Theater designer David Gallo was 10 when Star Wars was released.
“I loved the idea of creating worlds, other places,” he says. “Star Wars crystallized it for me — the creation of an alternate universe.”
Gallo grew up in Long Island, where his interest in theater blossomed. He tried college, but professional opportunities came quickly. In 2000, at 34, he earned an Obie Award for sustained excellence in set design.
Today, Gallo, 44, is everywhere — from Yo Gabba Gabba Live and Spongebob Squarepants to Broadway musicals in the U.S. and around the world. His realistic designs for several August Wilson plays earned Tony nominations, and his whimsical set for The Drowsy Chaperone was a 2006 Tony winner.
So what brings him to Cincinnati? “The Playhouse in the Park is unquestionably my favorite regional theater,” Gallo says.
He’s designed High, the theater’s 2010 season opener. It’s his eighth design for the Playhouse, his third this year. Last January’s The Fall of Heaven by Walter Mosley put a surreal vision of Harlem on the Marx stage, while April’s The History of Invulnerability, about Superman’s creator, covered the intimate Shelterhouse with evocative, pulpy 1940s comic-book images.
Gallo first came to the Playhouse in 1997 for a Shelterhouse production of a script by his friend Keith Glover. “I don’t do much regional theater,” he says. “We all just clicked on In Walks Ed — it was one of those amazing things.”
His below-street Harlem bar — “a very, very big show in that little tiny theater” — drew audiences into the action.
Six of his designs have been for the Marx, including the musicals Sweeney Todd and Company, but he’s not a fan of the facility. In a 2003 interview in American Theatre he said, “The greatest regional theater in the country has the worst space: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.”
He tells me, “There are a lot of unnecessary obstructions from when it was built (in the 1960s). I’m very satisfied with the designs I’ve done here, but every time I come up with ideas I find that the theater bites back.”
Nonetheless, his admiration for Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern and the Playhouse staff brings Gallo back regularly.
“We have similar approaches to theater,” he says. “I feel like I’ve come home when I’m here. There’s a lot of ‘can’t do’ attitude at other theaters — you don’t get that here.”
Gallo typically reads a script, then thinks and visualizes before a conversation with the director. Matthew Lombardo’s High needed to be designed for three theaters: Hartford, Conn., and Cincinnati, then on to St. Louis and perhaps Broadway in 2011.
[Go here for my review of High, which continues through Oct. 2.]
“The characters are trapped in their conditions,” he observes. High is the story of a tough nun, a counselor in a rehab facility, struggling with a 19-year-old heroin addict who seems way beyond recovery.
“Everyone is contained, but there’s an underlying yearning to be free, to be high, to be out in space,” Gallo says. “The trick was to set the show in a confined box but also to be completely open in the universe.”
He devised several stark white walls that emerge from total darkness and often compress the action; behind them is a massive star field, an immense back wall powered by a tangle of backstage fiber-optic cabling. The design metaphorically supports the story.
And Gallo is back among the stars, devising another alternate universe, transporting audiences to a different world for a few hours. It’s a remarkable gift to Cincinnati theatergoers this month.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]