Designing a life around the arts
Tony Forman ’79 is passionate about music, theatre, and architecture. Today, he’s able to combine all three of his loves in his stage design company, Nextstage Design. And the road to his career took a lot of interesting twists and turns.
Even though he owns his own stage design company, Tony Forman ’79 hasn’t seen enough plays to determine a favorite—from Denison University to The Banff Center for Arts to The Juilliard School to the New York City Opera House, “there is always more to see.”
Forman grew up in New England and was surprised to be reminded of Boston when he stepped foot on a campus set in the center of Ohio. Though Forman eventually majored in theatre design, initially, he was a religion major.
“As a high school student, I was actually very active in my church youth group,” he says. “One of the things we did in that youth group was put on shows every year–that was already a merger of both of those sides of me.”
“On the second day of class I thought ‘Hey, I should go check out the theater department,’ and I walked into the theater and met the technical director. He asked me if I wanted a job working sound, and soon I was completely smitten by theater. The decision to follow theater was partly convenience, and partly playing to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.”
Forman soon knew that theater was for him. He made many friends within the Arts department, including architect Phillip Ivory ’79 and furniture designer Tim DeFiebre ’79, as well as his future wife, Kristen Forman,’80, who studied music.
“Both through dance and theater, I found something that really resonated with who I was and who I am.”
Forman’s extensive professional career took off from there. The summer after graduation, he worked with the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity, a school dedicated to supporting the evolution of bold, contemporary works and providing hands-on training and professional development for artists and technicians. This opportunity was shown to Forman in part by his mentor and professor at Denison, Calvin Morgan. After a summer in Canada, Forman coolly began his time at Juilliard.
“I had also arranged that I would go in the fall to New York City to continue being a carpenter at Juilliard. As glamorous as that sounds, the shop at Juilliard is three floors underground, so you can figure how much daylight you get. I was exposed to building many different types of scenery and working alongside people who were much more experienced than I was–I learned a tremendous amount,” he says.
With Juilliard came a particular learning experience–though he thoroughly enjoyed making scenery, he began thinking about graduate school, another adventure influenced by his Denison advisor.
“Calvin Morgan is also the one who suggested I go to graduate school, and he says I should go to Yale. I thought, ‘No, I can’t get into Yale!’ but, as it turns out, I could, and I did. I went there as an MFA student in technical design and production with my goal to become a technical director or production manager in the performing arts. It’s a grueling, rigorous program, but I learned a lot.”
“Then, from Yale, I went to the New York City Opera to be an assistant technical director, doing opera and repertory. Part of that was informed by my junior year semester abroad I did in London at Covent Garden in the Royal Opera house. I’m a first generation American, and first generation to go to college, and I realized that this world of Opera that my parents were so enamored with, being brought up in that culture in Europe, I enjoyed too,” he says.
Forman remained at the New York City Opera house for a number of years, “soaking things up like a sponge.” He and his wife, who he married before he went to graduate school, eventually moved back to Connecticut.
“I worked at Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam–that was a growth experience too,” he says. “I gradually moved up the staff levels until I became the general managing director, moving away from production and into producing, running the business of a performing arts organization.”
He had taken classes at Yale in theater planning, and his grandfather had been an architect. After a few years studying set design and working on the managerial side, Forman decided to get into the consulting business, which combined his many interests and experiences.
“Everything sort of came together–running arts organizations, managing productions, being a designer–all of those things came wrapped up in helping architects figure out these very complicated buildings. From the smaller studio theater to a huge opera house, theaters are the third most complex building type there is, right up there with hospitals and airports, all of which have to function like a machine.”
Forman has been consulting since 2007, and where better to offer consultation services than from one’s own business? Forman formed in 2014, a company “committed to fresh thinking about performance spaces and rejuvenating the human spirit through live performance.” NextStage is based in Connecticut, where Forman currently lives, and has designed upwards of 30 performance spaces. The website for NextStage states that the company’s range of expertise “covers all aspects of performing arts buildings—from apron stages to xylophone storerooms.”
The company was founded by Forman and his colleague Gene Leitermann, and the two have brought on four other consultants and one manager to assist clients.
“Gene and I complement each other very nicely. I bring the experience of having been on the management side and having produced, and he’s been doing theater consulting for all the years I was doing that other stuff. He really knows all the nitty gritty–in fact, he’s written a book on theater planning, which is the current ‘book on the topic.’ It’s nice to work with the guy who ‘wrote the book on it.’”
“The great thing about building buildings is that buildings stick around a lot longer than shows. You build a show, and it runs for what, two weekends? Then it’s gone. It’s ephemeral. There is something very gratifying about being involved with something that is going to be there for 30 years or longer. It’s hard work, but I’m very blessed to bring these various threads of experience throughout the years to what I do on a daily basis now,” Forman says.
Though a man of many hats, Forman says he regrets not taking more interdisciplinary classes at Denison. He urged arts students to follow their hearts, learn to know themselves, and maybe even take a science class.
“I regret not taking more fundamental courses in things like art history. To understand the world I was entering, I wish I had had more background knowledge. As a designer, there are so many references to works of art or architecture or periods of history, and to not be somewhat fluent in that, to not know what they are and what they mean and know the reasons why they developed the way they did, is a handicap. Also, study the sciences. Our world is increasingly technological. To not understand the scientific processes, the biosciences– we’re in a tremendous crisis right now, with our planet, and I think that the best thing to do as a college student is to learn about that, understand the fragility of our ecosystem and the impact humans have had on it,” he says.
It has been 43 years since Forman graduated from Denison, and though the scars on his hands from undergraduate set building have since faded (though not completely), he still continues to learn from his mistakes and is fond of the memories and foundational skills he built in what was then the Ace Morgan Theater.
“Denison provides ample opportunities for one to know oneself–things you do well, things you do not so well, things you’re drawn to, things you’re not so drawn to. You can certainly learn it in graduate school, or any time in your life, but the luxury of an undergraduate liberal arts education is that once you’re there, it’s a buffet,” he says.
“It’s good to mix it up a little bit.”