Set Designer Bryan Wofford, BA 2004 on "building" and enjoying a Hollywood career

Set Designer Bryan Wofford, BA 2004 on “building” and enjoying a Hollywood career

By Chris Hazell

In the heart of Oklahoma, Bryan Wofford, BA ’04, transforms a nondescript drive-thru burger joint into a 1960’s Sonic in preparation for a scene in Taika Waititi’s FX television series Reservation Dogs. Aside from a recent trip to visit his daughter, who is graduating from the University of Maine, Wofford has been living and working in Oklahoma for the past four months.

“I tell everyone I’m a set designer or a scenographer, but I’m just a set painter,” Wofford said. “My job is to prepare a set or location for a theatrical production, TV show or film. This may mean aging the set to make it look older and more period appropriate, painting it and adding wallpaper and decals. For example, we might make a film about a post office in the 1970s, but the film is set in the 1930s. We go in and paint the brick a different color that suits the time better, or make it look dirtier if we’re doing a gangster movie, for example.”

In addition to Reservation Dogs, Wofford has appeared on Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, Richard Linklater’s Merrily We Roll Along, and many other film, television, and theater productions. He also works as an art director. This role involves laying out the overall creative vision for a set or shoot and leading various departments to bring that vision to life. He has been the art director for Fan Controlled Football, several independent films and countless theater productions for the University of Texas at Dallas and other organizations.

In other words, he’s very busy.

“Sometimes it can be hell working with others on set and other times it’s just plain fun. It can be a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’ve always loved being a part of the creative process,” shared Wofford.

Wofford’s road to working with Waititi in Oklahoma has been a winding and eventful one. He entered the University of Dallas in 1986 as a theater student and became interested in acting. One day, while waiting for rehearsal to start, he was asked to help paint a stage set.

“I could paint and I’ve always had an artistic side, so I just did it. I liked it and I remember thinking, ‘This is way better than memorizing lines,'” Wofford said.

After a few years, he dropped out of UD and began working as the associate technical director of the Dallas Theater Center. Smaller theaters across the city asked him to help design, paint and build sets. Although he enjoyed the work itself, it was associated with high costs.

“It was bloody awful. I was making $200 a week, working 14 or 16 hours a day, six days a week. My wife dropped me off on Monday morning and picked me up again on Wednesday evening as I worked so much that I slept there. I kept doing it because I enjoyed being part of the work and honestly I wasn’t sure I could do anything else,” Wofford said.

Eventually he took a job as a set designer for the Repertory Theater in Plano, where he continued to design, paint and “set” their productions. The hours were still brutal, and it was around this time that Wofford and his wife, Kelly (Donovan), BA ’90, gave birth to their daughter, Lily.

“We decided that I would play Mr. Mom, and I would take care of Lily and take her to work,” Wofford said. “She used to help me hold my brushes and hammer, and when she was old enough, she would help me paint.”

Eventually, Wofford’s wife suggested he return to UD to complete his degree. He received his bachelor’s degree in acting in 2004 and then began a three-year master’s degree at Southern Methodist University.

“After graduating, the doors to my career were open to me. I started working more in film and television, where I could make more in a day than I could in a full week working for a theatre,” Wofford said.

While his salary has certainly increased since he started this business, the time commitment can still be high. For Killers of the Flower Moon, he arrived on set in January 2021 and didn’t return to Dallas until November. Because jobs like this can be long and tiring, he often takes several months off between projects to enjoy time with his wife or to work on other creative projects that don’t require him to be on site.

When asked for his advice for those interested in a similar career, he stressed the importance of continuous learning.

“Keep practicing whatever you’re doing and keep learning. You may be a great painter, but don’t stop there. Learn metalwork or carpentry. Never put yourself in a box,” Wofford said. “And when you get a job, do it to the best of your ability without complaining. Just be thankful and do a good job.”

Another important piece of advice he gave is to have an active online presence.

“One thing that took my career from $1,800 a month to adult money was a website. I started my website in 1998 and have never stopped updating it with my work. It eventually led to a call from the Freeman company because the guy there had been following my site for about nine months and noticed that I was getting better and better and had a good work ethic.”

Pat Kelley, UD Professor Emeritus of Acting, remembers Wofford fondly.

“I have good memories of Bryan Wofford from his two stints at UD. “He was an enthusiastic and talented theater man in all areas,” said Wofford. “While for most students making theater is an exciting endeavor in itself, for many of them the experience of actually working in one aspect of the production or another is what finds the path they will take professionally. It is always encouraging to see how the diverse experiences that UD Theater offers help its graduates to discover their life’s work.”

It’s been a lot of work, but Wofford remains grateful for what he’s getting to do and excited for what’s to come, be it Twisters (the sequel to the 1990s blockbuster Twister) or something other.

“I just raft down this river like Winnie the Pooh, reach a fork and decide whether to take the rapids route or the slippery route,” Wofford said.

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