Full Circle

Interview with Ruth Kear, Set Designer

Ruth Kear

How did you become a set designer for our Lakeside Little Theatre?

My journey to becoming a set designer began in the 1960s at the University of Illinois. It was an exciting time for theater majors because small theater companies were popping up everywhere in Chicago, presenting nontraditional and avant-garde productions in abandoned warehouses, church basements, and shuttered storefronts. I was enrapt and attended as many of the free performances as possible.

The next step in my journey began in 1969. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when protestors clashed in the streets over the Vietnam War, my boyfriend and I decided to move to Boulder, Colorado, a very cool and happening place.

While the University of Colorado offered a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre,

I soon realized avant-garde theater had not crossed the Mississippi. I changed my major to English and put theater behind me. A few years later, my husband, my son, and I moved to San Francisco.

In 1981 my boys had started school. I was no longer content being a stay-at-home mom, so I decided to go back to school to get a degree in design.

The last semester required me to have an internship at an architectural firm. It took courage to go to my first real job interview. I was terrified.

A long white worktable was loaded with boxes of framed pictures. I saw a man at the end of the room sticking his head out an open door, a phone at his ear. He motioned me to come in and pointed to a tall leather-and-lattice barstool, like the ones I’d seen in México. The office was a clutter of open and rolled-up architectural drawings. A tall stack of design magazines looked like it would topple at any moment.

Finally, the man ended his conversation, and introduced himself. “Tim, here. Let’s see what you got.” (A man of legendary quick temper and a perfectionist.)

I hopped off the stool and felt my brand-new expensive pantyhose catch on the lattice. “F**k!” I blurted without thinking.  

“Oh my God!” My inner voice shouted ,”So much for this internship.” To my surprise, however, Tim said nothing.

Walking out to the big room he pointed to the boxes of frames on the table, then handed me the hammer and a box of picture hangers. “You’re ok on a ladder, right? Be creative, I’ll be back in an hour.” I barely finished hanging all the frames when he returned. He glanced at the wall but said nothing. We shook hands and the interview was over.

Weeks passed and I heard nothing. I berated myself for using the f-word in the interview and creating an unconventional design with the frames. I asked myself, “What were you thinking when you returned to school?”

A day before the term started, Tim called and asked if I could start the next day. I was over the moon and terrified. No one believed I would last a month. 

When my internship ended, I was shocked to be offered a permanent position. As it turned out, my display frame display and salty language were two of the reasons he hired me. He was relieved that I wouldn’t be shocked by the language I would hear from construction workers in the field.

For 32 years (ten with Tim and 22 on my own) I designed Italian, Mexican, Greek, and Chinese restaurants. Chophouses, microbreweries, boulangeries, delis, hamburger joints, and pizza parlors. In 2009 I pulled down my shingle and moved to México.

What is the big difference between being a restaurant designer and a stage set designer? 

Stage sets are temporary, described in the phrase all smoke and mirrors unlike the design for a restaurant, which needs to stand the test of time and customer damage. 

Everything constructed for the stage set is part of the theater illusion…the audience is looking through the imaginary fourth wall,  while the actors act as if they cannot see beyond it.  Smoke and mirrors is a metaphor…the set is designed to make the audience believe that what is on the stage is real.

Who approves your designs before building starts?

Reading the script many times is critical to achieving optimal integration of the set designer’s ideas with the vision of the director. The director has the final say about the design. Flexibility is required to accommodate any later changes. As the director works through the blocking details (actors’ movements on the stage) the set may require modifications.

Who actually builds the sets? (You have been known to “lend a hand”). How long does the set usually take to put on the stage?

The construction crew “chalks out” the floor plan on the stage floor based on the set drawings. The flats are positioned to the lines and screwed to the stage floor.  (Flats are lightweight wood frames covered with a plywood skin. They are the backbone of theatrical scenery) Depending on the detail of the set, construction can take up to a week. This includes painting, building props and assembling the interiors. As a designer, I have taken part in every aspect of construction with the exception of operating the saws.

How does the lighting affect your designs?

Lighting is usually the final detail and, just as in restaurant design, it is the pièce de résistance. The work lights are the only lighting used during the construction of the set so when the stage lights go on, voilà, it is theater. The play Red, just performed at LLT, is a perfect example of how important lighting is to set design.

What happens to the sets when the shows are over?

Timber, etcetera, is reused for painting over, everything stored in the props room. The deconstruction only takes a few hours. By early afternoon the stage is bare. Flats have been disassembled and props are stored for the next set. Materials and props are recycled many times and are often modified for another play.

You have just designed the set for Lakeside Little Theatre’s Red by American writer John Logan, about the artist Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken, taking place in the artist’s NYC studio. What did you do to make it look like an artist’s studio?

Mark Rothko’s NY studio was located on the second floor of an old (1884)YMCA building in the Bowery. After hours of research and reading articles about Rothko, I reimagined it for the stage at LLT. The interior walls would have been lathe and plaster and exterior walls of brick. A large skylight but no functioning windows would require an exhaust fan to vent the paint fumes. The construction crew built one that was a perfect example of smoke and mirrors. High ceilings and a wide entry door were required as some of Rothko’s canvases were very large. As a painter, I was able to look around my own studio and gather many of the props that would create the feel of a real artist atelier. The old sink on the set was the existing one from the LLT paint shop; it had a genuine patina already built up with years of dribbled paint. Setting up a working faucet on stage is always a challenge but the crew pulled it off.  I was fortunate to have another set designer and artist who was very knowledgeable about Rothko’s paintings. Together we taught the actors how to hold the brushes, mix paints and stretch a canvas

Being authentic is important to you. How did you achieve this?

Details have always been important to me as a set/restaurant designer. Details are not always seen by everyone but I know if they are there. Red is set in 1958, the first year that Folgers coffee introduced instant coffee to the public. Rothko and his apprentice drink a lot of coffee and whiskey so it was important to have accurate props. Unable to locate either Seagram whiskey or Folgers instant coffee locally, I researched old labels on the internet, printed them out and onto existing cans and bottles. The faux brick wall and lath and plaster were also wonderful examples of smoke and mirrors.

Next production you are working on is Jesus Christ Superstar by A.L. Webber. What will you have to take into consideration with your design?

Jesus Christ Superstar is a production with a huge cast: singers, dancers and an eight-piece band. It will be a challenge to fit everyone onto the LLT stage. I am working with a master carpenter and a well-known welder and together we will make it happen.

What were some of your favorite set design projects?

I have designed over a dozen sets for LLT but several stand out, the most recent being Red.

Las Madres, a play about the dirty war in Argentina was a simple set: the living-dining room of a working class family in a 1970s apartment in Buenos Aires. The design evolved from my memories of staying in such an apartment during a month-long visit to Buenos Aires in the early nineties.

Fiddler on the Roof also had a large cast and required many scene changes. By building moving flats called wagons and painting on both sides, we were able to create interiors of Tevye’s home, the local tavern and the train station. The static part of the set at the rear of the stage was painted to look like an old barn and was adjacent to the facade of a typical Jewish village called a shtetl. A thank-you from a woman who once lived in a shtetl and noticed the detail is one of the nicest compliments I have received.

Helen Gallagher
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