A theater designer exits the scene

“Being polite is the death of theater,” advises Ming Cho Lee.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Ming Cho Lee got his start working for a stage designer for no pay, but he went to work each day “acting like a designer” and soon found himself with a job. View full image

Ming Cho Lee barely got a bite of vegetable lo mein at New York’s Jing Fong restaurant on January 19. As guest of honor at a dinner celebrating his retirement, the recipient of the National Medal of the Arts and winner of two Tony awards for theater design listened intently, head tilted slightly downward, eyes occasionally closed, as well-wishers either delivered speeches of thanks from the stage or gushed as they grabbed his hand.

Around 300 former students came out for the dinner in honor of Lee’s 48 years as a teacher—43 of those years as chair or cochair of the design department—at the Yale School of Drama. “He was mobbed by people, so I said hello, grasped his hands, and told him how wonderful it was to have been his student,” said Derek McLane ’84MFA, veteran designer of the past five Academy Award productions and of hundreds of Broadway, off-Broadway, and television productions around the world.

School of Drama dean James Bundy ’95MFA announced a scholarship and an endowed chair in the name of this “incomparable teacher, mentor, and designer.” Party favors given to the guests displayed two of Lee’s familiar maxims for students (widely known as “Lee-isms”). “Don’t be afraid to be real” was inscribed on a paintbrush pen, and “Being polite is the death of theater” on a wooden ruler.

An immigrant from China, Lee arrived in New York in 1949 and started as an assistant to acclaimed stage designer Jo Mielziner (Death of a Salesman and South Pacific). “I went to Mielziner speaking almost no English, and he said to me, ‘You paint very well, but you don’t know what the hell is going on. You can work for me, but I can’t pay you,’” Lee told the audience. He went to work each day “acting like a designer,” he said, and Mielziner “soon decided I deserved pay—$75 a week, a lot of money back then.” (For more on Lee’s life, see “Framing Space, Using Light,” Yale Alumni Magazine, January/February 2014.)

Lee spoke for about an hour, chronicling his adventures in the San Francisco Opera, with Joseph Papp at the Public Theater, and on Broadway. After nearly five hours of revelry, guests walked out of the restaurant crunching on custom-made chocolate-covered fortune cookies. In lieu of a fortune, the cookies offered one more Lee-ism: “Put it aside, go have a whiskey, and come back to it.”

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