In the world of theater, it’s easy for audiences to give the actors and directors all the credit, but there are many unsung heroes behind the scenes that merit accolades too.
Namely, the folks in charge of lights, sounds, scenic elements, costumes and props.
Bernardo Solano, chair of the Department of Theatre and New Dance, who also directed the department’s last play, “Skin of Our Teeth,” said that generally, it’s the students who design the plays because that aligns with the school’s “learn by doing” philosophy and helps prepare students for work outside school.
“We try to staff our shows with student designers in every position that we can,” he said. “They need to get as much practical experience as possible.”
He said the department’s last play, “Stop Kiss,” was entirely student designed, as is the case for the upcoming “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot.”
“Skin of Our Teeth” was designed by a mix of students, faculty and alumni, Solano said.
Such an approach seems to work, as evidenced by alumnus Jonathan D. Bastow (’98, theater and operations management), who serves as the department’s theater facility coordinator.
“Because we’re a university, our job is to teach people how to do stuff and not do it ourselves,” Bastow said.
He said he helps out the lighting design students do just that and as a graduate of the program, he knows it helps.
“If you can light stuff, you’ll never be broke in your life,” he said.
The design of each play comes together a long time before the actual play is shown, Solano said, sometimes halfway before the previous semester, to accommodate students’ schedules.
The director lays the groundwork to give the designers a place to start.
In the case of “Skin of Our Teeth,” Sarah Krainin, assistant professor and head of design at the Department of Theatre and New Dance, had the job of orchestrating the vision of the set as the play’s designer.
“My job as the set designer is help tell the story and help support the vision of the director and the activities of the actors through the visual and spatial elements of the scene design,” she said. “It behooves me as the designer to design within what I know is (in) the realm of possibility, even though I teach students in the classroom to think ‘pie is the sky, the sky is the limit.’”
Krainin said the plays help students express the skills they learn with the rest of the curriculum.
“They’re applying the skills they learn in classes to an actual production,” she said.
Before construction can begin, the designer and director chat about their goals for the show.
Solano said sometimes it’s a challenge to make everyone feel like his/her voice and talent is being utilized and respected.
“We make compromises,” he said. “We’ll go back and forth and back and forth and then I’ll adapt to fit what we do have and what is possible, and we all do that.”
He said new, better ideas often come out of that back and forth.
Before she designed the show, Kraining conducted visual research.
“It’s work that is not my own but I think it reflects the tone or feeling we’re trying to express.”
Then, she makes sketches.
“We create all sorts of documentation that expresses those ideas to the other production team members so they can picture what it’s going to look like … and then we kind of go from there in how we can support the team,” Krainin said.
That being said, the design process is not set in stone.
“I use slightly different methods in any given production,” she said.
After that, the designer and assistant designer draft and draw it and a model is made.
“It shows how we’re actually going to stage a show and then I show it to the actors, so they can get a sense of how their bodies are going to relate to the physical space,” Krainin said.
The director lays the groundwork to give the designers a place to start. From then, it’s a very collaborative process.
After the shows are designed, Kenneth L. Blenc, the technical director, determines if they are feasible, cost effective and safe.
Blenc is also in charge of buying the necessary materials.
For Bastow, much of his job involves responding not to artistic questions, but technical ones.
“It’s stuff like ‘why isn’t this turning on?’ or ‘why is the video wall not the right color?’”
Bastow said that there is a running joke with his and Blenc’s jobs.
“We joke that if it gives you splinters, it’s his problem, if it shocks you, it’s my problem.”
Kirsten Peck, fourth-year theater design student and “Skin of Our Teeth” master electrician, said her job was to interpret the lighting plot and figure out how to make sure everything got the necessary power.
She has also done some design work.
“It’s all about figuring out what lights you want and how you want them to change and adapt throughout the show,” she said.
Peck said that besides the eternal shortage of time in the theater, the amount of attention required is a challenge.
“It’s a lot of attention to detail. A lot of time spent in the dark fiddling with things,” she said. “You definitely have to love it to do it.”
3/27/2019 9:35 p.m.: This article has been updated
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