Surreal Spaces

'Winesburg' set designer Sheila Wyne builds reputation as an artist with eye for funk

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

The day "Winesburg: Small Town Life" opened at Perseverance Theatre, designer Sheila Wyne, a tall, lean woman in her 40s, stood among a forest of huge weeds she had created, sipping a latte and discussing the importance of the surreal in her set design.

"I am not a period piece designer. I don't know if (this set) is stylized, surreal or abstracted," Wyne said. "I want the audience to look on stage, recognize the bones, then finish it with their imaginations."

The set for "Winesburg" was the last of a Juneau series for Wyne, an artist from Anchorage. This season she also designed the set for the Perseverance musical "Working" and the Opera to Go! production of "Turn of the Screw." Previously, Wyne has designed sets for numerous Perseverance productions, including "In The Blood" and "The Waiting Room." Also known for her public artwork, Wyne designed a group of figurative metal sculptures that sits in an outdoor courtyard at the Johnson Youth Center near Juneau's Salmon Creek.

Wyne has built a reputation over her 20-year career in Alaska as a disciplined artist with an eye for funk. She often incorporates found objects in her studio work - from blue plastic baby heads to twisted telephone cords to violins.

"The rope that I hang on has three strands," she said. "Visual arts-studio work, the really wacko stuff that seldom pays much, public commission work, and theater work. Seldom do I have all three going full throttle."

To illustrate the many hats she wears as a self-employed artist, Wyne explained that as she finished the set for "Winesburg," she also was directing a team executing a design for a motorcycle show in Anchorage.

Wyne grew up in Illinois. After receiving a degree in literature at Wheaton College, she decided she had to leave the Midwest in the early 1980s. Armed with her college reading list, she headed north and landed a job first at a geologist's camp in Cordova, and then at the ceramics lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she discovered her penchant for the challenge of design.

"I realized, 'Here's something that takes more energy than I've got,' " she said.

Wyne started designing for Perseverance in the mid-1990s, and was the primary designer for the Toast Theatre in Anchorage.

"I always thought the theater would be an interesting intersection between visual art and literature," she said. "What I found was that it wasn't exactly a perfect intersection - there are some percentages in there."

The biggest difference between visual art and design for theater is the number of people involved in the production process, Wyne said.

"When I first started designing for theater, it was so messy. It can involve so many people and be really chaotic," she said. "It took me a long time to get used to it. It's a different language. You know one language, it takes you time to learn another one."

An added complication in the process of designing "Winesburg" was that playwright Kevin Kuhlke was still changing the script, a factor that affected the way actors used the space on stage, she said.

"I had to do a little bit of waiting until it wasn't just coming from my experience with the original," Wyne said, referring to "Winesburg, Ohio," the book by Sherwood Anderson that the play was based on.

The set of "Winesburg" is arranged on two levels. The upper level is an interior space comprising of a bedroom and a newspaper office with a partially framed door in the center. Window frames line the upper floor. In the exterior space on the lower floor weeds climb around disembodied doorways that represent homes. The walls are painted like a sunset over the Midwestern plains of Wyne's girlhood.

On the day the play opened, Wyne stooped over a set of what looked like detailed blueprints, depicting the giant weeds - wheat, alum root, dandelions, and foxtail - at different angles, along with detailed information about color and size.

"See, these are prototypes. Once you start looking at building 150 plants, you got to kind of make prototypes," she said.

The weeds, constructed of thick paper, paint, copper wire, iridescent Christmas balls, and cupcake wrappers, among other things, are one of the more surreal elements of the set. But Wyne doesn't assign them any specific meaning, preferring audiences decide for themselves.

"There's a slightly surreal quality that can be used in a variety of ways from verdant, to stifling, to things being dead and decaying," She said. "I just want the audience to step inside here and feel like they are presented with an entirely different world."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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