design stage production

School Musical : Seussical

School Theater

Spring, 2019

My first theater art direction and stage production.

I started a staff position at the high school. I was the new person at a small school in a role that rotates annually. Nobody expected permanent substitutes to return, yet I returned the following academic year due to my certification trials—that is another story. As a substitute you really see just the school from an outside perspective. With a high school performance production, I saw an opportunity to be more involved with the students, staff and the community. I knew I had the creativity, minor construction, artistic rendering and problem solving skills so why not apply these through stage set design and production. This inspiration probably originated from my student teaching experience working with my teacher mentor for Sister Act and my years of growing experience with renovation construction; and, hey, it is art!

Here are some flaws with this first experience:

  • I have no theater experience (upstage? what is that?);
  • I become hyper focused so I forgot to record work-in-progress more frequently (we have a deadline and this is taking longer than expected!);
  • this was an initiation into art teaching (we have a deadline and this is taking longer than I expected!).

As I learned and came to accept to expect, schools pinch money when the education budget works with art or theater. We had a small budget to make an impressive production or at least as the director and myself envisioned. Reality set in. I compromised on the high-production production for a borrowed stage. Since we had a small timeline of a few weeks and little money, we borrowed props from another production. This was a not bad direction because I am all about recycling but when you are me and you have this quirk to be a perfectionist, you tinker with what you have.

With a little money and a supply closet called the Wood Room with materials from previous shows, we recycled two platforms made from 3/4 particle board. We reinforced them with 2×4’s which reduced the spongy jello effect and eased the director’s concern—naturally. I did not record this effort for anyone to view.

We customized a step ladder to have a comfortable seat at the top, skinned it to appear as a Dr. Seuss tree straining under the elephant’s weight, and attached it to a wagon sturdy enough to move the sitting actor safely around the stage. Now a wagon for you laypeople is not the cute toy to tug a child around the neighborhood. A theatrical wagon was any platform with four or more wheels produced to move sets around the stage. A lesson for me. Also not recorded for the record.

We also made two large four-foot diameter islands of fuzzy little trees produced by feather boas on neon poster board rolled into tubes for trunks. Again, not recorded for evidence of production, but they really happened! The island of trees resembled very much another production.

The props we borrowed experienced their time on stage. The two sets of trees limped a bit and the tub just lacked the Seuss personality.

Here is the tub before remodeling
Here is the tub during the remodel. Again, I do not have the photo of it in is final form.

For the tub to feel more Seussy, I made larger feet to emphasize the line quality of his drawing. I added details that he would have done too such as an exaggerated drain pipe, a loopy water tap with a large knob. To give the tub depth, I added a lip to the top which emphasized the depth of the looping plumbing. This whole thing was then fastened by hot glue and screws to another wagon for this tub does dance around the stage.

Since this is a student show, I had a team of students for a production crew. I could not feel good about myself if I did it all because it is suppose to be a student production guided by adults; and, imagine how stressed and exhausted if one person did all of this? Would I have really have met the deadline for tech week? (by the way, another theater term and event I did not know.) I provided a sketch for the backdrop artist to produce the Who-Village. I also required that the flats be rotated to reveal a dense forest background for scenes with Horton on the nest. She just jumped in an produced the sketches from scratch understanding that they needed to feel like Seuss drew them. Students also produced smaller trees to scatter around the stage and musical instruments produced using neon poster board and pool noodles. The whole thing looked gorgeous due to the bright colors and the crew’s energy being involved.

The final scene—or somewhere close to the end—an elementary student appears on stage as the new born Horton-Who (I am making this up, but it is the elephant influence on the bird egg). Little kids can be shy on stage. I proposed a backup. A large egg that is about two feet tall sits in the nest. When the actor arrived at the line, the egg could be opened to reveal the newborn. It was constructed of 1-inch thick foam insulation board skinned with neon poster board. One side was a solid piece, the other side had a cartoon-style egg crack to reveal a rendering on a black board. The show was okay without and the young actor was a hit with the audience.

The show was great! My family loved it, the students’ families loved it, the student actors enjoyed the stage and mentioned it was the best one yet. Maybe they simply wanted to support me or they authentically meant it. I am going to say they did enjoy it. The fish props and a lot of the miniature fluffy trees became souvenirs. This production was a great first experience. I learned some things: to record the work-in-progress process more thoroughly; and, some stage terms so I could communicate more efficiently with the director and actors. I was exhausted and promised myself that I would not do it again, but really?