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Arts and Entertainment

Behind the Merely Scenes: Designing the set for ‘Chicago’

Charles Ford

Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to design many theatrical sets in a variety of venues. Each one presents creative challenges and joys, as I figure out how best to make the stage bring the essence of the play to life.

After reading the play, the first step is to consult with the director about her vision for our production. Then it’s time to dig into the history of the play and its time period.

For “Chicago,” I looked at hundreds of historical images from the vibrant tapestry of the 1920s – the era of jazz, Prohibition and the rise of vaudeville theater. I found myself resonating with the elegant style of Art Deco, and particularly with the beautiful Art Deco theaters of the time.

The original 1995 production of “Chicago” incorporated massive girders along with vaudeville style decorative lights. Cool, but too industrial.

In 1996, the set was reimagined as a minimalist all-black stage. Striking, but too austere.

I decided to put the Roaring ’20s at the forefront and create a little jewel box theater within Merely Underground. Intimate invocation of vaudeville: perfect.

Colors will set the mood. Red for bloody deeds. Black for heartless felons. Gold for lining the pockets of lawyers and wardens. That sounds fun.

Initially, I allow my imagination to have free rein. I knew that I wanted to capture the essence of a time when speak-easies were hot spots and gin-fueled jazz ruled. Then I must reel it into the reality of our space (a funky warehouse with low ceilings), our budget (alas, never enough for my biggest dreams) and the time we have to build the set (nine weeks).

As always, many design ideas ended up in the trash can as I worked. The set designer must walk the tightrope of balancing creativity with limitations. But the most fun is working out how an effect can be created using the materials at hand in an unusual way.

Sometimes, a design will just appear fully formed in my brain. I can see how each element will be constructed and how it will all work together. Other times, a design shows up piecemeal. I jump into scale models right away so that I can see how a design balances and figure out problem areas. It’s a lot easier to snip off a troublesome corner on a model than it is to whack apart a wooden platform later.

Ordering materials, picking them up in my snazzy blue “Hands on a Hardbody” truck, building the set, and embellishing it with paint and décor bring the actors’ playground to life. Working with volunteers who donate their time and artistry to building our sets is one of my favorite parts of this job. We have a lot of fun together, and we would love to have you join us.

Merely Players hopes to see you at “Chicago” this May. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Underground for me.

For more information, to volunteer or to buy tickets, visit www.merelyplayers.org.

Charles Ford is the technical director of Merely Players.