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Two (or Three, or Six) Designers Are Better Than One The Wingspace collective puts a new spin on design
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Pop quiz: What connects Ordinary Days, the new musical playing in the Roundabout’s Underground Series, and Or, the inventive new comedy from Women’s Project (pictured above)?

The answer is Wingspace, an ambitious collective of theatre artists that’s trying to change the way we think about design. The group includes designers of all stripes—costume, sound, lighting, and set—as well as other artists who are passionate about the way design works. Since forming in 2005, Wingspace has expanded at a remarkable rate, developing an extensive website, hosting regular public discussions, and even renting a permanent studio in Brooklyn.

Most importantly, the Wingspacers have been working. A lot. The group’s fifteen current members are continuously represented Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and regionally.

But do they need each other to thrive? Why create a design collective in the first place? On a recent Wednesday morning, several Wingspace members gathered around a conference table in their Brooklyn studio to discuss their mission.

“It was borne out of the idea that the best theatre work happens through collaboration,” says Lee Savage, a set designer who conceived the collective while studying at Yale School of Drama. “Everyone tosses the word ‘collaboration’ around, but personally, I felt like my best experiences came out of working in the same physical space as other designers.”

Outside of graduate school, however, designers rarely have colleagues on hand. “You spend so much time in front of your desk in your apartment, just working on your little thing,” says lighting designer Scott Bolman. “It’s hard to have a larger conversation.”

When they’re in their studio, whose open-air floor plan is crammed with work stations, art books, and cases of wine, Wingspacers have easy access to each other, and group feedback has undeniable impact. Take Savage, who’s designing the set for an upcoming regional production of Shakespeare’s Henry V:  When he got stuck on a detail, he simply turned to a fellow set designer. Together, they discussed whether a brick wall that’s just hanging in the air seems too insubstantial, like it’s made of Styrofoam. They decided it did, and Savage added additional elements to make the wall feel solidly connected to the rest of his set.

“Having to talk about your work like that is really valuable,” says lighting designer Miriam Nilofa Crowe. “It prevents you from making sloppy decisions. It’s very easy when you’re working in isolation just to do something because it’s expedient, and having to talk about it makes you accountable.”

But designers can’t just talk to each other. “I feel like a group of designers can be intimidating,” Savage says. “Design is a very powerful thing, and in the wrong hands, it can ruin a production. We need to make people aware that we’re not trying to take over the world with our designs.”

In order to reach other artists (as well as regular audience members), Wingspace hosts a series of salons. Free and open to the public, they are casual conversations with everyone from directors to playwrights to major professional designers. The hope is they’ll make laypeople feel more connected to design and give designers fresh perspective on how the rest of the world sees their work.

Plus, Wingspace has opened its ranks to non-designers like the director Dylan McCullough. “I’m a recovering intimidated-by-design director,” he says. “I primarily work Off-Off Broadway, where resources are very light, and I got used to not always having the advantages of a designer. The sense of community that Wingspace gives me is a huge advantage. I have other people to bounce ideas off of when we can’t afford a budget for a production, and I learn more about the design process in general.”

Susanna Gellert, also a director, adds, “I feel like these conversations make us something of an anachronism. As resources get more constrained, and as people have less time and less money to do the work, here we come, and we want to spend time. We try to say, ‘Slow down. Let’s actually talk.’ Of course, we all have jobs, and we all want to get them done as our employers require us to, but this place gives us the opportunity to sometimes work in a different way and pretend that resources aren’t as limited as they are.”

For more on Wingspace, visit www.wingspace.com

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor