A Set Design for The Divine Sister

My attention has been directed toward the design, execution and painting of the set for Stage West‘s production of The Divine Sister at the Des Moines Civic Center’s  Stoner Theatre.  It opened on Friday, June 15.  I committed to this project on Friday, April 13 about the same time that I committed to Winterset Stage’s The Quiet Man.   Although the first meeting that I had with the Director Deena Conolly of Drake University’s Department of Theatre, the construction of the set did not begin until May 25.  By April 26 I had produced the following sketch.

I blogged earlier about making measurements of the Stoner theatre to compliment the PDF plan of the space that I got from Stage West’s Production Manager.  I imported the PDF into a VectorWorks file and used that drawing in conjunction with the dimensions to create the floor plan.

The floor plan reveals a very shallow angle on the intersecting false perspective walls behind a roughly 16′ deep x 28′ wide thrust.  Bench-height platforms against the walls serve as seating areas and provide opportunity for elevation for certain extreme moments during the action of the play.  A similar seating element DSL  provides motivation for DSL crosses and anchors the DSL actor-entrance.  Similarly, a low platform and a Madonna statue (called for by the script) anchors the DSR entrance.  A bench off-center stage provides more interest to staging and serves as a obstacle for the actors and directors to help induce interesting movement.

On April 29 I also circulated 2 sheets of construction drawings which I published to the Director, the Production Manager and to the Master Carpenter using a Dropbox folder (a free “cloud”-based file sharing service).

During the  following few days, I exchanged several e-mails with Paul Mostrom (the Master Carpenter) who would be responsible for building the set.  He expressed concern with the overall height of the set  and by the size of the units which I had indicated that the set should be  broken into.  As it turned out,  the units might have been both a challenge to build in Stage West’s shop and to maneuver into the Stoner Theatre in the sizes that I had specified. However, the height should have cleared the lighting catwalks overhead by over  6″.  Paul was also insistent that the scenery must be built as Hollywood/TV Wing flats instead of the standard-framed flats that I had envisioned (mostly for the knife-edge, cut-out quality that that construction would lend to the flattage).

One of the quirks of the Stage West company, is that no individual holds the title of  “Technical Director”.  Although there is a Production Manager, and a Master Carpenter, there is nobody clearly responsible for coordinating the construction of the setting between the Set Designer and the Master Carpenter.  When I hold the position of Technical Director, I try to communicate clearly between the designer and the shop to assure that the setting is, in my estimation, appropriately conceived for the space, budget, skills and manpower resources available.  I also reserve the right as Technical Director to inform the Designer that redesign is necessary when it appears to be so.  On the occasions that I designed scenery for the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), the Production Manager has assumed that responsibility.  You may recall that early in the process of designing The Quiet Man, I determined that my aspirations were too grandiose for the budget and I had to revise the design (mostly by cutting those elements that could be cut).

In the case of the set for Divine Sister, I was fairly certain that the set was possible, and had no indication that the budget was in jeopardy.  However, By May 11, days before construction was to begin, it was clear that Paul was not enthusiastic and was dragging his feet concerning the set as proposed. Sensing that I was going to continue to have problems with his enthusiasm for the project unless I made an extraordinary attempt to adjust the design to his concerns (and fearing the consequence of not doing so) I undertook a crash redesign of the set, retaining as much of the qualities that I found most appealing, but reducing the quantity of scenery and giving in to Paul’s preferred method of construction.

The re-envisioned setting was nearly identical in plan, but it also required re-drawing the wall elevations.  These were published and circulated via Dropbox.

Overall, I was well pleased with the redesign.  It accented the outline of the windows, and leaves the upper profile edgier and unsettled.  This coincides with both the story (the cloister is supposed to be dilapidated) and with the format of the play (which has an odd “sketch” quality to it).

These are a few of the initial images that I used to inspire the set design for Stage West’s The Divine Sister.

In following posts  I will explore additional design challenges, solutions and details.   Meanwhile, below is a photo of the completed set:

That’s enough for now! Have fun!  Be safe!



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