Visionary Collette Pollard chalks up banner year
By the time you read this, scenic designer Collette Pollard will be relaxing with her husband on a borrowed houseboat in the Netherlands. It is a well-deserved break for the 32-year-old designer whose creative engine has been set on “high” for years now.
With several seasons of strongly architectural, career-altering work bringing her ever greater attention, and with the Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award (part of the Michael Merritt Design Awards program) on her shelf since May, she has a slew of productions waiting for her attention in the upcoming season. So she is ready for some serious restoking.
“It certainly has been a fantastic year,” said the designer. “My work has gotten a lot more notice, which has put me in a good position for the ‘big gets.’ And I can’t deny that it has all been great fun.”
Had Pollard devised nothing other than the set for director David Cromer’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” — which has been extended through Aug. 1 at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe — she could have rested on her laurels for awhile. Her space-altering “total environment” for the play — an enormous two-level shotgunstyle New Orleans apartment that puts the audience within inches of the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom where Blanche DuBois, along with her sister Stella, and Stella’s fiercely territorial husband, Stanley Kowalski, live in a state of overheated claustrophobia — has won her great acclaim in Chicago circles and beyond. A work of enormous ambition, it brings a whole new level of intensity to Tennessee Williams’ fabled drama.
But consider just two other of her richly expressive, grand-scale sets created this past season: The hellish workshop of a magician of the black arts for Charles Newell’s Court Theatre production of “The Illusion,” the Tony Kushner adaptation of a baroque French classic; and the surreal ship-to-shore world of “War With the Newts,” the Next Theatre premiere staged on the vast proscenium of Loyola University’s Mullady Theatre, thatmade inventive use of its hydraulic lift.
Pollard, who grew up in San Jose, Ca. (her mother was a Las Vegas showgirl who later choreographed and taught; her father was a businessman), said her career began with a hunger for painting.
“I was in a science-focused magnet high school, and while I loved the place I was hungry for art,” she recalled. “When I saw some kids painting a set in the cafeteria I asked if I could help. And I just fell in love with scenic design.”
She chose the DePaul University Theatre School’s undergraduate program for her initial design studies. After graduation she took a series of full-time day jobs while doing freelance design work, most notably for the Albany Park Theater Project and The House Theatre of Chicago.
“I didn’t really want to return to school for a graduate degree, but Todd Rosenthal, my teacher at DePaul, forced me to put my portfolio together and apply to Northwestern University, where he was then teaching,” said Pollard. “My three years there were great, because I knew what I wanted to get out of the program, and because I had amazing mentors — from Todd (who won the 2008 Tony Award for his set for “August: Osage County”), to costume designer Virgil Johnson, to director Jessica Thebus.”
“It’s really hard as a young designer to have an idea, to latch onto it, and to make sure it happens as you see it,” Rosenthal said. “Collette refuses to let her ideas slip away. She has real integrity. She also has interesting ideas and is really good at working in abstraction.”
Pollard met David Cromer through a mutual friend and she remembers their first breakfast meeting — one that would lead to her designing his production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Kansas City Repertory last year — a show in which she began developing her interest in projections.
“David claims he’s not a Williams scholar, but he knows the plays inside and out, and that allows for a very interesting collaboration,” she explained. “He has a very strong vision, but then there is so much opportunity to build on each other’s ideas. He conducts the room in a way that everyone feels they can contribute.”
What impressed Pollard about Court’s Charles Newell was that “he keeps the entire process so delightful and surprising even though he has a very strong point of view. He is so appreciative when you bring him ideas. He’s also very hands-on. He likes to try things, to have fun, to continue building and playing.”
Asked if she has a dream proj- ect, Pollard said: “I’d like to work on classic pieces with international collaborators. Last year I designed ‘Joan Dark’ (which never made it to the Goodman Theatre) and ‘Maria Stuart’ for Austria’s Linz09 Capital of Culture festival. The opportunity to work with people from different countries creates an artistic conversation — not only about how a story should be told, but from what point of view and what cultural perspective, politically and historically. That’s dreamy to me.”
You can see Pollard’s most recent work — the set for “A Streetcar Named Desire” — at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets: (847) 242-6000.
For a full look at Pollard’s portfolio, visit