Travels with Robert: Broadway set designer returns home with SHN’s ‘Cabaret’

CabaretProvidence Performing Arts Center

Robert Brill’s multi-level set helps to showcase the popular number “It Couldn’t Please Me More (The Pineapple Song)” in Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret,” through July 17th in San Francisco (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Mention to Robert Brill that he may be the second most famous alumnus from Salinas High School, and you’re sure to get a chuckle.

“Who might the first be?” asks Brill, tongue firmly in cheek.

Some literature guy, goes by the name Steinbeck, pretty good writer with both Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes as proof.

The difference between Brill and the great John Steinbeck? Well, for starters, you’ve probably heard of Steinbeck.

But take a peek at the resume of Brill and you will find that he is not just a person that has stepped into the ring of the theatre profession, but is a full-blown heavyweight champion.

Just give a look-see to the shows he has scenic designed and the directors he has worked with. There are numerous collaborations with Des McAnuff, director of the jukebox megahit “Jersey Boys.” Throw in multiple projects with the Magic Theatre’s producing artistic director Loretta Greco. He has also shared Broadway spaces with Gary Sinise, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Joe Mantello. Add in two Tony nominations, and it becomes very clear that Brill is a star in his own right.

One of Brill’s signature works is currently on the stage at the Golden Gate Theatre, a set of the sultry and sleek production of “Cabaret,” produced by New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company, co-directed by Sam Mendes and famed film director Rob Marshall, with Marshall performing double duty as choreographer.

Brill’s two-level set is another character in a more immersive theatre concept, where actors stay on stage and do everything – from warming up before the show in full view of the audience, to dancing in one scene and playing a sax or trombone in the next.

Brill

Robert Brill (Playbill.com photo)

Since the show is very site specific, that presents various challenges on a national tour. Yet for Brill, what is most important is not uniformity across all theatre spaces, but a commitment from the performers and audience to share an experience regardless of the venue.

“We scenically tried to create something that feels very connected to the audience,” said Brill. “Whether there is one chair or an entire set on stage, the most important thing is that there is a direct address to the audience. The audience is a voyeur to the action. When the piece breaks out and the Emcee addresses them, they are in that club.”

Brill is one of humble beginnings, and his story was not born out of love for the theatre as a child, but out of much greater pragmatism and desire for hard work. He spent his four years of high school involved in vocational arts studying architecture and design, and soon after graduation, an opportunity was presented to work at the Western Stage in Salinas, housed on the campus of Hartnell College. He was offered an opportunity to work hands-on as a draftsman and was able to expand his vast skill sets into skills more specific to the theatre.

Not long after his journey began, he had keys to the building and carte blanche on the stage.

After spending four years cutting his teeth at the Western Stage and finishing his schooling at Hartnell, Brill moved on to UC San Diego, where he received a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, with minors in sociology and art history.

One of his most formative projects was becoming a founding member of  Sledgehammer Theatre in downtown San Diego, a cutting edge company known for its heavy risk taking in their show selections and design concepts. Despite the fact that so much of what Brill does now is work with multi-million dollar budgets, learning to be resourceful in a space like Sledgehammer was worth its weight in gold.

“It really gave me the ability to work in that rough form,” said Brill.

Brill has designed both the 1998 revival of “Cabaret” at the Henry Miller Theatre and its most recent production in 2014 at New York City’s Studio 54. The 2014 production was one that Brill described as a “carefully orchestrated event from the moment you approached the theatre until you got to your seat, which allowed the audience to experience the world of being seduced just like the characters of play.”

In these productions of “Cabaret,” much like every other production Brill has worked on, it is his willingness to listen and collaborate that has been the hallmark of his longevity. He has never come into a production meeting with a director ready to put forth an absolute vision, but has more importantly brought ideas to the table in the spirit of working together.

“It’s sort of like dating where you get a sense of each other’s sensibilities, and at the same time we put material together and try to come up with some sort of shared vision,” said Brill. “I’ve never had a situation where I’ve had a clear idea and told the director this is what it is.

“It’s like we bring our ingredients to the table and hope when we put it all together, then it becomes a meal. That’s kind of how I work.”

What has come together is how Brill, now 52, went from Mission Park Elementary in Salinas to the top of his profession. After living in New York City for 15 years, he now splits time between his home in San Francisco with his 16-year-old daughter and San Diego, where he is a full time professor at his alma mater. And a life in the theatre has given Brill plenty of wisdom that he now passes on to the next generation of theatre artists who will hopefully have long, fruitful careers.

“One thing I always tell students is that I always hope I’m in a room with people who are smarter than me,” said Brill. “That’s how you grow as an artist. There are thousands of designers in line as the flavor of the month and everyone has got talent one way or another. But what is most important is how you treat other people and how you conduct yourself.”

That is something the first most famous Salinas High School Cowboy would certainly agree with.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret”
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Co-directed and Choreographed by Rob Marshall
Directed by Sam Mendes
Through July 17th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $50 – $212
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com
For more information on the production, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org

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