Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Creating a New World: Musings on Building Scenery

As Production Manager and Technical Director for The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, I coordinate and facilitate for all areas of production. I keep an open line of communication between the set designer, lighting designer, scenic charge, costume designer, sound designer, properties master, and director. For our season, we produce two shows in rep and we use the same scenic and lighting designer for those shows; the other designers and directors are different for each show. There are many challenges when creating a show in our space. One of those challenges is building the scenery.

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre does not have a scene shop nor does it hire a shop to build its sets. We build them right here. Where do you ask? Right on stage! This is my first season here and I had to assess the situation. What tools do we have? What kind of storage is available? Where do I order my lumber? Where do I store the lumber when it arrives? How do I organize the space to create an efficient building environment? How much dust am I going to create? How much noise will I make while the admin is working in the offices? What kind of music will I listen to? Obviously, these are all very important questions.

If you have ever been to this theatre, it is easy to see that there is not a lot of storage. A quick tour backstage will show you a green room, two dressing rooms, a tool room, the dimmer room/wardrobe storage, three offices, and a super-secret staircase to the men’s bathroom, and the kitchen/paint room/sewing room. When you are in the house, what you see is what you get. Before the build and before lumber arrived, we moved everything from the stage space into the dressing rooms, the only rooms not dedicated to anything while there is no production in place. The lumber: 16 sheets of ¾” plywood, 35 sheets of ¼” luauan, 33 sheets of ¼” Masonite, 5 sheets of bendable plywood, 4 sheets of ½” plywood, 3 sheets of homosote and 87 sticks of 1x4x16. Miraculously, it all fit! The stage was left completely clear to accommodate the build.

Before we made a single cut, we covered all of the seats in plastic. Less mess now means less to clean later. The first order of the build was to make work surfaces. We created a table for the chop saw and run off table for the table saw (which doubled as a work table). Just making these two things created a more efficient working environment. Let the building begin!

The schedule for the build this year was shorter than normal. Rehearsal was moved up two weeks and due to prior obligations, I was not able to build until the beginning of January. From January 2nd through January 31st, we built, painted, loaded in scenery, loaded in lights, and focused lights. So this process, which is normally done within 9 weeks, was completed in 5 weeks. This breaks down to 15 days of build, 11 days to paint and load in the set, and 4 days to load in and focus lights. There were no weekends.

What is that you ask? “Why is everything finished so early when the first show doesn’t open until March 13th?”  Good question. Due to the limited amount of space, all rehearsals are done on-stage. So now, the performers not only get to rehearse on stage, but also with the scenery for their show! This is fantastic for the performers because it only gets more real when the audience is watching. This is also a great opportunity for other designers to view the rehearsal process on set.

This brings us to my favorite day of build. In our last full week, it seemed to get hotter and hotter inside every day, despite the falling temperatures outside. For those of you who don’t know, the theatre is located on the second floor of a historical church. The church controls the temperature and there are no thermostats on our level, so whatever temperature they want, they get. During that week, I brought in sandals (that fully covered my toes), cut my pants to make shorts, and wore t-shirts. But none of that was good enough on Saturday. I admit, when I turned 30, my internal body temperature went up, but this was out of control. I couldn’t last long. When I came in that morning, it was already sweltering. I opened windows where I could and changed in to my shorts and sandals. Still not good enough. Fortunately, I was working alone this day and was not expecting anyone to come in. So I decided to take my shirt off. But my feet were sweaty. So I took my sandals off. But I was still hot. It’s January. It’s below freezing out. And I am sweating. So finally, I took my pants off. (NOTE: This method is not recommended for safety standards, but for comfort standards, it was awesome.)

I am pleased to report that despite the obstacles of storage, organization, heat, no weekends, and time constraints, we met our goal of getting all technical elements ready for first rehearsal tomorrow.  It was a fun and tiresome adventure, and yes, when you come to see the show you will see a set built by a man in his underwear (sort of).
- Raj Shah, Production Manager/Technical Director