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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ford's Focus: John C. Dinning

First and Foremost an Artist

He loved math, chemical equations and doing research which, he mentioned in our interview at Centaur “ties in with what I do now; everything is transferable.”
by Barbara Ford
I once read that people born under the zodiac sign of Cancer tend to zigzag along the beach of life, mirroring the crab that symbolizes the sign, reaching their destinations despite appearing directionless in their course.  Cancerian set and costume designer, John C. Dinning, would make a great poster boy for that metaphor.   

His meanderings began in Hamilton, where he spent his first 5 years until he and his family moved to Burlington, Ontario.  He was an honour student at M. M. Robinson High School with equally strong interest and skill in the visual arts as well as the sciences, the only student given the title of supply teacher for the art classes.  

...the arts were too unstable; he would struggle his whole life to make ends meet; he was throwing away the chance for a fascinating career in science...

As he neared the end of his final year, Dinning was torn between becoming a visual artist or a chemical engineer.  He loved math, chemical equations and doing research which, he mentioned in our interview at Centaur “ties in with what I do now; everything is transferable.”  However, Dinning had been drawing all his life; it was important to him and when he noticed that his science studies were interfering, that tipped the scales in favour of art. Dinning’s science teacher was appalled at the choice and lectured him for over an hour: the arts were too unstable; he would struggle his whole life to make ends meet; he was throwing away the chance for a fascinating career in science. 

Once the choice was made, Dinning dropped out before finishing high school and applied to Oakville’s Sheridan College to study graphic design in the days before computers became the standard design tool.  A year and a half into the program, looking ahead at another two and a half years, followed by a few more years paying his dues before he could get anywhere near real designing, was disheartening. “It was just too long; I couldn’t wait,” so Dinning bailed on that too, giving full credit to the detail-oriented techniques he learned there, which he still uses today.

All night, cocktail after cocktail, four small words rang out in Dinning’s head: “I can’t do this.”

At this point, Dinning determined to be like Rousseau; he would work in some nondescript day job and paint in the evenings and on weekends.  Obviously the next step in his career path was to sell Mahar shoesDinning’s innate sense of style, cheeky wit and flair for numbers made him an instant success, moving him all the way up to Assistant Manager in no time flat.  Mahar was grooming him for a regional managerial position but it only took one social event to nip that career move in the bud.  Dinning attended a party with his colleagues where nothing but nothing, except shoes, was the topic of conversation for the entire evening.  All night, cocktail after cocktail, four small words rang out in Dinning’s head: “I can’t do this.” 

Throughout high school, college and as he clawed his way up the cut-throat ladder of the shoe business, Dinning was involved with theatre arts. Not surprising considering his frequent exposure growing up in a city equidistant from the two largest theatre festivals in the country: Shaw and Stratford.  He had acted in high school and many thought he would become an actor but Dinning jested, “Now I just act up!”   After high school, he worked with The Town Criers, a summer children’s theatre group funded by the Trudeau government through its Opportunities for Youth (OFY) program.  He wore several hats there, (all of them stylish and tasteful), as actor, scenic painter and (the crab strikes again) accountant.  Talk about playing to your strengths but Dinning downplayed his various abilities saying, “As usual, I multi-tasked.”  

“The guilt would force my creative juices to get going.”

Now in his late teens Dinning found, much to his distress, that his artistic skills were shrivelling up. He thought he could remedy the problem by putting himself in a situation where he was responsible to other people. “The guilt would force my creative juices to get going.” He kept his position at Mahar while he sought out local amateur theatre companies that needed help with scenic painting.  When he walked into the Burlington Little Theatre, they instantly made him the Head Scenic Artist.  Half way through Pinocchio, his second show with them, the set designer had a fit and walked out (that never happens in theatre) so Dinning was thrust into the position to finish the job.  For his third show, Arsenic and Old Lace, the design from the ground up was completely his responsibility.  His countless trips to Stratford and Shaw from the age of 14 taught him a good deal about presentation so he had a fair idea of what he was shooting for but was unsure of the technical aspects. He got a friend in-the-know to guide him through the draughting process and, probably due to his time at Sheridan, felt he could handle that. He called on all his friends and family in search of vintage clothing, furniture and props for the rest.    With the entire design of the show resting solely on his shoulders, Dinning confessed that “I just wanted to get through it, but it was a huge hit!”  

They played in houses with capacities of up to twelve hundred seats with backdrops as large as forty-five by twenty-eight feet.

Before Dinning knew it, amateur companies were lining up at his door.  Still the Assistant Manager at Mahar, he could manipulate his work schedule to make time for theatre.  The Hamilton Players Guild, the Hamilton Theatre Inc. (which only produced musicals) and the Mohawk Theatre were some of his regular gigs. Though under the umbrella of ‘amateur’, many of the members of these companies had been professionals at one time or were semi-professionals with day jobs to support their pursuit of a full-time career in the performing arts. They played in houses with capacities of up to twelve hundred seats with backdrops as large as forty-five by twenty-eight feet.  Dinning picked up invaluable on-the-job training as he designed show after show, absorbing how and when to use revolves, trucking and fly systems, scrims and more.  He also worked for three years in the design department of Hamilton’s CHCH television station.

As he was painting a massive backdrop one day, Dinning realized that he was pouring a lot of time and effort into this and it dawned on our busy little crab that perhaps he could make a living at it.  So he put together a portfolio of his work and off he went to Shaw with the idea that he could start at the bottom and work his way up.  Certain that he would land some small job at the fest, even the most menial of positions, he was devastated when they wouldn’t recognize his amateur status.  

Dejected and depressed, Dinning agreed to join his best friend who was driving to Montreal to see the 1976 Olympics. Aside from attending the sporting events, Dinning enjoyed strolling around the Plateau neighbourhood, where he and his pal were bunking with relatives, admiring the architecture.  It was on one of these excursions that he rounded the corner of St-Denis and came upon the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS). He didn’t know one existed.  Curious, he walked in and asked the receptionist if they gave courses in design.  “Mais oui.” French … hm-m-m.  "Do you offer courses in English?ù" “Bien sûr.” Dinning ran out with his application and a new direction.  He hadn’t hit 20 years old yet.

In the end, only ten students were chosen to take the three-year program and Dinning was the only one from Ontario.

That year, out of approximately five thousand artists who applied, were interviewed and who submitted their portfolios for review, five hundred were given the requisite entry project. Out of the three possibilities on the menu, Dinning chose Molière’s Tartuffe, hoping it would bode well for him to design a French playwright for a school situated in the province of Québec. Completely unfamiliar with the play, not only did it provide a stimulating blank canvas to work upon, after hearing that Molière was considered the ‘French Shakespeare’, Dinning reasoned he’d seen enough of that at Stratford to come up with something appropriate. In the end, only ten students were chosen to take the three-year program and Dinning was the only one from Ontario. Coincidentally, it was the last year that the Ontario Arts Council allocated funds for bursaries to artists studying at the NTS and because Dinning was the only Ontario student enrolled, he got the whole kit and caboodle.  Leaning forward conspiratorially, Dinning slyly admitted, “I lived rather well.”  Years later, when Dinning was the resident designer at Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay, Ontario, one opening night he was introduced to a woman who confided that she was the Minister who had written that last cheque that had allowed Dinning to study at NTS.  “I kissed her hand.”

After graduation, Dinning remained in Montreal hoping he could contribute to the minority Anglo theatre scene.  He started getting design work right away, which doesn’t imply that there weren’t a few lean times, even one summer on welfare between productions.  He proudly stated that in the 31 years he’s been designing since graduation (and let’s not forget the work he did prior to that), he’s worked in every province and every major Canadian city.  “I’ve done the country” [wink … wink] “never at Stratford and only once at Shaw.” To be able to say that you are a Canadian theatre artist gainfully employed year-round without relying on one or both of those festivals to pay a hefty portion of the rent is quite an accomplishment.  “I’m not a careerist. If I was, I probably would have left the country a long time ago to look for work on Broadway or in London’s West End, perhaps even have a few awards to my name, but I‘m not politically savvy ; I can’t do the chat.  I’ve never been that kind of person.”  Whether he’s designing for The Piggery in the Eastern Townships or for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at Place des Arts, the same excitement and challenges exist and he pours the same amount of blood, sweat and tears into every project.  

The details of Lies My Father Told Me

Between design gigs at the beginning, Dinning worked as a scenic painter with Michael Hagen Inc., the eminent North American scenic painting studio that handled all of the contracts for Les Grand Ballets Canadiens.  “That’s where I learned a lot about working with ‘soft goods’; how to paint scrims, borders, legs, translucent drops and huge backdrops seventy-eight by thirty-eight feet.” Michael Hagen’s Nutcracker set for Les Grands, which Dinning helped to paint, is the same set you see every December at Place des Arts.  

What’s rewarding for a set designer working on large budget productions such as these is that the sets live on.

Designing for operas and ballets/musicals is the most demanding because the scenery not only creates an environment to dramatically and emotionally support the story, but is also an element with which the actors, singers or dancers interact. What’s rewarding for a set designer working on large budget productions such as these is that the sets live on. They go into storage, resurrected with the show each time it’s remounted and/or are loaned out to sister companies with smaller budgets.  Anne and Gilbert, the original musical based on Anne of Green Gables that Dinning designed for the Harbourfront Theatre makes an appearance every year in Summerside, PEI.  His sets for Les Grands’ productions of Giselle, Swan Lake and Le Tricorne are still in use more than twenty years later.   

“I love putting up new plays; I’ve had a career of them.  It’s quite an honour and in a lot of ways, I feel it’s my greatest achievement.” Dinning has helped to introduce about 35 new works to the country, in addition to the new musicals and ballets he’s designed. Just since January 2011, Dinning has put up three new musicals: Cinderella (Bishops College), Schwartz’s: The Musical (now playing at Centaur) and Lies My Father Told Me (opening at the Segal Centre in May). After four consecutive musicals at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in as many years, (Annie, The Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast and The Producers) Dinning joked about practically getting down on his knees to beg them for something less complex and demanding. “Can’t I do Trying…two people in a room for the whole play?”  Neptune insisted that only Dinning could deliver what they needed for their big musical productions and reserved those extravaganzas for him.  

It’s only natural that not all new work will succeed“Some you just want to stick a fork in your eye and leave."

It’s only natural that not all new work will succeed“Some you just want to stick a fork in your eye and leave. Other times, it’s all the right people: the right actors, the right designers, the right direction, the right everything and somehow the show doesn’t want to exist. It doesn’t matter how much experience or talent you throw at it, it just doesn’t want to happen.” Dinning said it’s most frequent with comedies. A build-up of circumstances like actors having accidents, crew getting sick, or suppliers not coming through with the goods, can also contribute to the failure of a fledgling play. Dinning cringed as he recalled the opening night of a new three-act Dracula when he was still putting the final touches on the second act costumes during the first act, and the third act during the second. Miraculously, he had the energy to attend the cast party until all hours and then got on a plane early the next morning, never having seen the play. “Not a run-through, not a dress, nothin’,” but heard that it didn’t do very well.  On the flip side, Dinning has had some incredible successes with the likes of such original hits such as Steve Galluccio’s Mambo Italiano and Michel Tremblay’s For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again.

For five weeks every year, Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary plays mid-wife to the birth of four new plays for the Festival of New Canadian Plays.  It is an epic whirlwind of designing that Dinning described as “exhausting and exhilarating, especially the two-week rep-tech … brutal.”  When one play finishes its rehearsal for the day, that crew strikes and leaves but the designers must stay to supervise the change-over, then dive into the next piece on the docket.  While everyone else takes their one day off, the designers must write up their notes for all four productions.  Do the math: four plays in five weeks; one set designer working with four very different directors, all of whom require one hundred and fifty per cent twenty-four/seven, and why shouldn’t they?  Sleep becomes a luxury that one banks until the end. Dinning last worked there in 1992, confessing that “it’s very much a young man’s game.”   
Singapore Beauty world Maquette

Like many NTS graduates before him, Dinning has returned to his alma mater to teach design students there as well as at McGill and Concordia Universities and Bishops College.  He admits to his dinosaur status, hand drawing and colouring his costume and set sketches, draughting by hand and painstakingly constructing the scale maquettes himself.  He sees computers taking centre stage but firmly believes that these skills, especially the drawing, are integral to the job and should continue to be developed, a point he drove home with a personal anecdote.  “What if you’ve only got ten minutes with a director at the airport between flights to discuss some preliminary ideas for a play?  You confiscate the cocktail napkin or placemat and sketch out your ideas right then and there!  But what do we do now?  Flip open a laptop and instantly there is a wall … a disconnect between two creative artists.  I can sketch out my ideas much faster than trying to create them in CAD.  Theatre is one of the most collaborative of the arts; it’s about the human connection. Computers are turning us into technicians rather than artists.”

“Art is my way of communicatingIf someone says to me Prussian Blue, I know what that is in terms of a person, a mood and feeling..."

“Art is my way of communicating. If someone says to me Prussian Blue, I know what that is in terms of a person, a mood and feeling; I know how it can be effective. Painting and drawing have always been the key; I always wanted to go into the arts and it just so happens I fell into designing for the theatre.”  

One of many directors who held Dinning’s artistry in high esteem was the late Dora Wasserman. He lovingly described how he came to design twenty-five productions (and counting) for the Yiddish Theatre she established over fifty years ago. Wasserman had seen his work in Per Brask’s production of The Emigrants, which starred Neil Monro and Allan Scarf at the Saidye Bronfman Centre (now the Segal Centre) and approached Dinning. “But Dora, don’t you want a Jewish designer; someone who understands the language?” Wasserman’s laconic response? “We’re all Jewish; I need an artist.”   Wasserman would sit next to him in rehearsals, translating every line so he understood what was going on.  Terms like Shtetl and bar mitzvah were completely foreign to him however “slowly but surely I got to understand the culture and it’s been a very enriching experience.”   

Wasserman used to hound Dinning year after year to design for her, pleading, “John-elah only you, only you can design for me” until he gave in.

Wasserman used to hound Dinning year after year to design for her, pleading, “John-elah …only you, only you can design for me” until he gave in. “The Rothchilds?…But Dora it covers one hundred years of fashion.  In scene five there’s an entire French regiment on stage!” “Yah, I know – it’s good.  It’ll be fun.” I ask you, who could resist such charm?

Whenever Wasserman got frustrated with how a rehearsal was progressing, she would whack Dinning in the arm. He quickly learned that Mentos were the antidote and kept a steady supply on hand, but even their minty goodness couldn’t stop her from losing it occasionally and she would beat a hasty retreat to the back of the theatre, leaving Dinning in the driver’s seat. “I could hear her giggling up there in the dark as I tried to get the actors to do what she wanted.”

Schwartz: The Musical (photo:
“I serve theatre best where I am.”

Wasserman wasn’t the only one to see the director in Dinning. Wasserman’s daughter, Bryna, (the current Artistic Director of the Segal Centre) and former Centaur Artistic Director, Gordon McCall, both nudged him more than once about it but Dinning claims “I serve theatre best where I am.” Often he is called upon for his input by a director or choreographer and Dinning is happy to share his views when asked but “the idea of being locked in a dark room day in and day out would drive me mental.  I need to get out of the theatre; go out into the community.”   Every St-Hubert fabric store knows Dinning, as do most antique and junk dealers and fripperies in town and not just here, but clear across the country. He kidded about working in Singapore, where he had to go shopping with a translator who thankfully was an expert haggler and shared Dinning’s thrill at finding the perfect wall sconce at bargain basement prices. 

In 2004, director Michael Dobbin brought Dinning with him to design (another version) of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again for the W!ld Rice Theatre company at the Victoria Theatre in Singapore.  Four years later, W!ld Rice’s Artistic Director Ivan Heng, who was an actor in the Tremblay play, was presenting Beauty World to mark its 20th anniversary as Singapore’s all-time favourite and home-grown musical.  He invited Dinning to design it for the two thousand seat Esplanade, Singapore’s largest stage venue.  “But wouldn’t it be cheaper to get someone there to design it?” Dinning asked but Heng told him that there was no one there with Dinning’s eye for detail. “It was a lot of fun. Great research, because it takes place in Singapore which is an island, a city and a country.” Dinning’s only other foray out of Canada was to design the Arena Stage’s 50th anniversary presentation of, you guessed it, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again in Washington, DC.

In all, Dinning has designed four separate versions of the Tremblay classic: one was the Canadian Stage/Centaur co-produced Canadian tour.  Dinning first met Roy Surette, the current Artistic Director of the Centaur Theatre when the tour, starring Canadian treasure Nicky Cavendish, kicked off at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, BC where Surette was the Artistic Director at the time.  The two met several times at various opening nights out west at the Festival of New Canadian Plays, but they never worked together until Surette came to Montreal.

With time and experience he’s learned “what I can and cannot do and how far I can push the borders in different theatres.”

How difficult is it to be original when designing the same show several times?  “When I design for a play, even if it’s one I’ve done before, I think about the audience; that city’s audience … I’m there for them.  I research what productions were recently presented at the theatre.  What have they already seen a lot of in the city as a whole? I want to do something different.  What are the cultural influences? It has to be an environment for a community or it’s a dead art.” And there is the space to consider and after three decades, Dinning has worked proscenium, thrust, black box, in-the-round, outdoors and every combination thereof in small, medium and large venues. A valuable piece of Dinning advice for new designers is to accept the space for what it is; don’t try to change into something it isn’t. With time and experience he’s learned “what I can and cannot do and how far I can push the borders in different theatres.”   

In recent years, there has been a trend of minimalist sets and more use of projections, soundscapes, gobos, etc. in set design, “but not for everything!  That’s why I was so happy to do a standard period box set for the Segal’s Blithe Spirit, because Montreal audiences don’t get to see that kind of stuff much anymore.  “Nowadays people are so used to sophisticated effects in films and video games that if it’s not done really well” (which takes a wad of cash) “the audience pulls away; they don’t engage.”

"I’ve had people come up to me fifteen years later to tell me they can close their eyes and still see a particular set like it was yesterday."

“Whenever I use the tried & true traditional techniques of the theatre, the audience is wowed out.” The elaborate set behind the painted scrim suddenly revealed in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again elicited the same gasp of gleeful surprise night after night in every city it played. “That’s why I love doing talkbacks.  How am I to know my public if I don’t speak to them?  How will I know if what I’m doing is working?” Much of Dinning’s work “remains in the recesses of people’s memories. I’ve had people come up to me fifteen years later to tell me they can close their eyes and still see a particular set like it was yesterday.” Critics, on the other hand, have not been kind to Dinning as a rule.  “Of course it hurts, especially when I first starting out. People said not to take it personally but when you pour your heart and soul into your work it’s hard not to take it personally.” Like a true crab, though, his outer shell has toughened up to protect that sensitive interior and he doesn’t take it to heart as much, especially when the audience reactions are so positive.     

A successful career like Dinning’s still has its downsides.  Aside from the gut-wrench of watching his work disappear forever at the end of each run, torn down and usually discarded, working pretty much year round leaves Dinning very little leisure time to see other productions, though once in a while he manages to get out to Jean-Duceppe or Place des Arts. It doesn’t leave him much time to paint either. 

When he does find the time, he usually indulges in landscapes.  “If I truly wanted to pursue my painting, I would have to take a good five-year sabbatical to purge all the styles I’ve imitated for various plays.” He painted the portrait of Harvey, the six-foot pooka for the play of the same name as well as the portrait of Gemma James Smith for Blithe Spirit, both at the Segal. His ‘stage painting’ has run the gamut from the classical masters to impressionism and post-modern/contemporary and he revels in every style.  

After a delightfully entertaining and candid afternoon with the colourful and animated Dinning, closer examination of his career path proved that the meandering crab, appearing to wander the sands of time aimlessly, is in this case not at all without direction but is instead a highly creative, passionate, juggler of many skills and talents, grateful and utterly enthralled with every twist and turn of his journey.   

Schwartz’s: The Musical runs at Centaur until April 24th (Box Office:  (514) 288 – 3161) and Lies My Father Told Me plays at the Segal Centre from May 1 to 22 (Box Office: (514) 739 – 7944).

Next week in Ford’s Focus: producer/playwright/director/actor (have I forgotten anything?) Paul Van Dyck.


  1. I love living on John's sets and his energy is so beautiful,fun and creative on every production I have had the pleasure to work on with him! Thanx for this article

  2. Wonderful piece on a wonderful artist, man and friend. Thanks so much.

  3. Very interesting piece, and very neat to see the path he's taken. I love the anecdotes. Just a comment, though: it's Bishop's University he's taught at. Bishop's College is a private high school down the road. He may also have taught there, but the production of Cinderella you refer to was definitely at the university.
    As others have said, thanks for the article!


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