Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 21, 2003|Volume 31, Number 22














First Lady Laura Bush chats with Ming Cho Lee at the March 9 White House ceremony where the Yale designer was awarded a National Medal of Arts.

Designer Lee wins National Medal of Arts

Ming Cho Lee, the Donald M. Oenslager Professor (Adjunct) of Design and co-chair of the Design Department at the School of Drama, received a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at a ceremony held March 9 in the White House.

Lee was one of nine individuals honored this year with the award, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence. Each year, the National Endowment for the Arts seeks nominations from individuals and organizations across the country. The National Council on the Arts, the endowment's advisory body, reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the U.S. president, who selects the recipients.

"This extraordinary honor reflects Ming's many profound contributions to our society as an artist," says James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. "As remarkable as this honor itself is, it is only one measure of how fortunate we are to have Ming Cho Lee among us at the School of Drama, where his intellect, imagination, passion and integrity improve all of our lives every day."

Lee is considered one of the leading set designers in the United States today, and many of the students he taught at the School of Drama in the past 25 years have gone on to become noted designers in their own right.

His work has fed the evolution of American theater design from the poetic realism that was dominant since the 1940s to an approach that is presentational, rather than representational. In his set designs, Lee attempts to discover the totality or core of a play and present this as an emblem or icon in a formal space.

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2001 Lee said that the exciting design catches "the very essence of the play. ... The bottom line is that the set has to look good. That's accepted fact. If the set looks bad, all bets are off." He also noted that designers have to be "very adaptable. We don't have handwriting that is so strong that we can only do one kind of work, no matter how people typecast us."

Lee was born and raised in Shanghai, China. His father, a 1919 Yale graduate, was a businessman who transferred his business to Hong Kong to escape the rise of communism. Lee came to the United States in 1949 to study at Occidental College and later at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He designed his first Broadway production, "The Moon Besieged," in 1962, and was the principal designer for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival 1962-1973.

Lee's work has been featured in theatrical, opera and ballet productions throughout the world. He has designed productions for shows at major non-profit resident theaters across the country, including the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. He has also designed for the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera. He has worked with premier dance companies, such as Martha Graham, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Eliot Field Ballet, Jose Limon and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Internationally, he has designed productions for Hamburg State Opera in Germany, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires; and Buhnen Graz in Austria; and and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taipei, Taiwan.

Over the years, Lee has received numerous honors for his design work, including a Tony Award for the 1983 Broadway production "K2." His other numerous distinctions include a New York Drama Desk Award, New York and Los Angeles Outer Critics Circle awards, the Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture (New York City) and the Helen Hayes Award. He is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame and, in recognition of lifetime achievement, he has been honored with an Obie, a National Endowment for the Arts Distinguished Artists Fellowship and the American Immigration Lawyers Foundation Immigrant Achievement Award, as well as many other honors from the theater, Chinese and educational communities. He holds honorary degrees from Occidental College, Kenyon College and the Parsons School of Design.

Believing in the importance of nurturing and mentoring future theater artists of America, Lee founded the design portfolio review known as "Ming's Clambake," which brings graduating students from major theater design programs together with major professional designers and directors in a weekend-long review of their work and introduction to the professional community. It is an event unique to the design community. He is recognized as one of the major teachers of theater design in this country and has been teaching at the Yale Drama School since 1969. He was appointed to the Donald Oenslager chair in 1995.

The other 2002 Medal of Arts Recipients are Florence Knoll Bassett, designer and architect; Trisha Brown, dancer and choreographer; Philippe de Montebello, museum director; Uta Hagen, actor and educator; Lawrence Halprin, landscape architect and environmental planner; the late Al Hirschfeld, artist and caricaturist; George Jones, singer and songwriter; and William "Smokey" Robinson Jr., singer and songwriter.


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Campus Notes

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