He Has Larger Designs on the Stage : Tony Walton, an award-winning craftsman of sets and costumes, has donned a new role: director.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

For more than four decades, designer Tony Walton has worked for some of the best directors in show business--Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Jerry Zaks, Tommy Tune, to name just a few. His sets and costumes have appeared on numerous Broadway stages, in European and American opera houses and in ballet as well as film productions.

A 1991 inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame, Walton, 64, has three Tonys, an Oscar and an Emmy and has been nominated many more times than that. Yet he's not a household name, nor is he the kind of man who wants to rest on his laurels, considerable though they may be. In fact, Walton recently embarked on a new phase in his illustrious career--as a director. He's staging "Missing Footage," a play by Gen LeRoy, his wife, at the Old Globe. The show opens Saturday and tells the story of a controversial ballerina who has reached the pinnacle of her art and yet must now make some tough personal choices.

Seated in an empty rehearsal room after a full day's work, the genial and thoroughly unpretentious Walton explains the logic of his new role. "It's actually not that different, in that as a designer you are trying to think like a director in order to best serve your director's view of the play," he says, punctuating his discourse with rolling laughs that are as robust as his speaking voice is soft.

"Hopefully you're not trying to splash your signature up onstage," he says of his design experience. "You're trying to serve the piece, which is, of course, the same attitude the director goes in with. In your head you slightly stage it, because you need to be sure the director can find ways of using it so the relationships and the geography all work out well dramatically for the special alphabet of the piece.

"But the difference for me as a director is that [as a designer] I'm used to living with this state of anxiety of 'are we on the right track?' Or trying to keep it channeled toward a communal vision of the piece. As a director, not only, bizarrely, is everybody trying to help you--which is not always the case when you're designing things--but the feedback is instant, for good or ill. Even if you're wrong, that's what you receive. So it's a very moment-by-moment satisfying and enjoyable experience."

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Walton is finding his current project particularly satisfying, professionally and personally. The play, which is author-screenwriter LeRoy's second, was inspired by a ballet dancer friend. "I actually lived with her and her husband whenever I was working in England, when I was going back and forth," says Walton of the woman, who has since died. "She was very inspirational to me."

In "Missing Footage," fictional ballerina Julianna Ricci (played by former dancer Tanya Gingerich) has come under fire for her nontraditional approach to classical roles. At the beginning of the play, she is recuperating from a nervous breakdown and trying to decide what course her future should take.

To Walton, the most compelling topic within the drama involves the inevitable trade-offs that brilliant creative talents often face. "Artists, in general, or anyone who really strives for perfection in this world, tend to have a very narrow focus," he says. "And when the person reaches their peak, then gets sidelined for a moment, sometimes they can go back into it and sometimes they can't go back. It's partly the ones that are really perfectionists [for whom] it's not acceptable to go back and just be good."

Then too, there is the matter of Walton's connection to the playwright. They've been together for more than 25 years--although the number-shy LeRoy, who joins her husband midway through the interview, shushes Walton before he can say exactly how long it has been.

They have about them the air of affectionate and respectful longtime colleagues. Indeed, their coupleness seems almost inseparable from their professional collaboration. "They are probably the two healthiest people in terms of a couple that I've ever known in my life," says Old Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien. "You instantly believe in family values, communication, sanity. There's something so ineffably sweet about these people, let alone that they're both so intelligent and talented."

LeRoy had wanted Walton to direct her first play, "Not Waving," when it premiered in Florida in 1996, but the designer demurred. "He objected, he really did," says LeRoy, recalling Walton's initial reluctance to direct for her.

"She did sort of ask a couple of times, but I thought that was a lethally dangerous thing to do," Walton says. "Anyway, during that time that she was first saying she would like me to consider directing, there was all that stuff going on still about to what degree the director's imperative was permissible."

Walton did, however, agree to take the helm when "Missing Footage" had its premiere in Nyack, N.Y., this spring. "I got him in a corner with my hands to his throat, and I shook him," deadpans LeRoy, a petite blond who has written and illustrated award-winning children's books, co-authored cookbooks and penned a number of screenplays, including Disney's "Rock 'n' Roll Mom," from 1988, and others she won't name.

"I had to, because he's so much involved in this, and I trust him. I mean, all those years. He has all that knowledge, and you can't have that anywhere [else]."

"It turned out to be fabulous that the first living, breathing playwright that I [directed] was somebody that I am close to and believe in and trust," Walton says. "Even as a designer, I guess that's the biggest thrill, to actually be part of the birth of a new piece of work. Of course working on classics and operas and ballets and so on can be fabulous, especially if there's music involved, which does half the work for you. But there's nothing to equal the birth of something that hasn't previously existed, and especially if you're able in some way to contribute to it."

Working with Walton is equally thrilling, according to "Missing Footage" set designer Klara Zieglerova. "Tony works with an immense intensity, most of the time handling at least five things at once, while still remembering every slightest detail," she says. "Tony gives all his energy to his work, and he expects the same from the people who work for him.

"I have to admit that at the very beginning I was not sure whether Tony would be able to let go of what's traditionally his part of the production process," continues Zieglerova, who served as Walton's assistant designer on two previous productions.

"But Tony surprised me. We had a very long initial meeting, talking about the feeling of the play, without really mentioning its look. And some time after that I came back with a model, which [with a few little changes] ended up becoming the final setting for 'Missing Footage.' So in this way, the process was very similar to working with other directors.

"But I'm also taking advantage of having a director who's a great set designer. What other director would say, 'Don't you think we might need another set of aircraft cable supports going through the middle of our mirror panels to prevent the horizontal seam from bending?' "

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Born about 25 miles south of London in Surrey's Walton-on-Thames, Walton was initially encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his father, a noted surgeon. Alas, the future designer "had a slight tendency to shrink and topple over when I saw a finger bleed," he says.

In school, Walton acted, directed and put on elaborate marionette shows that he not only designed but also performed. Subsequently, he studied design at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London and did his professional apprenticeship at the nearby Wimbledon Repertory Theater.

While he was working at Wimbledon, Walton's fiancee, Julie Andrews, was fast becoming a success in New York. He went over to join her and the couple soon married. The union lasted eight years and produced one daughter, despite career demands that kept Walton busy shuttling back and forth between England and the United States.

Walton's first important New York assignment was designing an off-Broadway production of Noel Coward's "Conversation Piece."

"That was an extraordinary experience, because Coward was overseeing the whole production," Walton says. "And the leading lady was played by Arthur Miller's sister. At the time, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were just romancing each other, and they turned up to rehearsals all the time. It was a little awe-inspiring for a young Brit recently arrived."

While serving an apprenticeship at the Actors' Studio, Walton did get a chance to direct a group of actors in a workshop staging of a Shakespeare play. "They were these actors right off the streets, interesting and not wildly trained. And because I was the only resident Brit, these street actors asked if I would direct them in 'As You Like It.' "

After that early experience, however, Walton became so busy as a designer that he hardly had time to think about a directing career. With numerous high-profile outings in the 1960s and '70s, Walton became a popular fixture of Broadway theater--a popularity that hasn't waned since. Simultaneously, Walton embarked on a movie career that has included 19 films so far, working with such directors as Sidney Lumet, Ken Russell and Francois Truffaut. He has also designed a number of ballets for American Ballet Theatre, choreographer Michael Smuin and others.

Along the way, Walton has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, and he won for "Guys and Dolls," "House of Blue Leaves" and "Pippin." He's also been up for five Oscars, winning for "All That Jazz," and received an Emmy for "Death of a Salesman."

Yet if the fare that Walton tackles seems diverse, so too are his designs, a tribute to his faith in the designer's charge to serve both the play and the director's vision--in that order.

"Your initial response as a designer is to the text, which I try to receive as a radio text, as if there's nothing visual going on at all," he says. "And I then try to filter it through the sensibility of the director or whatever particular approach they have, if they have one.

"You have more power for harm in a way than you do for good, because the audience is essentially receiving this experience first through your visual tunnel."

A director, of course, also has a lot of power, and it's only in recent years that Walton has seen this firsthand. Emma Walton, his daughter with Andrews who is the co-artistic director of Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater on Long Island, asked her father to direct Coward's "A Song at Twilight" in 1996.

The experience went well, and just months later Walton directed and designed "The Importance of Being Earnest," with Nancy Marchand and Eric Stoltz, for the Irish Repertory Company in New York. Since then, he has returned to the Irish Rep for "Major Barbara," which he also directed and designed.

And while Walton's primary work continues to be in design, he is forging ahead with his directing career as well, combining the two when the occasion suits. Up next, for example, he is crafting a stage show for New York's Big Apple Circus. "It's their first attempt at this sort of legitimate show, it's set up as Shakespeare's lovers and villains and it actually starts with the death of Romeo and Juliet."

The piece goes into rehearsal in September, and there are plans for a 60-city tour, performing in large musical houses across the U.S.

"I'm actually directing and designing the costumes, and we're creating that now from scratch," Walton says. "We're creating the show as we go along now, and Gen is really helping me on that too, on the writing of it."

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"Missing Footage," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 28. $23.-$39. (619) 239-2255.

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