Phillip Silver to take a bow after a decade as dean of fine arts

Award-winning designer Phillip Silver’s term as dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts is coming to an end, but his life as a set, costume and lighting designer will continue to flourish, fueled by his desire to create and to add to the understanding of the human condition.

"Here we are this species that learns about real life through make-believe, whether it’s a play, a film, opera or kids playing cops and robbers. We experience things through art in a very different way from how we experience them through the sciences," says Silver, whose term as dean ends the day he turns 65 – June 30, 2008.

Certain movies, for instance, can teach us about the subtleties of schizophrenia and its emotional effect on the afflicted people and those around them, as in A Beautiful Mind, or Alzheimer’s disease with the movie Away From Her. "These are the kinds of things that can only be told through the arts," says the winner of three Dora Mavor Moore Awards and four nominations, as well as the Sterling Award for Outstanding Set Design.

Right: Phillip Silver with the working set design for Rose

And this is what Silver strives to tap into, the poignancy of life, every time he designs a new set or creates the costumes or lighting for yet another play. It’s all a part of telling stories and connecting with the audience.

"I have not lost, in the 40 years I’ve been doing this, the desire to assist the audience to laugh and to cry and to help them understand life," he says. "I love to watch as part of the audience and I love to contribute to their experience when I’m working on a production."

Silver’s latest endeavor is to design the set, costumes and lighting for the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s inaugural production of Rose, which explores the life journey of an 80-something Jewish woman from Russia to the Warsaw ghetto, the doomed refugee ship Exodus and postwar Atlantic City. It is a story the character Rose tells, while in mourning, sitting alone in her home. It is touted as "a sharply drawn portrait of a feisty Jewish woman and a moving reminder of some of the tumultuous events that shaped the 20th century."

As with every new project, Silver says he takes the script and reads it in a quiet spot and tries to experience it as an audience member would. "I first read a play for the context and emotions. I try to turn off my analytical side as I want to get the subjective experience of the audience. Then I’ll bring in the analytical."

He’ll search the script for clues to what the playwright is trying to get across to the audience. Silver says it’s a bit like being a detective trying to piece everything together to come up with the right set, costumes and lighting that will enhance the story and the experience.

Left: The costume for the character of Rose.

For Rose, Silver is keeping the set pared down, being selective about what he puts on stage to allow the audience to focus on the actor. "You provide an atmosphere, an ambience. Everything that is on stage has a meaning."

As the set designer for The Sisters Rosensweig – the second production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company – Silver is creating something quite different – a busy London, England, home.

"These two plays are very different," he says. "The Sisters Rosensweig takes place on a specific street in London, two blocks from Buckingham Palace on a high-class street. The fact that the playwright put the house on a specific, well-documented street, tells you something. She wants the house to establish something about the character."

The house belongs to the sister least connected to her Jewish faith. One of the other sisters is more Orthodox, while the third is a wandering travel journalist. The Sisters Rosensweig is a comedy about the power of love, sisterhood and life, and how each sister pushes the boundaries to find her own place in the world.

In this play, there are scenic references and there are references to other works such as Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play Three Sisters. Silver says it’s important to pay attention to these subtle references when designing the set. Because the street is so well-known, Silver says he was able to look up floor plans, in York’s Scott Library, of houses located there.

Silver came to York in 1986 after working for eight years as a freelance designer based in Stratford, Ont., and 11 years as the resident designer in his home town of Edmonton for the Citadel Theatre, where he was also a consultant on the award-winning architecture of the Citadel Building. He has worked on close to 300 productions across the country, including Aspects of Love – the North American touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical; The Merchant of Venice at the Stratford Festival, Ont.; Democracy for Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg; the Canadian Opera Company production of Albert Herring; Six Degrees of Separation and Proof for CanStage, Toronto; The Marriage of Figaro for BC’s Pacific Opera Victoria; and the CanStage/Dancap production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in Toronto.

Right: A model of the working set for Rose

The Globe and Mail has described Silver’s work as "lusciously crafted" and his sets, "arresting".

"But by 1986 I was ready to share my experience through teaching and I joined York," says Silver. He became Chair of the Department of Theatre in 1992 and was appointed dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1998, but as Silver nears the end of his term, he says he is ready to start a new act in his life and is excited to see where it takes him. He is looking forward to exploring new creative ways to examine life through make-believe.

Rose, written by Martin Sherman, directed by Diana Leblanc and starring Lally Cadeau, will run from Feb. 29 to March 29 at the Arts Jane Mallet Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front St. East, Toronto.

The Sisters Rosensweig, written by Wendy Wasserstein and directed by Jim Warren, starts June 12 at the Arts Jane Mallet Theatre.

For tickets, order online at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts box office or phone 416-366-7723.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.