January 27, 2004


an interview with
Johann Stegmeir


Salome costume 1

production - Salome
Salome's first costume


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I took a ride with Johann Stegmeir the other night. He was in Charlotte during rehearsals for Oedipus Rex at Childrenís Theatre. He's the production designer, doing both costumes and sets. We went to a fabric store to get a notion or two, and on the way we chatted about his career, his work on the current production of Oedipus, his collaborations with Alan Poindexter, and his approach to design.

You graduated from UNC-Charlotte in 1987. What happened next?

I went directly on to grad school at The University of Tennessee. I finished there in 1990. I came back to Charlotte because my mother was sick. She died, and I stayed in Charlotte for about two and a half years after that.

You moved to New York in 1993. Werenít you awarded a NEA grant?

Yes, it was a grant that enabled me to work with senior professional designers. It wasnít limited to any city or country. I worked with John Conklin and Jane Greenwood. I was very interested in working with John Conklin, because he has a very specific visual vocabulary for theatre, and a type of dramaturgical approach that I was always interested in. I worked with him in 1993, and later went on to do lots of projects with him. I designed costumes on projects for which he designed the scenery, that sort of thing.

How many shows have you done with Childrenís Theatre?

Thatís a good question. Letís think. There was Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, and Lilyís Purple Plastic Purse, The Canterville Ghost, The Crane Wife, this one. . . It would be safe to say Iíve done seven or eight, because there were shows I did only partial things for, because when Alan first started working there, he couldnít always choose who he worked with.

Whatís your history with Alan Poindexter?

We met in undergraduate school. We started at the same time. He was seeking a degree in acting, and I was there for design. He lived on campus. I might as well have, because I never left the design studio. That first semester, we became sort of simpatico. We had a bunch of those introduction classes together, that stuff you take when youíre starting school. Then he dropped out for a while, and he came to school to help me with a huge project. He did the all-nighters with me. Thatís really when we bonded. He didnít like not being in school. He missed this idea of the theatre.

I graduated, and he returned to school, and became interested in directing. His approach to theatre had become different, and had taken on the notion of dramaturgical study. While I was in grad school, he veered courses and started directing things at school, still acting too. Then he and George Brown started talking about starting a company. I finished school and came back to Charlotte, since my mother was sick. I had not planned on coming back. It was a really eventful time in my life. We started Innovative Theatre.

You taught at Winthrop University then, too, didnít you?

Yes, I was adjunct faculty for two semesters.

How long have you been working on the designs for this production of Oedipus?

We started talking about doing Oedipus last year. We always talk about the upcoming season, now that Alan is the artistic director at the Childrenís Theatre. Heíll suggest that I read a book by one of the authors that they plan to do a project with, for instance. My collaboration with Alan isnít only on projects that we do together. We talk about the shape and scope of the season that heís planning, whatís going on within the season, who heís pairing together, all sorts of things. Heís not asking for anyoneís approval, or asking what Iíd like to do with him. He has a keen idea of who heís going to have do what in the course of the season. In the case of any artist with whom you have a close creative relationship, you talk about all kinds of things. And if an event happens in the news just before a meeting about Oedipus, we may talk about it and find that it somehow leads back to what weíre working on. Itís just how these things go. Sometimes you find out more when you are talking about a current event than when you talk about the text. When the text is the subtext.

Letís talk about Oedipus Rex, the play. Is it overly simple to call it iconic?

It absolutely is iconic.

How do you express that in your design? Are there obvious choices there, and are they your choices?

The attribution of choice gets confused in a good design. In a good working relationship, you often forget who has asked for what and how certain choices come about. I can think I want to do it a certain way - Alan will say, have you thought of this - and the whole thing will flip flop. In the end, a good idea is a good idea, and it doesnít matter who came up with it. You arrive at the same point, the drawings get done, and the play gets cast. Then the design and the work that the director is doing with the actors start pulling on each other and creating interesting tensions. Sometimes adjustments are made, and sometimes they arenít. That depends on the piece.

As for this project, we both knew we didnít want people in clichťd Greek-looking things, but classical elements are clearly included in the production. So are some modern elements. The play itself involves a lot of ritual, which comes through in the base costumes that everyone is in. All the performers, except for Oedipus, wear a certain sort of costume. Thereís some wonderful stylized movement and vocal stylization that come through the text. It has this definite linear flow, and some great dramatic moments, and itís clearly about something bigger than the kitchen sink.

What do you think is different for you in designing for childrenís shows?

I donít know that I work any differently in designing childrenís shows than I do in designing grand opera. With whatever text Iím working on, I design a show that I would like to see. Luckily, I have varied interests. My design process doesnít change for children. It doesnít change for any audience Iím playing to. I never dumb things down.

A show thatís a success transcends age. As for the work we do at the Childrenís Theatre, the parents always like the shows as much as the children do. I find that you engage children in much the same way that you engage adults. I think of myself as the audience. I sit through it more than most people, and the same things that you do to theatrically entertain adults work for children. A hilarious costume is a hilarious costume, and a serious moment is a serious moment. You have age parameters, certainly, of 12 and older, or recommended for 3 year olds to 8 year olds, but thatís a really broad span. A great piece of theatre crosses age lines, gender lines, and ethnic lines. It not only entertains the audience - it enhances their lives.

You also do a lot of design for opera. Whatís the difference in designing a classic or classical piece?

People come to these things with a lot of baggage. In opera, people believe that theyíve already seen the definitive production. That usually means that they want something old-fashioned. Iím not the person you come to for that. Thatís not to say that I havenít done shows that were more traditional than not, but I never come to a project thinking that thereís a set way to do A Dollís House or la BohŤme. Thatís somebody elseís idea of how it should be. Say thereís a scene with a red dress. Sometimes, the red dress works. Sometimes, what youíre really thirsty for is a blue dress. When you see that blue dress, itís a moment of ecstasy.

What else are you currently working on?

Iím working on a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Andre Previn opera at the Washington Opera. Iím designing costumes for that. Michael Yergen is doing the sets.

Thanks for taking the time to talk.


~ Lydia Arnold
January 27, 2004

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