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Setting the Stage At McCarter Theatre

By Ilene Dube

Photography by McCarter Theatre

No matter what McCarter Theatre audiences think of the play, one thing they all seem to agree on is the set. As soon they enter the Matthews or Berlind theaters, the oohs and ahs begin.

A recent standout was Eugene Lee’s design for Proof in September 2013, a bedazzling and detail-rich façade of a Chicago house against a backdrop of an enormous blackboard on which mathematical equations take over. McCarter has employed Lee no fewer than 10 times. Also the production designer for Saturday Night Live, Lee has won numerous Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Wicked, Sweeney Todd, Candide, and Showboat.

But even when Lee is tied up with commitments as resident designer at Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., or adjunct professor at Brown, his sets stand out. Working under Director of Production David York, Technical Director Chris Nelson and Prop Master Michele Sammarco, along with their team of nine staffers, make sure all the moving parts come together.

On a recent spring day, in the McCarter production shops at 744 Alexander Street, West Windsor – an old Bohren’s Moving and Storage facility re-outfitted since 2003 – Sammarco and Nelson are juggling demands for The Figaro Plays. With The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville scheduled to open in repertory, there is little time between productions to change sets – in some cases as few as 94 minutes.

A props artisan is busy making luggage, purchased on eBay, look appropriately vintage, and a carpenter is building a jury box. With perfectly mitered corners and softly sanded sides, the inexpensive plywood will be painted to look like fine walnut with trompe-l’oeil moulding and panels. Also in production are castle doors for the main house of The Barber of Seville, finished to look like 100-year-old doors. Large fabricated butterflies from A Winter’s Tale flutter up above, and the costume shop is abuzz with people sewing and ironing.

Describe the process of designing a set at McCarter. How much lead time do you have?

Chris Nelson: Once the season is established, Emily Mann and the director select the designers and we plan the design calendar. We look at drawings to see if it is viable for us to produce. We usually get five to six weeks to build the set and put it in place.

Michele Sammarco: And during four of those weeks they’re rehearsing. We know most of the props, but important information about the props comes out of rehearsal. We know the basic design ahead of time so we start shopping and putting it together. During rehearsals we may find out a chair is the wrong style or the director doesn’t like the upholstery, so we can’t get real far ahead. But we can do the research ahead of time.

What has it been like working with Eugene Lee?

MS: Eugene wants objects to be natural and real and raw, he likes that feeling of found objects and things that aren’t faked. He has no affinity at all for realistic backdrops. He doesn’t have any desire to deny we’re in the theater. He’s an artist, thinking about how to tell the story.

CN: With Eugene I spend a lot of time going to salvage yards. For the trailer in Last of the Boys we found something that had been sitting around for 30 years, covered in mold and dirt, but it was so interesting and real and had character to it. Eugene knew the trailer would be the centerpiece of the play, so we worked on it ahead – that’s the kind of thing you can’t build. Proof took place in Chicago so he designed architectural details that mimicked Chicago. I would try to find the right size prop windows, e-mailing him digital pictures of what I would find.

How do you determine if you’ll search for something that already exists or build it in house?

CN: You can’t find a rolling jury box online.

How is the decision made to do a complex or a simple set?

CN: At every design meeting, we hear, “don’t worry, it’s going to be simple, it will feel like magic,” but sets that look simple are the hardest to build.

MS: Romeo and Juliet was stark, with giant white walls, a chandelier and a fountain in the middle, but it was expensive to build those fabric walls. Sometimes the visually complex is simple to do. For Into the Woods we had 4,000 feet of rope. For Athol Fugard’s Valley Song we just had crates.

CN: For The Iliad, performed on the Matthews stage, the actor walks out on a deserted set to talk to the audience. The back wall of the Matthews has only been minimally altered since the very first production of Our Town was performed there in 1938. The set designer had us build a replica of the back wall because the stage was too big. We replicated the drainage pipes and insulation, and when the University maintenance department guy came in to fix a leak, he looked at our replica and was so confused: “Why did you do this?” The audience must have thought we had nothing to build.

What are the unique challenges you face in your work?

MS: Listening to the designer and making the design become a reality. We have to make sure we understand what the director wants so we can pass it along to our staff. We’re caretakers of design, going between the nuts and bolts.

CN: We have very talented folks working for us who can make this happen.

How did you get into this line of work?

MS: I studied theater at Northwestern but didn’t like acting. I studied all aspects, from costume and lighting design to set construction and props. I’ve known since high school I wanted to do theater.

CN: In 9th grade, when I auditioned for a play, I knew I was not meant to perform – it was the most embarrassing moment of my life. Still, I knew I wanted to be involved in theater so I did lighting throughout high school. I didn’t see theater as a career, so I started out as a pre-med psychology major at Penn, but I couldn’t wait to hang lights and build scenery. It’s a way to use math and science every day.

What happens when the show is over?

MS: The built items may be sold on Craig’s List, saved for another production or disassembled for raw materials.

CN: With shows like Fences, which was performed at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, we built it and sent it to them, splitting the cost. If the show goes to Broadway or Lincoln Center (like Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), the space may be different so adjustments will be built. White Snake was built for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then sent to Berkeley Rep, and we got it from them and did modifications before it was send to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

What are some props you’ve repurposed?

MS: A chaise from The Odyssey, for example, was painted and reupholstered and used in a production the following season. Sometimes we put items in a set that are not part of the design but will fill bookshelves – a bird’s nest, jaws, a chicken – silly things that make it more entertaining.

Are there special items you keep in storage?

CN: We do Christmas Carol every year, so upstairs is an entire closet of Christmas Carol costumes, freshly dry cleaned. Fezziwig changes sizes every year, so we need several Fezziwig costumes. The Christmas Carol set and props are stored in four trailers on the lot, and there’s a warehouse on U.S. 1 we use for larger furniture.

MS: Also up there are rows of shelves of teapots, samovars, wine and beer bottles, silver service, record players, spices, cookie tins, law books and fake books, chandeliers, fabric bolts, and more suitcases and chairs.

This chair you’re sitting in was used by Humpty Dumpty. Is it comfy?

CN: I bought this chair. Props often look comfy but they’re not.

MS: Actors don’t like squishy chairs.

Eugene Lee will return to McCarter Theatre Center in October of 2014, designing The Understudy.

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