When Bob Phillips first worked as set designer for a Centenary Stage Company (CSC) production, he did it as a favor to Carl Wallnau.
Phillips met Centenary’s Artistic Director when Wallnau acted on several of Phillips’ sets, and agreed to come to Hackettstown for 2011’s Bad Dates in the inaugural season of the David and Carol Lackland Performing Arts Center, mostly out of respect for Wallnau’s abilities as a performer.
After seeing the quality of the production and cast, Phillips knew he wanted to continue working with CSC, beginning a fruitful association with the professional Actors’ Equity theater based at Centenary College.
Now, Phillips is capping a long and award-winning career with one last production before he retires, as Centenary Stage Company presents the highly anticipated New Jersey premiere of The Nether by Jennifer Haley. A gripping, futuristic crime drama that unfolds at the nexus of desire, technology, and morality, it runs October 9-25. Information and tickets are available at www.centenarystageco.org.
“My career has been really varied, and kind of wonderful,” says Phillips, a six-time Emmy winner for his television designs.
He started out designing sets for New York showcases, the low-budget productions that would run for two or three weeks as a platform for actors to gain experience and attention. He later moved on to serve as prop master for Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater and director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. “That was my graduate school,” Phillips says of his time with Papp. Work as art director on several soap operas in New York City followed.
In 1988, he took what was supposed to be a two-week job with Public Television’s Sesame Street. They liked his work and kept finding more for him to do, an association that lasted 26 years as Phillips rose to the position of Production Designer for the popular children’s show. Along the way, he revamped Oscar’s trash cans and Big Bird’s nest before updating the entire neighborhood.
A native of Worcester, MA, Phillips has bounced between television and stage work throughout the nation, but said he is “pretty much an East Coast guy.” He wraps up his career as resident designer with the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and principal designer with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, as well as his association with Centenary Stage Company, but he worked extensively in South Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and the New England states as well as the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
A mid-century modern home he bought a few years ago in Kingston, PA, which he shares with his husband David Lepore, is now his main base.
Other recent productions were Xanadu! – yes, the roller-skating disco comedy – at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, and PA Shakespeare Festival’s dark and majestic Henry V. “It’s just high camp,” Phillips said of Xanadu!, “but it was fun to go from that to Henry V.”
In a sense, his career came full circle this past summer, when he had to take up brushes and paint scenery for Xanadu! because “they were so behind schedule.”
On a recent visit to CSC – only three weeks until curtain up for The Nether – the stage is bare and Phillips is delivering his set drawings to CSC Technical Director Jeff Chase and Master Carpenter Andy Rodgers, the staffers who, along with a team of guest professional designers and projection artists, will lead a crew of students in realizing Phillips’ vision. Asked if he will need to take up a hammer or paintbrush again at the last minute – opening night seems so close at hand – Phillips said the set will be ready, no problem. “It’s theater magic,” he laughs.
A picture of easy-going efficiency, with close-cropped hair and a neat goatee, Phillips unfolds his sketches and discusses them with Chase and Rodgers.
“In terms of half-round, you could put this in as a small bead mold,” he says as he points to one drawing. “This is all going to be fakey molding on top,” he explains while going over another sketch, as they pore over the plans.
Phillips is known for his stunning, realistic designs and keen eye for detail – his sets are as great from three feet away as from the back row – with his past CSC work including Deathtrap, The Mousetrap, Harvey, The Liar, and Then Came Each Actor.
“When I dress a set, it’s pretty real,” Phillips agrees, explaining he wants the actors to feel like they are in a real place, so when they are on the set “it stays there in their minds.”
The set for The Nether will combine the convincing interiors for which Phillips is known, and high-tech innovations such as rear projection screens.
“It’s a good end for me, because it’s where theatre is going to go in the future,” Phillips remarked.
As for CSC, Phillips is impressed with the theater’s direction and prospects.
“Centenary has really made huge leaps,” he said. “They’re getting daring. This season is not safe at all,” he noted, referring to unusual and challenging plays on the schedule including The Nether. Phillips said he thinks the audience will follow where CSC is leading them, explaining that when audiences see a theater do an outstanding job with “the old chestnuts,” they’ll take a chance and come to see an unusual, riskier show.
“And that’s how you build a world-class theater company. Carl has the bravery to do both” the old favorites and edgier works, Phillips said.
Although just 62, Phillips said he followed advice regarding retirement from a friend in her 80s, who told him, ” ‘When it’s time, you’ll know.’ “
“I want Act 3,” Phillips explained. “I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I want to find out.”