Set pieces become actors’ playground

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – A theater performance happens in the moment, with audience members in their seats and the actors on stage.
But that live experience wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling without the collaborative effort that came before it.
Unless something goes horribly wrong, Felipe E. Macias’ job is over before any ticket-holders step into the building, much less find their seats.
“An actor needs an audience and directors need audiences,” Macias said. “They need the audience to tell them, ‘That’s good’ or ‘That’s bad.’”
Macias is the scenic designer for the 2013 Oxford Shakespeare Festival. Since March, he’s been collaborating with the directors of “Macbeth,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” to create sets that match the unique qualities of each production.
“We plug away. We work at a pretty consistent pace. That’s the wonderful thing about design,” he said. “With the set, by the time people actually see it, you’ve already made up your mind about success or failure. You can sit in the theater and look and see whether it works or not.”
That’s not to say that he doesn’t keep potential viewers in mind throughout the process of developing and building a set.
“They should see it and forget it,” he said. “If I’m doing something that draws the audience’s attention, then I’m doing something wrong. The focus should be on the action. My job is to create an environment that an audience can accept, then they forget about it completely.”
In its natural state, a stage is something like a vacant lot. Backstage crews toil over time to turn that vacant lot into a playground for the actors to use.
Joe Turner Cantú, director of “Macbeth,” wanted the set to reflect the styles from horror movies made by Hammer Film Productions in England from the ‘50s to the ‘70s.
Macias took inspiration from castles in Dracula and Frankenstein films to deliver doom and gloom for Shakespeare’s spookiest play.
The result is an ancient castle in decline, with large, gothic windows and a staircase leading past hard, gray rocks.
Of course, they’re not real rocks for the obvious reason that so many real rocks would make the set piece too heavy to move.
But there’s another, more important reason. A real rock wouldn’t look as cool, said Luke Shryock, 19, part of the scenic design crew.
The best plays or musicals share some truth or collection of truths about human nature, but it takes fakery and artifice to deliver those truths in the most entertaining way.
“Actual stone wouldn’t look right for the audience. Things look different farther away, and depending on how the lights hit them,” Shryock said. “A real stone wouldn’t work nearly as well as these amplified-contrast foam pieces. They show up better for the audience.”
Two plays, one space
During the festival, the “Macbeth” cast and crew will share the Ford Center’ stage with the “Hello, Dolly!” folks. The backstage area is large, but not infinite, so one of the design challenges was finding room for both sets of sets.
“We have a one-and-a-half hour turnaround on one day. One show is in the afternoon followed by the other at night,” said René Pulliam, “Hello, Dolly!” director. “That’s something to keep in mind, too.”
All of the action in “Macbeth” takes place in front of the same castle, but characters in “Hello, Dolly!” must move from the streets of New York to a store in Yonkers to a train station and more.
“We’re using an old style called a set drop,” Pulliam said. “We have four different set drops. You won’t see them put in place. We’ll reveal them by raising a curtain.”
That creates a question: When should the reveals happen? During a recent planning session, Pulliam was trying to decide how to get a band on stage and what to do with a cabinet that was getting in the way.
“Sometimes, it’s ‘Oh, no. This isn’t going to fit. How are we going to make it work?’” Pulliam said. “Basically, you’re a problem-solver.”
The backstage fine-tuning will continue for “Hello, Dolly!” until 7:30 p.m. Thursday, which is opening night. “Macbeth” opened on Saturday, and a 2 p.m. performance is scheduled for today.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” has been going since June 14. It’s staged at the Meek Hall Auditorium, and decisions by director Christopher Schager resulted in a minimalist set.
He was inspired by “Commedia dell‘Arte,” a stylized version of theater created in the 16th century. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” will feature larger-than-life performances with huge hand gestures and body movements. Schager likened it to an old Laurel and Hardy movie.
“We have platforms around the stages, so the actors can do their bits, their big, silly bits,” Schager said.
The costume designer went about as bold as the actors, and that was a cue for scenic designer Macias to dial things back.
“He made a lattice, a white garden. Well, it’s off-white,” Schager said. “He painted it off-white with a hint of red. He made the costumes really jump out. We had to make sure we used the right lights, so it wouldn’t wash out the costumes.”

Up to the actors
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” has been out of Schager’s hands since it opened. Macias’ role as scenic designer for that show is complete, too.
It’s up to the actors to have their time on stage, and to the technical crew to keep things running smoothly backstage.
And don’t forget to audience, which as the important job of letting everyone else know what works and what doesn’t.
The 2013 Oxford Shakespeare Festival will come to an end July 7, then the stage will be cleared until it’s time to build another playground.
“Every production has its own challenges. Every production is different,” Macias said. “That’s the beauty.”

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