“It’s really cool because our set looks different than what everyone else has done, especially in the region…”
The Upper Darby Performing Arts Center goes through miraculous transformations each week during the summer. From the tie-dye speckled stage of “The Circle of Life” to the swamps of “Shrek the Musical,” the stage is constantly being renovated by the tech crew. Recently I sat down with Paul Moffitt, the production manager of UDPAC and a set designer, to ask about the ins and outs of building a foundation that has to be used for seven different sets in one summer.
Paul has been designing lights and sets since he was 12 when he and his cousins put on a version of Clue for their family. Since then he has attended college, received a technical theater major with an emphasis in lighting design and has designed for over 500 different productions. This year, he designed the set for “The Circle of Life” and will be designing the lights for “Shrek the Musical”. According to Paul, “A set designer takes a script and interprets it in a three dimensional form to service the feeling of a play, tailored to the director’s and actors’ needs.” In short, they create the set that the actors and director will use to move.
Each night throughout the week they flip back and forth between the two sets. Let me repeat that. Each night throughout the week they take down a set and put up an entirely new one.
Paul explained the complicated process of flipping back and forth between Mainstage and Children’s Theater sets. After “Dr. Dolittle,” the tech crew strikes the set and loads in the “Shrek” set. Then, on Monday at 5 a.m., the tech crew loads out the Mainstage set and loads in “Schoolhouse Rock.” Each night throughout the week they flip back and forth between the two sets. Let me repeat that. Each night throughout the week they take down a set and put up an entirely new one. After “Shrek” premieres over the weekend, they switch the set to “Honk” and keep it that way for the week. Once the weekend arrives, it’s back to Mainstage.
Before the hard work of loading sets in and out begins, the set designers create a “unit set.” This becomes the basic framework for the seven different sets used in the summer. Lizzie Bracken, the set designer for Mainstage and the fourth through sixth Children’s Theater shows, took her designs from “Alice in Wonderland” illustrations. Paul notes that her set is incredibly unique, saying that the “set looks different than what everyone else has done, especially in this region because they just try to recreate what was done on Broadway and we have our own special version of it.”
Once the unit set is created, the other set designers are given a chance to add their own individual flare to the stage. For many years, the set designers were limited by the large “palace” placed upstage. This “palace” had facing that was just about the only thing each set designer got to choose. Now, having moved to a more open stage, each designer is given more freedom.
Paul pointed out an interesting note about the sets that has slipped past me for years. The sets follow an arch, quite similar to the arch of a story. In the beginning of the summer, the set is plain and simple. It grows and grows up through the Mainstage show, and then begins to simplify again.
The theatre at Summer Stage undergoes wondrous transformations throughout the summer. None of these changes would be possible without the collaboration of the set designers and the hard work of the Summer Stage tech crew. Through them, it is possible for one foundation to become seven sets in six weeks.