Actor Edward Norton says, “she is a genius.” Theater directors obviously agree, as Christine Jones has been the set designer for three shows this season on Broadway. (Good luck finding another time that happened.) And they are shows that could not be less alike. There was the deliciously color-filled ambience of “Birthday Candles,” the stark contemporary coolness of “Macbeth,” and the whimsical and faithful land of Hogwarts in “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.”
The theme leading into Charles Ray’s current exhibit at the Met reads, “Space is the sculptor’s primary medium.” Likewise, for the theatrical set designer. Christine Jones is the master of what she calls visual acoustics. “I deeply believe that space is a vessel for the play,” she says.
The objects, the things we see that bring back memories (much as hearing a song might) is certainly what “Birthday Candles,” the show which starred Debra Messing, is about. “I would describe “Birthday Candles” as evocative of a particular location – that being her kitchen – as the main stage of her life,” Jones says. Floating over the action are relatable items — a hair ribbon, postcards, ticket stubs — what Jones calls “the objects of our lives.”
“Macbeth,” on the other hand, connotes starkness, more of a neutral space. (Though here too, there is a makeshift kitchen space where something is stewing as the show begins) “But they are both emotional journeys of characters,” claims Jones.
Stage sets are key components of any show (think “Lehman Trilogy,” though you never want to be the only thing audiences talk about, let alone praise). There is a famous failure of an old show, called “Allegro,” by the seemingly unstoppable Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein duo. In the book, “Something Wonderful,” the stumped scenic designer added painted drops, sliding platforms, treadmills, pendulum stages, curtains and projected images requiring forty stagehands. Nothing worked and it was one of their most memorable failures. Christine Jones has mastered the art of knowing how little is too much.
Obviously, the director is the main person the set designer confers with: director Sam Gold clearly had his notions for this modernized “Macbeth,” which has had mixed reviews, some starting with the mentions of a “bare set” or one “mostly comprised of fog.” It is fair to say a set designer can only do so much.
As Jones points out, the actors also become a critical part of the unit.
Jones is a longtime New Yorker whose education was packed with different arts degrees, ending with a Master of Fine Arts at NYU. She won an Obie for her work off-Broadway, and her debut on Broadway was “The Green Bird,” directed by another creative woman, Julie Taymor.
Ed Norton worked with her on “Burn This” at the Signature Theatre, and can hardly rave enough. “She is really one of the most talented and purely artistic – and warm-hearted – people I’ve ever worked with in theater.”
“Ed is an avid theatergoer,” says Jones, who appreciates and understands an actor’s feelings during and after a production. “When we all work on a show, it creates bonds that last forever. We are all so immersed in emotional and vulnerable ways.”
Norton is also a huge fan of Jones’ lesser-known project called “Theatre for One.” She created this years ago, but it truly became in demand, even necessary, during the pandemic’s first year. “We were the only theater up for much of 2022,” she says. “It was inspired by an experience I had years ago when a magician performed for me alone. It was private and amazingly visceral.”
What exactly is Theatre For One? These are “micro-plays,” five-minute experiences between one audience member and one actor. Playwrights like Lynn Nottage and Sam Hunter have been contributors, and Theater For One will be in The Signature’s lobby throughout this month.
And what’s next on Broadway for Christine Jones? Well, think how much fun it will be to take audiences into the world of Prada, runways, and that unforgettable Anna Wintour-ish boss? Yep, it is “The Devil Wears Prada,” direction by Anna D. Shapiro, sets by Christine Jones and music by a guy named Elton John.
Michele Willens’ weekly report, “Stage Right ... Or not,” is available on NPR’s affiliate, Robinhoodradio.