Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moon Over Buffalo Set Design

For many years, I have been the staff photographer at the Bellingham Theatre Guild. My photos regularly appear in the local papers. I have also had the opportunity to act in a few of the BTG productions.

Lately, I have also been getting re-involved in more of the actual productions at several of the local theater companies. (I've finally confided to several local directors that I am an architect by profession and have "some" past experience in set design.) Last year, I designed the sets for "The Sound of Music" at the Claire VG Thomas theater in nearby Lynden, WA.

Most recently, I designed the set for "Moon Over Buffalo", also at the Claire VG Thomas. This was a relatively straight-forward design endeavor. "Moon Over Buffalo" is what is known as a five door farce, meaning the stage direction clearly calls for five separate doors, and much of the action involves actors entering and leaving through these various doors. Almost all of the play takes place in the green room at the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, NY. "Moon Over Buffalo" was written by Ken Ludwig and originally starred Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco. It premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 1, 1995.

The Claire VG production was directed by my good friend and director extraordinaire Teri Grimes and costumed by my amazing wife Genny.

Since I often search in vain on the web for set ideas, I decided to start sharing my designs so that others might be able to use them as a springboard when developing their own concepts. Of course, each stage is different and will have its own particular challenges. For example, the Claire VG stage is quite small, measuring just 27-feet across at the proscenium and just over 17-feet deep. It also has just a 3-foot wing stage right, although the wing at stage left (which doubles as a shop area during set construction) is more than 20-feet by 20-feet. There is also no way for actors to cross between the wings unless the designer steals some depth and builds a false wall across the rear of the stage. One nice aspect of the Claire VG stage, however, is its 14-foot height to the teasers, but there is very limited fly space above that height.

For "The Sound of Music", which had more than 25 scene changes, I designed everything on wagons that could be quickly rolled on and off stage. For "Moon Over Buffalo", nothing had to move, so I was able to build the set walls to the full 14-foot height.

All of the set design/construction drawings were done in 3D using AutoCAD 2016. I like to be able to show the director a three-dimensional perspective of what the set will look like during pre-production so that we can agree on the design of the show. I then give her plan views so she can start blocking the show even before it is cast. It also makes things so much easier when actual set construction begins to have a set of dimensioned drawings to work from, particularly when working with volunteer crews in community theater.

The only significant challenge with "Moon Over Buffalo" was how to handle the two scenes that don't actually take place in the green room at the Erlanger. These scene take place on the Erlanger stage during productions of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Private Lives". We simply draped the furniture, lowered a curtain, and quickly moved on several set pieces for these two scenes. We also stole a bit of space and built a false orchestra pit (padded with lots of foam rubber) for George Hay to fall into.

Since I had recently reviewed the incredible Epson SureColor T5270 wide-format printer for Desktop Engineering magazine, I put it to great use during construction of the "Moon Over Buffalo" set. I used it to print "brick walls" that can be seen through the half-glass door upstage-right as well as to print the movie posters, the photo of Ronald Coleman, and the cover of Life magazine that hung on the walls of the Erlanger green room set.

I also found an old program from the actual Erlanger Theatre and used it to produce prop programs that were used during each performance of "Moon Over Buffalo". I don't know whether the audience even noticed these, since the action was so fast-paced, but the actors loved them, particularly since the program used each night had a different vintage advertisement on the outside back cover.

Designing and building the set for "Moon Over Buffalo" was lots of fun, and I think the results were quite effective. It may only be community theater, but I want the audience to be wow'd when the curtain goes up.

Next up is "A Tuna Christmas" at the Bellingham Theatre Guild, which opens November 27 and runs through December 13, with performances every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 7:30pm and Sunday afternoons at 2pm. Set construction is nearing completion. I'll share that design in a forthcoming post. And then later this winter, I'll be designing the BTG production of "August: Osage County."