A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Designer Bob Crowley, From the Emerald Isle to the Great White Way

By Mervyn Rothstein
December 10, 2012

Meet Once scenic and costume designer Bob Crowley, whose passion for theatrical design was sparked in childhood.



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The first time that scenic and costume designer Bob Crowley went to the theatre he was three or four years old, growing up in Cork, Ireland. "It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.We didn't have very good seats. I was on somebody's knee, half sitting behind a pillar."

Years later, someone told him that's probably why he ended up working in the theatre — so he could get better seats. "So I wouldn't have to sit behind a pillar anymore."

Crowley is now 57, with an illustrious theatre career that has included long associations with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in England, and six Tony Awards, for the sets of Carousel (1994), Aida (2000), The History Boys (2006), The Coast of Utopia and Mary Poppins (both 2007) as well as last season's Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Once.

A decade after Snow White, Crowley went to see a touring company of the original production of the 1960s musical Oliver! He was 14 or 15, still in Ireland. "It had a profound effect. I was blown away by the way the stage looked." Its designer, Sean Kenny, "took everything away, stripped all the artificial away, exposed the back wall and the lighting rig and didn't pretend it wasn't pretend. It was the art of suggestion. My visual awareness was changed by that one production. I saw that theatre could look like it's part of my life as I live it, and yet evoke a period. By then I could paint and draw, and I thought I could apply my skills to this medium."

In school Crowley was involved in amateur dramatics. He decided, "if I'm going to do this I better get it together. I applied for a course in England, at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school — and won a scholarship. All these doors started opening for me. From the day I left the course I started working."

His first hit was The Duchess of Malfi, with Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins, at Manchester's Royal Exchange in 1980. It moved to London, and led to the Royal Shakespeare Company. He recently designed Alan Bennett's new play, People, at the National.

He made his Broadway debut with 1987's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for which he received a Tony nomination for both sets and costumes.

His design for Once, the large Irish bar where audience members are invited onstage to share a pint and watch cast members perform before the show and during intermission, traces its origins to the musical's workshop production at American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. "We inherited a set from a show there, The Donkey Show, which happened to have a bar at the back. We couldn't change it — we worked Monday to Friday, they did two weekend shows."

Then, "John Tiffany, our director, said why don't we continue to do this in a bar? It makes complete sense in an Irish bar. It's where people fall in and out of love, tell stories and sing songs. It seemed like a natural environment. I designed a different bar, much more Irish-looking. We came up with the idea of a curve; then I decided we'd do it with mirrors to reflect those stories and those characters, making it a bit more poetic."

Is there a play he's wanted to design that he hasn't? "If you'd asked me a year ago I'd have said Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. It's my favorite play. Then John Tiffany asked if I'd ever designed it. I said no, but I can quote entire pages. We're doing it at American Repertory Theatre in February, with the fabulous Cherry Jones," Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Watch highlights from the Broadway production of Once.