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Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is presenting three exciting musicals on the Main Stage of Auburn Public Theater; Altar Boyz featuring a pop singing guy-group with a higher purpose; My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a heartfelt, true and funny story that celebrates love in all forms; and Fingers & Toes, a delightful and funny love letter to the old fashioned “let’s put on a show” musical.
We had an opportunity to meet and talk with the Set Designer for Altar Boyz, Czerton Lim, and get a behind the scenes look at this sharp parody.
FLMTF: How did you get involved with Merry-Go-Round Playhouse/Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival?
CL: I started as a scenic painter back in 2000...Ed (Sayles) had seen my work back in the spring of 1999 when I was at SETC (a theatre job conference) getting ready to graduate and he offered me the position then, but I had already accepted another offer. I was pleasantly surprised that he held onto my resume and called me a year later to offer me the job. I was the Charge Artist there for three seasons (2000, 2001, and 2002) back in the old stage and even got a chance to design the first shows of the 2001 and 2002 season (Forever Plaid andSmokey Joe's Cafe). I went to grad school in the West Coast, which made trying to do Merry-Go-Round in the summer impossible, and didn't come back until 2008 when I dropped Ed a line to see if he needed a set designer. Luckily he did, and I have been designing there ever since.
FLMTF: What is your training in design?
CL: I didn't start designing until I was a junior in college. I took an upper level Set Design class as part of my major taught by Jerry Bledsoe at the College of William and Mary. After college I worked as a scenic artist at TheatreVirginia for three years, which brought in different regional designers for their shows, so I had the opportunity to see first-hand how each designer approached the script. I went to grad school at the University of Washington where I trained with Bob Dahlstrom, Bill Forrester, and Tom Lynch - three designers with such varying styles that I was really blessed to have had the chance to learn from them. After grad school, I worked as an assistant for designers like Loy Arcenas, David Gallo, and David Zinn whenever the opportunity came up.
FLMTF: What shows have you designed in the past and are there any stand-outs you can talk about?
CL: For my graduate thesis show, I designed an updated production of Mother Courage and her Children with a real rusted up 1953 Chevy Truck as her wagon. Since the truck moved and took up a good portion of the stage, the space had to be open, so the floor and the brick wall was a painted map of Europe with a black and white image of soldiers on top of the map. When I started working in NYC, I designed a production of Three Sisters with an MFA directing grad student at Columbia for absolutely no money - the whole set was made up of black bentwood chairs and donated white bed sheets from the Algonquin Hotel that we sewed together to form a large groundcloth that the actors could walk on and manipulate. Another show I designed in NYC was a production of Medea with Theater Mitu. We built this small room with three doors and small windows where all the action of the play took place and in the end had the roof of the room retract back to reveal the murdered children.
As for MGR, The Full Monty was one of the first shows that I fully utilized the new renovated stage, with its bigger wing space and fly loft by having sliding panels and a full stage light up wall for the finale. Man of La Mancha has been one of my favorite musicals, so getting a chance to design a dungeon with a circular stone wall and a raked stage was a challenge. 42nd Street was by far the largest musical I have ever designed, so it's up there simply for its scope and audacity.
FLMTF: What is your process for designing a set?
CL: I would say that 70% of my process is looking at research images. I usually start by doing period research and grab as many images from the time or images that are related to the time. I really like basing my designs from real things, whether it is nature, architecture, or an interpretation by art or artists. I would collect as many of these images and then start to cull them down by figuring out what in the image attracted me to it in the first place - was it color, composition, an interesting shape, etc., and show it to the director to see what he/she is reacting to about the images I am showing. I find the images don't necessarily translate immediately as the design, but that the conversation generated from seeing the images are what usually gets me to the next stage, which is taking those images and translating it for myself in the form of rough sketches. From those sketches, I start to get specific about the shape and size of things and I start to figure out what it is in reality and how that fits in the show we are doing. I would say those last 30% is spent on translating those images and sketches into the real things that the shop builds and paints.
FLMTF: When you approached Altar Boyz, what were your initial thoughts/ideas?
CL: Both Doug Hall (Director) and I landed in the same place the first time we talked about the show - that first and foremost, it was a rock concert. We wanted the design to have a level of sophistication and polish to show that the boy band was a successful touring band, but not too slick and big that the audience questions why they aren't performing in stadiums. Doug definitely wanted the band onstage, but also wanted enough room to be able to execute the type of choreography a boy band would have. The set also wanted to have a "touring" feel to it, ie. that it looks like it can be assembled and disassembled by a road crew in very little time. We also talked about the lights and how that is going to be important in getting the "rock concert" feel of the show and how the set design needed to accommodate those needs.
FLMTF: Describe the design a bit, why you chose some of the ideas?
CL: For me, what makes a rock concert are the aluminum scaffolding and lighting instruments - so a good portion of the design comes from that idea. At the back of the stage is an arch made of aluminum box tube with the Altar Boyz lightbox hanging in front of the arch. In that arch will also be a "wall of light" that can chase and fade to give it a "rock concert" feel. There are platforms that the actors can use for the big dance numbers and the platforms also give the band their own defined space so that they can share the stage with the actors.
FLMTF: Do you have different approach due to the stage and show size?
CL: Not really. I still look at a lot of research images to generate ideas and sketches for the show whether it is a two person play or a big musical. I try to find those set of images that capture the feel of the show I am designing that has very little to do with the size of the stage. How I translate those images afterwards into the real things that appear on the stage is where the differences start to appear.
FLMTF: How do you feel the audience will be affected by your design?
CL: I try to be understated with my designs, in that I want the design elements to be integrated with what the director is doing with his blocking, or with what the choreographer is doing with the dancers, or with what the lighting designer is doing with the lights, etc. - that the audience comes in and says, "Oh, this makes sense for THIS production." Sometimes, that means having a really intricately painted drop that establishes the period of the show and sometimes it means having an empty stage with the right chair for the dancer.