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Daniel Ostling on Collaborative Design

A conversation with the Tony-nominated scenic designer and Lookingglass ensemble member.

Usman Ally (foreground) in Metamorphoses
(© Liz Lauren)
Two-time Tony nominee Daniel Ostling is an ensemble member at Lookingglass Theatre Company here in Chicago and an artistic associate at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He recently was the scenic designer for Metamorphoses at Lookingglass and The Verona Project (the original production as well as the current one at Northwestern University). Despite several projects coming up, he is also my design teacher at Northwestern and made time to talk with me after class about his history, process, and thoughts on Chicago theater:

What did you study in college?

I went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and I actually started as a business major. I didn't particularly like it, but I didn't really know anyone who particularly liked what they did for a living. I took an astronomy course and the professor got me to think about what has brought me joy in my life, what is important to me. This sounds silly, but I loved the lighting in rock and roll concerts. So I wanted to take a lighting course, but first I had to take the introduction to theater course. The first play we read was The Cherry Orchard and it blew my mind. It felt so truthful, like life to me, in a way that I'd never experienced.

So before that you hadn't been involved in theater?

I'd never done theater a day in my life, I didn't know how to draw, I didn't know how to do anything. So I owe that guy my life, I feel like. And in a way, that's partially why I feel strongly about teaching, especially undergrads. When I grew up, artists were like mythical creatures; I didn't think people actually were artists.

Where did you go after finishing school?

I moved to Chicago and worked in the off-Loop theater and northwest Iowa. I did some acting and some directing, I never thought of myself as just one thing. I always question, is this what I want to do with my life? I was working constantly but didn't have insurance, could barely pay my bills... I couldn't work more.

I decided to go to grad school in '93 here at Northwestern. That really was a big jump for me, because I met Mary Zimmerman here, and Lookingglass, and it propelled me into a very different sort of strata of theater. When I got out, I started to work with Lookingglass, with Mary, and then I started teaching.

What is the design process like, working with a director?

It's different on every project, with every person. I've worked with directors who do not have any ideas about visual elements at all. The other extreme is directors who know exactly what they want you to do, and don't want you to do anything except that. I don't particularly like working in those situations, it's not very fun. I love working together, being super collaborative.

Daniel Ostling
(Courtesy Daniel Ostling)
Especially since you don't just work in Chicago, is there anything you feel is different about theater that happens in this city?

Chicago is one of the great theater cities in the world. The roots run deep, and Northwestern is a really big part of that, actually. There are a lot of artists, there are people who see it, and then there are spaces that people can afford to do it in. All three of those things are really healthy here. It's easier for a group of people to get together and produce something here, than in a lot of other cities.

This is a great place to make big choices. You learn as much from failing as you do from succeeding, and when you have an environment where you can fail, and where you're supported, you learn from that. And you still are encouraged by your producers to make big choices, because people go to the theater in Chicago.

It also has a really great artistic community. That's not to say it's some big love fest, but in general, I would say there's an incredible sense of people wanting you to succeed here. I never feel like in Chicago there's a group of people waiting for me to fail. And I must say, in some other places I feel that way, like somehow there's only so much success to go around. The fact of the matter is when theaters have trouble here, other theaters step in and help them. So Chicago will always be sort of a home to me; it's a very special and supportive place.


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