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He Has Larger Designs on the Stage : Tony Walton, an award-winning craftsman of sets and costumes, has donned a new role: director.

July 18, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — For more than four decades, designer Tony Walton has worked for some of the best directors in show business--Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Jerry Zaks, Tommy Tune, to name just a few. His sets and costumes have appeared on numerous Broadway stages, in European and American opera houses and in ballet as well as film productions.

A 1991 inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame, Walton, 64, has three Tonys, an Oscar and an Emmy and has been nominated many more times than that. Yet he's not a household name, nor is he the kind of man who wants to rest on his laurels, considerable though they may be. In fact, Walton recently embarked on a new phase in his illustrious career--as a director. He's staging "Missing Footage," a play by Gen LeRoy, his wife, at the Old Globe. The show opens Saturday and tells the story of a controversial ballerina who has reached the pinnacle of her art and yet must now make some tough personal choices.

Seated in an empty rehearsal room after a full day's work, the genial and thoroughly unpretentious Walton explains the logic of his new role. "It's actually not that different, in that as a designer you are trying to think like a director in order to best serve your director's view of the play," he says, punctuating his discourse with rolling laughs that are as robust as his speaking voice is soft.

"Hopefully you're not trying to splash your signature up onstage," he says of his design experience. "You're trying to serve the piece, which is, of course, the same attitude the director goes in with. In your head you slightly stage it, because you need to be sure the director can find ways of using it so the relationships and the geography all work out well dramatically for the special alphabet of the piece.

"But the difference for me as a director is that [as a designer] I'm used to living with this state of anxiety of 'are we on the right track?' Or trying to keep it channeled toward a communal vision of the piece. As a director, not only, bizarrely, is everybody trying to help you--which is not always the case when you're designing things--but the feedback is instant, for good or ill. Even if you're wrong, that's what you receive. So it's a very moment-by-moment satisfying and enjoyable experience."

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Walton is finding his current project particularly satisfying, professionally and personally. The play, which is author-screenwriter LeRoy's second, was inspired by a ballet dancer friend. "I actually lived with her and her husband whenever I was working in England, when I was going back and forth," says Walton of the woman, who has since died. "She was very inspirational to me."

In "Missing Footage," fictional ballerina Julianna Ricci (played by former dancer Tanya Gingerich) has come under fire for her nontraditional approach to classical roles. At the beginning of the play, she is recuperating from a nervous breakdown and trying to decide what course her future should take.

To Walton, the most compelling topic within the drama involves the inevitable trade-offs that brilliant creative talents often face. "Artists, in general, or anyone who really strives for perfection in this world, tend to have a very narrow focus," he says. "And when the person reaches their peak, then gets sidelined for a moment, sometimes they can go back into it and sometimes they can't go back. It's partly the ones that are really perfectionists [for whom] it's not acceptable to go back and just be good."

Then too, there is the matter of Walton's connection to the playwright. They've been together for more than 25 years--although the number-shy LeRoy, who joins her husband midway through the interview, shushes Walton before he can say exactly how long it has been.

They have about them the air of affectionate and respectful longtime colleagues. Indeed, their coupleness seems almost inseparable from their professional collaboration. "They are probably the two healthiest people in terms of a couple that I've ever known in my life," says Old Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien. "You instantly believe in family values, communication, sanity. There's something so ineffably sweet about these people, let alone that they're both so intelligent and talented."

LeRoy had wanted Walton to direct her first play, "Not Waving," when it premiered in Florida in 1996, but the designer demurred. "He objected, he really did," says LeRoy, recalling Walton's initial reluctance to direct for her.

"She did sort of ask a couple of times, but I thought that was a lethally dangerous thing to do," Walton says. "Anyway, during that time that she was first saying she would like me to consider directing, there was all that stuff going on still about to what degree the director's imperative was permissible."

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