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May 13, 1988 - Image 64

Resource type:
Michigan Daily Summer Weekly, 1988-05-13

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A View From the Wings
Theater's unseen magicians create a believable reality from whole cloth


an empty space. To set designer
Tothe uninformed observer, it's
Ralph Funicello, it's a canvas for
his creativity. Standing alone with
the blank stage of the American
Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco be-
fore him, Funicello's eyes intently study a
backdrop that isn't there, imagining char-
acters performing. Will the furniture work
best on wheels? What color curtains will set
the proper mood? Is wood or metal correct
for the play's historic period? "Trying to
visualize a set that will enable a production
to come to life is the most challenging part
of the job," says the 20-year theater veter-
an. "I'm responsible for the images."
However vivid the images they create,
most backstage artists remain unsung.
That, perhaps, is only proper: the willful
suspension of disbelief, after all, frees the
theatergoer from worrying about how the
lighting changes or what the costumes are
made of. But designers, who fashion light-
ing, sets and costumes, and stage manag-
ers, who supervise a production during per-
formance, know that. "One accepts that
the people who are seen are the actors,"
says set designer Hugh Landwehr, who
studied art history at Yale.
Some backstage pros do eventually
achieve a certain name status: premier cos-
tumer Theoni Aldredge, for example, has
won three Tony awards, Broadway's ver-
sion of the Oscar. But for most, there is
neither fame nor great fortune. Designers
often free-lance on several projects at once,
making between $25,000 and $40,000 per
year if successful. Why do they do it? The
thrill of live performance is the drive for
most, plus the powerful feeling that they
helped create a believable atmosphere out
of whole cloth.
As more regional and local theaters have
blossomed in recent years, the backstage
job market has grown. The Theatre Com-
munications Group, a national service or-
ganization for not-for-profit theaters, be-
gan with 14 members in 1962 and now has
about 260. The increased sophistication of
dinner theaters and summer playhouses
has also created more opportunities-and
sent the message that serious theater can
thrive in many elements.
Still, as with acting and directing, back-
stage jobs remain relatively scarce, accord-
ing to officials of United Scenic Artists
(USA), the union that represents most de-


Building up the image: Funicello on set he designed for San Francisco stage

signers. (Stage managers are represented
by Actors' Equity.) Prospective members
build union credentials by working on pro-
fessional shows. Anyone may be hired for a
professional production, but if it is union-
affiliated, the designer must join the un-
ion. USA business representative James
Ryan says the union's 1986 survey found
that 43 percent of its members were not
employed in union productions that year-
although they could have been working in
their fields in other, nonunion shows.

Quality control is also strict. Last year
fewer than half the designers who took
USA's demanding annual entrance exami-
nation passed, many on their second or
third try. Those who pass join an already
crowded industry. "If the schools did not
put out any more nonperforming profes-
sionals for the next 15 years, there still
would be more people than jobs," says
Walter Williamson, author of "Behind
the Scenes: The Unseen People Who Make
Theater Work." New people will enter the


MAY 1988

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