Behind the scenes: Berkshire theater season full of imaginative set designs, creating new worlds
When the curtain rises in theaters during the busy Berkshire summer season, audiences experience more than just a good performance.
They are transported to different worlds — from a creaking, rocking pirate ship to a secluded cabin filled with an aging artist's memories — thanks to hard work, a lot of imagination and a few tricks of the set designer trade.
Many of this summer's productions have overcome their own unique set of set design challenges in order to best set the scene:
Director John Rando wanted a set that let swashbuckling pirates reach deep into the mainstage auditorium for Barrington Stage Company's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," playing in Pittsfield through Aug. 13.
"I'm always up for a challenge," said set designer Beowulf Boritt.
He created a three-masted ship with rigging, cannons and a long central runway that has, like the show itself, "a very heightened theatricality," Boritt said.
Among his practical considerations were the loss of seating (they added seats on stage instead), balcony sightlines, and building a safe, stable set that could accommodate speedy scene changes. A modest budget means resourcefulness and creativity were at a premium.
The result is clever illusion, the foundation of theatrical design. "Wooden" masts are made from hollow concrete mold tubes — basically a giant toilet paper roll, said Boritt — light enough to fly away when no longer needed. Climbable ratlines and a cross spar are anchored, not to the mast as it seems, but to the theater architecture above.
Colorful back drops provide breezy skies and pastoral settings, with a distant castle inspired by Downton Abbey.
That magic is what theater is really all about, said Boritt, who won a Tony Award for putting a rabbit warren of a three-story set on the biggest turntable in Broadway history in the 2014 production of "Act One" by James Lapine.
The sets he creates from Seattle to Shanghai are not always so stylized. Once, his set design made international headlines when an audience member tried to plug a cellphone into an onstage outlet on the set of "Hand to God" at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. His venues range from circuses to cruise lines, where he creates theater in a ship, as opposed to a ship in a theater.
When L.A.-based Israeli designer Yael Pardess first read "The Stone Witch," Shem Bitterman's play about an aging book illustrator, she thought, "Wow, this is my life!"
Pardess and director Steve Zuckerman "had worked on a play years ago that was my first experience with projection," she explained. "I fell in love with plays that have illustrative imaginary projected worlds in them, and I've been doing it ever since."
In preparation for the play's world premiere by Berkshire Theatre Group with Judd Hirsch, Pardess painted richly detailed colored renderings as befits her talent for book illustration (she also designs theme parks) showing the set in different lights, along with storyboards for the projections.
Her set combines realism with imagination, and depicts an authentic, comfortable cabin studio — but with painted monsters lurking in the rafters, painted trees beyond the picture window and painted projections revealing images caught up in the artist's mind.
"The window is see-through, but opaque enough so the projections are visible," she said. "We need to make sure that, while the actors are lit, the projections are not washed out. It's a small stage, so we need to isolate the lighting from the projections."
The fantasy effects are all the more striking because, in the studio Pardess has created, everything is real.
In the round
Over at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, prolific set designer Kris Stone faced perhaps the toughest design challenge of her dozen shows there: how to create a set for "The Merchant of Venice" with the Tina Packer Playhouse configured for the first time in the round.
"I had to let go of any idea of a vista," she said. "Now, it's only things from above and the floor."
Collaborating closely with director Tina Packer, they found inspiration in an image from a documentary of Stephen Hawking surrounded by floating light spheres filled with galaxies.
Stone suspended large transparent orbs above the stage, and placed inside them tiny "rice" lights and ethereal paper sculptures, such as a boat, justice scales and masks, all themes related to the play. She wrote phrases evoking the actor's memories on the front panels of the balcony, and on the floor created two stark white intersecting pathways complete with esoteric patterns and words inscribed on and around the symbolic skewed cross.
Like most set designers, Stone builds models of her designs in scaled tabletop theater boxes that let the director and production team view the scene from different vantage points. Populating these miniature stages with tiny furniture, props and figures helps create a surprisingly faithful representation of the end result. New York City designers have even established a sort of "lending library" so they don't have to recreate theater boxes for each production.
Just like in the Berkshires, while the theaters may remain the same, with each new play there is always a brave new world inside.
What: "The Pirates of Penzance" by Gilbert and Sullivan
Where: Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield
When: Now through Aug. 13
Information: 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org
What: "The Stone Witch" by Shem Bitterman
Where: Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge
When: Now through Aug. 20
Information: 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
What: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare
Where: Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox
When: Now through Aug. 21
Information: 413-637-3353, shakespeare.org
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