The first bite of any stage production is taken with the eyes. The mood for the entire play is set by what the audience sees waiting for them on stage when they enter the theatre. It falls to set designers to make sure this first bite is delicious and leaves viewers hungry for more. This can be a particular challenge for set designers who work for the Valley’s many university and college theatres. Cohesion with students’ needs and abilities, as well as working within limited budgets, can affect the art form, though not necessarily in a bad way.
Christopher L. Harris is a professor of theatre and resident scene designer at Willamette University. He has worked on over 300 set designs, with his work appearing in London, Toronto, New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Portland. To Harris, the ability to problem-solve is key to set design in any theatre.
“Obstacles and limitations for any production are always the same, I think. How do you negotiate with the universal constraints of space, time, materials, finances, skills, technology? These are the ubiquitous constraints really – whatever theatre you are in, and whatever the size of your budget.”
Money has less to do with successful set design for Harris than the ability to create, both with his mind and with his hands.
“More money and greater skilled labor force does not always produce the best, most effective designs. It is what you do with what you have. Necessity is the mother of invention. I sometimes rely on my students with no experience to ask the obvious question to get me to think about the problem in a different way,” says Harris.
Harris has designed sets in parks, prison and school gymnasiums, churches, exposition halls, a parking ramp, and train stations. He understands that modern scenery need not be confined within the traditional tableau of proscenium arch set design. Says Harris, “Once theatre performances came out from behind [the proscenium] arch, the nature of theatre and design were able to explore different relationships with audience and actor, and the nature of the scenic and design elements that supported those relationships changed. Stage designs have become much more sculptural, sometime even wrapping or enveloping the audience inside the sculpture.”
There is not much professional labor involved in bringing this artistry to life in student productions at Willamette. “There is one full-time shop carpenter/shop supervisor in our theatre. There is also a faculty member who is also production manager, technical director and lighting designer. The rest is all student labor.”
Students and their needs are at the core of Harris’ designs. He thinks one of the most important things he can teach his students is the ability to work around problems. Says Harris, “Since academic theatre is also an educational institution, the purpose is to train our students and give them the skills to solve the problems. In essence our production company is a series of rotating apprentices for a maximum of four years. Beyond exposing them to creating theatre of the highest quality we can, we are also teaching them to be problem solvers, and that skill applies to whatever they do in later life.”
The standard of success in set design isn’t judged by how authentically an Edwardian mansion is recreated or the tidiness with which the paint is applied. Set design can’t succeed on its own. Says Harris, regarding the design he is most proud of in his career, “I don’t know how to answer that easily. I have done many over the years, and it is more to do with how effectively I have solved the problems and succeeded in creating a design that fully enhances the experience of the audience for the two or three hours they are in the space – even if that space is out in a park! The truth is that it is hard for me to divorce my feeling of success with a design from my feelings that the production was a success.”