Fine Arts dean earns accolades for setting the scene

Before the curtain rose on the set of the current CanStage production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, each and every scene had passed through the hands of Phillip Silver, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Silver designed the sets and lighting for the musical revue, which is directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey and stars Jackie Richardson. The production opened April 7 at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre. Set in a nightclub, this tribute to the music of Fats Waller features five vocalists and a live, on-stage band.

stage setting for Ain't Misbehavin'Right: Stage design by Phillip Silver for Toronto production of Ain’t Misbehavin’

In his visual and sensory rendering, Silver aimed to evoke the period and mood with details like large, billowing festoon curtains reminiscent of theatres in the 1930s and 1940s, and the lighting of the orchestra which sets the tone within the club.

“I wanted to really do this with a sense of style, using what I’ve learned about the art and architecture of the era to trigger similar associations in the minds of the audience,” Silver says.

“With a musical, a designer has to be able to take the audience into the emotional world of each song.”

Critical accolades for Silver’s design indicate he’s succeeded in doing just that. Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star declared: “Phillip Silver’s set is perfect – a pleasing burnished jewel box capable of a dozen subtle variations, while his lighting is richly hued, yet subtle at the same time.” NOW magazine’s Jon Kaplan praised his “elegant set” and the National Post’s Robert Cushman remarked on his “neat design.”

Silver, whose work has been seen in some 300 theatre and opera productions on major stages from coast to coast, likens the creative process to that of an architect: first designing and building scale models of the set, and then heading up a crew of scene painters and set builders to get the final product ready for opening night.

Left: Phillip Silver

“It’s a truly collaborative process,” he says. “You’ve got to work closely with the director and cast to gauge their needs, to figure out how real people will actually use the real space. But at the same time you’re also collaborating with the costume designer, sound designer and musicians so that everything is seamless.”

This integrated approach, spanning various media and modes of creativity, is reflected in Silver’s “day job” as an educator and academic administrator. As dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, encompassing dance, design, film, music, theatre, visual arts, and fine arts cultural studies, he is deeply involved in the Accolade Project, a major new construction program that will transform the Faculty.

Slated for completion in the 2005-2006 academic year, the Accolade Project will offer superb academic, exhibition and performance facilities – a total of 330,000 square feet of new space – in two buildings rising up around the fine arts complex in the heart of York’s Keele campus.

Silver is looking forward to the opening of the Accolade Project as an extension of the Faculty’s interdisciplinary mandate.

“For the first time, all the fine arts departments will be interconnected in one cluster of buildings. This sets the stage for a wonderful creative synergy. Students and faculty in all the different artistic disciplines will be able to interact and collaborate,” he says.

“The most fundamental aspect of our studio programs is that our students come away with a working knowledge of all the aspects of their field, and exposure to all the other fine arts disciplines as well. When you look at the arts nowadays, the different fields are so integrated you can’t separate them.”