From Sesame Street to the Pittsburgh Cycle: A Scenic Designer's Journey with 2017 Tony Nominee David Gallo

Noah Golden

When David Gallo came back home to the United States after years of living abroad as a military kid, he fell in love with “Star Wars.” It wasn’t just the lightsaber duels that enchanted the 11-year-old, it was the idea that you could create a totally different world from sketches on a page. He poured over the concept art and design sketches that were published as stand-alone books in the late ‘70s. Decades later, Gallo still dreams of creating alternative universes.

After getting a design degree at SUNY Purchase, Gallo started working with his classmates on small productions and supplementing his income designing corporate videos and television commercials. But quickly, Gallo started to collaborate with a number of up-and-coming directors like Michael Greif, Chris Ashley and Michael Mayer. Since then, Gallo has been a sought-after set and projection designer whose Broadway credit include “The Mountaintop,” “Company,” “First Date,” “Memphis” and many, many more.  He also has had a fruitful relationship with August Wilson, working on many first runs of his plays. For his work on the Broadway revival of “Jitney,” Gallo is a 2017 Tony Award nominee.

Besides his work on Broadway, Gallo also serves as the production designer for “Sesame Street.” To learn more about his journey and his collaboration with August Wilson, I spoke to Gallo by phone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is your process working with directors?

DG: It’s up to the director. I am there to facilitate the vision that they have with the writers, composers. If they have a very particular point of view, I’m always interested in working within that. But a lot of times the point of view is developed together. The process is getting to know the play or musical with the director. The next step for me is always the research phase. I do a tremendous amount of research. Mostly visual research, images, and film. I put together massive image libraries.

Can you tell me about the process of designing "Jitney?"

DG: I did the production with August Wilson in '97 and that production started at the Huntington in Boston and played many theaters across the country. That's the production where we worked with August [Wilson] directly. So, the process for the first "Jitney" informed the process for the second "Jitney." For that first production, I followed the same steps with research and conversations but in this case, they included August Wilson. I got the notes directly from the man himself. Jump ahead many years and I'm working on the show with a new director.

David Gallo's set for "Jitney"

David Gallo's set for "Jitney"

What was it like working with August Wilson?

DG: It was amazing. It was the most important thing I'll do. I can't imagine anything more awesome happening. "Jitney" was the first collaboration with August and it took a little while for him to realize I could hang. Once I became part of the team, I pursued the last part of the cycle. I designed all of them. I just felt like part of his ensemble, so it was years of working on his stuff. The conversations with him about the work were incredible, as well as the downtime. A lot of people don't realize that August was incredibly funny. I used to smoke cigarettes in those days, so I spent a lot of time in the alley smoking with August just shooting the shit about other stuff. It was a big part of the texture and form of my life. I have a daughter named August and my other daughter is named Citizen, after Citizen Barlow in "Gem Of The Ocean."

What is it like designing for "Sesame Street?"

DG: I was born in '66. In '68 or '69 my mom plopped me in front of the TV and I remember watching the first episode. I love being the designer of "Sesame Street." It's a job that has an extraordinary responsibility because you're responsible for the look of one of the most iconic things in the world. It's a neighborhood that everyone has lived in at one point or in their lives. I talked about everything beginning with a blank page but with this particular case, there was no blank page. There was a neighborhood that had existed and evolved since 1968. So, when I stepped in, it was to update the whole street. I approached it very, very carefully because I had to have my work with whatever was there. I approached it basically by saying "what do neighborhoods look like now?" And I added 46 years of urban development and pushed some things a little further into the future. I took a few things like Hooper's store and made them look retro and old again. It's a very careful tightrope I have to walk by coming up with new ideas for "Sesame Street" but keeping it familiar.

Do you have advice for young people who want to design for the theater?

DG: The more life experience, the more you read, the more you see films or TV, the more you consume, the handier you're going to be. A lot of what I do is being able to put myself in a time period or a place. To have a lot of different skills that take you to a lot of different places when you're designing different, new pieces of work. So, don't cheat yourself on life experience. I think worry less about what you're going to do in the end, because you are going to find your place. But the same art history that you study when you're young, the same baroque music you listen to, you'll use those skills later if you design for a video game or an opera or a play or a superhero movie. So, don't cheat yourself.