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Setting the stage for GRSF (06/23/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Forget behind the scenes. Before the scenes at Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF), designers envision and workers complete the complex sets, costumes, lighting, and music, that will transform the stage into many worlds when the performances begin. Set Designer Eric Stone shows off a dual-function set piece for "Henry V."

Many people have a hand in each Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) production: actors, directors, crafts people, stage managers, stagehands, and, of course, the famed playwright himself. However, long before actors begin reciting their lines or sets are assembled, designers must plot out how the plays will look and sound and how production workers will make it all happen.

This year, GRSF designers must immerse their audiences in the diverse scapes of Shakespeare's bloody, royal saga, "Henry V," then switch everything around for the various scenes of the gender-bending comedy "Twelfth Night."

There are a lot of logistics to figuring out how it will all fit together, said Set Designer Eric Stone, rotating his hands like the wheel of a combination lock before finally settling them into a symmetrical clasp. Stone must think about how big each piece of the set is and whether he has room to store it during the other production, what color to paint the stage floor to work in both plays, how much weight the rigging system that suspends hanging set pieces can support, and whether he has enough stagehands to move it all around. His work is a series of aspirational brainstorms, reality-checks, and more brainstorms. "There is this movement and synthesis and negotiation of what is going to be there for the entire season," he described.

"You're always making compromises; but the audience shouldn't realize they are compromises," said Lighting Designer Lonnie Alcaraz. Alcaraz operates 200 lights shining from 12 different arrays; there may be hundreds of lighting changes in a single play. While that may seem like a lot to lay people, he explains that is a relatively limited palate. However, the designer's job is to come up with creative solutions that are not just compromises but "become a central idea" to the production. That is, the solutions provide new energy and expression to the production, Alcaraz said. He mentioned a set of 60-year-old lights that resides in the theatre. Normally, Alcaraz would not use the lights because they do not perform well, but he has installed them in the backdrop of "Henry V" where they cast a unique quality of light and give a visual presence. "Partially, you try to fit the aesthetic of the play, and partially, you have some really lucky accidents," he said.

Music Designer Matt Tibbs, in combination with composer Jack Forbes Wilson, produce the music that "gives a bed of ambience" to "Twelfth Night," he described. Wilson has composed and arranged the music for "Twelfth Night," a play that is underlaid with music inspired by Shakespeare, adaptations of English carols that match this year's Christmastime themed "Twelfth Night," and elements that are purely Wilson. "Henry V" is more "abstract" and "outside of the lines," said Tibbs. The music of that production is his brainchild and he was enthused about the more experimental feel of it. "We're really letting it rip with 'Henry,'" he smiled.

The GRSF season kicks off with free previews of "Twelfth Night" and "Henry V" on Wedneday, June 26, and Thursday, June 27. Performances of the two plays and the GRSF Apprenticeship Project "MacBeth" will run through August 26. More information on the festival, the plays, and other events, including ticketing, is available at grsf.org. Performances will be held at Winona State University's Performing Arts Center. Construction work is taking place outside the Performing Arts Center, but the building is still easily accessible. 


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