Brian Bembridge

I watched theatrical designer Brian Sidney Bembridge at work during tech week at Writers’ Theatre as he finalized the lighting for The Duchess of Malfi. Even from afar, he was someone you couldn’t help liking -- relaxed (even in the crucible of tech), friendly, positive, focused, professional. Only after I asked him for an interview did I discover that he is already the darling of the Chicago theatrical press, more written-about than many well-known Chicago actors.

That’s partly due to his productivity (last year he designed the sets and/or lights for 30 shows). And to the quality of his work, of course: he’s won four Jeffs, three After Dark Awards, an L.A. Weekly Award and top mentions in Time Out Chicago and New City. He’s also a conscientious self-promoter, who makes room in his already-packed schedule for people like me. And it can’t hurt that he’s someone you can really enjoy spending two hours with over a cup of coffee at a Greek Town café.

Here are six things I learned about Bembridge in the course of our markedly non-linear conversation:

One: He works really, really hard.

Bembridge designed thirty shows in the last year, which averages out to one every 10 days or so. That includes conceptualizing, communicating with the director and design team, building models, drafting floor plans and elevations, supervising construction, revising designs, and tech week. It doesn’t seem possible.

He told me a story that sheds some light on how he defies arithmetic.

“I went to L.A. to do a show with John Langs, who is one of my closest friends and favorite collaborators. He had just started a company and was working in a teeny space. There’s no money. So I got paid by designing his aunt and uncle’s house out there. I would be in the theatre all night long painting the set, which was a very painted collage. And then in the day I’d drive out to Studio City and work on their house. I faux-finished the walls, the bathroom, picked out fabrics. And then I’d go back, watch the rehearsal, and then paint in the theatre all night. It was insane, but I had the best time.”

Two: Like a good Chicagoan, he makes no little plans.

Bembridge’s first show in Chicago was A Cry of Players in the early days at TimeLine Theatre. The show was being played in the round, and the theatre only had 12 dimmers. “I said, ‘I cannot light this show with 12 dimmers. Forget about it.’ So Pat Tiedemann, who was a TimeLine ensemble member, put another 12 dimmers on her credit card. So then I had 24 dimmers.” And Bembridge was embarked on one of the most fruitful of his collaborations. (I count 11 TimeLine productions on his resume.)

Another time he was designing the sets for a production of Man of La Mancha at Hope Center Repertory Theatre in Holland, Michigan. “I got in some trouble over there. The model just didn’t look that big, but there was this huge cat walk, huge stair case, real chains lifted it. It was the hugest thing they ever built. It all got approved. But when the producing director saw how much scenery there was, she flipped out because they run in repertory, which means the set has to go in and out for each show. ” Here he bursts out with the prolonged laughter that tends to accompany his screw-up stories. “But we made it work.”

And then there was The Old Curiosity Shop at Lookingglass. “Lookingglass is an ensemble that will always push themselves to make a design element work. So for Curiosity Shop I designed this big, round hill. I was very nervous about it, especially since some of the actors hadn’t worked with us before. So I send out a 911, 911 to everyone just to make sure before we go forward, because once it’s built, it’s built. So everything goes fine. One day, I’m in the area and I peek in on a matinee and Martha Lavey was there at the intermission, and she said, ‘I was very mad at you, Brian.’ She was so nervous for the safety of the actors!” Bembridge breaks into another of those big laughs reserved for when the joke’s on him. “Then one of the actors tripped coming up the staircase.”

Three: He’s appreciative.

Bembridge talks a lot about the people who have supported him, starting with his parents. “I was on stage my whole childhood -- community theatre, summer stock. My mom started a community theatre. I took ballet and jazz. Quit that in 6th grade, played football and baseball. My parents were supportive of whatever I did. The older I got the more I went to the design side of theatre. My room was always something new. I did a Mexican theme, I did this whole New York city skyline black and white, traced my friends’ shadows on the walls. I ripped up the carpet. I’m surprised my parents didn’t kill me. But they didn’t.”

He tells me about the Technical Director who could see that Bembridge wasn’t really satisfied with the way a set was working out and went out of his way to find out why, even though it would mean more work for him and his crew. “That was amazing.” He relates how Artistic Director Martha Lavey called him personally to offer him his first job at Steppenwolf, instead of letting a staff member do it as would be typical at a such major company. “She’s someone I really respect and really admire.”

Four: He’s concrete, low-tech, hands-on.

Some designers work mostly on the computer. Not Bembridge. “Usually I work with models first. Some people start with renderings [drawings]. I don’t render much. I go right to model and play with shapes so we can pull things apart, cut things, so the director can see spatial relationships. I use foam core, wood, balsa, parts of things I find, illustration board, all different materials.” When it’s time to draw plans, he puts drawing pencil to paper, even though drafting software has been around for years. Only once he’s done drafting by hand do his designs get put into electronic form. By an assistant.

That also means that Bembridge likes to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. “I always like to touch something. With smaller companies I do a lot more touching. -- whether it’s painting, or propping, or finishing things, or purchasing. I’m awful with receipts so buying kills me in the end usually. But I just like to do things myself. At Noble Fool, there were these cut- outs of kids. I said you cut them out, I’ll paint them.”

Five: He likes abstract, non-literal theatre.

Bembridge may be a concrete hands-on worker, but as an artist he gravitates towards the abstract. “There is a place for the realistic in theatre, and I will be doing a few of those shows this year -- you know, dead-on, perfect interiors. But that’s not really my flair. I think you want to challenge the audience. It’s cool when you do something that’s out-there and they get it. My favorite thing is when someone comes in to the theatre and says, “Oh, I’ve never seen a space like that.” Of course it has to meet the needs of the play and help tell the story.

“The show that really changed me was Carousel in the studio space at Lincoln Center a number of years back. That same day I’d seen Sunset Boulevard, which used amazing automation; they rebuilt the theatre, a huge house flies in, everything realistic, what I call ‘frou frou’ up the wazoo. Carousel did use some automation too: this big umbrella-like thing came down and opened up, and there was a turntable. But the set was simply a big blue box. The horses just got pushed out, these brightly colored, neon horses, and spun around. And the town was pulled out by actors. And it all made simple, beautiful, elegant pictures. That’s good theatre to me. You make a world, a director knows how to use that world and the actors trust the world.

“Sometimes I get mad -- I’ve been very fortunate with the Jeffs, so I shouldn’t say this -- but I wish the abstract work was rewarded more. It’s actually easier to put up a big realistic house or a big garden -- I mean, those are challenges, don’t get me wrong -- but I always think it’s more challenging to put something abstract up there and make it work.”

Six: He connects.

Bembridge is good at making personal connections. His first job in Chicago was at Anthropologie at Rush and Division, where he started doing displays. “The guy who worked in the back was P.J. Powers who had just graduated from school. We started to hang out a little bit. He said, ‘I’m starting this theatre company. We already have a set designer, but let’s keep in touch.’” About a year and half later -- after a sojourn into the movie business in North Carolina -- Bembridge got his first design job in Chicago. It was for P.J. Powers at TimeLine.

That was lucky. Other connections were the fruit of hard work and moxie. “I did a show in L.A. with my friend John Langs. An actress friend of mine had the same manager as David Schwimmer, so I sent a letter to her manager for David saying, ‘I really want to work for your company in Chicago. Would you come check out my work in L.A.?’ A day after I got back to Chicago, I was at Lookingglass just helping paint and doing some last minute stuff in the theatre. So I’m in this dark theatre stapling carpet to the floor or something and all the sudden everyone is whispering, “David Schwimmer.” I hadn’t met him at the time. But I went over and said, ‘Hey David, I’m Brian Bembridge. I just sent stuff to your manager, we just opened the show, I’d really like you to come see my work, because this is a place I really want to work.’ He was very cordial, ‘Nice to meet you, I’ll try my best.’ He was very sweet. I don’t think he ever saw my show in L.A.. But then Lookingglass called me for the next show.”

Bembridge connects with his audience, too. He talks about some of the work he’s been doing recently as “environmental -- with the environment surrounding the audience so they’re in the middle of it.” For instance, his original concept for an upcoming production of Inherit the Wind at Northlight Theatre involved “a big yellow line going down the stage, around, up into the house, over the seats, all the way to the end of the theatre.” And his use of inexpensive furniture from familiar retailers has become something of a signature. “People joke about Target and IKEA, that I always have to have stuff from those places in my sets. It’s cheap. But I also love taking modern things, things you see, things you recognize without maybe realizing it, and putting them into a play. I think it’s some sort of odd connection you might not even understand. Things that are familiar actually help you connect with the story.”

It works. After Love Song closed recently at Steppenwolf, Bembridge heard from the prop mistress. She said, “I have to tell you. There have been about 10 people that have called because they wanted to know where we got all the stuff in the apartment.” A lot of that stuff, it turns out, came from Bembridge’s own home, including some of his art work, his partner’s photographs, and, he adds, “a basket of corks that are my history from college to getting married to getting divorced.” He adds, “People feel comfortable in our home.” From which you can conclude that he’s a good host. And his audiences feel it.

Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since. She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age

More information about Bembridge's work can be found at