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Eugene Lee on Lake Ripley in Wisconsin, with his brother Thomas (left) and their dog Boots
Eugene Lee on Lake Ripley in Wisconsin, with his brother Thomas (left) and their dog Boots.

Remembering Eugene Lee

(March 9, 1939 – February 6, 2023)

We just lost a good friend and one of the true great giants of the arts, known and celebrated all across the world. Eugene Lee was a masterful set designer, a visionary, an artist, a gentleman, and so much more. Eugene proudly made his home here in Providence, first arriving in 1967 to create the foreboding stage set for Adrian Hall’s production of Bertold Brecht’s immortal and protean Threepenny Opera at Trinity Repertory Theater, then at the old Trinity United Methodist Church in South Providence. Working with theaters and playwrights all around the world, Eugene would often have them join him here in Providence as they worked together. 

Eugene was such a great artist because he loved absolutely all of life and he was bold in embracing, distilling and celebrating life itself in his designs and in his life.  It’s that simple. Eugene’s life in Rhode Island with his beloved wife Brooke and his sons was a work of art in itself that was always a joy to see, whether in their midday cup of tea, or when they were hosting an elegant event in their home for the benefit of our city. 

Ed Hall in Eugene Lee’s 1967 set for Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera for Trinity Repertory 1967
Ed Hall in Eugene Lee’s 1967 set for Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera for Trinity Repertory 1967.

Eugene was a compassionate and knowledgeable observer of all that the world held and he collected nearly everything known in the universe too. He was interested in all these things — from VW bugs, to globes, to obscure kitchen tools, to oak furniture. He rejoiced in the elegance of the chine line on his beloved boats (his Vertue No. 11 or his Herreshoff 12½) and appreciated the subtle hand feel of his beloved cedar-clad graphite pencils. Eugene knew the intricacies of all these things and admired their design, manufacture, utility and history — and applied this depth of knowledge to his designs for the stage. 

The art of set design is both subtle and bold at the same time. Eugene would read and reread the play and distill it down to its primal core; and then boldly create a physical site that would reveal, complement and contextualize the play’s transformative arc, while building a set that would celebrate the actors and artists who make a play come alive.  

Eugene loved to use real objects as props in his sets, both showing and sharing their real life history on the stage. Eugene loved surprising people with sinks on stage that had real running water and generations of Trinity audiences have been unexpectedly splashed into alertness on one of his famous sets. This was not an idle gesture, it was Eugene being the truth teller that he was. The deliberate deliverance of the truth of the world to the stage of make believe serves to underscore the curious balance between the pretend, the real and the magical that happens every night on stage.  

Constance Brown’s photograph of Eugene Lee working by his coal stove with Henry at his feet
Constance Brown’s photograph of Eugene Lee working by his coal stove with Henry at his feet.

Eugene was also a truth teller in that he detested glitzy artifice. His designs emphasized real life, real history, real choices, made with real materials, seen in clear light. The clarity of his designs was captured by hand, with pencil on paper, not on a glowing computer screen of plastic and chrome, while sitting in his handmade oak chair by the side of his beloved station master’s old coal stove in this studio above the garage off Angell Street in Providence. We all cherished the honesty and clarity that Eugene brought to his life and his work.  

Richard Goullis’ video portrait of Eugene Lee from the NetWorksRI collection of artist videos.

Eugene was also a fighter who fought brilliantly and fiercely for what the design demanded, but he was so unfailingly courteous, elegant and witty that his opponents had usually lost the battle long before they even knew there was a fight. Eugene’s arch nemesis was the Fire Marshals of the world, and he usually charmed them too. 

William Smith’s photograph of Eugene Lee in front of Trinity’s new home in Providence in 1973
William Smith’s photograph of Eugene Lee in front of Trinity’s new home in Providence in 1973.

Eugene loved WaterFire and recognized it as a work of theatre and dramaturgy, but one where the set was the entire landscape of the city of Providence, rain or shine. Its many actors were performing an allegorical ritual, free from any script. Eugene helped us with many suggestions and designed our iconic FireBall. We were tremendously honored to celebrate and honor Eugene and Brooke Lee at the 2019 FireBall celebration. 

The great pleasure of working with Eugene was the clarity and depth of his analysis and  thought. One can tell a tremendous amount about a designer’s clarity of mind by seeing their drawings. Eugene’s famous hand drawn designs in his favored, elegant isometric projection were brilliantly and robustly lucid, as were his looser, impassioned sketches with their scores of handwritten notes. 

One of Eugene Lee’s hand drawn isometric projections of a stage set
One of Eugene Lee’s hand-drawn isometric projections of a stage set.

I always enjoyed working through an idea with Eugene, quickly trading sketches on a large sheet of paper. I have never forgotten how he once gently picked up my pencil and quietly sharpened it to a fearsome point. His lesson? One cannot communicate with articulate precision if your tools or your ideas are not sharp. When I left that evening, he quietly gifted me with an amazing pencil sharpener that I have used for years. I remember Eugene and his love of clarity, every time I spin its gears to sharpen the next pencil. 

May we never forget the many gifts he has given us all.  

Barnaby Evans 
and the entire WaterFire team

Gifts to WaterFire in honor of Eugene and Brooke can be made here.

Providence Journal Obituary February 10, 2023

2 thoughts on “Remembering Eugene Lee”

  1. Thank you for this remembrance of Eugene Lee.

    As a set designer teaching at Boston U, I was bold enough to invite Lee to meet with design students to talk about their projects in ‘”environment theatre” — he and Franne met with the class members then stayed for dinner in my home with my wife and two young children … it was a special evening and was moved to read of his passing. I saw much of his work at Trinity Rep and followed his work on TV and with Peter Brooke. I admired his work profoundly and I am so grateful for the experience to meet them both and share a home cooked meal.
    And, I am so happy I found this article via Google search, thanks again.

    Here in Snohomish, we do an annual winter solstice candlelight walk on our Riverfront trail.

    with best wishes, Warner

  2. A beautifully written tribute to Eugene Lee. You captured it all. He was an amazing example of the importance of creativity. Long live the arts and his memory.

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