If you saw Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Texas Christian University in June, and Lyric Stage’s full-orchestra revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot at the Irving Arts Center in September, you might have noticed a major similarity in their set design: a visually stunning tree with myriad roots and branches twisting in every direction.
It was, in fact, the same tree in both productions, designed by busy designer Bob Lavallee, the scenic designer for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is made with a wood structure with different sizes of Sonotube, a form for concrete, used for the coiling effect around the roots, trunk and branches.
The tree is now the center of contention between Lavallee and Lyric Producer Steven Jones that has become a conversation in the local theater community after a Facebook post by Stephen Brown-Fried, director of Midsummer. Lavallee let Jones use the tree if he could disassemble it, but is claiming that Lyric used other set pieces from Midsummer without permission, which amounts to an unethical use of adapting his set without proper credit or compensation. Jones said Lyric paid Trinity $200 for the set pieces, and has credited TSF and Lavallee appropriately.
Steven Jones saw photos of the Midsummer set when it received press in June, and asked Lavallee if he could use the tree for the design Jones had in mind for Camelot. “I called Bob Lavallee and asked him ‘do you want to adapt that Midsummer set for Camelot?’ ” Jones said, “and he said ‘I do not want to adapt it, but you can use the tree, just be sure you credit me.'"
When Lavallee saw the reviews for Camelot (directed by Len Pfluger), accompanied by photos of the tree, he noticed other pieces from the Midsummer set, including the circular platform around the tree and a doorway with its own wagon, which docks into the platform, and drapery on the doorway. The tree is not supported by the platform, and in Camelot the tree, which has its own wagon, was removed for several scenes, with the platform symbolizing King Arthur’s round table.
Lavallee said that amounts to “adapting” and that he expressly told Jones that while he could use the tree, he would not adapt the set for another production. “[Jones] did not offer me to adapt the set for Camelot, he said that he did,” Lavallee said. “I wouldn't just take a set design and adapt it for another show wholesale.”
Here’s where it gets thorny: The set designer for Camelot is billed as Cornelius Parker, and although there is no bio for him in the credits, the program does give special thanks to Trinity Shakespeare Festival and [TSF technical director] Philip Zielke, with a mention of Bob Lavallee as the tree designer. Those credits appear just under the Production Team section of the Camelot program. (See image at right.)
Turns out, Parker is a pseudonym for Jones, and has been used in one other Lyric production, Lady in the Dark in 2015, in which Jones assembled set pieces from previous shows that Lyric already had in storage.
“I pulled pieces from other shows [for Lady in the Dark],” Jones said, including Lyric’s productions of Funny Girl and The King and I, which Lyric owned. “I didn’t want to take credit for it.”
In two of the three reviews for Camelot—Wayne Lee Gay’s review on TheaterJones and my review in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—Lavallee was mentioned as the designer of the tree, and Parker was credited with the set design. The Dallas Morning News review only mentioned Parker.
Lavellee, who is not a member of the United Scenic Artists union, said the tree would have become “dumpster food,” and was glad to let Jones use it if he could get it.
Lyric, which produces in a large proscenium theater with 800 seats, frequently rents sets and backdrops from elsewhere, including Broadway and touring productions. There was only one other Camelot set available to rent, and Jones didn’t like it. The set for the most recent national tour of Camelot, Jones said, was destroyed about a year ago.
Trinity and Lyric are Equity houses and two of these most critically acclaimed theaters in Dallas-Fort Worth.
In Midsummer, the tree was black and gray with moss and some foliage; lighting design added coloration. Used for the forest and fairy scenes, a curtain track allowed for a curtain to be pulled around it for some other scenes. For Camelot, the tree and the platform were painted gold. The platform was black at TSF. Other parts of the Camelot set, including the erosion cloth hanging at the sides and various tables, chairs and other items, were Lyric’s.
“He took my design and used it without my permission and decided to credit it to a fake person,” Lavallee said. “I wouldn't have wanted credit for the [Camelot] set because I wouldn't have done the set that way.”
Lavallee said he doesn’t plan to take any action, but he’s disturbed by what he perceives as unethical practice.
“I'm not on a crusade,” he said, “I've just never run into this before I'm just shocked that someone of his caliber would do something like this.”
Jones said Lyric properly credited Lavallee and Trinity Shakespeare, and compensated TSF as agreed, and there should be no contention.