Sunday, November 1, 2009


A few months ago I had the opportunity to work on a project unlike anything I had ever done before. Over the summer I was interested in finding a place to volunteer my time and talents and also wanted a way to meet new people, and a friend suggested that I might be useful in designing sets at The Sioux City Community Theater. This interested me at once, for a couple of reasons. The first being that SCCT has always held a special place with me- I was in productions there as a child and it was such a wonderful experience. I made a lot of friends and I remembered that everyone on the set always treated each other as family, and I liked that. The second reason I was interested was that I had never done set design before, and it was a challenge I wanted to try. Then I found out that the next production SCCT was putting on was Chicago! Although I'd never seen the Broadway version, I loved the movie (that won the Best Picture Oscar, btw) and being a huge fan of art deco and prairie school style of architecture my head started to buzz with all the possibilities that a set for this kind of story could have.

Linda Boettger applying my make-up before a performance of The Pied Piper on the SCCT stage, 1990.
I have done large mural work before but designing a set is completely different- there is so much more that is involved... and it can be quite overwhelming if not taken one step at a time! The first step was analyzing everything- the mood of the story, the characters, etc. It really helped me figure out the direction that I wanted to go, so that I could move on to the fun part- research! I poured over books on art deco and Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also as guides for the colors and style I wanted to use... old photographs of the city helped as well.

The Chicago Board of Trade building... beautiful.

Another big inspiration was this painting by one of my favorite artists, Tamara de Lempicka. The painting is of New York- but the shapes, the shadows, the lines, the mood of this painting... that was the mood I wanted for Chicago.
So I got a big piece of paper and taped all of my inspirations- photographs, paint colors that I played around with, and some small thumbnails with my initial thoughts about the set. The directors Dan and Dave Washburn gave me the green light, and I spent the next few days at the paint store narrowing down about 100 color sample cards to about ten, paint that had to cover every single surface of that set... and then I just prayed that the colors would all work together once they were on the stage under some very bright lights.

This is what the set looked like when I came into the project. All the credit for the building of the set goes to the directors and crew members. I loved the rounded stage and the stairs winding around it- very art deco. The green side walls and orange floor were from the previous production of High School Musical 2.
For my first day working on the set, I started with the back wall (30ft.long x11ft. high), which was to be the city skyline. I have learned from previous murals to use chalk- easy to erase mistakes and easy to paint over when the time comes. I used the photographs as references, but I didn't want to get too detailed. I didn't want the audience sitting there saying, "oh, that is that famous building"... "what is that one supposed to be?" I wasn't going for historical accuracy. The audience needed to focus on the actors, I just wanted to create a skyline that would give them the feeling of being in that city, in that time period.
After I chalked in the entire back wall, the crew members installed a shorter wall in front (that was attached to the stage) for the L train. I thought that having the train somewhere in the setting was vital for the audience having that feeling of being in the city. I have been to downtown Chicago a few times and the L train, with it's large steel girders, is something that surrounds the city and can't be missed.
Starting to paint in the 30 ft. skyline- the buildings were eventually shaded and the yellow chalk lines were covered with a light blue line instead.
This is me being kicked off the set! Well, not really- getting down to the final few weeks before opening night I spent days there from 9am to 10pm and enjoyed working the most while the cast was rehearsing their numbers. On this particular night there was no way for the cast members to dance around me, unless they wanted to (literally) be black and blue. All the photos from here on I have to credit Dale Hartshorn, who was a crew member and did an amazing job of photographing the cast and sets before and during the performances.
These are photos of the cast rehearsing- you can see the progress being made on the set. I couldn't wait to get that orange floor covered up- it just wasn't going to feel like Chicago to me until all of that bright orange was gone! Mike Skaff, who played Amos, enjoyed teasing me on my obsession to be rid of the orange.

The stairs were a big focal point being in the center of the set and I had a reason behind why I wanted it to look like a curtain- even though the play deals with some dark subject matter, it's also like a circus- the show these people are putting on for the press, and also for the main character Roxie who wants nothing more than to be a star on the vaudeville stage. I wanted it to be a little glitzier than the rest of the set- in the middle I added a little art deco design and even though it's not noticeable in the photo there is clear glitter to make it sparkle when the lights hit it. I lined the edge of the stairs and the stage with silver paint- really made it pop and broke up the darkness of the floor/stage colors.
The previous green side walls I painted to look like the run down part of Chicago. The city that the L train surrounds is beautiful and glamourous; the city outside the L... are the slums. Drugs, clubs, motels, crime, dark, damp and shady streets, smoke billowing out from the run down tenements and factories. The characters want to be in that part of the city way in the distance, at the top.... but the reality is they are at the bottom, in the slums.

These are one side of the turntables that were on the edge of either side of the stage. Both sides were used for multiple scenes during the play, so I had to keep them generic but they still had to work with the rest of the design. I created an abstract design that gives the illusion of buildings.
Ta-Dah! No more orange! I finished the set the day of the their first performance in front of an audience. This is the cast warming up before showtime.
Photos of the performance, also courtesy of Dale. Notice the skyline- we ran a blue rope light all the way across the back of the L train to make the skyline really pop.

This is the wonderful and hilarious cast I had the pleasure of working with...
Not even two hours after the final performance, the cast and crew tore apart the set that I had spent weeks painting. That's part of theater, though- I couldn't convince the director that this set would work for their next production of White Christmas. After strike, when everything is torn down and cleaned up, there is a wall that everyone who has worked on their first production gets to sign. It's a big deal and the whole cast and crew gather around and clap for each person that signs the wall... really nice.
The reason I had loved the theater so much as a child and wanted to come back to SCCT was because I got to be part of another family. And even though twenty years later there are new people, that feeling of being part of a family was the same. I can't say enough about how wonderful everyone was who worked on this play- I feel so lucky that I got to share my time with them!

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