Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design, by Arnold Aronson

July 18, 2017



Ming Cho Lee is not only one of the most important American designers of the twentieth century, but one of the most significant influences on American theatre. As a designer, he drew upon his training in Chinese watercolor, the aesthetics of his mentors, Jo Mielziner and Boris Aronson, and the post-war developments in German design to develop a new approach to stage design that radically altered American scenography. He broke new ground, combined existing motifs in startling new ways and continued to explore new ideas throughout his entire career. Lee introduced a sculptural style with soaring verticality that had been largely unknown to American stages. The painterly image was replaced with a decidedly modern and industrial scenic vocabulary that emphasized stage-as-stage.

Lee has designed more than 300 productions of theatre, opera and dance, beginning with his first student work, The Silver Whistle at Occidental College in 1952, through his last productions in 2005. Unlike his predecessors, Lee did not make his mark on Broadway. Rather, it was achieved through some forty productions with the New York Shakespeare Festival, including eleven seasons at the Delacorte Theater from its opening in 1962; thirteen productions for New York City Opera, beginning with its inaugural production at Lincoln Center; five mainstage productions for the Metropolitan Opera, including Boris Godunov, which stayed in the repertoire for more than thirty years; twenty-one productions for Arena Stage in Washington D.C., and numerous other productions at regional theatres including the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and Actors Theatre of Louisville; and ten pieces for the Joffrey Ballet, as well as productions for Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Elliot Feld, the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Called the dean of American set designers by the New York Times, Lee had an impact that goes well beyond his own work. As a teacher, including more than forty years at the Yale School of Drama, Lee shaped generations of theatre artists not only set designers, but costume and lighting designers, as well as directors, writers and dramaturgs. It is through these students that he helped transform not only American scenography but the larger aesthetics of American theatre.

For this richly detailed exploration of Lee’s work, theatre historian Arnold Aronson spent hundreds of hours interviewing Lee at his legendary New York apartment. The book is both a study of and a conversation with Ming Cho Lee. Each image selected for this book was chosen personally by Lee from thousands of photos, drawings, sketches, renderings and models, all carefully cataloged by Lee’s wife and lifelong archivist, Betsy. Lee’s work has been showcased at the New York Public Library and the Yale School of Architecture, and his honors include a Tony Award for best scenic design of a play, an Outer Critics Circle Award, three Drama Desk Awards, a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement and the National Medal of the Arts, the highest national award given in the arts, which is awarded by the president of the United States.


About the author (2014)

Arnold Aronson is Professor of Theatre at Columbia University and a theatre historian with specializations in scenography and avant-garde theatre. His classes include Theater History, History of Performance, Theory of Comedy, History of Design, and American Avant-Garde Theatre. Aronson served two terms as Chair of the Theatre Program at Columbia School of the Arts, 2008-12 and 1991-98. During his first term he worked with Professor and Director Andrei Serban to create the MFA Acting Program, he hired new faculty to enhance the directing program. and with Professor Austin Quigley established the PhD Program in Theatre.

Professor Aronson has a long association with the Prague Quadrennial of Stage Design and Theatre Architecture having served as President of the International Jury in 1991 and 1999, curator of the U.S. exhibit in 1995, General Commissioner in 2007, and editor of The Disappearing Stage: Reflections on 2011 Prague Quadrennial. He is currently Co-Editor of Theatre and Performance Design Journal (Routledge), and Editor of The Routledge Companion to Scenography (Routledge Press, forthcoming 2016.)

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