Yesterday, an alumnus stopped by to visit. It's always wonderful to catch up with our old friends, but a comment she made stayed with me: "This is so weird. I'm used to things being built for me."
This made sense. College theatre majors on an acting track aren't asked to work in the scene shop, other than putting in required hours for a core Stagecraft course. But it's vastly different from our process, in which all members of the club are asked (if not expected) to assist with the creation of our set pieces and props.
These construction sessions are known as Saturday Morning Crew, and on any given weekend you'll find us in the auditorium building worlds. The controlled chaos is so much more than just a chance to make sawdust (although we do make a lot of sawdust). It's necessary to our productions, of course--otherwise we'd be acting on a bare stage. But more than that, it's an opportunity for education, bonding, and donuts.
The design process begins months earlier, often as Joe and I are choosing the season. We discuss elements we have in stock that could be repurposed, and brainstorm new approaches to the specific needs of the script. We say things like "How in the world are we going to build a (fill in the blank)?" And through the season we continue to problem-solve, shaping a cohesive design long before the show is even cast.
The builds usually begin slowly. We share the auditorium with many other groups and events, so our sets are built in component pieces which can be stored efficiently during meetings and rehearsals, or removed entirely for larger events like concerts. To the casual observer, it's often difficult to ascertain the final purpose or appearance of the individual pieces, but there's always a method to the madness.
We're currently approaching that magic date we like to call "when the stage is ours," meaning all other scheduled events are past and the next thing up is our show. This golden day is usually two weeks before the fall play, and about a month before the musical. Once we hit this day, we start the "permanent" installation of any stationary elements and final assembly of the mobile pieces. Base coats of paint are textured and detailed, finishing elements like molding are added, and "dressing" details like window curtains, paintings or foliage are placed to complete the picture.
For Joe and me, each Saturday is like the old Ed Sullivan plate-spinning act as we manage 20-50 students and another 2-12 adults at any given time. We break the workers into small groups, each group working on a specific element. We're always grateful to have parents (and sometimes alumni) join us, as they bring more experienced skill sets and can manage some of the more complicated aspects of construction. But ultimately, the sets are constructed primarily by our students. There's a lot of teaching along the way, from the proper way to use all of our tools to the names of the hardware to the specific techniques for stage construction (while we share the same basic principles as home construction, our houses usually need to move around on 5 1/2" casters).
Participating at crew is one of the more rewarding aspects of the SHS Drama Club. I love hearing the conversation after a performance as a student points out to her grandmother each bit of work she did on the set. I adore the moment when the light bulb goes on for a student and he understands not only why he needs to build a piece a certain way, but also how essential that piece will be to a show. We stress practical, real-world solutions (yes, you can use your geometry lesson to figure out that angle!) and applications (this is how your house is built!). My favorite part, though, is watching a student step up and successfully lead a project...watching an upperclassman pass along knowledge to a newer student...watching students from all walks of life at the high school working shoulder-to-shoulder, collaborating in the creation of something bigger than the sum of its parts.
We hear stories of other schools, other programs, where there is a hard and fast separation between the cast and crew. I believe a young actor is far more likely to trust a set piece he had a hand in building, is far more respectful of the delicacy of a prop she spent hours making. But more importantly, we are a family which works together towards a common goal, and neither group can fulfill its purpose without the other.
With a little more than a month until we open Shrek, there is still a substantial amount of construction, paint, and donuts to come. We'll eat a lot of pizza (thank goodness for Gionino's!), make a lot of sawdust, and spend a lot of Saturday hours building our big, bright, beautiful world. And when the curtain opens April 14, we'll share in the knowledge that we made something that never was before. That's theatre. And I love every screw, paint brush, and flower that goes into it.
Kristina J. Ferencie has directed the SHS Drama Club since 2001.