For Set Designer Alexander Dodge '89, All the World's His Stage

Alexander Dodge’s career has led him to some of the most storied theaters in the world, where his set and costume designs for musicals, plays, opera, and dance have earned him numerous awards. His work was recently showcased on Broadway with the Tony Award-winning musical, Anastasia, and he is currently represented at the Metropolitan Opera in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila.

By Wendy Carlson

On a wintry afternoon in Hartford, CT, Alexander Dodge is fast-walking from one theater to another, hands plunged in his coat pockets to stay warm. He has just left the Hartford Stage, where he performed an eagle-eye check on the sleek, mid-century-modern apartment he designed for the theater’s production of The Engagement Party, and is now en route to Theaterworks, a small, alternative venue a few blocks away. Inside, he threads his the way down a warren of passageways onto an impossibly tiny stage, measuring about 12 by 16 feet. The production is The Doll’s House, Part Two, a twist on Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic. In this iteration, Nora returns to her husband and family after leaving them 15 years earlier. Dodge’s minimalist set: two chairs, a bare wooden floor, blank walls, a door, and panel moulding; all outlined with LED strips, feels as stark and cold as a Norwegian winter.

As always, it’s the challenge that excites Dodge, whether he’s designing on a monumental scale for an opera or a pared-down set for an off-Broadway play. His upcoming projects include three more productions at Hartford Stage, among them an adaptation of the 1984 film The Flamingo Kid, which calls for five full-size cars on the stage at the same time. Just talking about the logistics of fitting a 19-foot-long, 1959 pink Cadillac on stage seems to give him a certain frisson.

Dodge has come a long way from painting props backstage in Walker Auditorium, where he first became interested in set design. Born in Switzerland, he came from a family of designers. His great grandfather, Horace Dodge, was one of the two brothers who created the Dodge Company, which was sold to Chrysler in the 1920s. And, his grandfather, Horace Elgin Dodge Jr., designed boats, water cars, and World War II military crafts.

He spent his childhood at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West, in the desert of Scottsdale, AZ, where his father, architect David Elgin Dodge, Class of 1948, worked with Wright and taught architecture students at Taliesin. Growing up surrounded by great design and architecture had a strong impact on his career path. As a boy, he wanted to be an architect like his father. But his parents also took him to the theatre, ballet, and the opera, and he developed a passion for the performing arts. It wasn’t until his senior year at Hotchkiss that the two interests merged. He tried his hand at performing, but soon realized he suffered from stage fright.

“Standing up in front of people and speaking is something that just doesn’t come second nature to me,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be part of the process, but didn’t want to be on stage.”

One day during the spring of his senior year, he was painting scenery for the musical The Boyfriend when it dawned on him that set design might be his niche. By that time, he had already been accepted to Bennington College, where he planned to study drama. Fortunately, Bennington had a strong set design program and opportunities for him to intern at theatres.

After graduating, he worked for three years assisting set designers in New York, then went on to earn an M.F.A. in design at Yale School of Drama, where he studied under worldrenown theatrical set designer Ming Cho Lee, an experience he likened to boot camp — brutal, but ultimately worth it.

His Bennington connections helped launch his career, which flourished at the Hartford Stage. There, he developed a working relationship with artistic director Darko Tresnjak, with whom he has collaborated on many productions, including Anastasia, which debuted in Hartford in May 2016.

He hasn’t stopped designing since, often juggling several productions at once. Last year, he was away from home about 100 days out of the entire year — a hazard of the job he’s become accutely aware of since he and his husband, Charles Stewart, an investment advisor, have two young sons, Nicholas, 5, and George, 2. This year, Dodge will take Nicholas to see Anastasia for his first Broadway experience. Sometimes, the kids visit him on set, where they tend to be more fascinated by the mechanics than the artistry. The Hartford Stage is a thrust stage that can sometimes have a revolve, and “Nicholas loves to sit on the turntable and ride it around,” says Dodge.

When he’s not dashing from set to set, he is working in his light-filled office in the garment district of Manhattan, where the whole process begins. For Dodge, set design is essentially architecture for the stage. He reviews the script; brainstorms with the artistic director; and gathers images to inform his design. He creates scale models, both real and virtual, and he draws up a color palette and a prop list so detailed that it might include directions for the arrangement of leftovers on a plate for a dinner scene.

Off-site, Dodge oversees the construction and installation of the set. One production might have dozens of different set changes — some major, others subtle. “Anastasia, for example, had 33 different scenic locations,” he says. “Though that may seem like a lot, I have worked on productions with more than that. In cases where there are many scenes and locations, the design needs to be simple. Just a suggestion is often enough. Sometimes, it’s about the emotional landscape, about supporting the story, and not getting in the way of it.”

While he has designed sets for other operas, Samson et Delilah was his first project for the Met. “It was mind-blowing, a bucket list type of thing for a designer,” he says. Dodge worked with director Tresnjak and costume designer Linda Cho. The trio have collaborated on dozens of shows over the past two decades, including the smash Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which earned Tony Awards for Tresnjak and Cho and a nomination for Dodge.

The Met also has such an epic quality, says Dodge, who designed a towering, sparkling, multi-story structure for the last-act Temple of Dagon scene, where the hero crushes his Philistine enemies. And, while Broadway productions often debut at smaller theatres, the Met’s final dress rehearsal is in front of thousands of viewers. Everything has to be flawless. As if that isn’t stressful enough, following the premiere, Dodge must take the stage and bow with the rest of the cast and creative team. That can be plenty nerve-racking for someone with stage fright. Says Dodge: “I just had to take a really deep breath before walking out there.”

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