Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1997
Love conquers all.
When scenic designer Robert Brill left San Diego in 1994, it was to be with Loretta Greco. They lived in Princeton, then Cleveland, and finally settled in New York. Now they’re both coming to San Diego: she’s directing and he’s designing the La Jolla Playhouse production of Emily Mann’s “Having Our Say” (September 9-October 19).
Of course, Brill’s been back on his own. He’s designed eight other productions at the Playhouse, including strikingly memorable sets for “The Good Person of Setzuan”, “Marisol” and “The Swan”.
He first made his mark here in 1985, as co-founder of Sledgehammer Theatre (with fellow UCSD students Scott Feldsher and Ethan Feerst). But his prodigious talent and creativity soon took him all over the country, to prestigious places like the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., the McCarter in Princeton (where Loretta was staff producer and artistic associate), Chicago’s Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatres, the Minnesota Opera, Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Theatre Workshop and, back in San Diego, the Old Globe and the San Diego Rep.
“It’s been busy,” says the soft-spoken, unprepossessing 33 year-old designer. “For a couple of years there, I was on the road one-third of the time. We don’t usually travel together. Then, it’s like starting over every time you come home.”
Home was originally in the Salinas Valley of central California. Brill’s upbringing was a communal, multicultural activity. His father, a hairstylist, was half Irish, his mother, a cosmetician, was half Spanish. Both were also half Filipino. His grandparents spoke Tagalog, and were mainstays of the Filipino community. But the household was “very Western… very well disciplined, but it bred a very independent lifestyle.”
Brill admits to being “pretty artistic” from the start. He made puppets, and did shows for birthday parties (at 8 years of age, he earned $10 a gig). He made Super 8 movies with neighborhood friends, primarily reflecting his fascination with sci-fi and horror films. He drew and painted, studied drafting, and later, architecture. In junior high school, he developed an interest in magic.
“I spent most of my time thinking about magic in a large, theatrical context, not just sleight-of-hand skill… The performing arts always intrigued me. I was far too intimidated in high school to try acting, but I thought about it a lot. I was sort of a closet participant.”
During junior college, Brill got involved with summer stock, and “started to think more about design than performance. I actually did perform in the first few plays I designed, but I realized that doing both was out of the question. You can’t focus on painting scenery and running around in it… But it gave me a taste of what it’s like to be on that side of the stage.
“UCSD was a great place to train, and to hook up with people like Scott and Ethan. The visceral way Scott worked, his ‘organic process,’ allowed me to play sculptor, staging ideas in very non-traditional and unconventional ways. But that process also meant that the design was always developing, even during the rehearsal period. It was frustrating, but a good education. It was impetuous, but it kept us all flexible.
“Some of the photos people find most interesting in my portfolio are my productions with Sledgehammer — even if they’re the furthest thing from what that theater would actually produce! But they show a real attack on a space. The Sledgehammer experience definitely shaped my work, and I think about it all the time. Sometimes, to the chagrin of the theaters that hire me, I still work like that, coming up with ideas late in the game. At this level, it’s not just ‘Time is money.’ It’s ‘Time is a “lot” of money.’ ”
One of those Big Time/Big Money situations was the Taper, where he worked on Anna Deveare Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992”. There, he met Loretta. They married two years ago, and have since collaborated on several projects.
“There’s a lot of joy in being able to work with someone who really understands you. And, it’s time we can spend together. But it’s also difficult, because the time you’re spending together is work. It’s a balancing act.”
Brill and Greco have already mounted “Having Our Say”: in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Greco had been playwright Emily Mann’s staff producer, and was involved with the piece from its inception.
The Tony-nominated play is adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Sadie and Bessie Delany, two African American professionals, age 102 and 104, who recount their rich family history. It has a small cast, but large themes, providing a personal perspective on the evolution of America since the Civil War.
“It’s really kind of chronicling the twentieth century,” Brill explains. “Because it’s based on interviews, it’s an invitation to the audience to earn the trust of these two women, so they’ll let us into their home and tell us their stories. My challenge is, I have to create a world that’s inviting to the audience and allows the women to tell their story. Nothing in the play is bigger than the story — which is engaging, enchanting, humorous, emotional, but also kind of a history lesson. Jim Crow. Civil Rights. It’s so great for kids….
“And coming to do it in La Jolla is like coming home… As for the work, there’s nothing better than doing something you love with someone you love.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.