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Behind the Scenes
Light, costume and set designers enhance Calvin theater
By Roxanne Rupke Van Farowe '97

 

Imagine yourself as an audience member watching the best play you have ever seen.

The stage makes you believe that you, yourself, are a part of the world before you. At any moment you feel that you, like the actors, could step beyond the scene into other rooms and places that you can fully imagine.

But do you notice the scenery, the props, the costumes or the lighting? Not really. Whether by choice or involuntarily the imaginary world engulfs you, and you believe it entirely.

"The art of set design is at its highest when it is not noticed," said communications professor James Korf, a long-time set designer. "Instead (audience members) have to think about what is happening. They are overwhelmed."

In fact, ".If someone says 'great costumes,' or 'did you see those lights?' that's a bad thing," Korf added. "Those impressions should all happen on a non-verbal level."

"The best scenery is always in the audience's imagination," David Leugs, Calvin's full-time set designer concurred. "You can give them a time period and leave the rest to their imagination."

Recent recognition from the Grand Rapids community suggests that Calvin set designers are excelling at their work. Last October, David Leugs received a Grand Award for "Outstanding Scenic Designer" for his work on The Physicists, performed in the fall of 1998. Several other staff members received nominations at the Grand Awards, Grand Rapids' version of Broadway's Tony Awards for theater productions.

"Receiving this [Leugs' Grand award] is recognition that the work we do is stellar," said Debra Freeberg , director of theater.

Leugs said that it took a while, but the community is finally starting to notice Calvin College theater.

"Getting away from isolationism is one of the biggest changes our department has seen," he said. "We're allowing ourselves to think of ourselves as members of the community."

As Freeberg sees it, Calvin College has always produced quality theater- the problem was that theater was sometimes considered almost exclusively an educational endeavor rather than a resource for the community. Today productions are advertised in local media, staff members take part in other Grand Rapids theater events, and critics come to judge or report on the college's shows.

Grand Awards board member Jeffrey Frank, for one, was "absolutely amazed" when he saw his first Calvin Theater production three years ago.

"I lost track that I was watching a college production," Frank said. "I was amazed at the quality of the production-the actors, costuming, staging, everything."

Frank, a physician, had never been to a Calvin College production before having to judge one for the Grand Awards. He has since become a self-described "Calvin booster."

"I [previously] thought that theater would be a forbidden fruit at Calvin College," he said. "My delight was finding out how wrong I was. Calvin's plays take their place with any production in the city."

Employing David Leugs as a set designer and Melissa Merz as costume designer has helped make Calvin performances top-notch, Korf said.

Korf came to the college about 30 years ago, and has seen many improvements in the theater program, including more acting and directing courses and new and improved performance areas (the Gezon Auditorium and Lab Theater). Plays used to show in the Fine Arts Center, which was far too large to draw an audience into the action.

"The stage was a compromise," Korf explained, "It was too big and shallow with no wing space . [Calvin College] theater has come a long way, and the look has improved one hundred percent."

Set designers at Calvin College treat their work as an art; an art with an exacting creative method.

When Leugs gets his hands on a new script, he reads it very slowly and carefully with no distractions.

"The original experience of the play is important. You have to have an empty head,'' he said.

The first reading is precious because it is the designer's only chance to be in the same place as the audience - totally new to the play.

Senior Jayme Mellema, set designer for Translations, which showed in February has learned to read the script looking for design cues, both direct and interpretive.

"You start with the text, see what is there already," he said. "The language and the metaphors tell you what atmosphere to create, what colors to use. It's part of the job to decode those things."

Those first impressions begin the process of design - first on paper, then building the various props, and finally putting the pieces together on stage.

"A student said to me once 'it always amazes me how you can draw all the pieces separately, set them up, and it all fits together,'" Leugs said. "Ultimately, that's how it is: when it works, it works."

Calvin set designers are aware of the transient nature of their work..

"Theater is an ephemeral art form," said Korf, ".but as a designer there is something rewarding about the concreteness; you've created a sculpture. It has a concrete quality."

The constantly changing look of the stage is what first attracted Leugs to set design.

"My mom thought I would grow up to be a janitor because I was always rearranging the furniture," Leugs explained. ".Oddly enough, that's still what I do. Nothing ever has to be on stage for more than five weeks."

Costume designer Melissa Merz also enjoys the continual transition.

"The time period, the central idea, and the color scheme are always changing," Merz said. "It's the exact opposite of working in a factory."

Research is required to make the set meld with the story. For February's production of Translations, Merz researched Ireland's rural clothing in 1830.

"The research part is really exciting," she said. "Translations was tough because Ireland was a poor country so there aren't written records."

To make the simple, true-to-life Irish peasant costumes, the costume design team relied on the work of Borca, an English painter who lived in Ireland at the time of the play. The team conceded to use sewing machines, however, in spite of their awareness that the sewing machine was not invented until 1850.

The props for Translations were also realistic, emulating an abandoned and dilapidated barn. The beams of the roof were caving in, the walls were made of rocks crumbling in parts, and the stage was littered with farm implements and straw.

Leugs' award-winning set of The Physicists was much more elegant - though he is quick to point out that more does not necessarily equal better when it comes to set design.

The Physicists' set was a regal old building used as a sanitarium, with huge French doors, towering columns and a 17-foot high chandelier.

"We wanted the feeling that the room kept going and going," Leugs said.

Lighting design is an aspect of the set design process that requires an artistic touch.

"You want [the lighting] to be natural. so the audience is willing to suspend disbelief and step into the world of the play," said campus event coordinator Josh VandeZande, a 1997 graduate and veteran lighting designer for Calvin College productions.

"People notice the lighting if it is wrong," VandeZande said. "It's a lot about timing. If everyone is waiting in the dark, it's pretty obvious something is wrong."

A play with complex scenery and costumes usually has simple lighting, but a stark stage requires a more inventive lighting design.

The key to a good design, said VandeZande, is to mix the absence of light with light; the designer must become aware of the shadows as much as the spotlights. He or she must also translate a director's instructions into practical terms.

"'A stark look' might mean a bright light with a steep downward angle," VandeZande said. "You have a lot of freedom to decide [what it means]."

Many people assume that people who go into set design are 'wannabes'-people who secretly yearn to be actors but fear being center-stage.

That stereotype is just that-a stereotype-and Calvin's design people prove it wrong. Several of them have been actors themselves, and for that reason are all the better equipped to serve the actors' needs.

The 'theater bug' bit Leugs early. He landed his first acting role as a "young boy" in the local Christian high school play when he was barely out of diapers (though a case of mumps kept him home the night of the play). In elementary school he held the starring role of Peter Rabbit in the play of the same name. He continued to be involved in drama throughout high school and college despite his father's conviction that he would become a high school teacher. He went to graduate school for theater design, then returned to his alma mater to become Calvin College's first full-time set designer.

Merz never wanted to act, though she has always loved theater and she is definitely not the shy type. She began volunteering in the high school costume shop because she knew how to sew. "After that, I was hooked," she said.

She earned a master of fine arts degree in costume design and came to Calvin College to begin a job that she finds a continual challenge. What motivates her? "Honestly, my true aspiration is to always do better," she said.

Mellema, a 2000 graduate, acted in high school but came to Calvin as an art major. His passion for theater remained, however, so when he began painting scenery for theater productions, he discovered "a melding of two favorites." While at Calvin he headed the design of three plays. He plans to pursue a graduate degree in set design.

Back to that first scene , the play that swallowed up your critical mind and captured your imagination. How was that created? How can a designer ever know when they have helped to create a masterpiece?

The answer Calvin set designers gave was that the best set draws attention not to itself but toward the story.

"You know it is a good design when it totally fulfills the needs of the actors," Korf said.

This selfless ambition could even be an illustration for how all of life should be lived.

"(Set designers are) making something with the whole purpose of giving something to others," said Mellema.

As Freeberg said of those in theater, "their work enriches our lives."

Roxanne Van Farowe is.

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