'The Little Prince' Set Designer Pulls Back the Curtain on His Craft
For the past 30 years, Carey Wong has been the mastermind behind many a Seattle theater production.
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Carey wong is a multitasking master. Just take the wildly disparate scenarios competing for the freelance scenic designer’s brain time this past fall: this month’s production of the sweetly solemn The Little Prince at Seattle Children’s Theatre; a resplendently theatrical exhibit, Beyond the Gate, about Portland’s two Chinatowns, slated to be the permanent installation at the new Portland Chinatown History Museum (set to open this spring); and the hyperbolic Hairspray, which will close the 2018 season of Issaquah’s Village Theatre (spoiler alert: the production features a musical number inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s recent, mega-popular Infinity Mirrors exhibit at SAM).
It’s all in a season’s work for the Gig Harbor resident, who has been the designing mind behind some 300 productions to date. In fact, if you’ve attended a theatrical production in Seattle (or Portland, Oregon; Memphis, Tennessee; or Syracuse, New York) over the past few decades, you’ve no doubt already been transported by his handiwork—be it an austerely minimal set for a heavyweight drama or a technicolor extravaganza for an over-the-top musical.
Wong credits his busy schedule to an adaptable and long-honed skill set. “Like actors or directors, you can get typecast. That person is the go-to person for musicals, this person’s the go-to for contemporary theater, and that person is the go-to person for opera,” he explains. “As you get further and further into this field, if you’re going to have any success…you try to be as versatile as possible…I’ve tried to develop a career where people think of me for a lot of different things.”
Before he became a virtuoso gun for hire in 1984, the Portland native got lots of in-depth, hands-on training when, after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, he became resident designer at Portland Opera. “I was there for eight years, and I kind of functioned as both a designer and a production manager,” says Wong. “I also learned all about the kinds of decision making that goes into budgeting productions. I was very aware of what the resources were for every project and learned how to tailor the design or the approach to my resources.”
Being a onetime mathematics major also proved quite handy. “Stage design is a visual manipulation of things—knowing how to fit resources into a limited amount of space—and it’s the same kind of problem solving that goes into mathematical equations,” he says. This kind of no-nonsense logic, coupled with unflagging creative flair, no doubt has helped make Wong welcome in theaters of all stripes (from the Seattle Rep to Opera Orlando), and even a bit recession-proof.
While avoiding specialization, Wong does have a special affection and affinity for children’s theater, because it’s the form that mirrors his first love, opera. (His long-standing bucket-list wish is to stage-design Puccini’s Turandot.) Both opera and children’s theater, Wong says, “want to indulge in some sort of visual spectacle or something that’s going to be visually arresting and that captivates viewers right away,” explains Wong with a smile. “It’s kind of like painting a picture on a big canvas, whether the stage is big or small. There is this willingness to engage in production to help tell the story.”
While a vet of over 30 Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) productions, Wong had yet to craft a production of the children’s classic The Little Prince. “I’ve always loved this book. It’s a great story,” he enthuses. “It’s almost like the Little Prince is speaking in haiku [to us] with his pearls of wisdom.”
Penned in 1942 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry after fleeing Nazi-occupied France, the simple story of an alien prince commenting on grown-up human foibles and inanities (such as a map-obsessed geographer who doesn’t travel) seems to grow only timelier and more stage worthy. The story’s very simplicity allows for an enticingly free creative hand. SCT’s upcoming production boasts an original live score, mood-enhancing screen projections and a host of technical and poetical brainstorms by Wong, from a tracking system for a towering king and the appearance of a sneaky serpent to a stylized Sahara Desert and a map featuring fictional realms thought up and hand-drafted by the designer.
He even conjured up the play’s biggest star: a full-size biplane, which is sure to occupy an attention span or two, or, hopefully, a full house. Explains Wong, “We want to make sure that this experience is visually rich enough to keep the attention of young people [and] that the eye is involved as much as the listening.”
And, after that, it’s on to the next show.