My latest production opened on February 26. Although I am a faculty member for Simpson College’s theatre department (Theatre Simpson), this opera was produced by the music department (Music at Simpson). The two departments have a complicated history and relationship that has evolved over time. Under our current arrangement, the Theatre Department hosts one music opera production per year in our home facility (the Blank Performing Arts Center).
This means that the Theatre Simpson Designer/Tech Director faculty serves as Technical Director and the Theatre Simpson ATD/Scene Shop Supervisor faculty oversees construction; Theatre Simpson provides a lighting designer for the production (either faculty or student); the scene shop provides 350 or so of work-study and service-learning labor-hours toward the building of the scenery and another 200 or more work-study hours lighting and running the light board. All other labor (including building scenery during two 7-hour Saturday work calls, stage managing, run crew, etc) is provided by music students or volunteers.
The Music department contracts their own Set Designer for these productions. They often contract me (under a separate contract since my load doesn’t cover another design) to design Music at Simpson productions. This year, in addition to Technical Directing Marriage of Figaro, I was assigned by the theatre department to design lights for the opera production as part of my load. In December, when the Music department was struggling to arrange for a set designer, I became the set designer as well.
Part of the reason for the Music Department’s delay in arranging for a designer was their hope to save production budget by borrowing a setting from the Des Moines Metro Opera. When it became clear that none of the available sets would lend themselves to the particular scenic needs of The Marriage of Figaro, they were left in a quandary. I have designed The Marriage of Figaro for the music department two times previously and some of the scenic elements used in previous productions remain in various forms in the theatre and music department’s stock, so I offered to design the sets at a reduced fee and proposed a similarly minuscule set budget with the understanding that we would be using a lot of repurposed scenic elements.
I conceived a spare abstract theatrical environment with late eighteenth-century details to coordinate with the 1790s period costumes that were to be provided for the production. I designed the set using Vectorworks software. In addition to producing the standard plans, sections and elevations, I extruded all of the elements from each scene into 3-dimensional virtual models. Viewed as Renderworks Style Realistic Colors White, the “models” have the visual appearance of a standard theatrical white models.
Act I of The Marriage of Figaro takes place in an empty room that Figaro (the Count’s manservant) and Susanna (his betrothed and the Countess’s handmaiden) will move into once they are married. The room has doors said to communicate between the Count’s and Countess’ rooms and has another entrance. It also features a high-back chair that is needed for business involving one character hiding from another by hiding under a sheet over that chair
Two of the doors and pediment on one of them were originally built for a 1996 Theatre Simpson production of Arcadia. The third door was was built to match for a 2002 production of The Marriage of Figaro. These scenic elements have been used for countless productions and are kept in stock because of their usefulness and versatility. The polychrome marble floor is painted using galzes over a “sprayed-up” black floor. The backdrop is a black velour panel lit from below by cyc footlights hidden behind a 1’6″ high black-painted ground row.
Act II of The Marriage of Figaro transpires in the Countess’ bedroom. There are a number of features that are important to the room. It needs to include a closet door behind which Cherubino, the Count’s page is trapped when the Count’s jealousy has him convinced that the Countess is carrying on an affair behind his back. The door to Figaro’s & Susanna’s soon-to-be-bedroom allows Susanna to sneak into the room when the Count locks the room’s main entry doors while he goes to get keys to open the closet. Susanna frees Cherubino who jumps out of the window and she replaces him in the closet. The director also insisted on a four-poster tester bed.
Two of the doors from Act I were moved to new positions onstage flanking the purpose-built four-poster bed. A double-door main entrance doorway and pediment was built years ago and has been used several times since. The doors, themselves had to be constructed since the French windows that remained from their last use were unsuitable for this production. The wagon on which the double doors stand needed to be built from scratch as did the window and window seat unit.
We took intermission between Act II & Act III. The cartouch remains from the 2002 production. constructed of carved foam, it needed to be repainted after water damage incurred during storage. The swagged drapes creating a soft false proscenium are a pair of stock black masking legs.
Act III is a complicated affair with action shifting back and forth between three settings. When the curtain opened the playing circle was dressed as a music and art room in the palace, while the stage is fitted-up as a courtroom where the Count is to hear a complaint against Figaro lodged by Marcellina
The playing circle is one of the idiosyncrasies of Pote Theatre which superficially resembles a classical Roman Theatre. The upstage portion of the playing circle level is removed to open up the orchestra pit. Bridges over the orchestra pit on either side of the stage provide performers access to the downstage portion. Pit rails and bridge rails give the bridges and back of the playing circle a finished look. The current set of “Bridge Rails” was built for Music at Simpson’s production of Street Scene in 2014. The furnishings in the playing circle came from Music department stock, from Theatre Simpson stock and some was borrowed from the Des Moines Metro Opera stock.
The courtroom consisted of an assemblage of elements from other productions. The window is part of a window unit built in Spring 2013 for Music at Simpson’s production of Massenet’s Cendrillion and Theatre Simpson’s production of The Winter’s Tale. The drapery and the folding screen were created for Cendrillion, while the desk and chair came out of Theatre Simpson stock and the 8 light-colored chars were used in Theatre Simpson’s 2012 production of Alice’s Trip: A Movement Adventure.
Toward the end of Act III the action shifts to the palace’s ballroom for Figaro and Susanna’s wedding. This scene must accommodate the entire 40-plus member cast and chorus .
3 large window panels were repurposed from the Cendrillion/ Winter’s Tale windows while the 4 paired columns were purpose-built for the production. These windows are constructed of welded square steel tubing. The backs of them are covered with a clear plastic membrane available from home improvement stores for winterizing windows. The thin plastic is held in place with double stick tape and then it is shrunk to the appearance of glass by strategically applying heat with a heat-gun or hairdryer. Under the right lighting, reflections of the actors onstage appear in the windows, effectively doubling the apparent size of the cast.
Act IIII is set in the garden that evening where the Count believes that he is meeting Susanna for an assignation, but, instead woos the Countess, his wife. Meanwhile Figaro who is not in on the prank temporarily believes the Count is having success wooing his new wife (really the Countess in Susanna’s clothing) and resolves to have revenge by wooing the Countess (really Susanna in the Countess’ clothing). Though he quickly sees through the disguise, he continues pretending to woo the Countess, and upsetting Susanna who briefly thinks that he thinks she is the Countess.
This setting used both the playing circle and the stage. In the playing circle, a bench borrowed from DMMO is paired with two topiary bushes built for Theatre Simpson’s 2002 production of To Fool the Eye and used frequently for Theatre, Music and even DMMO productions ever since. Onstage flanking gazebo halves represent the “pavilions” called for in the text were originally built for a production of The Merry Widow in 1996 and have been used for at least 10 productions since then (last for the 2014 production of Carousel). The bench center stage has been hanging around for 25 years, having been designed and built for the 1991 production of Les Liaisons Dangeruses. Flanking the bench, the flowering bushes also date form that 2002 production of To Fool the Eye. Overhead at the back of the stage, I repurposed windows from the 2014 production of Street Scene. Originally there were 4 of that particular size, however one did not survive its use as a window in Julie’s house in the second act of the 2014 production of Carousel. Cosequently, we only hung 3 of them for Act IIII. The windows were covered by stretched window sheers and back-lit to offer the impression of a brightly lit piano nobile at night.
As I hope the reader can see, the production achieved both an economy and an elegance that belies the repurposed nature of the majority of the scenery used onstage for the production. Even though scenic elements were drawn from a half-a-dozen or more disparate productions, through careful selection, a strongly unified period production can be maintained even on a minimal budget. However, without the foresight to save valuable items and the space to do so, even this could not be possible.
That’s all for now!
All photography and CADD models used in this post by Steven J. McLean.