When a guy from Stratford-upon-Avon, England, began writing plays in London, stages were little more than raised platforms with no “sets” of decorative art conveying a sense of time and place to stories performed by the actors. “Early theater engaged audiences in the willing suspension of disbelief,” explains Ed Smith, a 59-year-old multifaceted thespian. “Clues to time and place were revealed through their words and actions and suggestive scenery.”
Little changed between Shakespeare’s age and the start of the 20th century. “Sets began to evolve, starting in the early 1900s, as people in large cities demanded more for their entertainment dollar,” Smith says. The trend peaked 15 years ago with Sunset Boulevard, which featured the raising of an entire house as another piece was brought in beneath it. As technical director and master builder for the Springfield Municipal Opera Association’s Beauty and the Beast, Smith is probably the most experienced set-builder/painter in Sangamon County.
Since his first adult experience in theater, during a stint in the U.S. Army, Smith has been interested in all aspects of theater, not just acting: “To be a good actor or director, I need to know how the set, lighting, and the rest work with the acting. For me, that includes building and painting the sets.”
The art element extends deeper than the all-weather exterior house paint used in the sets. Smith says, “I’m always looking for new materials that will hold together through rehearsal and rehearsals [about a month], and I want to stay within budget in acquiring those materials.” For example, the 12-foot tower columns used in are actually tubes used to pour concrete at construction sites. Smith purchased them from Henry Nelch and Son. The tubes are placed over two-by-fours, which provide structural integrity. The combined height of the tower and castle is just under 18 feet, the highest the Muni stage can accommodate. “We use different painting techniques to make them look like marble,” Smith says. “I use Styrofoam a lot more than I used to. We also use lauan, a thin, lightweight, flexible plywood for covering wood frames.”
Though detailed scripts are sent by the four primary licensing organizations to community-theater groups, no set-design manuals or other materials are included. When Smith directs a production, he selects a set designer from the local talent pool or, as was the case with Beauty, goes beyond his home turf. “I’ll read a script probably a half-dozen times to get an idea of what the set design needs to be; then I decide how I want to achieve that: Do I want to take a minimalist approach? Go realistic? What media can I use? With the Internet, you can gain access to previous set designs and get ideas. In the past 40 years, I’ve designed more than 100 sets, and I’ve never copied anybody. There are people that do.” When Smith designs a set, he draws front-elevation and perspective views, which are used in construction.
Smith designed and built the sets used in the Muni’s production of The Sound of Music. “I am big on detail,” he says. “For that show, I had to be sure that the villa looked rich and elaborate. I considered different painting techniques, using sponges, even using a feather duster to achieve the textures I wanted. There’s a big movement in modern house design called faux art painting. It fools the eyes by giving false impressions. For years, we have used faux art in the theater.”
The Beauty and the Beast set was designed by A.J. Dewey. “We’ve met a couple of times personally and communicated a lot over the Internet and long-distance,” Smith says.
Smith does not paint every brush stroke on his sets; instead, he recruits volunteers. “People who come here have artistic ability, and they learn quickly,” he says. “We have people who just like to paint, and they are essential talent. People who are interested only in the art are welcome here.” Many Muni volunteers have gone on to work in regional theaters. Technical people, Muni “graduates,” are working on Broadway and off-Broadway. As a learning opportunity for artists with a taste for the Big Apple, the Muni is always attracting new volunteer talent. As a bonus, there’s no tuition for this summer school!
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muni, 815 E. Lake Dr., Aug. 5-7, 10-14, and 18-20. For more information, call 217-793-6864 or go to www.themuni.org.