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Henry May, a legendary set designer, art director and UC Berkeley professor emeritus of dramatic art, dies at 81
13 November 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Henry May, an award-winning scenic designer for stage and television as well as a professor emeritus of dramatic art at the University of California, Berkeley, has died at the age of 81.

May, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Monday (Nov. 4) in a Washington, D.C., nursing home.

He designed sets and costumes, produced a Broadway play and collaborated with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. May's set design efforts - known for their clear lines, impeccable detail and symmetrical balance - illustrated the works of writers from Shakespeare and Euripides to Tom Stoppard, Henrik Ibsen and Jean-Paul Sartre.

He also worked on ballets, classical music concerts, public television and operas. May designed for such choreographers as David Wood, Agnes de Mille and José Limón.

Venues for his work included Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, as well as UC Berkeley sites such as Zellerbach Hall, the Greek Theatre, Hertz Hall and Wheeler Hall.

He designed all the major theater productions and dance performances on the UC Berkeley campus during a 25-year period and was the chief consultant for the technical dramatic requirements for the 2,000-seat Zellerbach Hall when it was constructed.

Elsewhere, May consulted for the Walnut Creek Civic Arts Center and UC San Diego's Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts.

May once said that set designers have three to five minutes to get their points across, after which the setting should recede.

"He didn't have a strong, distinctive style, like a painter," said Robert Goldsby, a professor emeritus of theater at UC Berkeley who worked with May. "Henry was a designer; he had to be able to sense what the director had or wanted as a central vision for the play. He did clear, beautiful designs."

May's daughter, Laurie Trippett of Silver Spring, Md., called her father a "visual thinker. He always found something worth looking at, and his designs were inspired by everything from trash heaps to glints of golden sunlight to water."

A native of Havana, Cuba, Henry May's father was an engineer and his mother a would-be actress who taught her children to love the theater.

May grew up in New York City and earned a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture in 1943 from the University of Illinois. It was there that May was introduced to theater by a roommate. He went on to become director of design for university productions, worked as the stage designer for a small Cape Cod theater, and spent four summers in summer stock.

He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy's amphibious forces from 1943-1945 and as an admiral's aide from 1945-1946. After World War II, May studied scenic design at Yale University's School of Drama. At Yale, he met Donald Oenslager, a leader in a new approach to stage design characterized by simplicity and stylization.

May won an Emmy Award in 1958 for his artistic direction of "Boswell's Life of Jonson" on the groundbreaking, 1950s cultural variety program, "Ominibus." Funded originally by the Ford Foundation and aired variously on all three major networks, his scenic design work on the series hosted by Alistair Cooke earned May the Sylvania Award. May said the program's nine-year run proved that good drama could be commercially successful on television and paved the way for later shows.

After "Omnibus" ended in 1961, May launched a freelance career that included designing commercials.

When a phone call came in offering him a teaching position at UC Berkeley just as he was about to go outside to shovel snow outside his Connecticut home for the second time in one day, he accepted immediately.

"He was ready to make a change, and we were ready to get a good designer," said Goldsby. May joined the department in 1962 became chair of the Department of Dramatic Art (now the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) in 1968, succeeding professor Travis Bogard. May was on the board of the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum and a member of the prestigious Arts Club at UC Berkeley.

May retired in 1991.

While at UC Berkeley, he won the bronze medal at the Sixth Triennnale of Theatre Set and Costume Design in the international competition in Yugoslavia in 1981 for production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." His competition included companies such as the Royal Shakespeare and La Scala.

During May's tenure at UC Berkeley, he also was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation award, the first given to a scenic designer. He also won a Bay Area Theatre Critic's Award and a West Coast Theatre Critic's Award for his design work on Noel Coward's "Tonight at 8:30."

May's daughter called him an "affable, humorous and profoundly kind" man who was loved by his students.

George W. "Skip" Mercier, a designer with more than 300 plays on Broadway and off-Broadway, recalled meeting May. Mercier, an English student at UC Berkeley, accidentally wandered into May's office and found the walls covered with theatrical images. While May sat at a drafting table quietly absorbed in a task, Mercier pored over May's sketches, photographs and paintings for an hour.

"At that point," Mercier said, "I had never seen a professional show, had no idea that a career in the theater was possible, and felt suddenly in the glow of visual magic that made more sense to me than anything before. Over the next few years, Henry carefully taught me skills needed to communicate visual ideas, focused my raw talent, and most importantly, showed me the possibility of a life in theater."

Mercier said May "was the happiest man I had ever met, and I dreamed of a life like his. By example, he showed me that being a good designer was in direct proportion to being a good man."

May also was a masterful teacher who embraced learning, and "his passion and delight for living in art" marveled all he met, Mercier said.

"Henry made me realize that theater, like life, is only as good as one's connection to it," said Mercier, who remained close friends with May through the years.

A preeminent theatrical set and costume designer, Mercier is a Tony Award nominee and has several Drama Desk Award nominations. He also works for major regional theaters throughout the country, including Steppenwolf Theatre, Arena Stage, Alliance Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center. He has taught design at the National Theatre Institute for the past 18 years.

Former May student and UC Berkeley alumna Julie Weiss said May took particular interest in her work and encouraged her to go to graduate school at Brandeis University, where she earned a master's in fine art. Later, she joined the faculty at Stanford University.

Weiss went on to develop a wide-ranging career in theater, TV and film. She has designed costumes for such films as "American Beauty," "Frida," "Steel Magnolias," "Searching for Bobby Fisher," "Twelve Monkeys," and "Auto Focus." She also designed for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Phoenix Theater in New York City, and the San Francisco Opera.

Nominated for an Oscar for "American Beauty" and a Tony Award for "Elephant Man," and winner of Emmys for her work on "The Dollmaker" and "Woman of Independent Means," Weiss said she owes her career to May.

She said he was about "taking creative risks that have ramifications where one would walk out of the theater with a better understanding of the human predicament."

Weiss said May also was known for incorporating literature as well as technology into his designs, and for seeing theater as a place to begin a conversation where the questions raised remain under discussion long after the evening has ended.

Roberta Lemons, director of the costume shop in UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, joined the department in 1969 when May was chair. "He was a man I always wanted to hug," she recalled. "There was just something warm about him, he was just a darling guy."

In his retirement, May's daughter said, he was an active volunteer at the UC Botanical Garden and remained an avid theatergoer.

May is survived by his daughter, Laurie Trippett; a sister, Bettina Barasch of Lido Beach, N.Y.; and one granddaughter.

For information about a memorial to be held later, contact the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at (510) 642-1677.

Contributions may be made in May's memory toward a named scholarship fund for scenic designers by contacting Teri Tuma, Yale School of Drama, P.O. Box 208244, New Haven, CT 06520-8244.