Beowulf Boritt is an Obie Award-winning set designer who has worked with such theater luminaries as Harold Prince, James Lapine, and Susan Stroman. He currently has one show running on Broadway — “Rock of Ages” — and he has several other New York productions in the works. A Vassar College graduate with a master’s degree in theater design from New York University, he is well known for his whimsical gymnasium set for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on Broadway and elsewhere. He has designed for storefront theaters, off-Broadway and regional theaters, and huge arenas. In 2007, he designed the set for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he is back to design its production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which begins performances Saturday on Boston Common.
Q. What prompted you to return to Commonwealth Shakespeare Company?
A. I did “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for them a couple of years ago. It was the first outdoor show I had ever done, and I loved working with [founding artistic director] Steve Maler. I love doing Shakespeare. And I was born in Concord. I didn’t grow up in Boston, but it has always been home for me. That was the main reason. I never actually lived there, but my grandmother lived in Bolton, and now she is in a retirement home in Concord.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Q. Can you talk about the concept for “Two Gentlemen of Verona”?
A. Steve came to me with the idea that he wanted to do it in a Las Vegas-type setting, largely because you have a couple of characters in a comedy behaving rather badly. That was his attempt to wrestle with that issue in the text, to put it in a place where there is some license to act badly. We are setting it in the ’50s, in the Rat Pack era. That was the jumping-off point. The thing that strikes me about Las Vegas is all that flash and trash. That is what the set is trying to do. We have this big curved surface that can become the Las Vegas Strip. It is full of light boxes that can light up like neon signs. If we had a huge budget, we would have used neon, but it’s expensive.
Q. What’s different about designing a set for an outdoor space like the Common?
A. The big thing I took away from “Midsummer” is the scale of the thing. When you get 10,000 people out there, they can hear just fine, but they are not going to see much. It needs to be a large image, something that can pull your eye from a long way, but not too busy because you can’t see those details. With “Midsummer,” I walked around the periphery of the crowd with my dog.
Q. There’s a dog named Crab in “Two Gentlemen.”
A. My wife [Mimi Bilinski] is an actress who is in the play, and I jokingly said we should have our dog audition. They wanted an ugly dog, and we have a toy poodle. She is not ugly, and she is not well behaved, so I’m not sure how she would do onstage. My dog’s name is Hermione. We named her after the queen in “Winter’s Tale.”
Q. Speaking of names, yours is a bit unusual.
A. It is my honest, God-given name. My father is Hungarian, and he came to the US as a teenager. I joke that he didn’t have a good grasp of American names. People in New York call me Wolfie, and growing up, I was called Norse, which was my mother’s maiden name.
Q. Were you ever teased about it?
A. I can only remember once as a child being teased about it. Maybe that’s because I am not very impressive. I don’t look like a Beowulf, for better or worse.
Q. How many projects do you have going at the same time?
A. A little too many, right at this minute. I do 20 projects a year. I am doing a play called “Bronx Bombers” about the New York Yankees. I told them I was from Boston! I went to a Yankees game and someone took a picture and put it on Facebook. My family said, “What are you doing? How can you do that?”
Q. You’ve also designed sets for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
A. My first question was, “How big does a door have to be for an elephant to come through with a person on top?” But I’ve had bigger budgets for a Broadway musical. The circus can reuse a lot of stuff. When you do a big Broadway musical, you are talking millions of dollars for the scenery.
Q. What’s your budget for “Two Gentlemen”?
A. About $40,000, which is respectable. The sets have to be big, so it gets eaten up quickly, just by the acreage of scenery. It’s funny: My first job was in the South Bronx, a little 75-seat theater over a grocery store. It was called the Belmont Italian American Playhouse. I have a great fondness for it. It was tiny. We could fill it up with scenery on a limited budget. That launched my professional career.
Q. Will you be here to see “Two Gentlemen”?
A. I will be there for the technical rehearsals. I almost always stay around. Theater at its best doesn’t pay that well. The point of doing it is because it’s fun, and part of the fun is being there.
Q. But you’ve been very successful.
A. You just don’t get rich on it. A Broadway show pays a lot of money, but you work your tail off on it. When you get shows that run on Broadway and have tours and international productions, you make some money. I have been lucky to have a few of those. I tell students, if you care about money, don’t go into the arts.
Q. Did anyone give you advice when you were a student?
A. I had a lot of people advise me when I was starting out. The one thing they all told me was, “You have to be pushy to be in the theater, and the polite rules in the rest of the world don’t apply.” I am not naturally that way. It is self-promotion, and it is embarrassing. I have to step out of myself to do it. In any normal society, it feels like you’re bragging.
Q. Are there gigs you’ve gotten that surprised you?
A. The circus is one of them that never occurred to me. Also, I did “Spelling Bee,” and my spelling is atrocious! The irony of me doing a play about a spelling bee is outrageous. And “Rock of Ages” is a musical with ’80s heavy metal music, and I remember that the guys who listened to that were the guys who beat me up in high school.
Q. They beat you up? Because of your name?
A. Not literally, but I was always scared of those guys. In the pecking order, I was at the bottom. My name didn’t intimidate them because they didn’t know what it meant.
Q. I always wonder how designers live. What is your apartment like?
A. My furniture came out of my grandmother’s house, Victorian antiques and Oriental rugs. The look is gentlemen’s club. My design style is minimalistic. My home is not so much that. If I had a 10-room apartment, I would have one very modern room, with a couple of slick pieces, but I wouldn’t want to live in it.