The drama behind the scenes | St. Louis Public Radio

The drama behind the scenes

Jul 29, 2010

Waiters whizzing by on skates was exactly what a scene from “Footloose” needed in the Stages St. Louis 2005 production, thought choreographer Dana Lewis.

In rehearsal after rehearsal, the performers rocked and literally rolled all over the stage without a hitch.

But during a technical rehearsal just prior to opening night, a bad fall left actor Zoe Vonder Haar with a broken arm, and put the kibosh on the skating idea. Theater-goers never knew what they’d missed.

“We took those roller skates right off them and changed it to shoes,” Lewis said. “That’s what an audience doesn’t see: the development of the numbers — the trial and error, the blood, sweat and tears.”

Working in her sleep

Lewis’ switch from skates to tennis shoes is just one example of the bazillion small and large decisions involved in putting together a stage production.

Six months before Stages’ current production of “Promises, Promises,” Lewis began researching the setting’s history. Along with go-go boots and mini-skirts, conjuring up the ambiance of life in the 1960s demanded period dance styles including the jerk, the pony — and who can forget the swim?

Nocturnal inspiration also feeds the creative process.

“There are many nights of waking up with the music going over and over in your head,” Lewis said. “You think of a step that goes perfect with something, and you have to get up and jot that down.”

Ceiling of doom

Set designer Sean Savoie had to take creativity to new heights when faced with the prospect of making a ceiling part of the set of “The Sinker” for HotCity Theatre last spring. A roof over the actors’ heads was imperative in this production in portending a constant sense of impending doom.

“The script called for a number of creaking ceiling sounds,” Savoie said. “We also needed to drop a few pieces of the ceiling to further indicate that the entire roof could collapse at any minute.”

Not only did Savoie have to contend with a limited space — Kranzberg Arts Center has a total height of 13 feet — but a ceiling presents lighting problems. Then, there was the question of materials. With set budgets often only a few hundred dollars, found materials are key.

“We had some quarter inch masonite lying around which had a bit of water damage and it caused some waves in the material, but worked out great for the look we wanted,” Savoie said “The bad part was the weight. It took quite a force of folks and pulleys to get the 14-by-18 piece of scenery hoisted into the air and then secured.”

A key component of a production, the set poses frequent challenges, such as borrowing props and “seeing how creative you can get with a 2-by-4 and a bucket of paint,” Savoie joked. Especially when there’s no curtain, in a venue like the Kranzberg, the set makes an important first impression.

“All the basic elements of design — line, shape, color, etc. — fit together in this perfect controlled world of composition to give the audience every bit of emotion we want them to have,” Savoie said.

Let there be light

There’s a whole lot more to lighting a set than just making sure the audience can see it clearly — although that’s also a crucial luminary goal.

While many people might not be consciously aware of lighting, it’s just as important as the choreography, the set and even the script, according to Tyler Duenow, who frequently works with Stray Dog Theatre.

“Just as much as the play, itself, the lighting can help set the mood, the theme and the atmosphere,” Duenow said.

As in any art form, color is crucial.

“Red is a very strong color. If it’s a passionate scene, you can use red, or you can use red when it’s a violent scene,” Duenow said. “Outdoors in the daytime is represented by warm colors, and we use blue to represent nighttime.”

‘Smoke and mirrors’

“Smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand” help create and maintain theatrical illusions, said Savoie, who is also a production manager for the St. Louis Muny and teaches theater at Washington University.

Case in point: changing out set pieces. An actor moving a prop during a scene can be built into the script when necessary. Other times, when the lights are showcasing stage left, set workers are shifting the scenery on stage right.

“We do a lot of work in the dark,” Savoie  said.

Sometimes, the clock runs out. If the lights come on or the curtain goes up sooner than expected, a crew member’s only choice may be to dive under a couch — and stay there until the next scene. It’s all part of keeping the audience in the moment.

“We do a ton of work behind the scenes,” Savoie said. “We take great measures to operate safely, quietly and efficiently in the small amount of time that we have to keep the magic alive.”

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who follows theater, among other topics, for the Beacon. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.