For set designer Alexander Dodge, it often starts with an image.
In the case of the visual inspiration of Hartford Stage's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," it was the suggestion of a garden maze by director Darko Tresnjak. The result is "an adult playground," says Dodge, a lush green seaside setting in the '20s that is both formal and fanciful.
"I like working with metaphor," says Dodge during a break in rehearsals. He says his sculptured maze of grass hedges is just high and solid enough for the characters in the strange new world of Illyria to hide, frolic and get lost.
"I'm most happy when you can create your own world and make your own rules," he says.
For Hartford Stage's Broadway-bound musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," Dodge thought the metaphor of a toy theater was "kind of great because it was about a serial killer."
In Hartford Stage's "The Tempest," "Darko had the idea of camouflage, of people on the island and the island being very similar and blending together." From that came the abstract world of cursive text overwhelming the space as well as the characters who became literally one with the play.
For "Bell, Book and Candle," which was co-produced with Long Wharf Theatre, Dodge created a bewitching mid-century modern apartment with a flaming red sunken living room tghat became a cozy coven worthy of Eero Saarinen.
They're among Dodge's bold and memorable designs that have earned praise, a Tony Award nomination and last year's Connecticut Critics Circle honor for his dual work in "The Tempest" and "Bell, Book and Candle."
Volume And Joy
"For me, I always try to create a world that the play or opera can live in, but one that has a three-dimensional feel, a space that has a sense of volume, that doesn't feel made up," Dodge says. "Well, it is, of course, but it's grounded in reality and [physical] elements that are true."
Dodge, 41, who carries design in his family genes, creates sculpturally, using models more than sketches to give life to his ideas as soon as he can after talking about the show with his collaborators. Perhaps that is why so many of his sets have such a feeling of solidity, as if entire gardens, houses and entire worlds just landed fully-formed on stage.
"He is the most adventurous set designer that I've worked with," say Tresnjak, Hartford Stage's artistic director, who has worked with Dodge for 10 productions in various venues." "He's not afraid of ideas that are bold and fun. He's not afraid of joy."
Another collaborator, director Nicholas Martin, says Dodge understands a play's dramaturgy "but without all that fuss and stodginess."
Martin, who first met Dodge when he was an undergraduate at Bennington College, has given the designer's career major lifts, including their first Broadway production together in "Hedda Gabler" with Kate Burton in 2001. Other Broadway collaborations were "Butley" with Nathan Lane in 2006, and "Present Laughter" with Victor Garber in 2010, which earned Dodge a Tony nomination.
"When you work with him you know you're going to get a set that will embody a play with the utmost care and class," says Martin.
Since so many of Dodge's designs are so elegant — where a $20,000 set looks far more expensive — he is wary about being compartmentalized as a set designer who only does shows with high-end settings, be it the drop-dead deco of "Present Laughter," the luxe of "The Circle" at Westport Country Playhouse, or the period swank of the homes on the Crescent at Bath, England in "The Rivals."
But he is cautious not to take too many ritzy interior assignments in a row. "I'm happy I do that well but I get a little bristly when people say, 'Oh, you're like the young [designer] John Lee Beatty,' whom I love." I always try to push in other areas. The fun is to do as many kinds of designs as you can and now I'm moving into opera and dance — and doing the gritty and very conceptual designs."
Dodge comes from four generations of designers. His great grandfather, Horace Dodge, one of the two brothers who created the Dodge Company, was the engineer of the car company. (The company was sold to Chrysler in the 1920s.)
His grandfather, Horace Elgin Dodge Jr., designed boats, water cars and, during World War II, military crafts. His father, architect David Elgin Dodge, was an architect at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Aria. His father, now 83, studied under Wright and is one of the last to have worked directly with the master builder.