Chatting with Janie Howland, Scenic Designer

We talked with Janie Howland, the scenic designer of Pacific Overtures!

What Lyric Stage shows have you worked on before?

JH: I’ve been working at the Lyric Stage for 25 years. I’ve done
at least two shows a season. So, it has to be at least 50 and a few
more—maybe 60. In fact, I did my first professional show ever at
the Lyric Stage and Spiro directed it.

What excites and challenges you about of Pacific Overtures?

JH: Pacific Overtures is difficult. In the beginning of the script,
Sondheim alludes to Kabuki Theater and so we started there, but
this space physically doesn’t lend itself to that and I question why
we are referencing it at all? It feels so separate from American
theater, and it’s so stylized—I feel like it would alienate the
audiences a little bit. If we’re trying to tell a real story about
something that’s important—which in this case is people
overcoming other people and imposing their culture on them—
then it feels like Kabuki is not going to help us. So then putting
that aside it becomes a challenge of “okay, well what story
are we telling? And how do we keep it Japanese but make it

How many different theaters do you work at in a year? How many shows do you design?

JH: I design, on average, ten shows a year. But the Lyric Stage
is home. The Lyric Stage has always been home. I know the
space. I dream the space.

What’s your favorite space to work in?

JH: The Lyric Stage!

You don’t have to say that! (But of course we’re thrilled that you did.)

JH: I love three-quarter thrust because I love the intimacy
and I love pushing the set out to the audience.

What’s your process like?

JH: Once I am hired, I read the script, listen to the music, and just
feel it. I don’t get into specifics of “there has to be a door, there has
to be….” I just ask what does this play feel like? I do what’s called
an emotional response. It’s any kind of creative regurgitation. I
tend to make little sculptures but when I teach I tell my students
they can do anything—compose a song, do a movement piece, etc.
Then I present it to the director as my initial “this is how I feel about
the play” and it becomes a jumping off point for further discussion.

Does it change for you when you read a play or musical that
you’ve never read or worked on before versus one you’re
familiar with or have worked on before?

JH: If it’s within a particularly small timeframe, it will be hard to
have a different response to it. I did A Streetcar Named Desire
twice a year apart and the directors brought completely opposite
concepts. In the first production the focus was how the outside
world impacted Blanche, and how the color, light, and noise
really pressed on her. With the second one, the director was really
interested in it being an internal monologue from Blanche—
almost like she dreamed it happened. And it was much more
abstract and (I think) a better design. The first one won multiple
awards; it was beautiful, it was huge—it was a classic Streetcar.
But the second one was more interesting. I didn’t go into the
second one with a different emotional response, but the director
took it in a whole different direction.

What inspires you as an artist?

JH: Anything visual can inspire you. Sometimes I walk around
outside and look up at the buildings. If you look up instead of
down, there’s beautiful architecture in Boston. My favorite art
movements are Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and Van Gogh is my
favorite painter because he’s very expressionistic. I always go to
art—I go to sculpture and painting for inspiration

More About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.

“Musical theater at its most intellectually challenging.  Extraordinary songs!”   – NY Times

“It’s enthralling to see Sondheim’s songs work so magically well!” – Huffington Post

About Janie E. Howland, Scenic Design

Janie E. Howland** (Scenic Design) has called the Lyric Stage home for 25 years, having recently designed Little Foxes and Anna Christie. Other recent designs: Nat Turner in Jerusalem (ASP), Caroline or Change (Moonbox), Art Makes Sense CONSENSES Exhibit (Mass MOCA), Madeline’s Christmas (BCT), Urban Nutcracker (City Ballet). Other venues: Lynn Redgrave Theatre (NY), Emerson Majestic, New Rep, Weston Playhouse, North Shore Music Theatre, Odyssey Opera, Central Square Theatre, Gloucester Stage, SpeakEasy Stage, Ohio Star Theatre, A.R.T. Institute, Boston Conservatory, Company One, Greater Boston Stage Company, Seacoast Rep, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Huntington Theatre Studio 210. Brandeis University M.F.A.; four-time Elliot Norton Award winner, four-time IRNE Award winner, adjunct faculty at Emerson College, Wellesley College. USA Local 829.