Inducted into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, August 3, 2013.
I first met Darrell Anderson when he was hired on to be the set designer for the production of A Moon for the Misbegotten I was directing for the Human Race in 1990. This was back when the Human Race was an upstart organization, mounting its plays in the old Biltmore Ballroom. When it came to those early set designs: "scrounge" and "frugality" were the mantras of the day. While I only learned much later that his scrounged and frugal set went on to win the "Outstanding Design" Award from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, I knew right away I wanted to work with him again.
Darrell grew up the son of a sign painter, when sign painting was an art, in the small town of Ripley on the Ohio River. He first came to Dayton as a student at U.D. in the late 1960s. An art major, he gravitated to the more congenial theatre crowd. He tried his hand as an actor, but then moved behind the scenery to a more comfortable niche--building sets, and then designing them. Back then U.D. did not teach set design, nor did it have a tech person on staff. Sets were designed and built by students. Students learned by doing.
After Darrell graduated from U.D., he went on to Ohio State where he earned a graduate degree in set design. By this time UD was looking for a full-time faculty to teach set and lighting design and to design and oversee the construction of all main stage productions. Darrell was hired on. That was nearly forty years, and well over a hundred set designs, ago.
The U.D. theatre department, for decades under Darrell's chairmanship, has continued to be hands-on in its approach to learning. Those who have worked in the U.D. theatre building know the excited student energies that emanate from the place: they are so infectious, so joyously buoyant, one half expects the building to float.
But Darrell is not being celebrated tonight merely for his longevity as a set designer and for being an exceptional teacher: he is being celebrated for the excellence of his work. On that score I speak as a director and collaborator who has worked with him on many productions.
There are the flashy elements of set design that draw the eye. But what I think is more important, and what I see as Darrell's strength as a designer, is his ability to construct a dynamic floor plan. Sounds pedestrian, I know. But as a play should exist as a narrative in motion, a good floor plan, if a production is blocked well, will reveal a play's soul; it will allow a play to come alive from the inside out.
The writer Cynthia Ozick, in an interview about the process of writing, said, "You have to have this long, thick block of hours in which you can dream yourself into that place where you have to be." This needing of a "long, thick block of hours" to dream oneself to where one has to be, holds equally true, I believe, for theatre. And Darrell understands this.
Darrell and I have worked together on sixteen different productions. Even when I directed for the Human Race, Darrell was my go-to designer. I think I feared that other designers wouldn't tolerate the slowness of my process, my needing those "long, thick block of hours." I don't know what the conversation is between other directors and set designers, but with Darrell I begin with a general concept and a rather particular plan as to blocking. When we meet again, Darrell has constructed a model that for my needs usually doesn't quite work. At this point I begin to wish my mind weren't in a fog, that I had already dreamed up something I could articulate with crystalline clarity. (The one exception to this first meeting with a model was Darrell's extraordinary design for Antigone. From the get-go it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous--it vibrated with possibilities for movement.) But usually the design goes through three, four--I hesitate to estimate how many revisions--before it is quite right. Darrell knows the creative process is a plodding one, and that inspiration that flies in on the wing is usually not to be trusted. And in this shared plodding process, through this long, thick block of hours of study and meditative contemplation, Darrell has gotten into my mind, and I have gotten into his. In the theatre, good collaboration is not a process of compromise; it's a contagion of passions that allows collaborators to channel together into the deeper purpose of a play. Darrell has deciphered a vision from my fog, and the set design that has emerged bristles with energy. I can't tell you how many times during rehearsals I have stopped to burst into a kind of hosanna, to tell my actors how fortunate they are to have such a space to walk on. I have no doubt my behavior outside the context of rehearsals would seem bizarre, but when one feels oneself to be in the confluence of energies between a marvelous script and a set that so judiciously allows that script to come alive, a momentary loosening of one's cerebral screws to howl up to the rafters seems the only appropriate response.
Darrell has an inventive, puckish, spirit that kicks in when it comes to set and prop construction. He knows all the obscure shops and thrift stores within a thirty-mile radius. These he prowls until he hits upon the right juxtaposition of objects, and, presto!--out of a Styrofoam pumpkin comes a wholly mammoth's head; from an old wheelchair, a concessionaire's cart; and from a couple of ornate chairs, a pair of Danish thrones!
I have long admired Darrell's lighting designs. I think he is one of the finest lighting designers in the area. What is particularly vivid in my mind is the bombed-out set that emerged out of darkness for the third act of The Skin of Our Teeth--the Franz Kline-like slash of green across the cycloramic wall. I was pleased to see that Darrell's lighting for Eleemosynary last year received the recognition it so deserved: a Daytony for excellence in lighting.
I am honored to call Darrell Anderson my friend. It has been an honor to work with him these many years. And I honor him tonight by inducting him into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame.