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Setting the Stage

Actors aren’t the only ones dressing up for the play

When Colonial Players’ Boeing Boeing opened Friday, February 19, all eyes focused on the actors. And they’re the ones who’ll take the bows — or dodge the tomatoes — when the play is over.
    Nobody claps for the set, and the people who create it go largely unnoticed. The occasional show plays out on a bare stage, but most directors use the set to establish the mood and atmosphere — as well as making a place for the action. In the case of ­Boeing Boeing, we in the audience have to believe we are flies on the wall in a 1960s’ Paris bachelor pad.
    It takes three to pull off that illusion. The play’s director has a vision for how the black and white of the script will translate to this place and time. The set designer translates that vision into plans that describe the look, feel and contents of the stage. The set build team uses the set designer’s plans to turn the bare stage into what the play’s director imagined.

Getting Started
    Boeing ­Boeing director Scott Nichols went hunting for his set designer more than a year ago. He was lucky to find the skills and experience he needed close by. As the resident set designer for the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore, Alan Zemla knew how to work with a small, community theater. Better still, Spotlighters, like Colonial, is theater in the round.
    A few years back Zemla, a mechanical engineer in Baltimore, got the creative itch. He volunteered at Spotlighters, first running the lights, then designing sets. He is now that company’s resident set designer and in four years has designed sets for 25 shows.
    For Boeing Boeing, Zemla began work in the fall, with the script, the director’s concept and — always important in community theater — the budget. He researched the play, the period and previous productions. Next he turned his ideas into drawings, to be reviewed at production meetings, then revised. By December, he had designed Boeing Boeing’s apartment, fine tuning the design into January.
    The Paris apartment where the play is set is owned by a bachelor architect. The audience must believe it’s an architect’s apartment.
    As always, there were challenges. At Colonial, that starts with theater-in-the-round: height limits, sight lines, no curtain to hid set changes and — of course — money.
    “Colonial has a rule that nothing on stage can be taller than 32 inches,” says Zemla. “We thought the wall hangings were very important to set the mood, but with six doors, there wasn’t much room to hang things.”
    Six doors is a lot from one point of view. From a script point of view, however, six was one too few. The farce has so many exits and entrances that it calls for seven doors. Two were squeezed into one.
    The set designer’s job goes beyond the walls. An apartment must have furniture, rugs, wall hangings like pictures and clocks, and other decorating items; the set designer is responsible for getting them. That too was a challenge.
    “We needed to use mid-century modern furniture,” Zemla says, “but that style is very in now, and pieces are hard to find and very expensive.”
    Some furnishings came from Colonial’s inventory, some were bought and others were built by the carpentry team. Zemla himself did a few of the set’s paintings.

Banging It All Together
    “It looks simple, but we need to get it to look and work just right so the audience believes it’s real,” says Jim Robinson, one of seven volunteers of the construction crew. “You don’t want them distracted by problems with the set.”
    A retired attorney and judge who worked in Washington, D.C., and lives in Annapolis, Robinson has volunteered at Colonial Players for 30-plus years in more than 120 plays. Like him, the rest of the build team has retired from another life.
    They took the plans in hand in December. Because Colonial has a workshop near the Annapolis mall, construction can begin on doors and furniture while another production plays at the theater in Annapolis.
    Time speeds up when it’s time to move one play out of the theater and another in. Within two days of a show’s closing, the carpentry crew will have the old set disassembled, salvaging whatever they can for future use. Construction of the new set begins immediately after and typically takes a week or two. There’s then a mad scramble to paint and decorate, hang clocks and place furniture.
    There’s always a glitch to make the job more challenging. For Boeing Boeing, January’s 30 inches of snow cost days of valuable time. The three weeks reserved for its setup were crimped when Venus in Fur extended for snowed-out ticketholders.

The Stage Is Set
    A few days after Boeing Boeing opened, I returned to the theater. All the small pieces, like photos, paintings, and a large starburst clock — also created by Zemla — I had seen backstage on my first visit were now in place. The set looked good.
    The final test: By the time you’re reading this, my wife and I will have seen the play. Will we believe we’re flies on the wall in a Paris apartment?