May 17, 2012 at 9:02 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Setting the stage

Local theater set designer Tony Cisek whose long career in Washington has garnered him four Helen Hayes Awards. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A playwright sets the scene with words, but it’s up to the scenic designer to bring it to life visually.

As one of D.C.’s top set designers, Tony Cisek is a master at transporting audiences to places both foreign and familiar. In this year’s season alone, he’s taken us to an exotic Cypriot encampment, a steamy Florida cigar factory, an airport terminal and with his most recent work — “The Taming of the Shrew” currently running at the Folger Theatre — the Wild West.

Cisek (pronounced Chis-eck) explains that while sets can range anywhere from totally abstract to highly realistic, his typically lie someplace in between. For Ford’s Theatre fall production of “Parade” (the musical account of the 1913 murder of teenage factory work Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913 and the subsequent lynching of her accused murderer Leo Frank two years later), Cisek’s design was serviceable yet haunting: he imagined a newly industrialized red brick Atlanta with two towering columns, each in unchecked stages of decay, standing as fading remnants of a more glorious South.

“The ‘Parade’ set was the result of over 20 sketches,” he says. “My favorite way to design is to distill and distill, to edit down until you have just what you need. I’m not good at decorating or excessive dressing.”

“I’m not interested in a purely naturalistic representation of something that leaves nothing to the imagination,” says Cisek, who’s gay. “I feel the audiences come to theater because they’re interested in doing a little work, in having to lean forward and fill in, and they have the capacity to do this. I like using elements that evoke certain feelings, times and places by using textures and forms.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, Cisek was introduced to set design while working stage crew on high school plays, but it was as a pre-med major at Georgetown University that he began to get serious about it. “A friend dragged me to a Masque and Bauble production [Georgetown University’s student-run theater group],” he says. “And I was blown away that people my age could do something with such artistry. I got involved and learned a lot. If you had the aptitude and the inclination you could do almost anything.”

Soon, Sunday evening phone calls home focused on shows and sets rather than organic chemistry. By Cisek’s senior year it was obvious to both him and his parents that a future in medicine was out and a career as a professional set designer was taking shape. He went on to study scenic design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After receiving his master’s in 1994, he planned to stay on in Manhattan, but things worked out differently. Offers from the Washington theater scene came fast and frequently (and have continued uninterrupted), so he and his longtime partner, a scientist, make D.C. their home.

For the four-time Helen Hayes Award winner, inspiration comes in many ways.

“I like to say I never know when the muse will descend,” says Cisek, 47. “Sometimes it’s in the not-fully awake early hours when your brain is figuring things out without you or when you’re fiddling with the white model [a preliminary small scale model] or Skyping across country with a director. Often the indispensable lighting and costume designers will have a great suggestion.”

But Cisek’s favorite path to inspiration is brainstorming with the director in the theater. In the case of Folger Theatre’s “Othello” that ran earlier this season, he and director Robert Richmond did just that, spending several hours chasing down ideas and scribbling on napkins.  In time, sketches and models were rendered and the technical director oversaw the execution of the design. Ultimately, the result was a dazzling set that morphed from a towering canopy bed elaborately crowned in carved wood to magistrate’s office to billowing ship sails to a fabulously appointed Bedouin-style tent.

Like many designers, Cisek enjoys working with simpatico directors. This season he collaborated with gay director José Carrasquillo three times: WSC Avant Bard’s “Happy Days” (memorably encasing actor Delia Taylor in a gigantic dress); GALA Theatre’s “Ana en el Tropico”; and Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” at Theatre J, all well-received productions.

José Carrasquillo says, “Tony is fearless in expressing his feelings and opinions, but most importantly he enjoys making theater. It’s a gift to have a designer that despite the hard work that goes into doing a show, would not be anyplace else in the world, but right next to the director and the other team members inside a theater making a story three dimensional.”

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