He designed sets and costumes, produced a Broadway play
and collaborated with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson
Welles, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. May's set
design efforts - known for their clear lines, impeccable
detail and symmetrical balance - illustrated the works of
writers from Shakespeare and Euripides to Tom Stoppard,
Henrik Ibsen and Jean-Paul Sartre.
He also worked on ballets, classical music concerts, public
television and operas. May designed for such choreographers
as David Wood, Agnes de Mille and José Limón.
Venues for his work included Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall,
the New England Conservatory of Music and the Berkeley Repertory
Theatre, as well as UC Berkeley sites such as Zellerbach
Hall, the Greek Theatre, Hertz Hall and Wheeler Hall.
He designed all the major theater productions and dance
performances on the UC Berkeley campus during a 25-year
period and was the chief consultant for the technical dramatic
requirements for the 2,000-seat Zellerbach Hall when it
Elsewhere, May consulted for the Walnut Creek Civic Arts
Center and UC San Diego's Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing
May once said that set designers have three to five minutes
to get their points across, after which the setting should
"He didn't have a strong, distinctive style, like a painter,"
said Robert Goldsby, a professor emeritus of theater at
UC Berkeley who worked with May. "Henry was a designer;
he had to be able to sense what the director had or wanted
as a central vision for the play. He did clear, beautiful
May's daughter, Laurie Trippett of Silver Spring, Md.,
called her father a "visual thinker. He always found something
worth looking at, and his designs were inspired by everything
from trash heaps to glints of golden sunlight to water."
A native of Havana, Cuba, Henry May's father was an engineer
and his mother a would-be actress who taught her children
to love the theater.
May grew up in New York City and earned a bachelor's degree
in landscape architecture in 1943 from the University of
Illinois. It was there that May was introduced to theater
by a roommate. He went on to become director of design for
university productions, worked as the stage designer for
a small Cape Cod theater, and spent four summers in summer
He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy's amphibious
forces from 1943-1945 and as an admiral's aide from 1945-1946.
After World War II, May studied scenic design at Yale University's
School of Drama. At Yale, he met Donald Oenslager, a leader
in a new approach to stage design characterized by simplicity
May won an Emmy Award in 1958 for his artistic direction
of "Boswell's Life of Jonson" on the groundbreaking, 1950s
cultural variety program, "Ominibus." Funded originally
by the Ford Foundation and aired variously on all three
major networks, his scenic design work on the series hosted
by Alistair Cooke earned May the Sylvania Award. May said
the program's nine-year run proved that good drama could
be commercially successful on television and paved the way
for later shows.
After "Omnibus" ended in 1961, May launched a freelance
career that included designing commercials.
When a phone call came in offering him a teaching position
at UC Berkeley just as he was about to go outside to shovel
snow outside his Connecticut home for the second time in
one day, he accepted immediately.
"He was ready to make a change, and we were ready to get
a good designer," said Goldsby. May joined the department
in 1962 became chair of the Department of Dramatic Art (now
the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies)
in 1968, succeeding professor Travis Bogard. May was on
the board of the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and
Museum and a member of the prestigious Arts Club at UC Berkeley.
May retired in 1991.
While at UC Berkeley, he won the bronze medal at the Sixth
Triennnale of Theatre Set and Costume Design in the international
competition in Yugoslavia in 1981 for production of Shakespeare's
"As You Like It." His competition included companies such
as the Royal Shakespeare and La Scala.
During May's tenure at UC Berkeley, he also was awarded
a Guggenheim Foundation award, the first given to a scenic
designer. He also won a Bay Area Theatre Critic's Award
and a West Coast Theatre Critic's Award for his design work
on Noel Coward's "Tonight at 8:30."
May's daughter called him an "affable, humorous and profoundly
kind" man who was loved by his students.
George W. "Skip" Mercier, a designer with more than 300
plays on Broadway and off-Broadway, recalled meeting May.
Mercier, an English student at UC Berkeley, accidentally
wandered into May's office and found the walls covered with
theatrical images. While May sat at a drafting table quietly
absorbed in a task, Mercier pored over May's sketches, photographs
and paintings for an hour.
"At that point," Mercier said, "I had never seen a professional
show, had no idea that a career in the theater was possible,
and felt suddenly in the glow of visual magic that made
more sense to me than anything before. Over the next few
years, Henry carefully taught me skills needed to communicate
visual ideas, focused my raw talent, and most importantly,
showed me the possibility of a life in theater."
Mercier said May "was the happiest man I had ever met,
and I dreamed of a life like his. By example, he showed
me that being a good designer was in direct proportion to
being a good man."
May also was a masterful teacher who embraced learning,
and "his passion and delight for living in art" marveled
all he met, Mercier said.
"Henry made me realize that theater, like life, is only
as good as one's connection to it," said Mercier, who remained
close friends with May through the years.
A preeminent theatrical set and costume designer, Mercier
is a Tony Award nominee and has several Drama Desk Award
nominations. He also works for major regional theaters throughout
the country, including Steppenwolf Theatre, Arena Stage,
Alliance Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center.
He has taught design at the National Theatre Institute for
the past 18 years.
Former May student and UC Berkeley alumna Julie Weiss said
May took particular interest in her work and encouraged
her to go to graduate school at Brandeis University, where
she earned a master's in fine art. Later, she joined the
faculty at Stanford University.
Weiss went on to develop a wide-ranging career in theater,
TV and film. She has designed costumes for such films as
"American Beauty," "Frida," "Steel Magnolias," "Searching
for Bobby Fisher," "Twelve Monkeys," and "Auto Focus." She
also designed for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the
Phoenix Theater in New York City, and the San Francisco
Nominated for an Oscar for "American Beauty" and a Tony
Award for "Elephant Man," and winner of Emmys for her work
on "The Dollmaker" and "Woman of Independent Means," Weiss
said she owes her career to May.
She said he was about "taking creative risks that have
ramifications where one would walk out of the theater with
a better understanding of the human predicament."
Weiss said May also was known for incorporating literature
as well as technology into his designs, and for seeing theater
as a place to begin a conversation where the questions raised
remain under discussion long after the evening has ended.
Roberta Lemons, director of the costume shop in UC Berkeley's
Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, joined
the department in 1969 when May was chair. "He was a man
I always wanted to hug," she recalled. "There was just something
warm about him, he was just a darling guy."
In his retirement, May's daughter said, he was an active
volunteer at the UC Botanical Garden and remained an avid
May is survived by his daughter, Laurie Trippett; a sister,
Bettina Barasch of Lido Beach, N.Y.; and one granddaughter.
For information about a memorial to be held later, contact
the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance
Studies at (510) 642-1677.
Contributions may be made in May's memory toward a named
scholarship fund for scenic designers by contacting Teri
Tuma, Yale School of Drama, P.O. Box 208244, New Haven,