The life of an artist has a natural ebb and flow. Providence-based set designer Patrick Lynch’s life certainly does; he’s coming off a stretch where it seemed like his work was everywhere. This spring, you could see actors slamming doors and pacing around rooms he designed during the runs of A Flea in Her Ear at Trinity Rep and The House of Blue Leaves at The Gamm.
“My one rule I have for myself is that I always have to have something with my name on it booked. I never want to not have an upcoming job as a designer and only be an associate designer, even for a day,” he says. “For 15 years or so, that’s worked out.”
Patrick is going to get a bit of a breather. The next project he’s got coming up is The Winter’s Tale at The Gamm in April 2016. But by no means does that mean he doesn’t still have his work cut out for him. When he talks about being an associate designer, he’s referring to his longstanding job as associate/assistant designer for the Tony Award-winning Eugene Lee. Eugene, the resident set designer at Trinity Repertory Company and resident of the East Side, is perhaps best known as the production designer for Saturday Night Live, the musicals Wicked and Sweeney Todd and a host of other theatrical work all around the globe. Patrick has worked for Eugene since 2001, when an only-in-Rhode-Island connection brought them together.
Like many designers in the profession, Patrick started out the only way a theater geek could – as an actor. “I was awful at acting,” he admits with the ease of someone who has found his true calling.
In high school, he used to do plays with what was then called Fantasyworks, where he first tried his hand at set design. “The Fantasyworks administrative people were like, ‘you should look at doing scenery things. There are other people who can act better,’” he says, laughing. “So I had a ‘design.’ Really, everyone’s first design is basically just figuring out what to paint on flat walls, which is not design.”
Nevertheless, via Eugene’s younger son, Teddy, who attended Wheeler, the Lees happened to be in the audience at a Fantasyworks production one summer. “Eugene Lee is here,” Patrick recalls someone saying. “Do you know who that is? You should go talk to him.”
“I was a dorky enough theater kid to watch the Tony’s, and I was familiar with his work. So I met him after the show, and he told me to give him a call,” Patrick says. “When I was in college at URI, there wasn’t a ton to do in Narragansett, so I would go up to Thayer Street. That’s when I bumped into him near his house. He asked me what I was doing the next day. I said, ‘nothing.’”
He took Eugene up on his invitation to come visit his studio the next day, and he’s been working for him ever since. He started from the bottom – building, at first, not the tiny scale models that he now trades in as a working set designer, but the audience risers that go in those models, or the walls of the empty model boxes. “Until you learn how to make a straight cut with an X-acto knife and don’t stab yourself, that’s what you do,” he says.
Now, Patrick works Monday through Friday in Eugene’s studio, doing whatever needs doing – keeping things running while Eugene is away, drafting a show, building a model, organizing the archives or jetting off to supervise tech at an out-of-state theater.
Working with Eugene has been instrumental in Patrick’s development. And having what amounts to a celebrity in the quiet world of behind-the-scenes artists on your side never hurts. But clearly, Patrick has developed a name for himself in Providence: his own network deepening far beyond Eugene’s tutelage. For instance, a longstanding collaboration with the actor and director Fred Sullivan Jr. has borne much fruit for Patrick at both major theaters in town, and he quotes Glengarry Glen Ross at The Gamm as one of his most valuable local experiences.
“I approach set design primarily as an audience member,” he explains of his design ethos, which can be wildly varied in tone – I’ve seen him bright and bubbly in the madcap mod romp Boeing Boeing at Trinity and appropriately dark and brooding in A Christmas Carol, of all things, at the same. “I ask myself, ‘What’s the best possible experience that an audience member can get during this play?’”
Hearing this, it’s no surprise that he’s interested in applications of his craft beyond the stage. For a working artist in a smaller market than say, New York or Los Angeles, this flexibility is particularly important. “I’m lucky – I’m a set designer, and the skill set isn’t quite so specific and limited. You find yourself being able to function in a bunch of different circles,” he says of his interest in architecture, interior design, and the like. “I’d consider doing restaurants, or an agreeable person’s living room.”