Harland Wright was the scenic designer at T3 for many years until he retired around 2008. A tall, quiet, mirthful man with a film career as an art director and production designer. He did the Benji movies! He also traveled a lot. His house was the coolest kind of museum bursting at the seams with all manner of stuff he had collected from around the world. He’s been on my mind lately, because of the nature (no pun intended) of the set for The Butterfly’s Evil Spell.
Creating a world filled with giant flowers, prickly pears and Taco Palenque cups requires a healthy amount of resourcefulness and ingenuity. As I was glueing a couple hundred plates to PVC for a giant live oak branch, I kept thinking about the subtle ways Harland mentored me. I began assisting Harland around 1999/2000 as way to supplement my acting income, like so many of us. At that point, he was in his late 60’s and early 70s. His partner had passed away and Harland needed help keeping up with set construction at the theater. Little did I know at the time that scenic design would become a facet of this business that I love just as much as acting or directing.
Now, when I say Harland mentored me that’s not to say there was ever any formal agreement between us. There was no application process or commencement ceremony. I guess that’s how many mentorships happen. It was all on me to learn by watching, asking, doing and doing again if I received criticism. Not once did Harland say “Now, watch what I’m doing, cause it will come in handy one day.” Also, I thought I knew everything and had way too much ego to admit when I didn’t. I was super observant though, even when I didn’t want to cop to not knowing something. It’s a miracle I learned anything, but damn Harland was inspirational. His renderings were exquisite, all by hand of course. His ability to turn a common everyday item into a beautifully ornate set piece was astonishing. A prismatic wall made of clear plastic corsage boxes comes to mind.
I have adopted his penchant for keeping cans and boxes filled with odds and ends that he might use to create a prop or set piece. His go to receptacle was powdered Slim Fast cans. In fact, I still have many of his cans from which I pull a drawer knob, random chandelier pendant or a scoop of silver glitter he had collected over the years. At the time, I just thought it was a cool way of designing. Finances being what they are , we have to squeeze every cent out of each dollar. The skill of turning nothing into a grand something like a giant live oak branch is worth its weight in Slim Fast cans filled with ball bearings. Yes, I have a can of those.
If you’re young and/or new to the business and want my advice. But if you’re like me at all you probably don’t want my advice. But, in case you do here it is. Whether it’s an internship, apprenticeship or just overhire work, absorb everything you can. Some people just aren’t good teachers or the think what they know isn’t valuable. They won’t actively teach you. But if you find someone who is good at what they do, follow them, imitate them, pepper them with questions. What you learn will help you sustain a long career in any business you choose. Harland changed how I view even the humblest of items. To bring it back around The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. To see a piece of trash metamorphose into a beautiful set piece is still a thrill for me. Oh, and the man also loved his cafeterias. So many fond memories of Luby’s lunches!