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John Arnone: Dallas’ Master Set Designer

by Jerome Weeks 23 Feb 2011 7:30 AM

He’s won a Tony Award and two Obies. He’s designed stage shows in London, Berlin and Japan. And lately, John Arnone has been coming back home to North Texas — to teach and design some of the best sets in town for SMU, the DTC and the Undermain.


Cliff Miller, Teddy Spencer and Tiffany Hobbs in You Never Can Tell at SMU

John Arnone has designed award-winning sets for Broadway, off-Broadway and Hollywood. But three years ago, he started coming home to Dallas to teach and work. That includes at Southern Methodist University, where he’s a guest artist. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this report.

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On stage at SMU’s Greer Garson Theatre, John Arnone has put up a two-story-tall, wrought-iron gazebo. It suits the British seaside resort where George Bernard Shaw has set his popular romantic comedy, You Never Can Tell.

Weeks: “So this is iron?”

Arnone: “Ah, no [taps on frame]. This is all wood but underneath it is all steel pipe, clad in wood and Styrofoam.”

JohnThe brightly painted set actually is one of the more realistic efforts by Arnone (left). Off-Broadway, he’s created dark, shape-shifting dreamscapes and historic wonderlands for such companies as Playwrights Horizons and the New York Shakespeare Festival — and won a lifetime achievement Obie in the process. On Broadway, his Tony Award-winning work for The Who’s Tommy transformed the interior of the St. James Theater into a giant pinball machine. His designs for the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying preceded the fad for crisp, geometric, early ’60s modernism that the TV series Mad Men triggered four years ago.

Director Patrick Kelly (below) is the retired chair of the University of Dallas theater program. He’s known Arnone since they were both students at Jesuit High School. You Never Can Tell is their first collaboration in nearly 30 years. Kelly says Arnone doesn’t build ordinary rooms onstage. He builds spaces for a play’s meaning.

Kelly: “John’s work is not decorative. His real distinctiveness is as an interpreter of action. He’s one of those designers who brings that extra dimension to the play.”

One of the characteristics of an Arnone set, Kelly adds, is in the ways it will change — often in full view. That’s part of the entertainment, part of their magic.

It’s certainly not that Arnone can’t handle realistic sets. This month, Black Tie, A. R. Gurney’s new comedy in New York, features an acclaimed set by Arnone – of an old hunting lodge.

Arnone: “But when I’m given assignments like that I usually fail miserably.”

Weeks: “Why?”

Arnone: “Well, no one ever taught me how to do this correctly. [Laughs.] So I just sort of jump in there based on 30 years of experience and hope that I’m not found out.”


Arnone actually studied to be an actor at SMU. He eventually headed for New York as part of the “SMU Mafia” that included (future Guthrie Theatre) director Garland Wright, playwright Jack Hefner and actors Powers Boothe and Kathy Bates. In 1976, Arnone became a set designer mostly because Jack Hefner’s Vanities, which he was working on with Wright as part of the Lion Theatre Company, needed money for the set, and Playwrights Horizon would pay $100 for the designer.

So they put down Arnone’s name.

Vanities ran for five years, one of the most successful off-Broadway productions in history.

Ironically, Arnone soon started taking night classes at the Parsons School of Design – to learn the professional vocabulary he needed to do the job he already was doing during the day. In 1991, he was profiled by Ronn Smith in American Set Design 2, among a  group of designers that included producer Heidi Landesman (Into the Woods on Broadway), George Tsypin (Peter Sellars’ Don Giovanni, Spider-Man) and Michael Yeargan (Broadway’s The Light in the Piazza and several Dallas Opera productions). Since then, Arnone has designed for Tommy Tune, playwright Edward Albee, choreographer Twyla Tharp — and he’s worked steadily at dozens of leading resident theater companies, including the Guthrie, the Mark Taper Forum and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.

But four years ago, Arnone flew to Dallas for the funeral of a friend, Happy Yancey, the longtime costume designer for the Undermain Theater. That experience started him thinking about where he was in his own life and career. He contacted SMU and the Dallas Theater Center, the places where he first learned about the stage.

Arnone: “I thought, ‘You had better take this seriously.’ The Theater Center had given me so much, SMU had given me so much, that I wanted to give back. And within two weeks, they’d all offered me jobs.”

Nowadays, Arnone returns to Dallas to design sets for both SMU and the Theater Center — he’s working on the set for Dividing the Estate, the Theater Center’s contribution to next month’s Horton Foote Festival. But it’s the Undermain that may have benefited most from his presence here. His creative work in such shows as The Black Monk and Port Twilight has elevated the sophistication and impact of the Deep Ellum theater. It’s extremely rare for a company the size of the Undermain to have a designer of Arnone’s caliber who’s become, more or less, their house designer: Having crafted all four shows the past year (including Endgame and The Dog Problem), he’s working on August Strindberg’s rarely seen Easter, which the Undermain opens in April.

Ian Sinclair and Bruce Dubose in Port Twilight at the Undermain

Kelly: “The Undermain Theatre was almost waiting for John because their work is so out of the realist tradition of the American theater.”

Katherine Owens is the Undermain’s artistic director.

Owens: “We knew that we needed to make a jump forward in the areas of design, and I think we were ready for it — and he’s a brilliant, brilliant artist.”

At SMU, Arnone works with graduate students on the stage productions. He says, it’s not so much the history of theater that he tries to teach his students. It’s the future of an art that’s facing daunting changes in technology, employment and non-profit funding.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at SMU. Photo: Linda Blase

Arnone: “It seems to take them by surprise at first, but the one thing I try and tell them is that the theater that I have worked in for the past 30 years is not the theater that they’re inheriting. They have to make it new for themselves, and just as we started off in New York [with the Lion Theatre Company], it’s their responsibility for creating a theater that they will inherit and that they will work in.”

John Arnone on the hazards and limits of realism — using Edward Albee’s private art collection to decorate the set of his play, The Goat:

How the internet has influenced props and set decoration:

What the Dallas Theater Center meant to him as a teenager and the DTC production that changed his life:

On making realism look gorgeous — by faking it with Saran Wrap: