Something has to go wrong

George Tsypin, production designer

The name of George Tsypin is linked with the grandiose 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. However, by the time he created that masterpiece, the George Tsypin Opera Factory was already a well-known brand. In the 90’s and 2000’s the New York based Russian-born architect-turned-theatre designer created numerous stage sets for opera, musicals as well as various installations. Among them have been productions for the Metropolitan Opera, Mariinsky Theatre, Covent Garden, Salzburg Festival and even the MTV Awards. His  stage design for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” musical has become one of the most groundbreaking in Broadway’s history.  Working with space and sculpture, time and technology, George Tsypin is a real visionary, though not without a practical attitude. 

Quick-fire questions

Name and title:

George Tsypin. I have never thought of some title. Set designer. Lately, I have been doing more than that, basically conceiving the show. Production designer, I guess.

What is your most vivid memory?

I never think about the past. 

What facts of your biography have changed your life?

Being nurtured at the Moscow Architecture Institute was the most important period of my life.

If you had to choose a profession again, what would it be?

Over the years I have considered moving into pure art. There were moments when I wanted to be just an artist. I’ve been pushed to become a director and in some degree I am, and that could be another alternative. But I don’t like to work with actors, just don’t like them. (Laughing) Art and sculpture — that appeals to me.

Do you have any regrets in life?

Having regrets is kind of meaningless.

Where do you see yourself in 15 years? Who is this man?

I’d like to devote more time to contemplation, reading and writing and doing art that makes your life a little bit more meaningful. When you create, you get closer to something that is more essential.

 What is something you could never give up?

This question doesn’t make sense to me. Nothing belongs to you in reality.

What do you want most?

(Long pause) I want enough energy to do what I do. That’s all.

What do you fear most? 

I fear death. We are trying to overcome this fear, but it is just too deep-seeded. To pretend that you are not afraid would be silly. 

Which traits would you like your children to inherit from you?

Your children do not belong to you. They are completely separate human beings. 


Working with constructivism, avant-garde, sculpture and multimedia, is there a certain point where your ideas usually start from?

I have done some things that might feel a little bit constructivist or Russian avant-garde, as you mentioned. But I have done other things as well. Basically, when you design such a broad range of different things, you have to change the language and material you work with. I have always tried to find a new language for every new show. But, obviously, when people look at my work from the outside, they perhaps sense a certain style. And I think perhaps what makes it a little bit different is the fact that I am a former architect. I think I have a pretty developed sense of space and from the very beginning my works were sort of spatial and three-dimensional. It is very difficult, especially in the traditional theatre — it is much more difficult to realize for people and more expensive. 

How has the perception of space changed in recent years?

I think a traditional flat scenery was dying — and it is still dying. People are abandoning the whole idea of a stage. There are lots of shows where there is no stage, no separation between the audience and performers, or the audience has to walk through different spaces. Now everyone is doing immersive shows where people experience themselves in 3D — it is very tactile, very immediate. And the reason for that is the fact that all the digital electronic entertainment has become more and more pervasive. What happens is when people actually do go to see the show, they want something similarly immersive. In other words, the theatre has to compensate. Again, if it comes to just sitting down and looking at the little picture inside the proscenium, why leave your house? You can look at the same picture on your computer and have the same experience. So, if you do go, you want something that goes beyond traditional entertainment.

In your opinion, what might be the difference between the theatre and show design? 

There is one significant difference with big events and spectacles. I guess that spectacle is the issue, it is much more dynamic and technological. If you work with the spectacle you have to use the latest technology. “Dynamic” is the word, you have to hit the audience with a new image every few minutes. So, it is much more labour-intensive and complex. 

Is it fair to say that you as a stage designer should also have features of a director to create a successful show? 

When you conceive the space and when you conceive the environment, basically by the time it is done you have directed half of the show. And by the way, it is a very Russian tradition, there were quite a few designers like Alexander Tairov or Simon Virsaladze. They created sketches for the entire show — the arrangement, the mise en scene — it was all in the sketches already. I have done a lot of shows where either the director was involved much later and everything was basically already conceived, or there were no directors at all. If you do a big spectacle or an event, traditional directing — working with the actors or creating characters — is not important. I know how to move large groups of people or how to work with people and choreographers in a more general sense to create a show. But in the way of telling a dramatic story, I have no illusion about being a real director.  

You need your fantasy and imagination, no matter what you do

George Tsypin

You also have to “live” and feel through the whole narrative that goes on stage…

You need your fantasy and imagination, no matter what you do. It was relatively easy for me to deal with the Sochi Olympics because Russian culture is rather close to my heart. The biggest danger when you work with a different culture is that you can just miss something and with one false element the whole idea falls apart. In Sochi there was a proposal from one American designer and it seemed like he took all the right images but in the end it was all totally wrong. People make these mistakes a lot, especially in the authoritarian countries because they have the money and they are willing to spend it on something like this. It is a kind of official “event” devoted to an “anniversary of unification” or something like that. And that is why I am speaking about Sochi — once the decision was made that we would focus on culture it was easier to conceive. But when we have an event that is so bland and official sometimes it is too empty, you know. With an event that has no narrative your design risks to become completely decorative. Even when I do other things like Cirque du Soleil I still look for drama. When the design is reduced to being spectacular but still empty, it could be very unsatisfying.

That infamous un-opened ring in Sochi was a little drama in itself. What are your feelings when something malfunctions during the show? 

Well, when you do live theatre or live shows it is a constant crisis. (Laughing) The ring never opened, but it worked, it got us a lot of publicity! It is said, “Man is a crisis”. And the theatre is a crisis! It is the nature of the things, something has to go wrong. And it does. But that is exactly what makes it so exciting! People watch a live event and they know it can go wrong. And when it does go wrong, you become a part of that event. It sucks the audience in! If you watch a recording or a film, you know nothing is gonna go wrong and you know that you can watch this film tomorrow and it will be exactly the same. But when you go see a show, your heart stops! 

As you were initially educated as an architect, how does production design coincide with architecture or contradict it?

Every design involves architecture to a certain degree. What makes it different from architecture is the fact that it is dynamic. To make the link to the other dimension — the dimension of time — is very complicated. To see the transformation, to see the movement in time and space — that’s what the most difficult thing is and that’s what makes a production design or a show design. A different kind of thinking. For example the Sea Glass Carousel’s pavilion was designed by architects, but when it came to creating the carousel, they just did not know how to approach it. So I created it. It is dynamic, a kinetic sculpture in a way. It was like the theatre of the future. With something like Sea Glass Carousel there are no actors, you visit the carousel, you ride it and you are the actor and the spectator at the same time! That is why people love it. They don’t have to deal with performers, they are right in the middle of it. We discussed theatre where people walk around and mingle with the actors — that is one thing. But when you eliminate the actors completely, you become the actor, you become the star!

You come up with things that you never thought could be possible

George Tsypin

Do you not see it as a paradox that you design something, drop in deep ideas with different cultural and artistic roots and then the audience comes and it all becomes just entertainment…

In Russian culture “entertainment” has a negative connotation — it has no deep feelings or philosophy, it is profane stuff and everything like that. When the Sea Glass Carousel opened, there were huge lines to ride it and people waited for hours to get in. And I remember when I saw it I wanted to tell them, “Why are you standing in line? There is nothing, it is empty!” I mean, nothing for me. But I read some comments after, and it was like a spiritual experience for them! The music, the light, and it was not about me or the design, it was about the whole perception which was evoked in their minds. When you announce that something is going to be serious and important, it can work against it. But otherwise, people can come to experience entertainment, and something happens. These little magical moments, they are very difficult to program and they should not be programmed. All I try to do is create something that I like myself. 

What is your role as a production designer and what does the work process look like?

We just start with sculpting the space. You have to find the melody of the space, as I call it. Once you have the physical production of the idea, everything revolves around that — the music, even the story. It is the only very tactile physical thing, the model that we create and that everyone gathers around. It also holds the show together, strangely enough. With “Spider-Man” that is exactly what has happened. That show went through tremendous troubles and scandals — there are books written about it. One day the whole financial scheme collapsed, the main producer died, another team of producers was fired — it was unbelievable! At one point it was the most famous show in the world. Not only for the scandals, but it was the most expensive Broadway show of all time. 

But the hardest part is that everyone should like your model and everything has to be built and rehearsed…

In the case of “Spider-Man” every week we had enormous meetings, up to 60 people — engineers, people from different shops, authors, costume designers, aerial choreographers. Even Bono and The Edge who did the music would come to these meetings, especially The Edge. Everyone who was involved in the show would gather in my studio. You are not gonna push something that is especially controversial or something that people are gonna hate. It is a result of many months of adjusting, testing and making samples. By the time you build it, you have the support of the entire team. Modern big productions like this are really like a machine, an enormous mechanism that takes a long time to refine. So when it comes to design, it encompasses everything — the music is gonna work with the design in this machine, the choreography, all the flying and much, much more. 

When the basic details and money are in place the green light to go into production is given. It takes at least nine months, and sometimes it takes up to a year to build the show. Then comes the final stage, the tech rehearsals. And loading when the set is built in the theatre, and it can take up to a few months in the case of a bigger show. Then comes opening night — the sense of total emptiness and the feeling that it was all in vain… (Laughing) By that time you are hopefully already thinking about some other project. Emotionally you are done. That is the process. Esthetically and technologically “Spider-Man” was a little bit of a breakthrough, especially in terms of how Broadway shows are created. But the show itself was not that successful, so I have very mixed feelings about it.

All in all, what could we call the main features of the George Tsypin style or the George Tsypin attitude to design and production?

(Laughing) I think that the whole idea is to try to avoid a certain style. You just want to be different all the time. There is probably a style but it is more visible to others. I noticed an interesting thing. I have a team of very talented people, we sculpt things, we create these models but we still work in an old-fashioned way. I have the computer renderings, we do that as well. But the way we create is somewhat different from other designers I think. A lot of them just rely too much on computers and 3D animation. And I feel it is very limiting because in order to draw something on a computer, you have to conceive it in advance — that is very limiting because you only conceive something that is very cerebral. But if you are actually making something with your hands, then magical accidents happen! You come up with things that you never thought could be possible. I have people around me who have the same philosophy. Every other day there are moments of despair when we just experiment and throw the cardboard and things together. Just sculpting right there in space! And all of a sudden — “Wow, that’s it!’ I think that is what makes our work a little bit different.

Opening Ceremony for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

For this event George Tsypin was the artistic director, production designer and co-author of the script. The mind-blowing eight-part spectacle was based on Russian culture and history and took place at Fisht Stadium. It was attended by 40,000 visitors. More than 3,000 performers took part in the show which had a huge technical crew of 10,000. 120 projectors turned the stadium floor into a 3D landscape, while the overall length of the chains used for the floating structures approximated 5 km. Budget? Oh, please…


Sea Glass Carousel

The Sea Glass Carousel was opened in August 2015 at the Battery Park, New York. The Carousel is designed by the George Tsypin Opera Factory and the WXY architectural company. It resembles an under-the-sea garden through which visitors ride on fish that appear to be made of sea glass and shimmer as though they were bioluminescent. The project cost $16 million and it took almost a decade to be built. The Carousel is unique not only for its interior but also for its structure: the operating machinery is placed under the floor instead of in the central post.


Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

The musical based on the “Spider-Man” comics appeared to be one of the most ambitious, controversial and, eventually, costly productions in Broadway history. The music and lyrics were written by U2 stars Bono and The Edge. The show included highly technical stunts, such as actors swinging from “webs” and several aerial combat scenes. The whole project took almost 9 years to be brought to life with its budget gradually rising to an incredible $75 million. The sets and costumes alone accounted for $9.7 million, while $2.2 million was allocated for flying equipment.  The weekly production budget totaled $1.3 million – just for the beginning.

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