In the opening scene of the second half of the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” two characters appear onstage in a crafted canoe. As they paddle by you might catch a glimpse of what it says on the side in bold white lettering. “Win•de•sor” — a tiny tribute to Winona’s own We•no•nah Canoe company. “It’s a bit of a treasure hunt,” admitted Eric Stone, the set designer for all three of the main plays at this year’s GRSF.
Throughout “Merry Wives,” “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” Stone has left little bits and pieces intended for audience members who are both familiar with the Winona area and with GRSF. “I wanted the Winona audience to see the tiny village and recognize it,” he explained of the “Merry Wives” panel set piece that is situated above the stage featuring historic Winona buildings. “[For “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”] the scenery is not set in Winona, but GRSF audiences will notice pieces from Henry V [and additional past plays.]”
This year marks the third season in a row that Stone, who is currently the head of design at the University of Iowa’s Theatre Arts program, has been the set designer for GRSF. His job includes creating the sketches and models that will eventually be made into the sets and scenery of each play, as well as collaborating with and listening to the ideas of the director and other designers to sculpt the world the characters inhabit. “The set designer is in charge of creating the visual world [the plays] take place in,” Stone explained. “[I design] the scenic elements, colors and textures of the world, the furniture or properties the actors hold during the show — basically everything except for the lights, costumes and sound.”
Each year leading up to GRSF, Stone must design around a budget, a limited amount of time for crews to make set changes for each play, the practicality of the production’s stage and the safety of the actors. However, he said that the biggest challenge in terms of set design for GRSF is to create three different settings that also share many similar elements, and doing so within an allotted amount of time. “The hardest part of designing three shows is that you’re designing three shows,” stated Stone, who has designed over 100 sets in his professional career. “So that you have three different plays, but that the scenery, paint and props work for all three different shows going on, and you have to do [set work] for three different rehearsals going on at the same time. So really time management is the hardest part.”
While “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” are set in a more modern time, “Merry Wives” is set in turn-of-the-century Winona, which meant that Stone had to create both a believable and recognizable set so that audiences could imagine themselves back in those days. “I took photos of Winona architecture for inspiration, Victorian houses and residences,” he said. “We wanted it to be turn-of-the-twentieth century, barbershop quartet, river-city music world. That was the launching point for the world when the audience first walks in. Before they hear the text they know that we’re not in Ye Olde England.”
One of the more fun elements in Stone’s set design is the use of duality in prop pieces, such as the flower boxes that turn into a lamp or even a beer tap. For Stone, watching the actors themselves interact with the stage props brings an element that cannot be replicated in movies or TV shows. “These are the things that are embracing the fun of live theater,” he explained.
To purchase tickets or find out more about all of the exciting events GRSF is offering this season, visit grsf.org.