Onstage at the Power Center, three of the starring actors in the upcoming Music, Theatre & Dance opera “The Elixir of Love” rehearse a scene. Dressed in plainclothes in front of an imitation-stucco archway, they belt out the same several measures repeatedly. A guy twirls a girl once, twice, then attempts to sit her on his knee — which she misses. The three actors laugh, and the director sitting in the center of the audience chuckles and explains the proper motion.
Behind a curtain stage right, stage manager Michelle Elias, an MT&D senior, watches the goings-on from a small colored TV screen. Next to it is another screen, this one in black and white and displaying the pit, currently home to just one rehearsal pianist. It’s the second night of tech week for “Elixir,” and, though the chorus has yet to arrive and the stage is sparsely populated, behind the arch is another drama.
Murmuring into her headset, Elias communicates with her assistant stage managers and the sound and lighting technicians over two radio channels while viewing the onstage action. She cues members of the run crew — the backstage hands in charge of sets and props during a show’s run — non-verbally, using a system of switches and lights.
“I can flip the switch on, and that’s the warning, and flipping the switch off is the ‘go.’ And so when the light goes off, you pull the rail,” Elias said. Backstage, the “rail” refers to the system of ropes that raise set pieces, lights or curtains.
Elias will be behind the scenes at every performance of “Elixir of Love,” as she has done as stage manager for several other plays and musicals before it.
“I’m there through the entire process, from beginning to end,” she said. And by this point, though an audience has yet to see it, Elias’s show is nearing the end of a long road to its debut.
“What you see onstage, that’s the design, that’s the final product,” said MT&D senior Corey Lubowich, who designed the costumes and scenery for StarKid Potter’s “A Very Potter Sequel” in May.
Though they themselves remain invisible to most theatergoers, designers have labored over every aspect of how their shows will look, and opening night represents the culmination of their jobs.
“It’s the process of it being in your head, to being in the shop, to being in the rehearsal room and then being onstage,” said MT&D senior Shawn McCulloch, the costume designer for last month’s musical “Into the Woods.”
And for Elias, Lubowich, McCulloch and the students behind the scenes of any ‘U’ production, this process of bringing the script to life begins months before the show opens its doors.
Creating a world
Being picked to design a mainstage production at the University is no small honor.
“Within the University shows, you work your way up to actually designing a mainstage,” Lubowich said. “You work backstage, you work in the shop, you sort of get assignments along the way before you’re allowed.”
Student mainstage designers tend to come from the MT&D Design & Production program, and their classes are often like mock productions.
“You do it all hypothetically,” McCulloch said. In his courses, he designs the costumes for made-up shows and then finds the sample fabrics that best match each character.
But of course, classwork for designers is very different from the real thing. Before “Into the Woods,” McCulloch was used to having a professor constantly looking over his shoulder. For that show, he was on his own to design after meeting with his director in April to discuss the basics.
Fifth-year MT&D senior Adam McCarthy, the lighting designer for “Pentecost,” also started out by meeting with his director. But from the very beginning, lighting is defined and differentiated from scenic and costume design by its lack of physicality.
“The director and I had a couple of meetings (and) talked about more, sort of, the abstract qualities of the show — what it’s about, how it ‘works,’ ” McCarthy said.
“In particular with the school productions, what generally happens is the scenic designer and the costume designer meet with the director far before the lighting designer and sort of create the world, the theme and the concept of the play,” he added. “And at that point the lighting designer sort of responds to their work.”
Since “Pentecost” was set in an abandoned Eastern European church, McCarthy spent his summer doing research on churches, but he didn’t start making actual designs until further along in the process.
McCulloch had to approach the physical costume designs for “Into the Woods” much earlier, but his work still began with a mad hunt for information.
“A lot of designers, when they design a show, they don’t want to see other productions,” he admitted. “With this show, there’s a DVD recording of when Bernadette Peters was in it on Broadway, in the original production, and I saw that years ago. So I kind of owned up to the fact that I’ve already seen it and know about it, so I looked at lots of productions.”
Once McCulloch had finished his research — which included learning the traditional garb of the princes and peasants who roam the woods of his show — he began to render his ideas. A costume designer’s renderings are traditionally done in watercolor on paper but nowadays can extend into any medium, including Photoshop. A rendering is a detailed portrait, with the subject standing in a typical pose and dressed in the most accurately colored and textured clothing possible.
“I really tried to have fun with the stepmother and stepsisters,” McCulloch said. “The two princes are pretty directly related to research of Prince Albert and Napoleon … (but) I’ve never seen a wolf that looked like mine.”
McCulloch’s Wolf wore fur-covered pants but was bare from the waist up. Since designers often make their renderings before a show is cast, making sure the actors fit the general concept behind their costumes is important.
“One of the things I talked (about) with the director very early on was that he wanted the Wolf to be dangerous yet sexy,” he said. “So one of the big concerns with the Wolf was, do we have a guy who has the goods? And we did.”
For Lubowich, specific actors weren’t a concern when conceptualizing the set design for “A Very Potter Sequel.” Working on an adaptation of a well known series, he had his show’s underlying material right in front of him, and the “Harry Potter” books themselves were his inspiration: The set for the sequel was based on the American cover of the first book.
“I really loved the art style of the cover of the book, so I wanted to do something inspired by that,” Lubowich said.
From rendering to reality
As the costumes and set are laid out, the props come in. Elena Garcia, a junior in MT&D and LSA, was hired as co-propsmaster for MUSKET’s upcoming production of “Aida” and immediately met with both the set designer and director. Garcia’s work is less about artistic creation and more about realization of what the designers and directors want.
“It’s their vision for the show that it’s our job to make happen in the way that is the most artistic and the most in line with their vision that we can,” she said of taking on props.
Working with the set designer, Garcia and her co-propsmaster wrote out a “master props list” of everything they’d need. From there, gathering the props was mostly a matter of trips to the Salvation Army, Michael’s and the Internet to find the items on the list. But props-collecting is not a decision-free endeavor.
“There’s a bunch of fruit that makes several appearances throughout the course of the show,” Garcia explained, “and the fruit that would have been common in ancient Egypt is not necessarily going to read like decadent fruit to a modern audience.”
“They would have had pomegranates and dates, things that … read as fruit, but they don’t necessarily make the same statement as having a pile of grapes that someone feeds someone else.”
For McCulloch, bringing his “Into the Woods” costume designs to fruition also required some hunting around.
“The show’s so specific, because it’s kind of a ‘period-less wondershow,’ ” McCulloch said. Besides creating 15 brand-new costumes, he rented, bought and altered existing garments to match the details of his “Into the Woods” renderings.
But, like any costume designer at the ‘U,’ McCulloch began his search by digging through the costume stock on North Campus.
“Here at the University, we have a really fantastic costume stock,” Lubowich said. “(It’s) sorted by time period, by size, by color. So it’s racks and racks of suits, and dresses, and there’s, like, a 1920s aisle — so that’s the starting place.”
“Within the shop, there’s the community,” McCulloch explained. “There’s drapers who make the patterns and there’s stitchers who put the things together, and those people have been working together for a long time; we have a holiday party and all of that stuff.”
It’s a community that has nurtured both McCulloch and Lubowich in the theater, and their costume upbringing sometimes spills over into other areas of their work.
“Since I have this background in costumes, I use a lot of fabric in my set designs,” Lubowich said. When building the “Potter Sequel” set, he decided to paint on a large sheet of fabric instead of actually building his book cover scene.
“When you hang it up and stretch it tight, it looks like it’s solid,” he said.
As a show’s set materializes, its lighting designs follow suit. For “Pentecost,” McCarthy photographed the set designer’s “model box” — a miniature construction of the set — four times. Each photo showed the same set at a different point in the play, under specific kinds and colors of light. One covered the scene in bright red, another bathed it in white from a spotlight emanating from a hole. McCarthy also mapped out a “light plot” describing the type and location for each light. All this work was due just a few weeks before his show moved into the Arthur Miller Theatre.
“The director arranges all the performers a certain way, but in a rehearsal it can look one way, and then with lights it changes totally,” he said. When a production moves into the theater, the designers come too for their last step.
The final product
The crew takes a day to move the set from the set shop to the theater. For “The Elixir of Love,” in the Power Center, the set shop is right downstairs, and for “Pentecost,” in the Arthur Miller Theatre, it’s located next door. Once all the pieces are in the theater, designers can fiddle with the small things — or in some cases, alter more general aspects of the design concept.
“Before we went into the theater, the director and I talked, and I’d gotten the sense that he wanted a more naturalistic approach,” McCarthy said. “Then we got in the theater and based on what he liked … he was interested in a more painterly quality to the lights.”
At the time, McCarthy was studying neoclassical French painting, and he incorporated that into his revisions.
“(It) has a lot of color, strong angle in the light and contrast, it’s very sculptural,” he said. “I think that I was more specific than the director was thinking about (when he said) ‘painterly,’ but for me it really helped translate what was going on, and it lined up with what he meant, so it worked really well.”
After four days of tech rehearsals with the set and lights in place, the costume designer arrives to add another piece to the puzzle, and dress rehearsals begin.
The “Into the Woods” dress rehearsals marked McCulloch’s chance to see his costumes under the lights and decide if they needed last-minute modifications. Ultimately, he made some subtle changes — like adding to the outfit of Cinderella’s Prince in order to mix up the color-blocking.
“I wanted to break it up a little more because he was all red and gold and then white pants, and so I decided to add these little white bows on his shoulders,” McCulloch said. “They were kind of froofy, and when he ran they kind of flew behind him, so it added to his character.”
Once the curtain rises on opening night, McCulloch, Lubowich, McCarthy and Garcia can see their finished product — and so can the public. In some cases, the designers get feedback: Like its predecessor, “Potter Sequel” went viral on YouTube, and Lubowich wasn’t immune to the attention.
“It was mostly fans (saying), ‘It looks just like the cover of the book, was that an accident?’ ” he said. “No.”
But barring emergency repairs, the designer can rest easy and watch the onstage action from a padded audience seat.
“A great part of being a designer is once it opens, it’s done,” McCarthy said.
During a show’s run, any glitches in costumes, set and lighting will be taken care of by backstage hands like the wardrobe crew, run crew and deck electrician. And all of these players work under the stage manager, whose job won’t be done until the show closes.
“We’ve got actors and dancers and musical theater majors,” Elias said of the crew for “The Elixir of Love.” “They’re the ones controlling it and they’ve never worked a rail in their life.”
Besides making sure all these new-to-crew students know what they’re doing, Elias has been following the director and overseeing all the complexities of the production, from design meetings to auditions to actor safety.
“I like the more organizational side of it, and I get to play make believe every day,” she said.
Like many theater designers and managers, Elias started her stage life as an actor. But these artists all found the drama behind the scenes more engaging.
“It’s a job where you are paid to create fake worlds and entertain people,” she said, “and I don’t have to get onstage and do it.”