Designing for "Spelling Bee": Set Designer Court Watson

Months before any audience enters Ford’s Theatre for performances of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, designers read the script to create the perfect environment on stage. We recently asked Set Designer Court Watson about designing his third production for Ford’s Theatre.

Court Watson's set designs for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee".

As Watson designs, he begins with creating sketches, which become foam models, which turn into detailed set pieces. For Spelling Bee, Ford’s seemingly morphs into a school auditorium, as the production features a stage within a stage. Watson said this creates another level on the stage, which is dedicated for the production’s “fantasy break-out moments.” He said, “To pull a speller’s word from the show, we want to create syzygy between the space in which a show will be performed and the director’s vision. The architecture is so inspiring in Ford’s that it seemed natural.”

Watson even recreated a curtain that is based on 1865 photographs of Ford’s Theatre. The auditorium’s stage is draped by pleated goldenrod velour curtains—reminiscent of Watson’s own high school’s stage curtains.

Watson said it was a challenge to create a setting for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee without making the design look like a traditional musical’s set: “Without giving too much away, the very real architecture of the set needs to dissolve so we can bring the audience into the spellers’ greatest fantasies and their deepest fears.”

The cast (and audience participants: numbers 32 and 54, others) of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Peter Flynn at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Getting Started

As a child, Watson quickly realized he enjoyed the “behind-the-scenes magic” more than acting on stage. He made cardboard set models for the shows he was in while growing up in Virginia. Watson’s godmother once told him, “You know, you could make a living doing that.” The young designer was quickly hooked, and he went to study at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts, where he learned the necessary skills to become a set designer. Watson later acquired a Master’s Degree from New York University while studying with acclaimed Broadway and opera designers.

Watson has now worked all over the world, including Salzburg, Austria, where he designed scenery and costumes for The Sound of Music. Watson has been obsessed with this musical since he was a child and being a part of the design team was like a dream: “The directors and I wanted to emphasize the reality of the story in the place that it happened, and diligently recreated the house on stage.” Watson decorated the parlor room with family photos and reproductions of the characters’ belongings. An hour before the premiere, a von Trapp family decedent told Watson, “You’re the only designer to have ever gotten it so right!”

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Peter Flynn at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Watson’s incredible skill has grown from years of experiences working through the ups and downs of show business. He was an assistant set designer for the Broadway musical Little Women when the show suffered an onstage fire. Watson scurried across New York, purchasing fabrics and spending hours remaking curtains and drapes. He had about six hours to recreate a design that had taken him a month to establish on Broadway; the show was saved.

Perhaps it is Watson’s ability to think quickly on his feet that has led to his success. He usually works on three or four projects at once, all in various stages of development. His work is a collaborative effort of juggling the script’s story, the director’s vision, financial limits and the goals of his fellow designers.

At Ford’s, Watson says he feels extremely lucky to work with such a talented design and production team: “I work closely with the rest of the design team to decide together what the world of color and emotional feelings are in the world we have created… And if we do our jobs correctly, the audience just assumes that it all happened by itself.”

Learn more about The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee online: http://www.fords.org/event/25th-annual-putnam-county-spelling-bee.

Danny Dubin is Ford’s Marketing and Communication Intern and student at American University with a major in Public Communication. Originally from the Chicago area, Dubin also is a professional magician, performing for private events and functions around Washington, D.C.