The set designer and Yale professor Ming Cho Lee is officially synonymous with excellence in theatrical design.
Last week at the Palm West Side restaurant, Lee was recognized for lifetime achievement as part of the annual Henry Hewes Design Awards. Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, a professor of theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the Hewes Design chairman, announced that future lifetime achievers will be given an award named after Lee.
In an interview, Jenkins cited both Lee’s teaching and his influential sets for roughly 300 productions in theater, dance and opera, including at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park under Joseph Papp. (In 2013, Lee won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.) For 48 years, through 2017, he taught at the Yale School of Drama, most of those years as the design department chairman or co-chair.
“He said, ‘there’s always room for better design,'” said Riccardo Hernández, a scenic designer and 1992 Yale School of Drama graduate. Hernández added that Lee encouraged his students to treat design as a philosophical art form when wrestling with the intention of a playwright.
“He was aware that nothing stays the same,” said Hernández, who now teaches at Yale. “Theater, like life, is always in flux. As you age and acquire experience, you see classic plays you thought you knew very differently.”
The other new Hewes honorees: sound designer Palmer Hefferan (Today Is My Birthday for Page 73 Productions); David Zinn (set design for SpongeBob SquarePants ); Emily Rebholz (costume design for The Low Road at the Public Theater) and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting design for KPOP at Ars Nova).
The Hewes awards are quite competitive. Works on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway are all eligible.
Lee had a close association with Henry Hewes, the late drama critic for the Saturday Review, who had a special interest in both set design and the design of theaters. Hewes’ family funds the awards, following decades of support by the American Theatre Wing.
Among his many accomplishments, Henry Hewes founded the American Theatre Critics Association, in 1974, the only national association of professional theatre critics. In a fascinating career footnote, Hewes encouraged Tennessee Williams to adapt a short story by the playwright into what became Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 drama.
Below is an excerpt of a documentary-in-progress by Marty New, a Yale School of Drama graduate who over 12 years shot 800 hours of Lee’s classes as well as interviews with him and former students and colleagues. (Note: this story was updated with comments by Riccardo Hernández.)