John Coyne designs in our own Wyly Theatre

September 16, 2010

John Coyne, the director of design in our US office, is the scenic designer for the Dallas Theater Center's production of Henry IV. The production will take place in the Potter Rose Performance Hall at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, a performance space designed by Theatre Projects where John was our lead designer. The show runs from September 10-October 10, 2010.

Read more about John's experience designing in a theatre he designed below.

Setting the Stage

by Elizabeth Dimmette

It could be said that John Coyne has been designing this set for twelve years. The way he is able to blend the audience into the world of the performance is something he has explored not only for Henry IV but also throughout his career with Dallas Theater Center. It was an idea born in The Arts District Theater, aka The Barn, DTC's previous building that stood for 21 years on the site of the Winspear Opera House.

When Coyne was introduced to The Barn for the first of what would become many DTC projects, the idea of surprising flexibility within a single theater had already become a signature aspect of DTC programming. The Barn was conceived as both a temporary space and a response to the artistic restrictions of the Kalita Humphries Theater, DTC's original home in Turtle Creek. For set designers, it was the ultimate blank slate. For Dallas, it created seasons of programming with exciting surprises in store the moment you entered the door. By the time Coyne arrived however, rising costs had enforced substantial restrictions. The once infinite stage configurations had frozen into a fixed seating arrangement. This idea had been briefly realized however and although unsustainable, it remained a core aspect of DTC ideals. With demolition already on the horizon, the question then was how to develop a viable theater building that could realize such limitless variety within realistic production budgets.

It was for Coyne's second production, a realistic period piece for Front Page (2001-02) that Richard Hamburger, DTC's previous Artistic Director, next tapped into and then realized the breadth and depth of Coyne's architectural experience. As a licensed architect who previously worked on large projects for firms such as Holabird & Root, Coyne's knowledge on the subject was substantial. Their discussions often turned from the production at hand to either reflecting upon The Barn's days of infinite possibility or looking ahead to ideas for DTC's new home, the programming for which was already underway.

Perhaps it was merely an appreciation for Coyne's versatility on the subject, perhaps he desired a project insider who was committed to DTC ideals or perhaps he presciently placed Coyne at a crucial crossroads, but it was Hamburger who suggested to both Theatre Projects Consultants and Coyne that he join the team and consult on what would become the new Charles T. Wyly Theatre. It proved to be sage advice. While Coyne continued to design for DTC productions, he was now also a theater designer, later to become a Principal, for the consultants leading Dallas through planning, design and construction. Deepening his intimacy with DTC, he became a steadfast representative for DTC's original concepts at many critical junctures throughout the design process. Theater Projects was also designing the new Dallas opera house to be constructed on the site of The Barn. While Coyne was not on that TPC team, he was familiar with all of the Arts District projects. And it was Coyne's My Fair Lady (2004-05) that last graced the stage before The Barn was demolished to make way for the Winspear. Deciding to set the entire play inside an opera house, it was not only an intriguing setting for the musical but also a final variation of seating arrangements constructed in the space, a foreshadowing of things to come and a fitting parting gesture from The Barn by Hamburger and Coyne.

Fast forward now to the opening of the Wyly Theatre: DTC not only has one of the coolest theatrical gadgets in the nation but also a new Artistic Director, Kevin Moriarty. During the many openings and galas celebrating the completion of this intense project and the beginning of a new era, Moriarty is introduced to the patrons, architects and theater designers, such as Coyne, who were involved. Having entered into the process during its final stages, Moriarty took advantage of the moment to learn as much as he could about what potential lay under the Wyly's hood and how best to exploit it. He discovered a willing and knowledgeable accomplice in Coyne. A quick conversation turned into a bit of brainstorming and soon they had made a mental test drive of the theater's many possibilities.

Kicking off DTC's 51st season, Coyne returns for his ninth production for the company after also working for almost seven years as theater designer of the Charles T. Wyly Theater. And, as Moriarty requested, he has pushed the building's creative abilities. "In a way, I knew too much about the building," said Coyne. "The limitlessness of the space was a bit daunting. [Moriarty and I] knew from the beginning we wanted to do something that had not been thought of before, but knowing what I know, to the extent that I know this building and the process, that directive was somewhat intimidating. And that's when I turned to the play and conversations with the director. In other words, I had to begin fresh-as a set designer, not a theater designer. I had to begin like I always do."

The performance space for Henry IV literally merges the audience into the performance space. It is an unconventional interpretation of a theater-in-the-round using the Wyly's architectural components in a heretofore unimagined configuration. But most importantly, it is an exciting realization of DTC's ideals. Once again, as during the glory days of The Barn, the drama begins the minute you walk in the door.

John Coyne designs in our own Wyly Theatre
Credit: Christine Simmons Portraiture