“So it’s a Czech fairy tale, with a lake onstage, three acts, two scene changes, oh, also there will be puppets.”
And with those words from William Todd Hunt, artistic director of Opera To Go, I was signed up for the set design of their latest operatic feat, “Rusalka,” which opens this Saturday evening at Thunder Mountain High School.
Dvorak’s “Rusalka” toys with the same plotline as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” so immediately my mind fluttered to dancing crab puppets, sparkly tridents in pools of water onstage and nasty purple witches leaking ink everywhere. Whoops, too many cartoons as research for me. But just like every craft project I tackle, when creating this set design I had a few basic tricks up my sleeve to keep me steered in the right direction (and away from dancing crabs).
Begin with a Concept
Besides a forest and lake onstage visually, the score for “Rusalka” resonates with magic and mournful moments of lost love and love forsaken. How do you make a lake mournful or trees forsaken? Well if you are director Emily Smith, you breathe life directly into them through otherworldy puppets. Puppets in an opera? Well, you know what comes with great risk . . . so, (spoiler alert) there are puppets in our production to create a world where trees dance (I knew something would dance!) and water is alive, literally. But still, how to make that lake onstage?
Research (aka beg and borrow, just don’t steal)
With any new craft it never hurts to peek at others’ work. Heck, thumbing through the Artists Gallery or Public Market can often get my creative juices rolling enough to strike gold. But gold would not be found in “The Little Mermaid” (as I do not have a budget for gold tridents), nor in real water onstage (Perseverance Theatre already rocked that), so instead we took to the Czech roots of Dvorak’s story to give both the costumes and scenery rich visual research to sift through like intricate fabrics, slatted wood huts, witches and nymphs. But still, what about that lake?
Create a prototype
As crafters, we know how to make a pattern for a hat or scarf -- first you start with a process of guesses and trial and error. But how many times can you fill a pool with water onstage and chalk it up to “trial and error” if it goes wrong. Not a good plan. So instead we take a page from our architect friends by creating a miniature model to exact scale (just like they do for a new building). Except of course we use cardboard, foamcore, illustration board, metal, wood and whatever is lying about the craft room. This is the stage when playing really begins. Like, what about a vertical lake made of fabric? Risky perhaps, or maybe just the right kind of risky for an opera with puppets?
Put the pattern down on paper
Of course once your prototype is done and your vertical lake is in your scale model, there has to be a way to make it bigger (and it is not magical fairy dust — I wish!). Where a seamstress would make a pattern, a scenic designer creates a set of draftings, similar but simpler than architects draftings, that communicates to the technical director what exactly the world is supposed to look like. For “Rusalka” there are six pages, or plates, of drafting — that are 3’ by 2’ large. That’s 36 square feet of directions, phew.
Build, paint, adapt, breathe
Let’s pretend we live in a magical world of no budget (which “Rusalka” does not). All your scenic dreams become realized, lakes are filled, trees are materialized, ironically, from wood, and you sit back for a bit and watch it come together. Or the alternative, that the budget restricts the scenery’s massive proportions, that a space to build a 26’ tall tree is difficult to find in the dead of winter, that even dedicated theatricians have full-time jobs to answer to once in a while — all this becomes reality and compromises are made. Like a boxer light on his feet, it’s best here to dodge and weave while keeping your eye on the visual prize. I won’t tell you the secrets of my missteps or budget constraints on “Rusalka,” but they are there like any production. And like any production, if the audience isn’t aware of the crew’s compromises along the way and the operatic evening is filled with magic and mystery, the tingling sensation of live theater gets in their bones, and my job is accomplished. Only with you, the audience, is our craft complete.