The scenography of the theater usually resides on stage, but from February 11, the Portland Chinatown Museum will soon host the exhibition Carey Wong: The World Changed. Wong has worked as a set designer for more than 45 years, and the Portland exhibit will be a retrospective that, itself, is designed as a theater set.
The idea of showcasing Wong’s life’s work came about while he was working on a permanent exhibit for the Portland Chinatown Museum titled Beyond the Gate: A History of Portland’s Chinatowns. “Jackie Peterson Loomis, curator of the exhibit and founding executive director of the Chinatown Museum, heard about me from someone in Portland, and she pursued me relentlessly until I agreed to design the exhibition,” Wong said. “I’m so glad I agreed to do it.”
Wong’s talent in the theater translated well to the museum’s depiction of Portland’s Chinatown. “From the start, Jackie wanted the design of the exhibit to be dramatic,” Wong recalls. “She wanted to evoke different moods as the viewer walked through the installation.”
The Chinatowns facility included a variety of historic settings, ranging from haberdashery, restaurant, laundry, herbalism, and game parlor. “I used tinted historic photographs as the background for each so there was visual context for the exhibits, and we asked lighting designer Geof Korf from the UW School of Drama to create mood lighting for the exhibit,” Wong said. “So designing the exhibit was like designing a theater set.”
Wong felt a personal connection to the exhibition socially and professionally. “I was able to reconnect with friends and colleagues I hadn’t seen since high school,” he said. “It was a real homecoming and a chance to reconnect with my Chinese heritage.”
Following the success of beyond the door, Wong and Loomis began planning to feature Wong’s work. “The last exhibition of my work was in the mid-1990s, when a group of my scale models with text panels toured the United States in an exhibition called Recreated Worlds for five years, sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts,” Wong recalled. “It struck me that The World Transformed could also be a model set exhibition because a lot of people are fascinated by miniatures.”
The exhibition will include 16 models covering a period of 40 years. “The first is the Don Giovanni that I did for the Portland Opera,” Wong said, “and the most recent is a show I did for the Seattle Repertory Theater in 2020 that was canceled due to of the pandemic.”
This time travel brings Wong back to his earliest stage memories. “I think I became aware of the scenography of films like The Wizard of Oz or some of those almost surreal Busby Berkeley production numbers in 1930s musicals,” he said.
But it wasn’t until his final year of college at Yale that he had the opportunity to dedicate independent study to a single project. “I produced, made and designed a 17th century Stuart court mask written by Ben Jonson titled Newes from the New World Discover’d in the Moone“, he reported. “With that, my interest in theater design was unleashed.”
Wong’s further training was sporadic. “I attended the Yale School of Drama, now called the David Geffen School of Drama, for only a year and took time off because I didn’t feel prepared for a master’s program in theater design,” he said. -he declares. “I had never taken drama or art classes in high school or college, so I was really green.”
He considers himself lucky to have subsequently had the opportunity to conceive an opera on speculation for the Portland Opera. “The general manager of the company liked my set design for Der Freischutz, so my design was built,” he said. “I was offered a job at the Portland Opera and worked there for 8 seasons and designed 12 shows. I consider it my version of higher education, learning by doing.
Serving Portland Opera as resident designer and production manager was a growth experience for Wong. “The important things I learned were to stay creatively flexible and nimble, to be adventurous and try different materials, techniques and approaches, and to treat set design as puzzle solving,” said he recounted. “Often the simplest and most elegant solution is the best.”
The transition to self-employment also posed its challenges. “You have to be good at multitasking and time management. In the beginning, you work to make sure enough people know about you and hire you so you can make a reasonable living,” Wong said. “Once you’re known, the challenge is to be able to design multiple projects at the same time that are in different stages of development.”
Throughout her career, Wong has also taught as an adjunct member of the University of Puget Sound’s Theater Department and Seattle University’s Department of Fine Arts, as well as at the University of Washington. . “What I love about teaching is seeing the energy, enthusiasm and ingenuity of young creatives who will find new ways to look at and interpret dramatic works using all the tools at their disposal to execute their ideas,” he said. noted. “They give me more energy.”
Wong encourages his students to go beyond the simple visual in their creations. “I want them to read scripts carefully and be able to articulately analyze them and the ideas they contain,” he said. “I hope they are able to translate the essential ideas of a play, opera, ballet or work conceived in their design rather than simply creating a decorative container for the artwork.”
Of the many sets Wong has created over the decades, one of his favorites is a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with a Dia de los Muertos setting, designed for the Portland Opera. “Meanwhile, the legend of Don Juan is re-enacted in street theater and puppet shows, and the idea that the Commendatore could be a mummy in a niche, like those in Guanajuato, instead of a statue of stone made perfect sense,” Wong describes. “I conceived of this show in 1980, a time when Day of the Dead was barely known in America, so our production had a new and fresh approach to it.”
Like his individual sets, Wong hopes his next showcase exhibition will have compelling travel appeal. “I hope this exhibit will be picked up by a museum in the Puget Sound area so it can be seen by patrons in Seattle,” he said. “I have contacted Wing Luke about this and will continue to try to find a venue to show it in this area after it closes in Portland.”
Carey Wong: The World Transformed will be on display from April 2 to September 10, 2022 at the Portland Chinatown Museum, 127 NW Third Avenue, Portland.