Eric Ryan Seale likens being a set designer to being an artist who rips up his canvas to make another painting.
"You use these things to make something for one show, and then when it's over, you paint over it or tear it apart for another show," said Seale, director of Studio Players' production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, which opens this weekend at the Carriage House Theatre.
Consider Exhibit A: Upstairs in the Carriage House, a simple motor turns a belt around a turntable on a tall spindle. Below, hanging from the ceiling toward the back of center stage, is a double-sided painting by Kandinsky — a replica, we should note — that slowly turns.
Tethered to the device upstairs is a control box that is still labeled "Dog house elevator," with the words up and down on either end of the toggle switch.
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The parts originally were used on Snoopy's doghouse during the Red Baron scene in the 2001 production of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown.
"I love this," Seale said of the device, built by Bob Kinstle, Studio board member and treasurer.
The Red Baron to Kandinsky?
Hey, they're both European.
"We scratched our heads for a long time trying to figure out how we were going to do this," said Seale of the spinning painting.
And that was just the start of the bells and whistles on Seale's set, which Studio Players' board member and president-elect David Bratcher said rates a 10 on the degree of difficulty.
"If ever there was a show where the overused word collaborative was applicable, it would be this show," Bratcher said.
With the set, Seale and his fellow artists have to take viewers from a New York penthouse to places like Central Park, a roller disco, the Rainbow Room club and college dorm rooms. As in the 1993 movie starring Will Smith, which signaled his transition from sitcom hip-hop artist to fairly serious actor, Six Degrees is the story of a con man who insinuates himself into the lives of numerous New Yorkers. His usual line is that he is the son of legendary actor Sidney Poitier and offering them a part in the movie version of Cats, which dad is supposedly directing.
Helping to make the transitions from place to place are a series of shoji doors with opaque screens that actors appear behind. There are also walls that flip to create different settings, painted by Studio board member Aubin Munn. At a rehearsal last week, members of the cast and crew joked to watch out if Munn came offering any Kandinsky paintings for six figures.
Bratcher made sure to point out the work of lighting designer Brian Thomas. "After all of this is built," he said. "You have to light it for it to really work."
The point is not to draw attention to the set, Bratcher said, as much as it is to make the show run smoothly. But he added, "The set is unlike anything we've ever done before, and that makes it exciting for our patrons."
And once the show is over, they'll probably pull it all apart for another production.
The Red Baron will ride again, but who knows what form he will take.