Artistic Director Rob Melrose and Director of Design Michael Locher on the passing of Ming Cho Lee
We at the Alley mourn the loss of legendary designer and teacher Ming Cho Lee. Ming designed the set for the Alley’s 2007 production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. He touched so many lives at the Alley. For me and for our Director of Design Michael Locher, studying with Ming at the Yale School of Drama was a life-changing experience. He made me see theater, design, and plays in a whole new way. Before studying with Ming, I thought of design as decorative, a way of adding beauty and style to something that was already more or less complete. Ming taught me how design is an essential part of the storytelling and the dramaturgy of any given project. From then on, I put a tremendous value on the design process and on the designers who were my partners in conceiving the approach to a production. It shapes the way I create theater to this day and is one of the reasons I created the Director of Design Position and brought Michael to the Alley. Of course, the contact I had with Ming is nothing compared to Michael’s experiences and I invite him to share his reflections here. From Michael Locher:
“Ming Cho Lee is responsible for a lot of memorable lessons about stage design. (More than a few are funny: ‘When in doubt, design a row of doors, put some furniture in front. Works for every show.’) The most essential was a sense of responsibility. On one hand, the lesson was a purely artistic: early-career designers, eager to prove themselves, predictably deliver wild, wondrous abstractions at every opportunity - Ming, of course, had seen it all. But he believed that designers bore a deep responsibility to understand and appreciate the source material, first and foremost. He'd squint, a pained look on his face, and implore, 'it's wonderful, fantastic, but what is this play about? Who are the people?' To Ming, the purest facet of the work wasn't devising the most beautiful stage picture: it was respecting and communicating the humanity encoded in the text. Speak to the human story being told and the design that arises - whether earnest and abstract - will succeed.
But Ming's lessons about responsibility transcended stage pictures. On my first day in his classroom (a rambling converted fraternity house which has been the Drama School's design building for generations), Ming - frequently referred to as the Dean of American Set Design - perched on a stool and proceeded to deliver an impromptu lecture about history, society, and the state of American politics. We all came to understand the purpose of these frequent sermons: just as Ming loathed the thought of stage design as a decorative gesture, he also taught us to resist the notion of the arts as a decorative sideshow to life. Ming believed that all art spoke to human condition, and he sought to groom citizen artists.
Finally, Ming was a devilishly charming man with a well-earned reputation for brutal honesty. But sometimes lost in stories of Ming's legendary acid wit (I still bear scars) are the many lessons he taught, through example, about personal grace. His most cherished responsibility was to his students, whom he quietly counseled and rescued from crisis after crisis with firm but unmistakable compassion. Once, completely discretely, he paid a struggling student's phone bills. His handshake and his broad smile were utterly genuine. His love of friendship and company, undeniable. When, after a long day of elbowing students through classwork, Ming would offer his memorable ‘bye, bye, bye’ and amble to the train station for the ride back to Manhattan, we missed him. Now, I miss him even more.”
In addition to these personal reflections of Michael’s and mine, it is important for those who didn’t know Ming to get a sense of his vast career. In addition to being a major force of American set design for half a century working at every major theater in the U.S., in his position as the head of the design department at Yale, he trained countless generations of set, costume, lighting, and sound designers as well as directors who now work all over the world. His influence is incalculable. He had a real gift for teaching and for reaching students at their very core. He was also a very good man with a delightful sense of humor. Spending time with him was magical. He will be greatly missed and he leaves behind legions of people who loved him.