Written by Gennie Neuman Lambert
July 5, 2016
I was involved in a more improvisational approach to theater design at the Princeton Festival last month. To designers just starting out, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a step-by-step process that you can adapt for new design projects. Yet, every now and again, designers must throw their process out the window and figure out a new plan as they go along. Depending on your personality type, this second approach can be a bit scary or liberating.
Keep in mind, smaller theater groups (i.e. high schools, off-off Broadway, or summer stock theater) make last-minute builds happen ALL THE TIME. I’m a planner, therefore most comfortable with shows that have solid pre-production phases. However, even though these kinds of projects always shake my snow globe, this past month reminded me that it’s valuable to be adaptable.
When the producer contacted me about serving as the props craftsperson for A Little Night Music (a musical), I expected to be crafting props, painting furniture, and painting the floor treatment for the set. However, the day before the work call, the producer told me that the project would require more construction than originally thought.
When I arrived at the theater, the producer handed me a credit card and told me we needed supplies to build several birch trees to fill the space. Although I was surprised to learn that we were at the beginning of the build during the “load-in,” I was relieved to see a box-truck and driver waiting to whisk me away to Home Depot. The basics had been addressed: transportation and a budget. If these two things can be taken care of ahead of time, much can be accomplished.
All theater artisans will eventually get thrown into a last minute project. When this happens, stay positive, stay collected, and ask for what you need to do your job. Not everyone has worked on scenery, so don’t assume that people will be able to discern what is needed for time and materials. Be a good resource to your co-workers, use common sense, and make suggestions to streamline the situation. In this case, I had a proactive hands-on producer that did an impressive job orchestrating all the details of a last-minute, non-union build.
This kind of strategy was needed to finish these trees on time for opening. For those of you who have never built a tree, let alone a forest (and unless you’re God or an established scenic artist, I’m assuming that’s most of you), building full-scale, realistic trees with leaves and grassy knolls can take a lot of time, alternative materials, and manpower. It’s very easy to underestimate your resources for organic structures because there are so many different ways of making them, and you will have to experiment with your method before you find a way to get the effect you want. Professor Peter Miller at Rutgers University completed a step-by-step instructional article for creating realistic foliage for the stage for USITT in 2012. If you ever need a good resource for taking on theatrical foliage, and you can’t go outside and cut it down yourself like we did for my first summer stock in rural Minnesota, check out this article. Building trees has challenges of its own, but you don’t have to deal with all the bugs and critters that come in with the real ones.
Lucky for us, the trees needed for this production were whimsical, abstract, white birch trees. We needed no heavy armatures or hundreds of synthetic leaves (sigh of relief). The director/designer also took the time to make the bark out of unbleached muslin, antique sheet music, and glossy Mod-Podge. We used these as a sample to make more.
Our original plan was to build a three-foot tall wooden armature to give the trees vertical direction and attach a round wooden disk on top for rigging and shape. The muslin bark would have been wrapped around the wooden structures, then hung off the lighting grid to make a semi-hollow, lightweight birch tree.
For the style of tree we were going for, this method could have worked if we had enough material. However, when my crafty co-conspirator, Brit Bannon, calculated the circumference of the wooden discs needed, she discovered that the muslin bark would only make a five-inch diameter trunk. Given the narrow circumference, the crinkly fabric would not behave well without an inner cylinder.
We went back to the drawing board. Luckily, Brit and the director went dumpster diving and salvaged some sturdy shipping tubes from an art project that had been tossed at the end of Princeton’s semester. Additionally, Staples had a sale on five-inch diameter mailing tubes, so we bought them out. With the new tube infrastructure, the trees were slightly narrower than envisioned, but still true to natural birch tree proportions.
We achieved the full length of the tree by attaching the shipping tubes together with window screen. Window screen is great to sculpt with and it’s super cheap. This also allowed us to add gaps between each mailing tube, making the trees less rigid. This bendy-straw method made the structures flexible, creating a more naturalistic sway when hung from the grid.
Once the structures were complete, we wrapped the fabric around the tube and made more bark so we could have a few more trees. Since the structures were light-weight, we rigged them with tie-line. With the major tree structures attached to the grid, we moved onto making branches. Again, these trees needed a crafty-handmade aesthetic, so they didn’t have to look real, but rather leave the impression of the natural proportion and sway of birch trees. We used a thicker twine with hand-crafted music paper leaves to give the set the graceful gesture of branches.
Rigging branches was the most challenging part of this process. We needed three people: a branch-hanging person (situated on top of the scaffolding), a scaffolding mover/hot gluer (situated on the floor level), and an observer to make sure the trees looked good from the audience’s perspective. The three of us took two four-hour work sessions to do this project. This is one of those tasks that sounds like it could be completed quickly, but actually takes some time and finesse. Easy doesn’t necessarily mean fast; this is a lesson I learn over and over again.
Even with a little scrambling, the show came together to be something truly enjoyable that I would recommend seeing. Designs that need to happen quickly can turn out to be truly innovative and beautiful. When approaching these projects, keep things as simple as possible and take a bit of time to discern which scenic elements will best tell the story.
A Little Night Music at The Princeton Festival
Director/set designer: Diana Basmajian
Lighting designer: Burke Wilmore
Costume Designer: Marie Miller
Scenic artists: Gennie Neuman Lambert & Brit Bannon
Producer: Lauren Parish