Who: Joe Stewart
What: Set designer
Where: Los Angeles
Connection to New Orleans: He was born and raised in Lafayette, LA; and he is currently in the process of restoring a historic home (The Eagle Hotel) in Washington, LA
Q: Who had something as a kid that you always admired or wanted?
JS: I haven’t thought about this for awhile, but I always wanted a bicycle like my friend had. I always had a thick, clunky bicycle, and he had an English racer. It looked faster to me.
I used to love to ride my bicycle, and I’m not exactly sure how this came to be, but I must have said something to my parents because they got me one. You see, dreams really do come true. [Laughing].
So then I had this really sexy English racer with all these fancy gears, and I could ride around the neighborhood with my dog. I was only allowed to ride a certain distance from my house, but as I got older and showed more responsibility, that distance would expand.
I grew up in Lafayette and spent a moment of time in New Orleans, but the bike riding really happened in Lafayette, and I went everywhere.
Q: What is your anti-spirit animal?
JS: I don’t really ever think about my spirit animal. I pretty much like all animals, so this is not the easiest question for me to answer. I love animals that fly and swim. I even like sharks. I also really love funny animals like octopuses.
In California, we were watching this octopus actually escape from his cage. He knew how to unscrew a cab with his little suction cups and the tiny part of his arms. Well, he unscrewed whatever he needed to, got out of his cage, and no one knew where he went to.
When I saw that, I thought, ‘That’s pretty good.’ But the fact that an octopus can also compress and expand according to where it wants to go is so clever. I’m impressed with that.
But for an anti-spirit animal…I guess, who likes scorpions? No one likes scorpions, and I don’t have any scorpion-like tendencies. No stingers here.
Q: What city would you most like to put into a set design?
JS: Great cities have wonderful design opportunities, so if it doesn’t have to be an American city, then I would say The City of Lights. Paris. That is a wonderful city to design because there’s great architecture, the city is so well-conceived, and there are so many opportunities.
Another beautiful city to put on stage is Rome. There’s a lot of meat and potatoes in Italian design. It’s intricate and amazing.
Negative space can be wonderful to work with as well. Negative space is incredibly important on the stage, and in some cases it becomes your friend because it allows the lighting designer to do graphics with the lights. You get to see something against the darkness. There is a lot of designing that can happen with negative space when you consider the lighting element.
I have a set for the ESPY awards that is a complete exercise in negative space. When the lights are off, everyone is convinced that there isn’t anything there. They think nothing has been put up for the set, but when the lights come on, everything completes itself. The lighting designer for that set is brilliant. He understands where to fill-in with light.
When designing, you talk with and collaborate with the director first and foremost, but when it comes to the physical world, you have to have a great relationship with your lighting designer because if the lights aren’t on something, you can’t see it. You can make something look completely two-dimensional and then when you put lighting on it in a particular way, the audience can start discovering three-dimensional elements to it. It’s one of the more magical elements. Something about building color in the air sets a mood that you weren’t expecting. It can surprise you.
What I’m saying is never make the lighting director upset, especially if you’re an actor. [Laughing]. The lighting director can change whether you look good or not.
Q: What do you feel like is too small in the world?
JS: Not everyone is going to agree with me, but this new trend of tiny houses doesn’t allow any room for decor. I’m a big fan of chairs and decorations, and those houses are just too small for me to get in there and design. There’s no opportunity for wallpaper.
I need a large space for work because I need a big table for my drawings and such, but for actually living in a tiny house, that would not be a problem. I could eat at a little table. I could sleep in a little bed. None of that is a problem for me. It’s just the decorating.
And it’s funny because I’m restoring the oldest house in Washington, LA. It was a hotel known as The Eagle Hotel and then it was called the Schultz House. It’s two buildings that are next to each other, and let me tell you, these houses are not tiny.
It’s two structures. One is an Acadian Beaujolais house, and the other is a Georgian brick house that is right up against it. The restoration was started by James Fontenot, who passed away. He taught me choir when I was a little boy, and I was scared that the house would be torn down for its materials after he passed. I went in and got it. When I walked into it for the first time, there were birds flying around in it. [Laughing]. I’ve been working on the place for nine years now. There aren’t birds flying around on the inside anymore.
Q: How do you know it’s a good time to pull a prank?
JS: Oh, to me, it’s always a good time. [Laughing]. You just have to remember and be careful that everyone is going to enjoy a prank. If you are a prankster, though, anytime is a good time for a prank.
And it’s funny because I have played so many pranks, but I don’t really have a favorite or ultimate prank. There are some that always amuse me. You know those peanut can snakes? Those always amuse me, and they never fail. They always work on people. When the spring snake comes out, I just think it’s the most hilarious thing on Earth. I can still get those can snakes at Hollywood Toys, and it’s one of the greatest things in life.
You can learn more about Joe Stewart and his work on his website. Also, Joe Stewart’s set design will be the backbone for the production of Jambalaya, the new musical making its New Orleans premiere. Jambalaya is opening on Wednesday, November 30 at the Orpheum Theater, and it will have a seven-day run as well as additional New Orleans performances on December 1, 2, 3 and 21, 22 and 23. You can purchase tickets here.