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Setting the Stage

The Hard Work Behind the Lavish Productions

Sep. 27, 2012
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The moment a theatrical or opera performance springs to life is magical. It happens in the twinkling of an eye. Bitter or sweet, intense or whimsical, a captivating moment is incomplete without actors, props and costumes.

Conventionally, we salute the performances of actors and actresses. However, artistic and prop directors ought to be celebrated as well because they help tell stories through their vision. Not only do they communicate the author’s intended meaning but they also contribute to building or challenging a perspective—to inspiring that “magical moment.” Props intricately weave into the narrative—setting the mood, scene, and ambiance for several outstanding productions this fall in Milwaukee.

Recently, I visited Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet for 10 years. Pink is in charge of orchestrating the production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, adapting it to fit a ballet. This is a challenging task as there is no script as there would be for a play. t's akin to opera without words. Pink has put in place a musical score that can be choreographed then performed by a cast of 40.

In addition, his vision for La Bohème incorporates a set design 50 feet wide and deep. The movable elements includes La Tour Eiffel and 1950s costumes plus color and unique lighting concepts inspired by David Grill, theatre professor at Purchase University. The concept involves placing the music and the motion of its Latin Quarter setting in an unusual time frame, the 1950s.

At the Milwaukee Rep, audiences will be exposed to a different flavor at Assassins. The demands of this production require actors that are a triple threat, singing and dancing as well as acting. The Rep’s prop director Jim Guy also chairs the Society of Property Artisan Managers and is often referred to as “one of the finest prop masters in the entire country.” He is responsible for close up magic of the Assassins’ set—the light fixtures, window treatments, pictures, furniture, food, and most prominent, the guns that must be visible from the last row. Although the Rep has an extraordinary costume | prop collection, depending on budgetary constraints, some props are built in-house while others are rented.

On a different note, the Florentine Opera’s production of Carmen  does not require many props. According to director of design and production Knoll Stolmarck, Carmen will be much like the “traditional production,” first performed in 1875. In collaboration with director Dean Anthony, technical director Paul Mazurak and costume designer Albert Herring, Stolmarck’s scenic design will consist of rentals such as hang lights, LED, single source lights/special effects as well as in-house equipment. Furthermore, the set has to be “built to be taken apart”—to fit in a 53ft truck.

In contrast, Avenue Q at the Skylight Music Theatre will include an elaborate scene design. It’s an adult puppet show whose characters lives unfold in an impoverished section of New York City. The audience will be exposed to a unique set stage where humans and puppets coexist and deal with themes of race and class, love, forgiveness, and finding purpose in one’s life. The human cast will benefit from the original puppets used in Rick Lyon’s Broadway production. Renowned lighting designer Jason Fassl also provides expertise in setting the mood | ambiance which is critical for the puppet show.

Hopefully, Milwaukee audiences will take the time to savor La Bohème, Carmen, Assassins, and Avenue Q, hailing the brilliant artistic and prop directors that set the stage for magic.


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