Talk about a calling! Set designer Edward Burbridge always had it in him to design sets. Directors just keep calling on him and he keeps on going and going, finding unexpected inspiration from various sources. Burbridge designed the set for Marat/ Sade, Mike Downstairs, Jimmy Shine, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, Our Town, Buck White, Status Quo Vadis , The River Niger , The Visit, Chemin de Fer, Holiday, Absurd Person Singular, The First Breeze of Summer, Reggae, Checkmates and Mule Bone. He was the Costume Supervisor for What the Wine-Sellers Buy and The River Niger. His current project is the set design for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun at the Westport Country Playhouse.
How did you get started in set design?
I’ve been doing it all my life. I was the kid in kindergarten who made the costumes colored with Crayola crayons and painted backgrounds on Kraft brown paper. And sang. And was Edward the Ugly Prince on the radio. I was always designing or performing.
How do you find people to hire you?
I’ve never really gone out much looking for a job. I just work with directors who are also starting out and they took me along.
How do they find you? First of all, I was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. I did all those early plays that were done in the 1960s. I worked in summer theatre. I worked at Metropolitan Opera while still going to art school…a compendium of things. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are dead or gone to Hollywood.
What’s involved in the design process?
In this particular case, working with Phylicia Rash?d, whom I’ve known for a long time, I was working with a friend. I worked with her before as an actress. Phylicia comes to this project with a deep knowledge. She appeared in it and directed it before. [Rash?d won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun and won the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for the 2008 television adaptation.] I designed it once before for the stage and for PBS with Ruby Dee and Al Freeman, Jr. To Be Young, Gifted and Black had a scene from this. Phylicia has a very strong vision for this play. My job is to support her vision of the play.
Where do you start?
It’s different and specific for each play. For A Raisin in the Sun I started with the Langston Hughes poem. I don’t want to sound esoteric. There are things in the poem that I can express visually. The setting is naturalistic. The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem. It takes it out of strict naturalism. Having said that, one doesn’t want to be heavy handed with it and hit them over the head. The Lena character is trying to get this house. She’s hoping it has outdoor space. I have an image of a garden that isn’t quite there…a floral wallpaper motif…faded, as if it’s appearing or disappearing. Further on in the poem, Langston Hughes talks about the dream deferred -- Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. That tells me …when looking for furniture, for example. I can decide what type of sofa feels right. The color -- is it heavy or light? Sometimes it’s more about what it shouldn’t be than what it should be. I shop it as if I’m the character. If I’m going out with the prop master, [I think] is this something the person would buy? Having said that, this is in my mind and I know when it feels right and when it doesn’t. I have to couple that with what the director wants. The director has the final say, [and] I need to support that.
I also listen. I like the director to talk to me the way she talks to the actors. She gets them to be clear about their backstory, where they’re coming from. I listen to that same kind of conversation, and I try to work from that. From that I get what’s important to actors, in particularly props and furniture. I did the set for Absurd Person Singular, with Geraldine Page. The play ran for over a year. I got a call from the house property man that the rug had worn out. I got a note from Geraldine Page. The property man replaced it with another rug-- not the same. She had a sense memory of that particular rug. Seeing the new rug without being told unsettled her.