Chicago theater audiences know scenic designer Walt Spangler for his audacity: the automobiles, urinals and discotheques in the Goodman Theatre’s 2006 King Lear
, helmed by artistic director Robert Falls; the massive, fully functional cabin suspended by rope above the heads of Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino in Falls’s 2009 Desire Under the Elms
“In Chicago, the fact that most of the work that I do is at the Goodman and is on the [larger] Albert stage…those tend to be larger-scale visual things,” Spangler says on a recent afternoon in the Goodman’s VIP Lounge. “A whole lot of the work that I do in New York is at much smaller theaters. Those just don’t get as featured in the portfolio,” he says, laughing.
Spangler, a boyish 45, was based in New York and just a few years out of grad school at the Yale School of Drama when he first worked at the Goodman, on Falls’s production of Rebecca Gilman’s Blue Surge in 2001. “I have no idea why Bob called the first time,” Spangler says.
Falls says he had seen Spangler’s work on Harold Prince’s 3hree in L.A. “I was just deeply impressed with it,” the director says. “And a lot of it was Hal Prince recommending him.”
The designer reunited with Prince at the Goodman in 2002 for Hollywood Arms, which became Spangler’s Broadway debut. He’s also worked at the Goodman with directors Kate Whoriskey and Tommy Tune.
But it was Lear “that solidified my collaboration with Bob as a regular thing,” Spangler says. “It was also a milestone for both of us, that production. It’s definitely something people remember.”
Falls, Spangler says, is a director whose imagination is charged by the design process. “With another director I might censor myself, start assuming things that might limit what I would show that director. But with Bob I have no inhibition about what I show him. If he likes it, he instantly has ideas about how to use it,” Spangler says.
“He’s very strong at taking what I might pour out to him as realism and transferring that into a metaphoric world,” Falls says. “On Desire Under the Elms, he came in with something so strong on the first take that it needed little modification. I think we work very similarly in our methodology.”
The pair’s current project is another Shakespeare: Spangler’s setting for Measure for Measure references 1970s-era New York City. “Not that we want to literally place it there, but we want that to be our inspiration,” Spangler says. “The grandness of New York City standing in for Vienna, as it was written, which was standing in for the tawdry London of the times.”
Spangler divides his time between Chicago and New York, teaching two days a week as a faculty member at Northwestern. Audiences here now have opportunities to see his nonbombastic side, as in last year’s Time Stands Still at Steppenwolf.
“It was very detailed, about a very real apartment. I like doing that stuff. I think if I really, really liked it, I’d probably get into movies,” he says. “Since I’m doing live theater, I’m interested in stuff where there’s a reason why you’re doing it live—the experience of the audience sitting in the room with it.”
Now in previews, Measure for Measure opens Monday 18.
Selected images from Walt Spangler's Chicago scenic designs: