"Well, what do you want it to look like?" I ask.
He pauses and takes a drag on his cigarette.
His left hand hovers over the blank sheet.
Suddenly, the pencil dives, and a French desk appears on the page in short, sharp jerks.
"You know, sorta two-parted, I thought." He talks as he draws, "so we could possibly break it here in the center."
"With maybe loose pin hinges," I interject.
"Yes, so Michael could use the same piece in different configurations for different scenes."
"That's fabulous, Russell," I say.
Fabulous is Russell Metheny's favorite adjective and always the first word I use to describe him. The very first professional show that I worked on as the head of a properties department was The Shakespeare Theatre's production of Othello, a nasty little drama for which Russell designed the scenic elements. I forgot all my trepidations during our preliminary design meeting. Here was a designer with a sense of humor. His renderings and blueprints could be framed, they were so flawless. He kept cropping up in the scene shop, painting touch-ups and answering questions. He didn't shriek or panic when directorial changes came screaming down, and he didn't demand that we build faster. Most importantly, he continued pulling fabulous ideas from inside his curly head.
Russell arrived in Washington from Connecticut in 1971 to perform and design with the Smithsonian Puppet Theatre for four and one-half years. Next, he "moved on to live theatre," as he puts it, "with the New Playwrights when they were 'brand new.'" In 1979, he landed the head of design position at The Studio Theatre and remained there until 1985 when he quips, "the title changed to associate artistic director although the job stayed the same."
Currently, Russell Metheny is also heading the renovation of Studio's new space. He has been designing for The Shakespeare Theatre since 1981 and can list Wild Oats, Love Letters on Blue Paper, The Rivals, Henry V, The Tempest, King Lear, Othello and Twelfth Night as his scenic credits. In 1985 Russell had the honor of receiving the Helen Hayes Award for The Studio Theatre's production of Walk out of Water.
I think the minimalistic design with a unified look makes Russell the happiest, shows with sharp, clean, true lines. Every object that enters this atmosphere becomes extremely important and must fit tightly inside the look. Russell will create the perfect table or vanity or desk that clicks so snugly with the actors' clothes and business that the audience has no trouble imagining the entire room, and the running crew has equally no trouble storing the furniture backstage within the Theatre's fierce space restrictions. I have seen scenic designs of Russell's at the Studio that are completely realistic, right down to the doilies under the practical lamps and the china in the cabinet. This leads me to believe that Russell, in collaboration with the director and the other designers, invents an entire world for each show in his mind. Even with just a chaise lounge and a chair on stage Russell can see the tables, doors, windows, portraits, rugs and lighting fixtures that are not present, and it is that vision which shines through in his selection of the chair and chaise. So, sit back. Michael, Russell, Marty and Jim have evolved an environment together where the actors can travel, bringing you with them into their world.