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Behind The Stars, The Sets That Help Them Shine

Broadway caps off its 2011-2012 season June 10 at the 66th annual Tony Awards, and while the focus will mostly be on the nominated shows and actors, some attention must be paid to the set designers — the people who help create the environments that let those shows and actors shine.

Take Daniel Ostling: When he read Bruce Norris' script for Clybourne Park, a play that takes place in a very realistic Chicago bungalow, the veteran scenarist quickly came to a realization: "The house is actually a character."

That's because Clybourne Park is a biting, funny riff on Lorraine Hansberry's classic play A Raisin in the Sun, one that takes place in the house that Hansberry's African-American characters purchase in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. It's talked about, but never seen, in her play, but it's the fulcrum of the conversations in Clybourne Park.

"The first act is in 1959, in sort of an Eisenhower-era middle class/working class household," Ostling explains. "The people are packing up to move. And in the second act, it's 2009. The neighborhood sort of went down, the house is trashed, and they're preparing to raze it and build a McMansion. So it's really two completely different sets."

In the first act, the set has a cozy, lived-in feel — from the flowery 1950s wallpaper to the period doorknobs. When the curtain rises for Act 2, most of the details have changed significantly.

"All the woodwork is painted over," Ostling says. "The front door has been replaced — because we were thinking, you know, they probably wanted more security, so that nice wood-and-glass front door is replaced with a security door that has some serious bolts in it."

During intermission, the set has to be changed very, very quickly; a crew of five swings walls in a highly coordinated intermission ballet. When they first rehearsed the changeover, it took 30 or 40 minutes. Now, Ostling says, "We're not waiting for the crew at all. We're waiting for people to go to the bathroom!"

Designing 'A Show That Needs Nothing'

Set designer Donyale Werle had an almost completely different assignment with Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice's play that imagines the origin of the Peter Pan story. It uses simple theatrical magic.

"This is a show that's 100 percent about your imagination," Werle says. "And so, how do you design a show that needs nothing? So my biggest challenge was to actually not design the show [but] was to design it almost backwards. Like, how do I not show what we want to see?"

The solution was a set made entirely out of found objects: recycled plastics, scraps of fabric, a long rope. Werle wanted it to reflect the way children use their imaginations: "You give a child a present at Christmas and they spend 10 minutes playing with the toy and then two hours or two days playing with the box; so, like capturing that element of the box."

When A Bar Problem Makes A Pub The Solution

Bob Crowley's set for the musical Once engages the audience's imagination as well. Like the film it's based on, the show takes place all over Dublin, but it's told inside a realistic-looking Irish pub — so realistic the audience can walk onstage before the show and buy a pint. So, why a bar?

"We did the original show in a very relaxed kind of space in Harvard," Crowley says. "It looked a bit like a club, and there was a bar at the back. It seemed like a logical step to take it from there into an Irish pub."

According to Crowley, the audience has no problem following the story, even if it's told with just a few tables, chairs and a Hoover vacuum cleaner — quite a change for a designer who has created a lot of sets for Broadway musicals like Mary Poppins.

"I do lots of big, extremely expensive, complicated shows," Crowley says, "particularly musicals, where there's lots of money invested and huge expectation, especially on Broadway, where, you know, ticket prices are so enormous. But once you take the decision not to go that way, it's just such a relief, to be honest with you."

Making It Mobile, And Staying Out Of The Way

Set designer Tobin Ost took a different tack for his work on Newsies. The big Disney dance show, about a strike of New York City newsboys in 1899, is set all over Manhattan — in tenements, offices, alleys, on rooftops. That presented a certain set of challenges, Ost says: "How [do] you get from Point A to Point B quickly and somewhat effortlessly? And, also, how do you respect the dancing?"

Ost created a set that kind of dances itself. Three 24-foot-high towers, with stairways and three levels for the actors, move around the stage in different combinations, to create a multiplicity of locations. Ost calls these towers the jungle gym.

"They're a love child of metal structures from this period," he says, "whether it be elevated train tracks, fire escapes, kind of giving an impression of the period, but without really hitting it nail on the head." The towers also hold screens for projections by Sven Ortel. His work sometimes shows what a character is writing or drawing, or headlines from the newspaper.

Ortel says the most important thing is that his design serves the story. "It has to be effortless to not get in the way of the storytelling. If you notice it doing something funky or even if you think it looks cool, that's probably not what we want to say in that particular moment. That is not to say it's not supposed to take your breath away at times, but that only happens because of a combination of all the elements and it's still propelling the story onwards."

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.

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