Steven C. Kemp is a scenic designer. He holds a BFA in Theatre as well as an MFA in Theatre with emphasis in scenic design. “A stage designer is, in a very real sense, a jack of all trades.” Robert Edmond Jones. This is true of Steven. In talking to him over the phone, he is passionate about his work and very knowledgeable about his career. After seeing his incredible set for “Philip Goes Forth” at the Mint Theater, I knew he was a designer to look out for. Here’s a glimpse into the life of scenic designer, Steven Kemp.
The Playbill Collector (TPC): What got you into designing for theater specifically?
Steven Kemp (SK): I really got hooked in high school. We did “West Side Story” and during that production I started building scenery. I was always interested in art and found I could draw way better than I could play most sports. My teachers had me start doing the show posters for our productions. I had been making models since I was little–my dad and I would make historical dioramas after family vacations to battlefields and museums. When I became aware of this career that combined these skills, my interest in architecture, graphic design and theatre, the deal was sealed.
TPC: Tell me about your college experience.
SK: My BFA is from Sam Houston State University. I got a fantastic hands-on education there with tons of production experience. I have had a long string of incredibly inspirational teachers and my design faculty had recommended I look at UC San Diego for grad school and my search was over the second I set foot on campus for my interview and met the professors. It was just one of those moments when you know you are in the right place. The creative environment with my classmates, the faculty, and the staff of the La Jolla Playhouse, that share facilities with the school, was a perfect blend.
TPC: Were you able to work at La Jolla Playhouse while getting your graduate degree?
SK: Yes, I started assisting while I was in school and additionally got the opportunity to design for Michael Greif.
SK: Right after grad school I moved to New York. I was the associate designer on “Memphis” and the “Xanadu” national tour that I was heading here to continue in the studio. I always knew I wanted to move here one day.
TPC: How many years have you been in New York?
SK: Since the summer of 2008.
TPC: What were your first design projects in New York?
SK: I got the opportunity to jump right in designing “Dov and Ali” at Cherry Lane and “Wildflower” for Second Stage as well as 7 shows for the New School’s ‘”New Visions: Director’s Play Festival.”
TPC: How many projects do you work on at once?
SK: It varies but I try to keep a good balance of a handful of operas, plays and musicals that I am designing at the time with large scale associate design projects and sometimes events, concerts and other projects get mixed in there as well.
TPC: So you are based in New York. How much do you travel?
SK: I’ve been lucky to do a lot of Off-Broadway work and much of my associate work is here in NYC, so in general I haven’t had to travel as much as others who do more regional work. Although, I do a fair amount in California and was in Romania last year for a project, so I am certainly no stranger to planes.
TPC: Last week I saw “Philip Goes Forth” which you created a beautiful set for. Tell me, how did you arrive at these two looks?
SK: Jerry (director) wanted to hint at a contemporary feel through all the design elements which would also permeate the acting as well. We felt the story resonated well with the modern audience and although the story is rooted in 1931 we wanted to make a few items timeless that would subtly connect to our contemporary world while still being believable in 1931. The two locations also call for extreme contrast. Act one has an oppressive feeling for Philip and the rigorous colonial Georgian style seemed perfect to exemplify the old world family influence Philip is attempting to break out of. The symmetrical details from the style were inspired by Mount Pleasant in Philadelphia and the Colden and Powel rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We molded them together to create this austere windowless space. In order to connect to the modern world, we coupled this with the Le Corbusier furniture that in fact was designed in 1928 but still reads completely contemporary to our eyes. The second act is a bohemian boarding house filled with artists of all kinds. Bright colors and an explosion of patterns as well as Victorian plant life, rows of messy books and a wall of painted masterwork replicas all help to create this free-spirited environment. The global teal paint treatment is borrowing from contemporary trends and pushing the 1931 bohemian details a bit towards contemporary style. As a surround to the space and a consistent detail for both sets, we framed the space with lush theatrical red curtains that came from the idea of the desire all the characters slowly reveal for the allure of a life in the theatre.
TPC: Now that you have finished “Philip Goes Forth” what are working on now?
SK: Once previews began I flew to San Jose to tech the opera of “Falstaff” at Opera San Jose. Upon returning I opened “Carcass” for New Worlds Theatre Project at HERE Arts and started previews for “The Film Society” for Keen Company at Theatre Row. I’m also working on the opera “Streetcar Named Desire” for Opera Grand Rapids and have a few other projects early in the design phase.
TPC: Wow, that’s impressive! Are you doing a Broadway show this season?
SK: Yes, I am the associate designer on “First Date” that opened this summer and I’m the associate designer on the revival of “Cabaret” at Studio 54 coming this spring.
TPC: In an ideal world, is there any show you would love to work on?
SK: Something that I’m not comfortable with. It’s fun to be thrown curve balls. I have always been partial to Moliere and farcical comedies. Classics are always interesting with the history that they bring to the table and I always jump at the chance to work on Shakespeare. Then again, “West Side Story” would be a blast to work on for nostalgia.
For more information on Steven, take a look at his website. You can still see “Philip Goes Forth” at the Mint Theater through October 27th. For more information take a look at these sites:
Steven’s website: http://www.stevenckemp.com/
Mint Theater: http://minttheater.org/currentproduction.php