Ticket in hand, you walk up to the door of the Fairchild Theatre and exchange it for the night\’s performance. After finding your seat, awaiting the entrances of the show\’s most eccentric characters, you flip through the program and read the dozens of names involved with the show, both actors and crew. Suddenly the curtain gracefully opens, and you escape from the usual world of homework and your job. You escape momentarily into the scene on stage and forget the exam lurking in your near future. You focus on the characters; you\’re not distracted by mismatched furniture or wardrobe malfunctions. The world on stage is as real as your own.
Much like an artist sculpts his latest masterpiece, dozens of people spend weeks working behind the scenes to create a world to where the audience can travel. Set and costume designers, prop coordinators, technical directors and many other individuals hidden from the spotlights are necessary for a theater production to succeed. When immersed in a story\’s plot line, most theater-goers quickly forget what goes into a show. It takes about 80 hours to simply design the set; another 100 hours to construct it and making just one costume from scratch can take nearly 12 hours. And, for most of MSU\’s Department of Theatre productions, all of this is crammed into four weeks.
A Place to Roam
[domer]Design for the background or set begins with a collage of images the director puts together in order to convey a premise and a mood for the designer to build from. For the production \”As Bees in Honey Drown,\” director Jeanine Cull used magazine covers and expensive furniture and clothing to display a very glamorous and luxurious attitude. From those concepts, MSU set designer Kirk Domer will make a virtual version of a potential set. Using PhotoShop and 3D Studio Max, a program typically used for interior design, he can arrange furniture, lighting, color and other specific details. These things then transform the stage. \”Lighting is a manipulation,\” Domer said. Different angles of lighting change the mood and atmosphere of the sets. They also are able to disguise cheaply-made props and backdrops into realistic artifacts from the characters\’ world.
Once the computer design is approved by the director, it is then made into a miniature 3D model. Usually, Domer makes his models out of tissue and construction paper, paper clip wires and pennies to weigh things down. It takes about 60 hours to build a model and another 60 hours to adjust and arrange the design so it is accurate before building the real set.
It\’s the students, though, that do most of the actual scene construction. Gwen Lindsay, a graduate student in theater, oversaw the sets for October\’s performance of \”Pygmalion.\” The backgrounds were constantly changing right up until the opening show. \”You tweak it as you go along,\” Lindsay said. Since the crew only has about 10 days to build, they have to adapt to modifications in both script and costume. For example, the characters in \”Pygmalion\” wore hats with large diameters and could not fit through some of the doorways. The set builders had to expand the entryways immediately after the first dress rehearsal.
Regardless of the inevitable stress, Domer and Lindsay agree the theater allows for more of their own creativity than other designing careers. Unlike graphic design, where the designer must create something very specific to a client\’s image, scenery designers can put their own interpretations into their work. \”If you want to build something and it fits the dimensions at Home Depot, you aren\’t being creative enough,\” Domer said.
In addition to set designers, the technical director is also closely involved with the assembly of the sets. As the designers visualize the big picture, technical directors focus on the details. They figure out how to make several rooms with a very limited budget. For example, walls and furniture only need to be painted where the audience sees. Brian Adams, the technical director for MSU, explained although props on stage only have to look attractive from one side, they still want overall quality because of the pride they take in their work. But after the long days spent working to construct the sets, everything comes down just a few hours after the final show.
Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down
While scenery gives the actors a place to roam, costumes and props mold the actor into a character. \”We\’re about as familiar with the characters as the actors,\” said Karen Kangas-Preston, costume shop supervisor. The first thing costumers do for a production is read the script. They have to know the setting, the personalities of the characters and how much time the actors have to change from one outfit to another. Like set designers, they also meet with the director about once a week to make sure the wardrobes are correct to the time period and are coordinated with the backgrounds. Every character\’s outfits are sketched to be approved by the director. Costumers have to decide what colors and fabrics will work best for each costume.[cutting]
Every costumer is different, but Kangas-Preston usually starts looking for costumes in MSU\’s costume closets. Since they typically work on a tight budget, transforming \”really awful \’70s style suits\” instead of starting from scratch is a lot simpler and much more cost-efficient. Sometimes, however, costuming gets a bigger chunk of the funds if the show requires period-style clothing that has to be custom-made or if there is a bigger cast.
When a costume is made from scratch, Kangas-Preston and her team search through the school\’s library of clothing patterns. When they find one that works, they will sew it together first using low-cost linen to fit the actor; this way, if they do make a huge cutting error, it is not on the expensive material. Then, they will copy the mock-costume with the actual fabrics, continually re-fitting the actor so it will fit correctly for dress rehearsal.
Dress rehearsal is like the costumers\’ due date. Everything must be made by that day because then, the designers and costumers decide what works and what needs to be change before opening night. Costume changes are the biggest obstacle facing the costume shop. When an actor has only a few lines of dialogue before having to be on stage in something completely different, costumers have a few tricks to make that change smoother. The most common quick change alterations include the following: switching buttons to zippers and combining shirts and pants together into one easy step. Also there to help the actors are the students of Theatre 212: Production Design: Costumes and Make-up; they are required to be on the costume crew for at least one production.[karen]
To make sure no part of a costume is misplaced, there are check-in sheets so that at the end of a day, the costumers know everything made it back to the closets. This is similar to the organization of the show\’s props. Fine arts senior Erin Freeman was the prop coordinator for \”Pygmalion\” and described her job as the \”nitty-gritty detail person.\” When the costumers and designers create the big picture for the audience, prop coordinators make sure the little things are believable. If a character has to write down a phone number in a scene, they make sure that person has a pen on stage. For most productions, there are two large cabinets full of objects: one for big things and one for small. There is even a refrigerator backstage to store the edible items.
All of these things – sets, costumes and props – are always ready by opening night so the audience is captivated by the characters and story, not by extravagant objects. \”Our goal is not to be seen,\” Domer said. So, if you find yourself hunting for the actors\’ names at the end of the performance, the crew has succeeded. The next time you find yourself plunging into a play or musical, just know the characters you see on stage are illuminated by those individuals that put in so many late nights and early mornings just for you to have an evening of escape.

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