Marty Burnett Sets the Scene for North Coast Rep and Ellenstein's 100th Show

The North Coast Rep Sets are a Thing of Beauty!

"Sherlock Holmes" North Coast Rep set

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Not many set designers can work with unit sets as creatively and effectively as Marty Burnett, the Resident Scenic Designer for North Coast Rep Theatre. Production after production, Burnett manages to create sets that function perfectly for the theatre’s intimate stage specs.

Now in his 23rd season with North Coast, Burnett has designed a whopping 166 shows in succession for the company since he first arrived on the scene in 1992. In addition to NCRT, he has designed productions for many other ensembles on both coasts and in between. In his 30–year career, he has designed over 250 plays, musicals and trade shows.

“The one thing I heard over and over again was how good Marty was,” says current NCRT chief David Ellenstein, who took over the helm in 2003. “The way he tends to detail and adorns it is always specific to the show, it’s always creative... always inventive.” Burnett takes design to a whole new level. How does he do it? In a recent interview, the designer provided some insight into his prolific output.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a set designer.
I moved to San Diego from Nebraska in 1979 to pursue acting. I have a journalism/ theater degree from Creighton University. I had a brother here, which made the choice easier. The cold Nebraska winters were another deciding factor!

What happened with your acting from there?
My first experience in acting was at the old Coronado Playhouse. I acted in quite a few shows under the direction of Tom McCorry. I had some ideas for the set for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he said I should design it. I had no experience in design, but it came easy. James Baker from Grossmont College became my mentor and helped me with the technical requirements of drafting, rendering and the like. The set was well received and I had found a new thrill in becoming creative. I acted and designed about twelve shows there, but my love was leaning more to design.

You also build sets as well as design them. Are you equally enamored with both pursuits?
I do love designing and building. I have an idea and then create it. It’s fulfilling. 

You seem quite modest for a person of your many accomplishments. How do you maintain your unpretentious attitude?
Am I? Thank you! I didn’t know that was a perception. I just keep focused on the next show. I am always excited about new challenges!

Do you find it a special challenge to work with such an intimate space as the one for North Coast Rep?
Not really. I had a pole downstage center at the old Coronado Playhouse, which I had to incorporate in all shows. Any theater space is a blessing after dealing with that!

What are you enjoying most about the current show, Now You See It?
The magic tricks incorporated into the set. That’s all I can say about that at this time!

Which shows have you not yet designed that you would like to do?
I haven’t designed much Shakespeare or done enough abstract work that would seem to be a more creative challenge. One day!