hile the freezing rain fell Wednesday afternoon, the stage at the Goddard Center was a flurry of activity as a team of dedicated volunteers worked on building the set for Ardmore Little Theatre’s upcoming production of Annie.
“Because we don’t have professional labor, it’s all volunteers,” Carl Clark, set designer, said. Even the actors contribute to the construction. The day of The Ardmoreite set visit, Joel Wellnitz, otherwise known as Daddy Warbucks, was working on painting, and even Clark himself plays the part of a member of President Roosevelt’s cabinet. “Everyone in the cast is typically involved in the painting or finding props,” he said. The countless hours spent working together on the challenges of creating sets, not to mention rehearsal time, forms the cast into a sort of family. “We do consider our theatre ‘group’ as our ‘theatre family,” Clark remarked, and he has been a member of this family since 2001.
“I’m originally from Madill, and I moved back to Ardmore to be near my parents,” he said. “I’ve been active in community theater since then.” His involvement grew, and his first play as lead set designer was 2007’s production of Kiss Me, Kate. Today he alternates that role with L.A. “Larry” Scott, and the two take turns being in charge.
One of the primary aspects of the set designer is the ability to have a vision of the way the set will look and the skill to then communicate that vision to others. Every set begins as a sketch that he and the crew then create.
“I took a class in wood shop and a class in mechanical drawing as a kid, so I can draw in perspective,” Clark joked. “That might have been the key to getting the job.”
In Annie, the largest set is the Warbucks mansion. The crew has discovered an ingenious way to make this piece serve as a room in the White House for another scene. To achieve this transformation, two panels are painted differently front to back and slide into place on the left and right sides of the set. They can be quickly slid out, flipped, and put back into position to achieve a new look.
“Trial and error is a part of our procedure,” Clark said. “We were originally going to hinge those panels, but we couldn’t get it to function the way we wanted it to. So we then came up with the solution to slide them into place.”
“Another challenge is getting everything on stage where you need it, and my planning has to take that into consideration,” he said. The time constraints of live theatre make quick, simple changes a must. If a prop is too intricate or bulky, it becomes impractical to utilize. “Sometimes we end up building things that don’t end up getting used because it’s too awkward to make the transition,” he lamented.
A final challenge of set design is the short window of time the crew has to build and tear down the set. Everyone works furiously to get everything into place before the show premiers. They then have to work even faster to remove it all.
“We have a three week window before a production where the Goddard Center gives us exclusive use of the stage,” Clark said. “We can start building pieces before then, but we can’t occupy the stage before that.” Once the play’s run is over they then only have 48 hours for the “set strike,” or set breakdown. Clark summed up the entire process with the following statement.
“We build it, use it, and tear it down. That’s why we try to use components, so we don’t have to start from scratch every time.”