By Chris Olson
A theater is a place with a stage, yes, but is also so much more than that. A stage can be anything, even Middle Earth, where a little hobbit goes on a grand journey.
How is a single stage able to take on so many different forms? It begins and ends with the set. At Colorado State University, The Hobbit is about to open, and, as with every show at CSU, a new set is born. Long before the actors begin rehearsals, a set designer has been reading the play, drafting and designing an entire world in which the story unfolds
We sat down with set designer, Zhanna Gurvich, and got her story of what The Hobbit is to her and how the set will bring this classic journey to life on stage.
How long have you been designing?
I’m going to say something the neighborhood of 25 years.
What got you into designing?
I’ve always enjoyed theatre, and I’ve always been a part of theatre. In my undergraduate I majored in art; in painting and photography. Then when I started looking for something to do with this degree that I had, I happened to stumble upon an ad for a scenic artist. I applied for that job thinking, ‘well I can paint, I should be able to do this.’ I did that and I enjoyed it, but I realized that what I really wanted to do more was actually create the whole environment and it really kind of brought together two things that I loved to do, which were visual art and theatre, so it was sort of a natural progression.
So right now you are working on CSU’S production of The Hobbit. Would you call yourself a Hobbit or Tolkien fan before this all started?
Absolutely – hugely yes! I saw all the movies and I read The Silmarillion, though I guess I haven’t read all the extra fan fiction that my son has been getting into. But I do have the alternative books by Tolkien’s grandson with the alternative story lines to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.
When you heard CSU was doing The Hobbit what were your thoughts? Were you excited?
Roger [also a theatre faculty member] came home and said that they’d selected the season. “We’re doing The Hobbit,” he said. “And you’re designing it, thank you.” [laughter] I said, “Yes – that’s great!”
So tell us a little bit about your set.
It’s on the thrust stage in the University Theatre, and we are going to include a lot of projections. The thrust is a tricky space for projections, actually, because if you set the projection screen anywhere beyond the proscenium (in front of the curtain), then half of the house won’t be able to see it. So it really has to be right there, in the arch. So everything is happening pretty close to the audience, which I think is actually pretty cool. It’s a journey, though – a journey through varied, rugged countryside so we have trees and stone slabs on the floor so the actors have to navigate and crawl up on things. It’s not fully realistic; it’s going to have some ‘found object’ kind of stuff in it.
Can you expound on what the ‘found object’ concept means and how it will take place?
It’s a journey of discovery, so I feel like hiding little things that might have some pertinence to the play and journey in general will be fun. The script is tricky because it’s not quite the epic story that the movies and the books are. It’s got a little more comedy through it, so we are discovering that there might be changes to it. Small ones, but, for example, we don’t want to settle on all the props and everything that’s going to happen just yet. There are going to be tricks that may affect the audience that we’re going to discover in rehearsal and we’ll see what is funny and what makes it interesting.
Is this set very different from ones you have designed in the past or in line with your previous work?
I don’t think, ‘oh this is what I’ve done before, so I want to do something different,’ or at least I try not to do that. Interestingly enough, though, I designed our Cendrillon [Cinderella] last year for the opera, and that set was centered around a big revolving tree, so I did sort of feel that I didn’t want to do the exact same tree idea again. Essentially, it really couldn’t have been the same thing because it’s a different story and the tree has different meanings. They’re both on the dark side, but it’s interesting for me to have two shows in a row that include giant paper mache trees since I don’t think I’ve ever done a paper mache tree before in my life. And who knows, we could use it again in a future show, especially if we continue this high fantasy trend – I’m all about the weird abstract things so it’s actually kind of fun. [laughter]
Can you talk about what materials are used to build the set? Is there a lot of waste?
The slabs utilize recycled MDF, which is like plywood but is more like hard pressed paper, really. We’ve used a lot of it in past shows here. We’ve also used card board to create layers on the slabs to make them look more like slate. All of that came out what would have ended up in the dumpster, so we’re ‘being green.’ The paper mache is mostly newspaper which, again, has all been rescued from ending up in the dumpster. For the glue we are using flour, which is still more of a green material and is non-toxic.
Is the use of these kinds of materials standard in set construction?
No, although there is a movement in the theatre world to try and go toward more green building materials. I have a friend that heads a group of designers on Broadway that are trying to do more recycling. Often times people in theatre tend to be interested in world issues and the environment, so we all feel really guilty when we see $5 million worth of stuff going into a dumpster at the end of a three week show run. It’s tricky because it’s not going to work for everything, but we do our part where we can.
Speaking of workers, how many people are working on this set?
I’m not sure I have an exact answer for that if you count all of our work study students in the department, but we have two full-time professional staff members in the scene shop, two in the paint shop, and there are also electrics and costume shop staff members all working on this show. I have two assistants who, while they don’t assist with actual construction, are the ones who go out and get piles of newspapers for all of the paper mache and things like that. If I had to state a figure, I would say at least 20 to 25 people working on the set and costumes alone.
So what challenges have you faced with this set?
Well, one major challenge is this very uneven floor I’ve mentioned. And we have an actor on stilts, we have a barefoot actor, and we have actors in high heels. So trying to create the set so that it is not overly treacherous for them but at the same time is interesting and allows for stunt possibilities like climbing has been a bit of a challenge.
Do you work alongside the director when it comes to that kind of worry?
Yes, the director, the stage manager, the costume designer, and the set designer (me) always have to collaborate on these issues. The director and I spoke about having an actor on stilts because there’s the whole height situation with humans, wizards, dwarves, and hobbits, and, as we know, they are all different heights. We knew we wanted an actor on stilts, but we also like this stone landscape, so I said I would have an area of the set that is a path around the outside that is more or less even for him to navigate on his stilts. The director then knows that this actor has to walk around on this part of the set, and if he needs to go to any other part of it he’s just going to have to be very careful, maybe using his staff or something to make it work better. There’s a lot to discuss, and it’s possible that once tried out in rehearsal, we may have to change it even further if it’s something that just doesn’t work for the actor.
In this production, what scene are you most excited for?
I’m actually really excited about the elves attack in Mirkwood. I hope that works out the way I envisioned it when designing the set. That’s the one that has a lot of fight choreography and physical tricks and things, so I’m excited to see how we pull it off. I’m sure it will be fun, and something really cool to see.
Thank you Zhana – it’s great to get a glimpse into your world of designing this production. If our readers have more questions about The Hobbit, how can they learn more?
There’s going to be an open artist Talk Back with the director, designers, and actors both following the opening night performance and after the first Sunday matinee – two opportunities to chat with all of us!
Nightly: April 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, May 1, 2, 3, 7:30 p.m.
Matinees: April 25, 26, May 2, 3, 2 p.m.
Talk Back with the director immediately following the April 23 & 26 evening performances
Tickets at www.CSUArtsTickets.com
This story will be featured in the NEW University Center for the Arts Green Room digital magazine, on April 3. Sign up for FREE at www.issuu.com and follow us at ColoradoStateUniversity_UCA.