Thursday, May 28, 2009

Backstage at BSC

To introduce myself, I am Mandy Thomas, the Assistant Technical Director and Scene Shop Supervisor for the College Theatre. I live mainly in the Scene Shop, and am in charge of all the details of construction for the scenery (and sometimes props) for our shows. I also design lighting and scenery from time to time and for other local companies. Much of this blog addresses the work of the actors, designers, dramaturgs and directors. I'm here to share some backstage details.

After the designer conceives of a setting for the play or musical, how does the world of the play become a real tangible place? The easy answer is that the Scene Shop crew just builds it. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and the details are usually myriad. That's where the crew and I come in.

For our latest production, You Can't Take It With You, the setting was a large Victorian home full of many unusual people and all their hobbies, passions, pets and dreams. The Victorian style is easily researched, but creating a believable representation was the hard work.

At the beginning of the build, Technical Director and Designer Matthew Mielke supplied the Shop with detailed construction plans. The building of the twelve foot walls was fairly straightforward, although we spent a lot of time checking, double-checking and triple-checking our measurements and the square of our flats.

The Shop students learned very well how to use levels, framing squares and plumb lines, and learned the "Why" of all this.

So the flooring was laid, flats built and put together, and stairs modified and fit into place. And yet the real work had just begun. There was wallpaper to hang, trim (oh lots and lots of trim) to attach, doors to hang and painting and set dressing to do.

Trimwork is one of my favorite things, and I really enjoyed sharing that passion with students who had never done this. The trim we attached included baseboard, chair rail, picture rail, crown molding, door and window casing, "shadow-box" trim underneath the chair rail, and casing around our large archways. This was a very time-consuming project and up to 15 students had a hand in this. There were angles to figure out, miters to cut and lots of stapling and nailing to do. Our levels came in very handy for this work as well.

One of our challenges was to provide enough surfaces to display all the detritus of the multiple passions and hobbies of all the members of the household. The furniture provided a fair amount of space, but to allow easy movement on stage, we couldn't clutter the stage too much. So we looked up.

After consulting with Matthew, we decided to use the trim above the archways to create more horizontal space for set dressing. We began to plunder our shelves of left-over trim, and pulled out a variety of pieces to build large "headers". Our archways were twelve feet and nine feet wide, so this project required creative use of what we had.

We started with a plywood backing board cut to about 10 inches wider than the archway, and then attached our left-over crown molding.

After covering the top edge of the crown with luaun, this created a depth of about 5 or 6 inches for set dressing. We finished by adding additional trim below the crown and a built-up piece of trim at the bottom of the backing board.

One of the details that I think really gave these pieces a polished look was creating the corners that ran the trim around to the wall. These headers were very heavy, but several well-placed bolts secured them to the walls and allowed us to finish the trim for the set.

I have to say that this is probably the most detailed set we have built since I've been at BSC, and I was consistently impressed with the hard work and patience of the many students who built this set. The trimwork really required careful and meticulous work and it showed. We had many compliments on the set, and anyone who saw the show would agree that the Shop crew did an amazing job. Below is a photo of the finished set.

Thanks for checking in backstage, and stay tuned for more "technical" posts.

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