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Theatre set secrets: Beowulf Boritt on his three Broadway shows this fall

The set designer is a Tony Award winner and five-time nominee.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Good things are said to come in threes, and by that metric Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt is having a brilliant fall. He’s created the visual worlds for a trio of Broadway productions – The Piano Lesson, Ohio State Murders, and Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool.

Boritt is coming off a 2021-22 theatre season that earned him two Tony nominations (of a career-total five), for Flying Over Sunset and POTUS. As if all his Broadway productions didn't keep him busy enough, Boritt has also founded a grant project for early-career designers called the 1/52nd Project, which just announced its first round of recipients; and published a new book, Transforming Space Over Time. In it he reflects on the dynamics of doing his work – from concept to completion – on six productions including Act One (for which he won the Tony) and Meteor Shower.

“Whether the show I’m working on has an international star or an actor making their debut,” he said, “my job is about creating an environment that can put that person forward.”

His fall roster includes three starry shows, all different in style and genre. Below, Boritt pulls back the curtain on the shows he’s designed for Broadway this fall, sharing exclusive details of how he created their sets.

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The Piano Lesson

The story: At the home of Doaker Charles (Samuel L. Jackson) in 1936 Pittsburgh, the past bleeds into the present. His niece and nephew Berniece (Danielle Brooks) and Boy Willie (John David Washington) spar over the fate of an heirloom piano decorated with carvings of enslaved family members. August Wilson’s Pulitzer winner is at the Barrymore Theatre.

The design concept: “A creepy dollhouse,” said Boritt, adding that director LaTanya Richardson Jackson spoke early about The Piano Lesson being a ghost story.

The set secret: The ornate piano is inspired by a Makonde sculpture of a tree of life in the Jackson home. “I went out to L.A. and I saw the piece,” Boritt said. He took countless pictures of close-up details, and 3D printing helped bring the instrument to life. “There’s a level of detail you almost never get on stage, but it's so key to the story – it’s the title.”

Get The Piano Lesson tickets now.

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Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool

The story: Birbiglia, the comedian and storyteller whose other shows include Sleepwalk with Me and The New One, explores middle-aged health, mortality, swimming, and more in his latest solo show at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The design concept: An abstract take on a YMCA pool.

The set secret: “We had done an initial design where there was literally a swimming pool on stage. The show was going to start with Mike doing laps,” said Boritt.

Before The Old Man and the Pool’s world premiere in Los Angeles earlier this year, the team, including director Seth Barrish, decided on a different idea. A 16-foot tall curved slice of graph paper forged from steel, aluminum, and plywood is “meant to represent a pool or a wave,” says Boritt. “It looks very delicate, but it’s carefully engineered.”

Boritt is no stranger to designing water-related sets: His River Seine-inspired set for Thérèse Raquin, starring Keira Knightley, earned him a Tony nomination.

Get Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool tickets now.

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Ohio State Murders

The story: Acclaimed writer Suzanne Alexander (Audra McDonald) returns to her alma mater and reveals the unsettling truth about what happened to her there when she was a student. Adrienne Kennedy makes her Broadway playwriting debut with the show at the James Earl Jones Theatre.

The design concept: An abstracted Ohio State law library.

The set secret: The bookcases are filled with actual law books. “You can buy books by the yard and use them decoratively,” Boritt said. “I was not aware that was true of law books until we started doing this.” The books have been secured so they don’t fall on the six-time Tony-winning star.

The design for the production, directed by Kenny Leon, underscores an explosive revelation (no spoilers) in the play first seen off Broadway in 1992.

Get Ohio State Murders tickets now.

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Photos courtesy of Beowulf Boritt

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