Polly Wood-Holland ’75 still feels the impact of advice she encountered from comedian and composer Tim Minchin: “Be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery,” he said. “Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
“It really resonated as I have never had a long-range plan but concentrated always on doing the best I could with what came along,” she says of a speech Minchin recorded in 2013 at the University of Western Australia. “It struck me as a rather wonderful way to describe how I had actually traveled in my career.”
As she’s moved through her life and her work, Wood-Holland—a scenic artist and designer who has helped create worlds from Simba’s home in the pride lands of Africa to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sewer dwelling—has kept her eyes open and gathered plenty of shiny things.
She’s worked on Broadway, in Hollywood, at Disney World, and around the world. She counts famed scenic designers David Mitchell and Tony Walton among her mentors. In recent years, Wood-Holland served as scenic foreperson of the popular, award-winning Amazon Prime series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In November 2022, the show wrapped shooting its fifth and final season, which will premiere on April 14, 2023.
Wood-Holland’s job on Maisel as scenic foreperson—“I have no problem with the word foreman,” she says—is to work with the production designer, art director and charge man to transform 21st-century New York into the 1950s and ’60s home of the main character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, and her family and friends.
When Wood-Holland first began in the business in the ’80s, it was unusual that a woman would have worked as a scenic artist on a film or TV set. But Wood-Holland says it’s more common now. “Now, I think the women might outnumber the men. There are probably not as many women designers. That’s where we need to improve.”
Art was a lifelong love and talent, but it wasn’t until Williams that she discovered her passion for scenic design. She studied art history but gravitated toward the theater department.
As a member of the first fully coed class, she says, “I probably got more parts in plays than I might have. My four years were definitely a transitional time. Socially, the first year was odd. Most of us were pretty independent; we were self-starters.”
She performed in the Frosh Revue, and when she asked one of the male students working on the sets if they needed any help painting, he asked: “You can paint scenery?”
“Probably,” she replied.
She joined Cap and Bells toward the end of that year, acting and working on sets for shows like Cabaret, King Lear, Indians, Company and She Loves Me.
“I spent nearly all my time (outside of regular classes) in Adams Theater,” she says. “There was no theater major then, so Cap and Bells provided a framework for a lot of the student participation.”
She spent the fall of her junior year at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut. “That was a very intense program with both acting and design classes where professionals traveled up from New York City to teach,” she says. That spring, she worked with a professional designer on Cap and Bells’ spring musical, Anything Goes.
By senior year, Wood-Holland was elected president of the group. Williams also introduced a theater major, and the spring musical—The Beggar’s Opera—became a joint effort with the theater department, she recalls.
Designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, who had worked as an assistant scenic designer on the 1971 Broadway production of The King and I, was hired to create sets for The Beggar’s Opera. Wood-Holland handled Kellogg’s contract. The two had conversations about Wood-Holland’s desire to move to New York and work in the same field.
“Call me when you’re coming to New York,” Kellogg told Wood-Holland. When she did, and Kellogg gave her the numbers for legendary set designers Ming Cho Lee and Tony Walton, whom she herself had assisted.
“Being young and not knowing the theater world, I didn’t really know who Tony Walton was,” Wood-Holland says. “I showed him my meager collection of drawings and was very honest that I didn’t know much. It wasn’t until I started working for him that I realized exactly whom I was working for. Thank god for my initial ignorance. I would not have called him.”
First as an assistant designer, then as a scenic artist, she worked on Broadway productions such as Chicago and films like The Wiz, alongside Walton; on the film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy for production designer Mel Bourne, and on the Broadway production of Annie under David Mitchell, who won the 1977 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design.
The hours were long and arduous, and by 1988, she was ready for something new. She also had three children and thought it would be easier to raise them outside of the city. The family moved to Shelburne, Vt., where she opened a mural business and worked with the Shelburne Museum.
The family returned to New York in 2001, settling in Tarrytown, 30 miles outside Manhattan. Wood-Holland began working with Hudson Scenic Studio, which creates installations and builds and paints sets for theater, awards shows, museums and more.
There she painted backdrops for Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliott on Broadway. She showed her portfolio at the Metropolitan Opera and worked for a summer touching up sets for Rusalka, Tristan und Isolde and Der Rosenkavelier. Through trusted contacts and a strong reputation, she was recruited for other projects: sculpting a bas-relief wall for Kanye West at Coachella; redoing the landscape for the Baroque Galleries Christmas Tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and creating a fantasy landscape for the Coe Museum on Long Island. “It was a fantasy landscape with 120 birds and large-scale Irish lace,” she recalls. “It took 11 days just to do the netting for the lace.”
Since 2004, Wood-Holland has been the benefit set designer for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp—another of the shiny things in her visual periphery. “The kids’ stories will make you cry,” she said. “It’s been an extraordinary part of my life.”
In 2017, she began working on Maisel, creating sets from posh Upper West Side apartments to a Greenwich Village coffee house, a Catskills resort, a Miami supper club, and a burlesque theater for elaborate ecdysiast displays.
For season four, which filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, cast and crew shot scenes at Coney Island. It was a full-circle moment for Wood-Holland, who was there in 1978, assisting Tony Walton on The Wiz.
Her first filming location would be her last as a full-time scenic foreperson. She semi-retired in 2022. “My union (United Scenic Artists) allows you to take your pension and work 10 days a month,” she says.
She’s used those 10 days well, including on Maisel and on Broadway. In February 2023, she was working on sets for the revivals of Sweeney Todd and New York, New York.
COVID-19 also upended her Williams class’s 45th reunion. So Wood-Holland participated in ’75 Creates, an online gallery of creative works by some of the class’s artistic members. She also joined in a video rendition of Steven Sondheim’s “Old Friends,” a rare turn back to her performing days.
Nearly 50 years after graduation, Wood-Holland remembers the lessons she learned at Williams, especially as part of the first fully coeducational class of women—“I learned not to be intimidated. I learned to persevere,” she says— and how they have served her in her career.
“I can’t believe when I think back on what Tony (Walton) trusted me with,” she adds. “I supervised a play at Joe Papp’s theater (The Public Theatre), directed by Mike Nichols. I was all of 23 or 4. Having that degree gave me the confidence to not be intimidated at work by powerful men.”
Nor was she going to listen to nonsense from them. “I looked really young. I remember going on set, and someone asked if the fellow who owned the shop was my father. I was incensed,” she says. “I think my time at Williams helped me feel empowered.”
Top photograph: Polly Wood Holland ’75, wearing a hardhat, works on a float at the Hudson Scenic Studio that eventually will travel to Shanghai Disney. All photographs courtesy of Polly Wood Holland ’75.
—Holly Leber Simmons, founder of Red Pen Editorial Services, is a writer, editor, and former newspaper reporter. She loves telling stories about fascinating people. Find her on Twitter at @redpentweeting or on LinkedIn.