Jason Sherwood (‘Rent: Live’ production designer) on a ‘surreal, strange dream come true’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“I am a ‘heart creature’ myself,” reveals production designer Jason Sherwood. “I like to have a personal connection to something” he says of the projects he chooses, “to find an empathetic bridge between me and the piece.” Sherwood chatted with Gold Derby about the connection he had with “Rent” and how it inspired his impressive production design for Fox’s “Rent: Live.” Watch the full video interview above.

Sherwood’s first experience with the iconic musical came as a teenager, sitting in a first row student rush seat at the Nederlander Theatre. He calls it a “formative” and unforgettable experience. His resulting “enthusiasm and love for the material” nabbed him this design job years later, when producer Marc Platt and director Michael Greif were planning Fox’s live broadcast.

On working with Greif, who directed the show on Broadway, Sherwood calls it a “surreal, strange dream come true.” But working with the original director didn’t mean copying past work. Instead, Sherwood had to come up with ways to expand the show for television while honoring the message and intent of the story. He says the goal was to “pour water on the original ideas and let them grow.”

While some fun Easter eggs pop up paying homage to late composer Jonathan Larson or the character Mark’s infamous sweater from the Broadway outing, Sherwood turned to his initial connection to “Rent” in order to expand the world of the show. “It’s ultimately about community,” he explains, “and people finding their chosen families. That became a kind of guiding principle.” So he constructed a sprawling set with multiple levels and playing spaces that evoked the gritty East Village of the 90’s, and incorporated a live audience.

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The live audience became an integral piece, with the effect being a “dialogue” between actors and audience. “All of these stories… are interconnected inside a larger theme,” Sherwood says. So there are sequences that weave together the separated playing spaces so that they come together (such as during the song “Will I” where Mark travels with his camera across the entire set). The space feels like a neighborhood. Or as Sherwood would likely put it: a community. Fitting for Alphabet City, a area of Manhattan teeming with artistic expression during the era of “Rent.”

Though his scenic work for “Rent: Live” is impressive, don’t expect the same aesthetic twice from his designs. Sherwood enjoys moving between wildly different projects. He might be working on an intimate Off-Broadway show one day (like his Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominated design for “The View Upstairs”) and then move on to a massive concert (he was the production designer for Sam Smith’s world tour, and is working on The Spice Girls‘ upcoming reunion). He beams: “I’m lucky to have such variety, which keeps my heart happy.”

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