he states simply. He points out how much he and his wife enjoy their view of the Central Congregational Church, and watching “the parade of students going up and down Angell Street.” Ideally, he’d like to spend more time in Rhode Island teaching and mentoring students. He’s especially excited about a lead he just received on where to find local elderberries this fall. Growing up, he loved to eat them in pies. As he leans back in his chair, smiling and reminiscing about elderberry pie, the precise workings of his creative process and the source of his boundless energy remain mysterious. Like his body of work, and theatre in general, it all requires some imagination.