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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Taking A Look At The Set Behind The Curtain

George Drake Jr.
The set for the Human Race Theatre's production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) gives the actors plenty of room to move.

During his life, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. And as the final production of their 2018 season, The Human Race Theatre in Dayton is tackling all of them in just over an hour and a half. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is a comedy that’s part improv and part audience participation. Community Voices Producer George Drake, Jr. took a look behind the curtain to see how the set for the show came to life.

If you know anything about theatre, you know that a lot of the magic happens backstage.

"[The scene shop is] where we build pretty much every component of a set that comes through here," says technical director Adam Crowell, and he admits that the set for this show doesn’t really look like much. It’s just a few shelves filled with the paint cans from their own paint area in their shop, there’s paint splattered all over the stage, it generally, kind of looks kind of like a mess, but that’s intentional. Every element is envisioned, planned, and executed.

Unlike other shows, for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the dialogue, acting, and props do most of the work. The set for this show almost acts as a canvas rather than its own element in a sense.

“A lot of it is pretty empty, which gives a lot of playing, a lot of room for action, a lot of room for the actors to take a lot of liberties from their end, and the director to take a lot of liberties from his end,” say Crowell.

Credit George Drake Jr. / WYSO
Eric Barker is the scenic designer for Human Race Theatre

Crowell knows the set inside and out, better than anyone maybe. While he built it, he didn’t actually design it; that’s the job of the scenic director, Eric Barker.

“As a scenic designer it’s my job to help tell the story," he says. "It’s not about scenery, unfortunately. I mean, I would love to say, ‘Hey, it’s all about the scenery.’”

When it comes to designing a set, there are a few parameters he had to consider: labor, space, and the two biggest of all time, and budget, two things Eric ran into when he made his initial set design for The Complete Works.

"You have to sit down and say, ‘Okay, this is a little too ambitious, what can I do as a designer to pare this down, and still be able to tell the story?’” he says.

So, they had to get creative. The first thing to do was, instead of making new set pieces, look into their stock and recycle what’s already been built.

“It’s really about working with the company here and saying, ‘Okay, so what do we have available? What do you have?’ And they had just finished a show that had all these great shelves, and I said, ‘Well, let’s use those. And let’s make them look like they’re old and put a lot of paint on them. What else you got?’ So, it was really kind of like, ‘You give me your laundry list, your inventory, and we will make all of those elements work on that set.’”

Eric and I were sitting next to a tall display case in the lobby of the Loft Theatre full of to-scale models of past Human Race Theatre production sets when I noticed he kept referring to his design as THE set or OUR set, but never MY set.

For him, it’s all about the collaboration. While the product he’s putting together came out of his head and it’s his design, he doesn’t see it that way.

“It technically is my design," he says. "But I’m designing it for the show, I’m designing it for the director, I’m designing it for the company. Those models are done to help represent what the final set will look like, it helps the lighting designer, because it’s a piece of art. Ultimately what’s going on the stage is my art, for us.”

Once the run of The Complete Works is done, it’s time for technical director Adam Crowell to get back to work. He and his team will paint over the stage, break down the set pieces, put things like the shelves and anything else they can reuse in storage, and the rest is trash.

“So that’s one of the fun things of theater is that you build it, then you tear it down, and then you take it off to the dump and you’re done! Then you end up building a new one.”

The Human Race Theatre Company's scene shop
Credit George Drake Jr. / WYSO
The Human Race Theatre Company's scene shop

The Human Race Theatre’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is at the Loft Theatre in Dayton through June 17th.