Mike Nichols' talents are like those of an experimental physicist — a person who has the mind of a theoretician and the engineering ability to prove his theories. He is an artist, an architect and a carpenter, able to translate his vision into three dimensions — a throwback to a different era in stagecraft, Arkansas Repertory Theatre director Robert Hupp says, when designing and building sets were a one-man show.
The Rep-going public has been exposed to Nichols' particular genius for 30 years now, during which time he's created around 118 sets. It was 1982 when Nichols, his master's degree in drama newly in hand, came to Little Rock to apply at The Rep for the job of technical director. How did he pull it off? "I told Cliff [Baker] I could do it," he said, shrugging. And he can. He can make it rain on stage, make a convincing brick wall out of Styrofoam. On Nichols' sets, actors can take a shower, swim in a swimming pool. He can bring in the forest or create one of scenic dope and chickenwire. His sets can be fussy scene-setters when necessary, geometric abstraction when just a whisper of atmosphere is what works.
To mark his 30th anniversary, The Rep is exhibiting Nichols' drawings, photographs and set models on the third floor of the theater. Nichols talked about them with a reporter, moving from photo to mock-ups, explaining what box sets are (three walls) and the stagecraft of Jo Meilziner.
The technically complex set for "West Side Story" (1994-95 season) is "one of my favorites of all time," Nichols said. For Leonard Bernstein's musical, Nichols created an all-white set; all color was supplied by lighting and costumes. Two tall structures on either side of the stage could both revolve and move left and right. One had a balcony on one side and windows on the reverse; as the structure moved off stage, the view of Tony and Maria kiss on the balcony transformed to a view of them through the windows — like a camera's "dolly shot," Nichols said.
He's made it rain on stage in two productions, "The Rainmaker" (1994-95) and "The Grapes of Wrath" (2000
-01). In the former, the rain poured off the edge of a tin roof stage left, fed by a hidden hose and filling troughs made to look and function as steps. In the latter, the set was created entirely of raw pine Nichols bought fresh cut in Perry County — he was portraying rusticity — and the rain falling at the end of the play created the sweet smell of wet pine. That production also included a truck — created from a Model-A Ford given to the Rep — that moved about the stage on a track and pivoting castors.
For Terrence McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" (1993-94), Nichols constructed a working shower on stage and a swimming pool 3 feet deep, 16 feet wide and 4 feet long, a pool no one will swim in for fear of getting AIDS.
Nichols, 57, a native of Morrilton, says his architectural and construction talents likely derive from his mother, Juanita Nichols, who drew the blueprints for the building that housed the Conway County Center for Exceptional Children, which she founded. Her father, Nichols' grandfather, was a carpenter who taught Nichols as a boy how to build things, and who would drive to Little Rock from Atkins after Nichols started working at The Rep to watch him construct sets.
A largely self-taught student of art and architecture (Nichols likes the work of Little Rock's Charles Thompson) Nichols draws inspiration from both. A collage by African-American artist Romare Bearden inspired the background of his set for August Wilson's "Fences" (a set that also required Nichols to create from hand-carved Styrofoam the brick façade of the central structure, a ramshackle house). For the set of David Auburn's "Proof" (2002-03) Nichols and Hupp drove through Hillcrest looking at Craftsman homes. For "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1987-88), Nichols called Amnesty International and asked them to describe the grim jails of South America (they declined to help; he turned to the use of jailor's shadows and a projection of a spiderweb against the high walls of the cell to convey the dark drama).
Sometimes Nichols sketches his ideas; sometimes he goes right to his ¼-inch scale models, making his ideas come to life with balsa wood sticks and black foam board. Sometimes, the ideas are slow in coming. "I bang my head a lot," he said. Always, he's listening to his "kicking stereo," and depending on the show he could be listening, he said, to anyone from Copeland to Coltrane. Can the rhythms be detected in the set design? "I hope so," Nichols said.
Of Nichols' design for "The Grapes of Wrath," Hupp said the sets "rose to the level of Steinbeck's novel." Hupp said that he likes to "direct plays that have an epic sweep," anchored in some part of history, and that Nichols' sets for Shakespeare's works — including the recently concluded "Henry V" — are "among my favorites."
"I like clean. I like simple," Nichols said. And he loves mid-century American plays. He wanted to design a set for "Death of a Salesman" so much that when Memphis' Playhouse on the Square offered him the job, he took it, moving to Memphis for two weeks, designing and building the set, all for $800. He's looking forward to the Rep's production of Arthur Miller's play next spring — but is waiting until his pre-play meeting with Hupp to begin translating his mental images to reality. "I'm getting better at it," he said.