Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.
NOTE: If you are nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Few artists have inspired us in 2015 as much as Nate Bertone. A senior at Carnegie Mellon University, Nate made history as the youngest designer ever at the North Shore Music Theatre in the summer 2015, designing sets for both Shrek: The Musical and Sister Act: The Musical. His set for Shrek: The Musical was immersive and visually stunning, surprising the audience with creative uses of North Shore Music Theatre's theatre-in-the-round space.
In addition to working as a Scenic Designer, Nate is also a successful playwright, earning a Broadway World nomination for his original play with music Letters From War, which premiered at Salem Theatre Company in May 2015.
In his Interview, Nate discusses his process for designing the set for Shrek: The Musical; some of his mentors (including directors, designers, and playwrights); and his motto for life that will inspire you!
Hi, Nate, and thanks for joining us for our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, Brian! My pleasure! Thank you for having me!
Although I am a Scenic Designer by trade, I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. I grew up in Massachusetts, and I attended North Shore Music Theatre from my childhood onward. The majority of my artistic understanding of theatre began at NSMT, and designing my first show here felt like, after years and years of studying, I was taking my first exam. You could say I’m happy that it went over well!
Tell us about the process for getting selected to design the set for the North Shore Music Theatre as a college student. What were some of the challenges? What did you learn?
[Designing this set] never would have happened without Kevin P. Hill, Karen Nascembeni, or Bill Hanney. These three people became mentors to me, and with their faith in my work ethic and creative talents, they allowed me to design my first show at NSMT.
Any of the challenges along the way came from being abroad in London, England during the design process. Time zone differences and Skype made for some long nights of work, but each and every night left me creatively fulfilled. I had never had that experience before.
The artistic side of the show came to us rather fluidly, as Shrek is one story that I have always loved. Working with Director Michael Heitzman, the creative team, and NSMT, to create this world was one of the most rewarding experiences. With each decision, we learned how to best tell the story of Shrek, and, in the end, I fell in love with the story all over again.
What was your favorite part of the many different sets involved in the production?
Without a doubt, my favorite part of the set for Shrek: The Musical was one of the elements of surprise. Towards the end of Act I and throughout Act II, there are several moments where we are transported into the swamp at night. For this production, we were able to turn the theatre into a swamp by placing the world of the swamp above and around the audience. The vines and slime that hung above the audience were all strung with hidden incandescent strands of fairy lights, which, when used for the first time, transformed the air space of the theatre into a star-filled sky.
The moment that I walked into the theatre for the first time with these [lights] on is a moment I will never forget.
I know that you are also a playwright. How does being involved in multiple parts of the artistic process (from playwriting to directing to designing) inform your work in the other areas?
Yes! To me, playwriting, directing, and designing all come at the same time (in my head). When working on a new play, I start with the visual world that the characters inhabit. I tend to figure out what the characters look like and how they interact with their world, even before I write the dialogue. However, often, once I have created a world, the development of the characters alters the way that I see the world. As a designer, I always start from the depth of the text, and as a writer, I always start from the depth of the world around the characters.
Who are some of your artistic mentor and idols? Why? What have you learned from them?
Kevin P. Hill has been a mentor of mine for the past three years. I was introduced to Kevin by my other mentor, Karen Nascembeni, and, from the beginning, both of these brilliant minds supported me 110%. Taking a chance on the youngest designer in NSMT history was one of the most telling moments of my career to date – sometimes, when someone believes in you, that’s all it takes.
Leah Miles is the person who once told me to “[R]un towards the things that scare you the most.” As a mentor and a friend, I am inspired by Leah’s passion for storytelling and ability to capture a world thru character’s voices. Leah was one of the first reasons I wanted to become a playwright and designer.
Beowulf Boritt took me under his wing when I first moved to New York City. Watching Beowulf create the worlds of Little Miss Sunshine and his Tony-winning Act One, I was inspired to push myself to create worlds as vivid as the one’s he dreamed up.
A couple of my idols include director/designer John Doyle, production/scenic designer Derek McLane, playwright/director David Mamet, and of course, Walt Disney. Each of these storytellers has taught me much of what I know, simply by observing their work from afar.
What is the biggest challenge that you have overcome?
Being in London while designing two of the largest musicals of my career (for American theaters) was one of the toughest, but most rewarding experiences. There was rarely a moment to sit and relax, and the mind was constantly churning with design ideas and the sights and sounds of England, but, in the end, this experience was the most rewarding challenge thus far.
You’re taking me out on the town. You choose the town and destination points. What are we doing for our hot date?
Saint James Park (in the early Spring)
A traditional British dinner…and a show!
London is my favorite place (that I have spent time in) on the Earth. I would love to hear your thoughts on the theatre and culture!
Tell us a funny story about your time in the theatre.
When I was younger, I was auditioning with a group of performer friends (that had been in the show before), and I had the chance to learn the choreography for the audition. When I got through the vocal section of the audition and into the dance, everyone else started to dance, and I was so intimidated by how good everyone else was that I simply said “thank you” and walked out.
That was pretty much the end of my performing career.
Talk to us about your website. Why did you decide to design it? How did you figure out what to include? Why is it important?
One of the many upsides of learning the programs to create your own digital portfolio is that you can constantly add and alter your portfolio as you continue to evolve as an artist. I operate my own portfolio so that I have control over what is made available to audiences; if someone needs to see something specific, I can add it at any time! It is really convenient to know the ins and outs of your digital portfolio!
What is the program like at Carnegie Mellon? What types of students would you encourage to apply? What is one of the most valuable lessons that you have learned? What would you recommend for future students?
Rigorous. Exhausting. Challenging. Incredible.
Carnegie Mellon has allowed me to explore areas of the arts that I hadn’t known to be possible. I would encourage young artists who are ready to be challenged every hour of the day to apply to CMU. Carnegie Mellon is incredible, but you truly have to work harder than you ever have before.
The greatest lesson I learned while at CMU is that theatre cannot be treated like sports – it is not a competition. Theatre should come from the head, heart, and soul. When you mix that with “who will win,” you often lose touch with the heart of the work.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I will be opening my final production at Carnegie Mellon University later this month. I am the scenic designer for Hydrogen Jukebox.
I am also working on producing readings of my play Letters From War in NYC and Pittsburgh in 2016.
Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?
I live and work by the motto, “Run towards the things that scare you the most.” If you are not constantly challenged, you are not pushing your abilities. I truly believe, at least for me, that if you are not uncomfortable, you are not at your best.