Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"This is my art and it is dangerous! Do you think I want to die like this?" OR ADVENTURES IN SET DESIGN

Castle courtyard from "The Princess & The Magic Pea" This is my set and from the top of that tower it seems very, very dangerous.

For those who might not recognize the title of this post it is a memorable line spoken by "Delia" (played brilliantly by Catherine O'Hara) in the classic movie Beetlejuice. She plays Winona Ryder's stepmother, and seems to consider herself a tortured artist forced into exile in the country. There is this funny scene in the movie when her grotesque giant sculpture pins her to the wall while being moved by a large crane and in a panic she let's out that declaration. This line frequently came to my mind when I was painting high atop a set piece I had designed.

"Princess & The Magic Pea" set without cast

Concept Sketch

I've written many times how much I love movies/TV, etc. and wanted to be a set designer when I was in junior high and high school. It was in the late 80's and early 90's when Tim Burton's Batman movie first hit the scene, that I started to make the connections between set design and architecture. I also was a big Starlog magazine junkie, "before the internet" magazines like Starlog, Fangoria, Cinefantastique were where you went to learn about how the movies were made. Tim Burton's movies have always been very architecturally rich, and in fact his production designers (Bo Welch & Anton Furst) were trained as architects. Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns, I was just a huge fan of all these films and I would read interviews with Welch & Furst and figured out that getting a degree in Architecture could be a great start to a career as set designer. Once I was actually in college I found myself moving away from that ambition and ended up persuing a more traditional career in architecture(hence the name of the blog!). But it remained an early ambition and I have now had several chances to design sets for my son's plays!

Castle staircase and tower set piece with my favorite cook

Castle staircase and tower set piece concept sketch

The first play was the "Mooresville Community Children's Theatre" production of "The Princess and the Pea", and my son Presley was cast as a cook in the royal household. The play would need flexible set pieces with multiple levels at the request of the director. The director was wonderful, very supportive, she laid out a slideshow with what she was hoping for, and I hoped I was able to touch on most of it.  The technical director had a real can do spirit, he simply would not reign me in, no matter how upfront I was about not knowing the practical side of building for the stage. And some how he pulled it off...we ended up with 2 large mobile set pieces and a large fixed platform. The fixed platform was used as a dock, a dais, a castle hallway, it was really wonderful to see how the director staged everything, my intent was to give her pieces with flexibility to be used as multiple locations without my knowing exactly what each piece might be. So the elements suggested hallways, chambers, there were balconies, and a stairway. Depending how it was staged you might have a courtyard or a great hall, and the kitchen doubled as an apothecary.  There were archways and platforms so the performers could really move in and out of the set.

Rotate the tower staircase and you get a magic balcony and a not so magic chamber

The backdrop was three large heraldic banners that my family helped me paint(My wife Monica did the lion, Presley helped with the crowns and the baby sat in a chair and supervised. We did them on our kitchen floor.), beneath the banners were a set of columns and arches.  The largest set piece was a staircase to an enchanted balcony on one side and on the other side of this set piece was a royal chamber. Above the Royal chamber was the enchanted balcony(only a magic fairy would be seen using the balcony).  The enchanted balcony had a fanciful wrought iron railing and a cupola for the fairy to reside in...she was overseeing the play and was literally elevated over all other characters. I wanted to give the set the feel of being a castle with a village so I introduced a tower, this would double as a cupola for the fairy. It was high over the stage at the top of that tower when I was painting it that I kept hearing that Beetlejuice line in my head over and over. The top of that tower nearly reached the rafters. The set was built to hold several kids all over it, but it repeatedly held my 6'-4" frame too! The second movable set piece would be a kitchen/apothecary with a balcony above. This balcony was less fanciful being a wooden baluster type. The idea being that the kitchen set piece is more rustic than the Tower/Enchanted Balcony piece. The other side was the famous mattress stack/canopy bed.

Another balcony and below a more utilitarian chamber to suggest a kitchen or an apothecary

In keeping with my Architecture background the set was very "tectonic" there were many building elements, they weren't necessarily arranged as an actual building but they suggested a physical 3-D environment, and not a backdrop with flat pieces in front of it.  The set pieces ended up being very large and heavy (approximately 8' x 8' each). They would be moved back and forth and rotated by a team of dedicated parent volunteers. This was tough work, but I think it added a lot of production value and spectacle, I recall hearing gasps from the audience when certain elements came into view, and of course when the mattress was revealed.

Concept sketch of the bed, I neglected to take a picture of the final product! This was on the other side of the Kitchen/Apothecary/Balcony set piece

The production team was great, the parent volunteers invaluable, especially as a set construction and painting crew.  We lost work time due to a blizzard, and ended up having to build alongside rehearsals.  The theater had acquired years of deconstructed set pieces in storage. Among these pieces were some arches and platforms that we salvaged and used as the framework of our set. I was very proud of how much we were able to reuse, and in fact some of that material has been reused in other shows. It was a great thrill to finally take a stab at set design and fulfill a childhood ambition.

Psychiatric Help: The Doctor is Real In

This past December I was called upon to design and build props and set pieces for the "Activate Community Through Theatre" production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas".  This was a live-action version of the holiday TV classic.  Presley played Pig Pen and I designed an over sized bass fiddle and dirty snow man for him.

Pig Pen and his Bass

Pig Pen can make a dirty snowman. Actually my wife and I made the snowman, the mailbox and Pig Pen too

I also designed the famous psychiatric booth and decorated doghouse. The Christmas decorations were re-purposed to decorate the Christmas tree at the end of the show.  We incorporated working lights attached with velcro so that the kids could first decorate the doghouse and then later use the same decorations on the Christmas tree.

1st Place! 

It is popularly believed that Snoopy's Doghouse is always red...but in fact in this particular episode the doghouse is blue! So in staying accurate to that I painted the doghouse blue and the psychiatry booth pink and red(again to match the way it was presented in the TV special).  Various props were needed and provided, my wife Monica(also an architect by training) was a full partner on this job and was invaluable, especially when it came to building and painting all of this stuff to meet the deadline.  She has a great eye and is more of a perfectionist than I am which just pushes you to do better.

How far can you see from the top of a tree?  I finally designed (and helped build) a treehouse for my son....
Concept Sketch.  The branches were originally out stretched but then the treehouse would get stuck in the wings, so the branches were moved and the treehouse still came out great.  Improvisation is an important theatrical skill, even for the technical crew!
Following on the heels of this job was the design of the sets and the drawing of projected backgrounds for the "Mooresville Community Children's Theatre" production of "The Magic Treehouse: The Knight of Dawn".  Presley had a dual role on this show playing both the lead "Jack" ( a time traveling boy ) and the "Prince of Floren" (an impostor).  The story follows a brother & sister who use a magical treehouse to travel to the middle ages.  I designed a time traveling treehouse, a castle facade and drawbridge and a series of projected backgrounds for this play.

"It was a dark and stormy out for that castle behind you!"
Rehearsal in front of the castle
Showtime in front of the castle.
The Great Hall
The Armory

The Treehouse came out really good, the technical director came up with an interesting way to do the tree bark- he stretched pieces of fabric to suggest the knarled tree bark. I left open 2 sides of the treehouse so we could see the kids.  It was rolled out as needed and then tucked in the wings when not on stage.  The castle facade was a rolling piece with a drawbridge.  It was augmented with a projection to appear part of a larger castle facade.  We reused a lot of the raw material from "Princess and the Pea", which has been reused repeatedly.  There were a variety of castle settings needed for the background projections- facades,  a courtyard, a great hall, hallways, an armory, a storeroom, moats & catwalks of the castle, magical forests and a dungeon. This was a fun project, and I have two castle shows under my belt now.

No comments: