Designer David Sumner – Roll With The Changes.

VIBE Larry Vickers, director

David Sumner is aDavid Sumner Bio Pic stage/production designer based in New York City, focused on theatre, corporate events, exhibits, broadcast and interior architecture. His resume spans more than thirty-five years, with projects from around the globe. 
Mr. Sumner has designed projects for regional theatre, opera, ballet and Broadway; highlights include: the world premiere of a three act ballet “Shim Chung” – selected to represent Korea as part of the 1988 Olympics, the world premiere of Michael Cristofer’s award winning play “Amazing Grace starring Marsha Mason” and the American Premiere  of the Willy Russell’s hit musical “Blood Brothers”. Sumner designed the popular musical, “Funny Girl, produced by Joop Van Den Ende Productions in the Netherlands, directed by Chet Walker;  and back in the US,  designed a national tour of  “The Music Man”. In southern Europe, Sumner designed “Les Femmes” and “City Lights”, both “Vegas styled” spectaculars, at Monte Carlo’s famed SportingClub.  In the late 90’s, Mr. Sumner, was invited to accompany director/former Spanish ambassador, Tomas-Rodriguez-Pantoja, to Spain, to meet the gypsies of Andalucía, and to experience first hand their music, dance, and culture. That extended, sun drenched, journey culminated with the Broadway show “Gypsy Passion”.

Sumner VIBE 3

VIBE Larry Vickers, director


B.I.T.N. asks every Designer the same 6 questions in the Design Forum.  I know, I know, seems pretty lazy on our part, but each designer is unique, and their individual take on the same subject can prove a fascinating peek into the mind of an artist.

Plus, it’s our blog …

Q 1 – How and when did you first get interested in designing for theatre?

The possibility of any future as a stage designer began back at the University of Louisville in the mid 70’s. At the time, I was working in the sultry, sleepy, theatre scene shop on a student work/study program building horrible scenery for long-forgotten, student shows. There wasn’t much going on at first but things quickly changed shortly after my arrival, when a young man named Michael Hottois walked through the door to lead the university’s new, revamped stage design program. Michael blew through that door with a serious New York City swag, and I loved everything about him. He quickly took me under his wing building scenery for our much improved university shows, but more importantly, he brought me along at his side at Actor’s Theatre where he quickly landed design jobs. He also hired me to paint large shows he’d designed for the local ballet company. Through it all, I spent a lot of hours at this man’s side, so it’s little wonder that Michael quickly changed my life so completely.

Sumner How To Succeed

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying Bill Berry, Director 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle


Q 2 – Who and or what are some of your inspirations?

Broad question- long life- big world …

I find inspiration in all kinds of places, often when I least expect it, but if I had to choose a few examples, I’d start with MOMA. I love to hang out in the garden at MOMA for the simple reason that sitting there, in that reverential space, I feel surrounded by my tribe (painters and artists). To sit there silently enriches my soul. I feel those artists before me and around me sharing freely their strength.
But there are other inspirations too. I grow orchids. It’s a modest collection, but as I often tell friends, if you can’t see the miracle of your life in the hope encompassed within an orchid’s delicate petals, you don’t get the scope and breadth of your own true miracle. Pay attention!

There are people who inspire too of course. My wife, Susan taught me the value going slow when I ran too fast. She has such an amazing eye for art, color, and details only matched by her listening skills and her generosity. I’d also have to include, my best friend Richard Gonci who I’ve known for decades. Where to start? The man is my soulful mirror, anchor, and inspiration on so many levels. We’ve shared a lifetime personally, professionally, and creatively. That’s how life is sometimes.

Sumner Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls Steve Tomkins, director Village Theatre


Q 3 – When you design for the stage, what is your thought process?

I start with script and perhaps music. I spend a lot of time just absorbing the rhythm of a project- it’s ebb and flow. Where does this work steer me? What jumps out, screams for my attention? How does this piece make me FEEL? I start with intent, energy and theme. It’s only after that initial experience, after the piece sinks into my bones that I move on to the HOW of design, namely: research of all kinds, and of course, defining the box/space.

Designing shows is really not that complex in some sense.(though musicals are anything but simple). Designers build worlds, no? And when they build worlds a designer’s role is to bring creativity and imagination to the table. That’s it. The best advice I ever got as a designer as a young man, was from the famous Broadway costume designer, Carrie Robbins, who shared, “If I can rent it, what do I need you for?” Good advice. Start there.

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City Lights Larry Vickers, director Monte Carlo, Sporting Club.


Q 4 – What, if anything, do you think technology brings to the worlds of theatre design?

Imagine the humble pencil. Keep in mind that at one point, long ago, pencils were the cutting edge technology of their day. Before pencils, there was the wheel and before that there was fire. All were cutting-edge tools of their day. Life moves on. These days, CGI, LED, automation, and moving lights are the tools artists master to drive the designer’s vision. Though it all, technology is nothing more than a collection of accepted tools. That’s it. Tools! Nothing more-nothing less.

Please don’t confuse tools with creativity. I shouldn’t have to say it, but these days, confusion pops up all the time around tools vs creativity. Without creativity and imagination, tools sit lifeless and forgotten. But in the right hands, someone with a modicum of vision, tools allow a designer to express and then realize that vision. But there’s more. CUSTOM no longer exists in 2017. Custom is a meaningless term. Everything is now possible in today’s digital realm, and that means custom instantly becomes the new normal. If technology has had any impact, this realization is probably the greatest single transformation brought on by digital technology.

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VIBE Larry Vickers, director


Q 5 – What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?

I make an effort to spend a fair amount of time with young designers. Including but not limited to those participating in yearly Design, MFA portfolio shows held here in NYC each spring. Young designers are a subject on which I could talk on for hours, but I’ll spare the reader, and share but one story.

Know this: Too many young designers (and students) actually apologize for dreaming. It’s a crisis of unimaginable scope- an epidemic.

Back in 2012, I was invited to the Northeast Educational Theatre Festival, in Portland, ME as keynote speaker. To the assembled students (most actors but not all. Many wanted creative lives as designers, writers, engineers, computer artists, etc.) I spoke about dreams, the miracle of their lives, how they each mattered, and the vision required to reach a dream based upon my experience working with big dreamers. Afterwards, in a related workshop, teary-eyed students, en masse, approached me to say: “We never hear this, that we matter and that our dreams are possible. You’ve changed our life.” Later that same evening, their teacher, who searched me out, added, “I don’t know what you said to my students, but you set them on fire.”

So what advice would I give a student or young designer? Do what you LOVE first and foremost. Let that single principle drive you. And when you find what you truly love, open your eyes wide, lift them up and look out at the world, and see life as it really exists, not as you imagine or hope. Raise your eyes up and look all the way out to the horizon to those you truly admire and to the work that inspires you. Seek those people out. Ask tough, honest questions. Trust me when I say that touched that you even asked, most will help you. I promise. Finally, surround yourself with people who believe in you. That’s key.

sumner concept

CGI Render Street Scene Study



Q 6 – What else do you have to say?

I started my budding professional theatre career back in the stone-age as a scenic artist, and charge painter laying out oversized canvas backdrops for established stage designers. I loved it. As it turns out, those skillsets of drawing and painting proved great training for my subsequent design life. The designers I met later provided a springboard to my own career.

When computers arrived in the late 80’s, I took notice, and when they finally matured from PONG, to the point where 3D renders were actually possible, I jumped in with both feet. As such, I was one of the first union designers here in NYC to use a computer for stage design. Of course, CGI renders in those days were anything but practical. The first show I ever designed on a computer, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Directed by George Faison, took fourteen hours to render one image. “But I did it. I proudly took the finished dye sub render in hand to the Local 829 union office and shared it to my theatre friends. Folks were both impressed and horrified especially after I suggested printed backdrops might eventually doom many scenic artists. Tools of the trade were shifting under our feet like a silent earthquake.

As life proved, I was dead right that day in the Union Office. The digital world was upon us in ways that would take years for us to fully comprehend. The arriving hi-tech presence would transform our lives and change the world. One big change: the skill sets that would get you a Broadway job in 1978 wouldn’t get you an interview in 2017,
Big Image Systems sits squarely in the midst of the twenty-first century with their digital printing services. What I foresaw that day, decades ago, back in the Union office eventually came to pass. Digital printing along with it’s digital cousins rose up to supplant the lowly pencil in ways none of us could ever imagine. That’s life.

But take heart, design was and will always be about vision and creativity not tools. Remember pencils? It’s a lesson worth remembering. Probably happen again too

sumner Lady Day

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. George Faison, director Pittsburgh Public Theatre








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