Sunday, February 9, 2003

Designer makes ballet 'Dreamy'

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

With only five days before load-in, the day when painting and building stops and set pieces move into the theater, David Guthrie is anxious.

David Guthrie has designed costumes and sets for the upcoming Cincinnati Ballet production of Midsummer Night's Dream.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The set and costume designer for Cincinnati Ballet's all-new A Midsummer Night's Dream flew in from New York on Monday to catch up on the progress of his latest creation. We watched as he saw for the first time how his designs had taken shape.

"It's not there yet," he says, referring to the set painting. "It needs some feathering. The green on the trees is too dark. The leaves on the vines need more detail."

With a sweep of his hand, he indicates where to fill in. "I need to let the audience know what they need to see."

Last fall, Guthrie left behind renderings, fabric and ideas. He's returned to find costumes in dreamy purple and salmon bulging from dress racks; colorful cutouts of trees and vines and a wedding chapel lying on a tech room floor for his inspection.

Ballet director Victoria Morgan horses around with dancer Jay Goodlett in donkey headpiece designed by Guthrie.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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He says his mind is racing; he's eager to get to it. Opening night is Friday.

He may pick up a brush and add some touches himself, but he'd rather not. "I don't like to put so much of myself into it," he says.

Besides, he has shopping to do.

He and production stage manager Thyra Hartshorn are heading out to find trees and bushes to fancy up mounds that have been built to replicate hills and dales. The flora they'll buy will be fake.

"I used live plants once," he says. "Big mistake. You could have gotten poison ivy from all we had. This is more `painty' - you'll see a painted show."

It's said that the secret to a satisfying career is to find something you love. Guthrie's love affair with all things theatrical began earlier than most. As a 16-month-old baby he was cast in Lillian Gish's Orphans of the Storm. He's been working steadily since.

  • What: Cincinnati Ballet in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
• Where: Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center, downtown.
• Tickets: $12-$55 Cincinnati Ballet box office, 621-5219, or Ticketmaster at 241-7469.
"I've been very lucky. I've gotten most jobs by word of mouth and have never gone long without one," says Guthrie, who still is going strong after most others have retired. "I tell everybody I'm 55 and they buy it, but I'm really 76."

From child actor to set and costume designer is a story that includes Hollywood legends and adversity.

At 17 he was working on Broadway, having left Hollywood when he outgrew childhood movie roles. Then he fell two flights through an open elevator, losing one of his legs. He went from near-frantic movement of all sorts to a wheelchair.

He began to paint as an outlet for his energies. Discovering he was good at it, it wasn't long before he was working in theater again - this time behind the scenes.

"I don't think I'm handicapped," Guthrie says. "I just have a wheelchair attached to my behind."

His studio is in his New York brownstone for convenience, but he traverses the country regularly to keep with his many projects. He travels alone.

"There's no hassle," he insists. "You call the airplane, tell them what you need. They have it there when you arrive. I get on the airplane and fall asleep. It's all very simple."

Secrets of the stars

Low-key and without airs, Guthrie makes you squeeze details out of him. For example, all the movies he's been in.

"I was a stock boy," he offers, meaning he would arrive on the lot at 6 a.m. each day and the studio would tell him in which movie he would be appearing. He was in everything from musicals to drama, working with Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

He's currently resident designer for Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley (formerly Cleveland Ballet) and often is asked to do pre-ballet talks. Calling them his "How Not to Get a Real Job" lectures, he often recalls old Hollywood experiences.

"I was working on a job with Ethel Merman and Loretta Young. Ethel came off cussing about something and Loretta, who was always very proper, said `Ethel, you can't talk dirty. Here, give me a quarter and we'll start a fund and give it to help young girls in trouble.'

"Ethel ignored her. She kept on and on until Ethel says `Here's $5, why don't you go. ...' " He finishes the quote with a comment that would not have pleased the refined Loretta Young.

After ghosting for a while (doing designs for others while they take credit), the kid who had once danced in Oklahoma! and other big 1940s Broadway musicals found himself in 1953 working for one of the stage's most prolific designers, Oliver Smith.

He remained Smith's assistant for 20 years, returning to Hollywood to work with him on MGM musicals. Oklahoma!, Band Wagon and Porgy and Bess are three of the biggies. He learned he liked to do both costumes and sets, a rarity. Most designers do one or the other.

"I know it's unusual, but I like it. Everything's so integrated that way."

Guthrie no longer designs for Broadway.

"I don't like it. It's so crass and full of strange people," he says.

So it's the ballet world that gets his attention - big companies such as San Francisco and American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest and Jose Limon.

Cincinnati Ballet's staff is giddy at joining the list. Midsummer is occasion for many firsts - Guthrie's first collaboration here; the company's first set built from its new technical facility in Reading; artistic director Victoria Morgan's first full-length choreography in an all-new design. (Her prior works have used borrowed or rented sets and costumes.)

`You just do it'

Guthrie, who did Midsummer once before in Cleveland, says he's had no problem coming up with new ideas for this one.

"You just do it. Besides, it's fun because you get a chance to correct your mistakes. The first one was a big, sloppy, well-done opus for Dennis Nahat."

He says he's sure he's been a tough interview because his mind keeps wandering to the work ahead.

"Besides," he adds, "I don't like to talk about it - I don't like giving away the design before show time."


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