Set designer Lisa Pegnato on painting ‘Red’

Lisa Pegnato, set designer of Martha's Vineyard Playhouse's upcomming play 'Red'—Courtesy Lisa Pegnato

When you’re an actor portraying a real person, you do your research, and to some extent — to a considerable extent if you’re a Method actor — try to inhabit that person’s world.

For Lisa Pegnato, set designer for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s upcoming production of “Red,” a play about artist Mark Rothko, creating the set entailed a similar process. An abstract painter herself, and a fan of Rothko’s, Ms. Pegnato delved into the troubled artist’s life in order to create her own version of his studio.

“Rothko didn’t consider himself an abstract expressionist,” Ms. Pegnato explained. “He got lumped in with that group. He led a very emotionally tumultuous life. As a painter, I loved his work. I had already read his biography, and was very moved by what happened to him.”

In the multiple-Tony-awardwinning play by John Logan (which starred Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne on Broadway and in the West End), the playwright explores Rothko’s artistic as well as personal conflicts during an afternoon spent with his assistant in a makeshift studio in New York City.

Ms. Pegnato read up on the artist, and watched the few existing video interviews available. “I’m a total research buff,” she said. “There’s so much written about him. He’s easily accessible online.” One of the things she discovered was that Rothko used unusual methods for mixing his paint. This provided a bit of a challenge for the set designer, who had to recreate some of the paintings.

“I had to reinterpret the work using modern materials,” she said. “Rothko used a very specific recipe. He started with a traditional recipe and kind of tripped it out to his own designs. He actually mixed pigment in with rabbit-skin glue. I was curious about that as a painter. I used some of his ideas, using egg yolk and turpentine. I think he took an old Renaissance recipe. He traveled in Europe and was very influenced by what he saw. He kind of had this ‘old world, new world’ aesthetic that’s very much a part of his story.”

This level of commitment to her art is evident in the fact that Ms. Pegnato always builds scale models for her scenic designs, a practice that most designers have abandoned in favor of computer-generated models.

For “Red,” Ms. Pegnato constructed a tiny representation of the artist’s studio, complete with scaled-down versions of oversize canvases, a tiny chair and table, and paint cans and floor lamps made from bits of hardware. The backdrop, furniture, and canvases are carefully painted in the distressed industrial manner of the final product.

The set is not a literal interpretation of the play’s setting, which is actually a gymnasium that Rothko rented in order to produce the corporate commission he’s working on during the course of the play’s action.

Ms. Pegnato and director MJ Bruder Munafo decided to interpret the set in their own way. “The first thing you decide when designing a set is, Is it realistic or abstract?” Ms. Pegnato said. “We decided we weren’t going to do a realistic set. One of the things that I found out was that Rothko was very inspired by Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel. It influenced his work a lot. He was interested in square columns. He wanted a studio to be like a temple. We thought that we could create walls that reflected his inner world as opposed to his outer world.”

Ms. Pegnato, who describes herself as an abstract expressionist painter, found herself communing in a way with the legendary artist whom she spent so much time researching. She describes a situation in which she — a nonsmoker — found herself craving a cigarette (Rothko was a heavy smoker). In another incident, her tablet, buried in her purse, spontaneously started playing a tune by Mozart (Rothko’s favorite composer) during a rehearsal of the play. “He wants me to smoke a cigarette and he’s turning on Mozart in my purse,” Ms. Pegnato said. “Only in the theater world does that stuff happen.”

The play’s two actors, Victor Talmadge and Michael Jennings Mahoney, have also had to channel the artist to some extent. A work of Rothko’s is recreated onstage during the course of the play. “This particular play is uniquely difficult, because the two actors are actually going to paint in front of the audience,” Ms. Pegnato said. “More than just encompassing the character, they have to do something they’ve never done before. It’s part of the whole process.”

The paintings themselves will not survive beyond the run of the play. “There is a completed painting that is a surprise,” Ms. Pegnato said. “Because Mark Rothko’s work is very heavily protected against forgery, everyone who does this play has to destroy the paintings within 10 days of the play’s closing.”
“Red” debuts at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on August 5, and will run through Sept. 3. For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit