When the curtain rises on an ACU Department of Theatre production, the audience can’t help but notice the striking, intricate sets. They quite literally set the stage for the actors and help audiences quickly pinpoint the exact time and place they are being transported to during the production.
But all the audience sees during the show is the final product. What the audience doesn’t see are the countless hours of meticulous planning, hard manual labor and careful artisanship that go into designing and building every set.
Gary Varner, professor of theatre, has been involved in college theatre productions for 30 years and has designed dozens of shows.
“Theatres used to have roadhouses – the Paramount is a roadhouse for example,” Varner said. “Shows would come in and they would tell you in advance, ‘We need a garden scene, we need a library, etc.,’ and you would have drops for that.But those days are gone. Now every show has a very specific set that has to be designed and built for it.”
Varner said each show is unique and demands something different from each set, so the crew must go back to the drawing board for every show and start from scratch.
“We rent the musical a lot,” Varner said. “But even when you rent a musical, there are things you have to adapt to your space, so that part is different.”
Other than some parts of the sets for the annual Homecoming musicals, the Department of Theatre builds all of its own sets (and props when needed).
Varner said since the Department of Theatre is a hands-on department that gives students practice with creating sets and props through required “practicum” classes. Depending on which practicum students are enrolled in, they will practice designing and creating sets, props, costumes or even working the box office. The practicum classes are open to students of any major, and the department frequently has students from other departments take practicums and help with set construction.
“I enjoy it when someone from outside the department comes to the show and you can see them tell their friends ‘I built that!'” Varner said.
Although set construction might appear routine, Varner said the upcoming show, Mother Teresa is Dead, has been more challenging than other shows because of the limited time the department had to put it together.
“We do a lot of our main construction over in Sewell, which is the old theatre on the corner of the campus,” Varner said. “It’s the second oldest building on campus. A show like this, where we have to build it so big and so quick, we had to do a lot of it on the [Fulks Theatre] stage – it was just bigger than Sewell could handle. We just had to do it very quickly. To really do a set this size, you need several weeks. This one we’ve really had to push.”
Josh Tumblin, senior theatre major from Nashville, Tenn., is one of the four shop foremen who work directly under Varner and the other faculty advisers.
As a foreman, Tumblin said his role is to oversee the building and painting of sets and take on the more difficult projects other crew members may not have the experience to handle. Tumblin said he enjoys being one of the first people to see the plans and then watch them develop from a sketch on a page to something actors can walk around and perform on. He also said he enjoys the problem solving aspect of set construction, even in the rushed environment for Mother Teresa is Dead.
“This set is really similar in scope to the show Rabbit Hole which we did last year, the difference being that we had not nearly enough time to construct this one, and so we have been working frantically pretty much around the clock,” Tumblin said. “I’m proud of it, though. I think it looks really good.”