Wizards of the Great White Way
When Brett Banakis (TSOA ’10) arrived at NYU in 2007 to study scenic design, he wasn’t sure that he would complete his MFA degree. But any uncertainty quickly dissipated when he took a course led by award-winning scenographer Christine Jones (TSOA ’92). “I was just going to try out a year and see how it went, but she was such an amazing professor,” he recalls. “It was like my experience was already well worth it after only a year, so it was life-changing.”
Jones took note of her “incredibly gifted” student’s work and ultimately invited him to pitch in on some of her studio projects, creating set models for Broadway productions like American Idiot and Hands on a Hard Body. One show led to another, and their now-decadelong collaboration is responsible for the set design magic of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway.
After the two-part play debuted as a sold-out hit in London, Jones and Banakis were tasked with revamping their West End designs for the show’s new home across the pond—which meant overseeing a massive renovation of Broadway’s Lyric Theatre. In addition to reconfiguring the spacious venue into a more intimate playhouse, they covered every surface with Harry Potter–inspired designs, from the phoenix sconces and monogrammed carpeting to the custom wallpaper and Patronus mural in the lobby. “We really did put our hands, eyes, and hearts into every single thing you see or touch,” says Jones, whose work won her the 2018 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play.
The designers created their own imagery for every element of the show, including new banner logos for each Hogwarts house and freshly whittled wands for the performers. To make those wands work on stage—and help set pieces like bookcases, stairways, and fireplaces spring to life—Jones and Banakis worked with an actual magician during the production process. “We knew that we wanted to invent things in a way that CGI can’t, and it was an incredibly playful collaboration,” Jones says. “It felt like we were all going to wizarding school as students learning how to make theater magic.”
And just like the wizarding school of Harry Potter, everyone behind the scenes was sorted into their respective Hogwarts houses. “The whole time we were in rehearsals, we had a House Cup every week so you would earn points the same way as in the books,” explains Banakis, who found out that he was a Gryffindor, much to his surprise. “I thought for sure I was a Ravenclaw, just because I’m so meticulous and nerdy in that way.”
As the production continues to open in new locales such as San Francisco; Melbourne, Australia; and Hamburg, Germany, Banakis now serves as the international scenic supervisor. He also teaches a sister skills course alongside Jones’s class at the Tisch School of the Arts, where they share the same group of graduate-level design students.
Earlier this year, Banakis and Jones brought those lucky students to see the sold-out show in person, which Jones says was a very meaningful experience. “To have been a student at NYU myself, then to be a teacher and to meet Brett, then to work together on this show and share it with our students—it felt like bringing something full circle,” she explains. “I mean, we loved working on the production in London, but something about bringing it back to New York and sharing it with our NYU community made it extra special.”
—Renée Alfuso (CAS ’06)