For Baltimore set designers, no detail is too small

Crew members like Everyman Theatre's Daniel Ettinger create lavish, yet temporary worlds on stage

  • Daniel Ettinger designed the set for the Everyman Theatre's new production of "Private Lives." “Daniel can take a director’s concept and physicalize it in a way that takes your breath away,” Everyman’s artistic directorVincent Lancisi says.
Daniel Ettinger designed the set for the Everyman Theatre's… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 12, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Set designer Daniel Ettinger and technical director Bill Jamieson spent months painstakingly constructing a world accurate down to the tiniest detail, from the wallpaper pattern to the electrical sockets.

And they weren't one whit less meticulous, even though they knew that in four short weeks, their hard work on "Private Lives," the current Everyman Theatre production, would be ripped apart and tossed in the trash.

"Creating a set is like making music," says Jamieson, who has worked at the Charles Street theater for the past decade.

"After the performance, it all goes away. There's a sweet satisfaction in destroying something after all the blood, sweat and tears that it took to build it in the first place. Sometimes, I want to grab a hammer and say, 'Take that!'"

Set designers such as Ettinger are in charge of dreaming up an environment that visually tells the story of the play, while Jamieson, as technical director, transforms those ideas into lumber, foam and nails.

Both belong to a breed of peculiarly obsessive backstage professionals whose penchant for realism extends to details that even the most observant audience members will never notice.

Thus Neil Patel, who created the seedy junk shop for Center Stage's current production of "American Buffalo," built a bathroom on stage that includes a ceiling light, because that's what playwright David Mamet's stage directions specify. Never mind that the lavatory door remains shut tight for the entire show. The actors don't so much as jiggle the doorknob, let alone step inside to freshen up.

"There's a balance you have to strike between the theatrical fun of stage design and creating a real space," says the New York-based Patel, who has created the sets for Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals and the HBO series "In Treatment."

When "Lady Windermere's Fan" ran in the Calvert Street venue four years earlier, theater-goers were treated to a life-size elephant's head trophy made from papier-mache designed by Tony Straiges that included eyelashes painted on individually by hand.

And when Ettinger put together the set for Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" at Everyman in 2007, he made sure that the wall sockets were in the British, and not the American, style. The major difference? The way the plugs are aligned.

He teaches his design students at Towson University to do whatever it takes to help actors immerse themselves in a particular period and place.

"I'm all in favor of building sets that are spectacular and beautiful," Ettinger says, "but the spectacle has to support the story. Spectacle for its own sake gets hollow pretty quickly."

Among themselves, the Everyman staff have been referring to the set for "Private Lives" as "Daniel's 'Mona Lisa.'"

It isn't just that his representation of a flat in Paris in the 1930s is designed to make the 10-foot ceiling appear taller, while cleverly concealing the two concrete, on-stage pillars that support the roof. It isn't just that the lavender-and-teal color scheme sets off Deborah Hazlett, the show's leading lady, who is attired in rose, orange and yellow.

It's that every furnishing, no matter how gorgeous, also is supremely functional.

For example, the cream couch that occupies the center of the stage has to be long enough so that the actors can lie down on it full-length. The upholstery can't be so soft so that reclining performers have to struggle ungracefully to sit or stand. The back has to be low enough so that they can roll over the top. And, finally, the couch has to be a dead ringer for the style of furnishings with which early 20th-century playwright Noel Coward would have been intimately familiar.

And that's just one sofa.

"I have yet to find a designer who can more effectively transform a space into the world of the play," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director. "Daniel can take a director's concept and physicalize it in a way that takes your breath away."

As important as a design's look is that it can easily come apart. For instance, late in the second act of "American Buffalo," there's a big fight scene in the pawnshop. Shelves buckle, crockery gets smashed. A man is thrown down, hard, on top of a display cabinet.

But, instead of glass that could break into dangerous shards, Patel made sure that the display cabinet is fronted with Plexiglas and the shelves are relatively soft plywood.

"We aren't really taught how to build things that will last for 80 years," Jamieson says.

"I often get people who want me to remodel their bathrooms or build them new kitchen cabinets. I tell them, 'I can only give you a six-week guarantee.'"

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