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Faculty scenic designer sets the stage for Mythbusters, Stephen King

Todd Rosenthal, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman pose at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

What does hell look like? If you’re a scenic designer, like School of Communication associate professor Todd Rosenthal, this is the sort of question you tackle at your job.

Rosenthal, who won a Tony Award for his work on August: Osage County, has created unforgettable sets for theatres all over the world—everything from the prim living room in A Delicate Balance to a two-ton mountain of dirt and garbage that swallows the main character in Beckett’s Happy Days. (His vision of hell, for the record—designed for a Milwaukee Rep production of Eurydic—is a tiled boiler room with doors, clocks, and water pipes all askew.)

Recently, Rosenthal, who is the only American designer to ever receive the Laurence Olivier Award for best set design, was asked to go beyond the stage and design a museum exhibit for the Discovery Channel series MythBusters.

MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition, currently on view at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, includes a Running in the Rain display, where visitors sprint through drizzle in a 20-foot-long shipping container; a Dodge a Bullet exhibit; and tandem phone booths where visitors can attempt Clark-Kent-like wardrobe transformations.

“The learning curve for the museum work was surprisingly small,” said Rosenthal, who has also designed five productions for The Big Apple Circus, as well as a pirate-themed restaurant on the Vegas strip. “There were certain things we needed to learn about flow, but it was basically designing space. And we design space all the time.”

The exhibit was so successful that Rosenthal has been asked back to help spearhead an upcoming Sherlock Holmes exhibition. But this hasn’t meant he’s turned his back on his bread-and-butter theatre work. He recently completed the set for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, which was written by Stephen King, with music composed by John Mellencamp, and produced by T-Bone Burnett.

Rosenthal’s set is a spooky slice of a Southern town with swaths of Spanish moss, a spinning fireplace, and a car that emerges from stage right. He created the model in his Evanston studio, as he does with all of his projects, and the space is a design buff’s dream. The shelves are lined with scale models that hold entire worlds: Romeo and Juliet’s Verona (complete with balcony), Scrooge’s bedroom, a Salem meeting house, circa 1693.

Once a model is finished, Rosenthal and his design team will mail it to the show’s production department. Only later, after the set has been built, will Rosenthal visit in person. “There’ve been a few times when I’ve walked in and thought, Oh my God, what have I done?” he said. “There’s such a difference in scale.”

These days, however, he doesn’t have a lot of time to worry, since so much work is rolling in. His upcoming projects include the Sherlock Holmes exhibit, Broadway productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Who You See Here, As You Like It for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; productions of Roman Holiday (which will possibly transfer to Broadway), Nice Fish, and Born Yesterday at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater; Three Sisters at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre—as well as Ghost Brothers‘ likely jump to Broadway.

When Rosenthal and his design team get a new project, he explained, “We spend a lot of time talking to the director. We do a lot of research. And then as soon as possible we dive into the models.”

Often, he explained, their first ideas are not their best ones. Still, they push to get them out quickly. “Sometimes you have to do something,” he said, “because that first period of time when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper? That’s really stressful. You have deadlines. You’re not sure what to do. So we’ll put something together, just to have something to react to.

“It’s like I tell my students,” he said, “the only way you can get unstuck is to do something, anything. Just make the gesture and see if it works. The best ideas often come from the worst ideas.”

Mythbusters images courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry (photo with Rosenthal by JB Spector). Ghost Brothers of Darkland County images by Greg Mooney, courtesy of the Alliance Theater.