By Elise Marenson
British born Andy Walmsley designed the West End/Broadway musicals Buddy, the Buddy Holly Story and Blood Brothers. He created the set for the globally syndicated TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His set design has been widely seen on Pop Idol and American Idol for which he won an Emmy, as well as on current TV shows America’s Got Talent, The Biggest Loser, and So You Think You Can Dance.
Here is our interview with Andy Walmsley.
Q. Andy, one could call you a boy wonder, designing the UK illusionist Paul Daniels’ TV series at age 15. And at 21, you became the youngest person to design a West End musical (Buddy, the Buddy Holly Story). What gave you that kind of confidence at such a young age?
Andy: I don’t think I was necessarily confident, but I knew I could do it as I had been designing sets (albeit unbuilt and unrealized) since I was 10. Because of my young age, most people were very protective of me and taught me the ropes on the job — plus I had been a stage hand for three years working on Musicals, Ballet and Opera so I certainly knew how sets were built and loaded in before I started designing them. I guess it’s that blind confidence of youth which is eventually replaced with real confidence because I’ve been doing it so many damn years now.
Q. Are artists “born that way”, meaning design was the only natural path for you to ultimately follow?
Andy: Not at all. I went through many, many ‘phases‘. I play five musical instruments so that was an obvious path initially and I was obsessed with Jim Henson and Puppets generally. Then there was my magician phase, my stage hypnotist phase, my TV cameraman phase, and my director phase. I guess my set designer phase just stuck, but all the other phases were very much an education in show business as a whole. I have a wide understanding of all aspects because of dabbling in so many areas before settling.
Q. I am interested in peering into the mind of a designer. Do you see the world with a heightened visual sense that we mortals don’t possess. In other words, everywhere you look, do you see scenes and images in technicolor?
Andy: It’s a total curse. I can’t walk into any room without seeing the one picture that is not level on the wall. TV design teaches you to stare obsessively at the monitor in the studio only looking for flaws, a bad seam in a set, a dirty finger print on a wall, a scuff mark on the floor and then it’s your job to have the correct person fix it before they shoot. Unfortunately, that carries on into personal life especially after decades of doing it and my mind is now trained only to see flaws, so any space I walk into my eye lasers in on everything that’s wrong. I rarely see the perfect things in the world…only the things that need to be fixed. The kind of work I do in TV (the glossy floor shows) demand clean neat shiny perfection, when I do Theater often the opposite is required and I love dirtying up a room or aging a set.
Q. Can you summarize your creative process? Do ideas pop into your head in free flow inspiration? Or is your process not so effortless? Must you, for example, struggle to create sketches or mock-ups for yourself from which you choose a set design?
Andy: It’s funny, sometimes I really struggle and I usually just quit and go watch TV in bed…but when it’s flowing I can’t stop and I will regularly work until dawn because I’m so in the moment and enjoying the ideas flowing.
Q. After Blood Brothers, you eventually transitioned to designing TV shows. Did your theater background inform designing for TV, or is the process so different that you could have designed for TV without stage experience?
Andy: My dream was always to work in TV and I started that very early (I designed my first big TV series for UK mega magician Paul Daniels when I was just 15). I worked in TV for a while as an assistant at the BBC and then fell into Theater. I was distracted by theater for a few years before I got back into TV, but I have thankfully always done both. I love the different disciplines of TV and Theater.
Q. Do you generally have total freedom to come up with concepts to present to producers or a director? Or do producers and directors more often set you up with guidelines that require you to work within their parameters?
Andy: Most people don’t have a clue what they want so I am given freedom and when I’m lucky they love the first design. When I’m unlucky they make me redesign literally dozens of versions…those are the painful jobs…they don’t know what they want until they see it, hence they need to see many designs…ugh!!
Q. You have designed sets for theater, TV, Royal Variety Performances, and Las Vegas. Would you like to work in feature films?
Andy: Also: Cruise ships, ice shows, circus, architecture, and theme parks…but who’s counting? I am not a morning person, I live in Vegas and I don’t know anyone who gets up before 11am (or later). Movies require 5am call times…screw that.
Q. You moved to America in 2003 and in 2011, you became a US citizen. Any regrets, given the current political climate? As an immigrant, do you still have hope for our future?
Andy: I grew up obsessed with America and all things Americana. I was in awe of American entertainment from Broadway to Hollywood, The Rockettes, Ringling Brothers, Vegas etc…you guys know how to do entertainment. I spent my entire life’s journey building my career with the intention of moving to the States. I worked bloody hard in the UK and eventually after a few near misses got the opportunity thanks to Simon Cowell and Idol to move here. Unfortunately for me I have watched America massively decline since the decades I used to come out here on vacation to the last 14 years I have lived here. I have essentially had my American dream pulled from under my feet and it’s terribly sad how America is now a faint shadow of what it was. This isn’t a Trump, Obama, Bush thing…it’s been declining for decades and it makes me terribly sad. It’s easier for someone like me from another country to see it, you guys haven’t really noticed the decline until it was too late. The country is broken and has been for a decade or more so I am one of the few (although I didn’t vote) who thinks this massive shake up will ULTIMATELY be good for the country…but it will take years.
Q. Would you consider designing a poster or web design to uplift us in these scary times?
Andy: I have designed web sites and posters.
Q. Is there anything you are working on currently that you would like us to know about?
Andy: I am currently working on a massive new Broadway musical…The Love Boat musical. We are opening in LA for the summer, then move to New York in the fall. It’s a huge project with a beefy budget and a complex automated set. I’ve been working on it on and off for two and a half years.
You can read more about Andy Walmsley’s work at http://andywalmsley.com.