De­sign­ing Woman

Vi­sion­ary Col­lette Pol­lard chalks up ban­ner year

Chicago Sun-Times - - Sports - BY HEDY WEISS

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

Scenic de­signer Col­lette Pol­lard con­fers with di­rec­tor David Cromer on the set of “A Street­car Named De­sire” at Writ­ers’ The­atre.

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