Building worlds on stage: the set designers of SOU’s Center Stage Theatre

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This story is part of a series in collaboration with the Ashland Daily Tidings spotlighting the work, research and experiments taking place in laboratories on the Southern Oregon University campus. During the year, these invention centers and their specialized equipment are only accessible to university students, faculty and staff. But on May 15, dozens of departmental labs and art studios will be open to the public during the fifth annual Southern Oregon Arts and Research open house. For more information about SOAR activities, performances and presentations, call 541-552-6816 or visit www.sou.edu/soar.

SOU theater students paint back drops for the production of "Lucky Stiff" on Tuesday. Photo by Troy Goossen/The Siskiyou

Amelia Burke-Holt places a bright pink binder filled to capacity with sketches, notes and catalog clippings on the small coffee shop table. The Southern Oregon University sophomore says hundreds of ideas went through her mind while designing the set for “La Terrasse,” a comedy that opens next month in SOU’s Center Stage Theatre.

Burke-Holt and other students in scenic design at SOU are responsible for designing and building sets for six different shows this year. “La Terrasse” opens May 10 and runs through May 20.

Burke-Holt said she read and re-read Jean-Claude Carriere’s script, noting necessities such as doors and windows and developing an understanding of who the characters are, how they operate and why.

“You have to get to know the characters and know how to transfer words into feeling, into something real,” Burke-Holt said. “You have to examine the world the characters live in.”

In the farcical world of “La Terrasse,” Carriere explores the many things that can go wrong in our daily lives, from traffic jams and job searches to dissolving marriages and house-hunting.

Burke-Holt pulls out one of the sketches in her pink binder. Soft charcoal lines culminate in the layout of a trendy San Francisco couple’s apartment living room, where the action will take place.

Burke-Holt says the set’s design establishes the tone for the entire show — essentially making or breaking the audience’s perceived reality of the show. She spent weeks researching Pottery Barn and IKEA catalogs for swanky pieces of furniture.

“The home is too perfect. It’s stylish, but not practical,” Burke-Holt said. “It’s very fashionable, but you can tell they didn’t put themselves into it.” Some pieces were bought straight out of the catalogs, she said.

“We have to create an environment where that story is perfectly at home,” said Sean O’Skea, SOU associate professor of scenic design. “All of the elements need to come together.”

Burke-Holt’s sketches are the initial drafts, which are followed by digital layouts created by computer-aided design software. The CADs will then be edited and re-drafted after meeting with the director and other designers to bring the vision into reality, a process that is essentially about choices and trust, O’Skea said.

“My saying is that it needs to have enough room to stand with a microphone and sing,” O’Skea said. “Make it as big as it needs to be, no bigger.”

Now it is time for the technical director, SOU junior Alex Meyer, to begin the behind-the-scenes magic — taking the designers’ drawings and making them a reality.

The work of the directors, designers and crew is successful when it goes entirely unnoticed or when very specific things happen to make the audience wonder, “How did they do it?” Meyer said.

Freshman theater major Kieron Callahan paints a back drop for the production of "Lucky Stiff" on Tuesday. Photo by Troy Goossen/The Siskiyou

“You don’t notice magic because it’s so magical, but you also notice the magic because it is so magical,” Meyer said. “It’s two extremes: You don’t want to be noticed, but you can’t walk in without noticing.”

The community will have a chance to go behind the scenes and witness the process that can transport an audience to another world during the Southern Oregon Arts and Research open house in May.

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