The Actual Staging of a Mainstage Musical
March 20, 2009 · Updated 11:13 AM
Literally behind the scenes with the set builders of Bremerton Community Theater's upcoming production 'Once Upon A Matress.'
When the curtains are drawn on opening night, everything is in its place.
The stage is set, the actors costumed, the music is cued and the lights orchestrated. Show-goers are seated in anticipation, waiting to watch a story come alive by virtue of the actors on stage. Everything is in order. Everything the audience sees has been polished and detailed and rehearsed.
What the audience hasn’t seen are the weeks of controlled chaos that have made it so — it’s the art of illusion, and community theaters can be very good at it.
For instance, did you know that a good portion of the finish work on a lot of community theater sets is actually fashioned from sheets of foam. Indeed, foam. Faux wood, stone and brick facades, all made from this stuff called Foamular — a material which is typically used as insulation in actual building.
In the world of set building, the foam sheets are a lighter alternative to wood which is both cheaper and easier to work with, BCT set designer Steve Goupil notes, watching Leroy McVay cut a pattern into a sheet of Foamular with a heat wand. When McVay’s design is finished and painted, that sheet of Foamular will become the stack of mattresses for the iconic bed in “Once Upon A Matress.”
“Almost everything that we do comes purely from imagination,” Goupil said.
It’s quite a bit different than actual house building, Scott Orr, BCT’s ordained shop keeper notes. By day he remodels houses, and for the past five years or so, he’s been moonlighting as a set builder.
“On my first set, I remember coming in and starting to build an actual wall, and they were like ‘whoa, whoa, whoa,’ ” Orr said.
For most set pieces, the trick is to make it look like it’s real without actually building the real thing — other than those pieces which will have to support castmembers, of course. In addition to saving time, now more than ever, theaters are looking to save money as well, a lot of which can be accomplished in the set-building process.
“It’s amazing how good you can make things look for cheap,” Goupil said. “For me, it all comes down to the details.”
'At Least One All-Nighter'
Goupil is a veteran of community theater. He served as president at BCT for years, and he’s also been known to pull all-nighters alone at the theater, working on those details, getting sets ready for production.
“You’d be amazed how much I can get done with just me here in one night,” he says.
“I’ll probably pull a couple all-nighters, at least one all-nighter, before this is all over,” he adds, surveying the construction of the set for “Once Upon a Mattress” on a recent Sunday afternoon.
And it’s not for lack of effort. There’s a crew of about a half-dozen builders busily constructing the medieval courtyard for “Once Upon a Mattress,” replete with two cast-member supporting stair cases built from scratch, as well as a roving wizard’s chamber, the medieval backdrop and the 20-mattress tall bed. They’ve been there since 10 a.m. and won’t leave until 5 p.m.
“And that’s on top of our day jobs,” Goupil notes. “Most of us have day jobs.”
A couple members of the building team — Eric Spencer and Eric Wise — also have acting parts in the upcoming show, which is not unusual, so they are spending time building the set in addition to their day jobs, as well as rehearsal time, on top of memorizing their lines and internalizing their characters.
What’s more, “it’s all volunteer,” Goupil says, adding a copious amount of gratitude.
And by the time the set is finished, a good portion of the cast will have also spent time either painting or detailing, decorating or placing some part of the set.
And that’s to say nothing of the hours and hours of blocking, rehearsing, choreographing, vocal training and scheduling that will go into the actors’ actual performance — but that’s another story altogether.
Then there’s lights and sound cues and music.
Back to the actual staging, Goupil said, they start designing the set a week or two before they can move into the space and then there’s usually four-to-five weeks time for the construction and detail work.
“I’ve had times where it’s been three weeks to get a set up,” Goupil adds, noting that often there is a show still running while the next one is being designed, with only one stage to work with.
That can create a whole lot of heartburn for set designers, and quite a few all-nighters for types like Goupil. But in the end, “there’s never been a show that hasn’t made it to opening night,” Orr says backstage with a grin.
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS will play April 3-May 3, with curtains at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays at BCT, 599 Lebo Blvd. in Bremerton. Tickets are $15-10. Info: www.bremertoncommunitytheatre.org or call the box office at (360) 373-5152.