Setting the stage: Pitt Stages scene shop preps for ‘Hair’

The environment of the University of Pittsburgh Stages scene shop is always changing.

Some days, a few people quietly paint, listening to music. Other days, they swap headphones for earplugs as their peers cut metal, noise echoing throughout the basement of the Cathedral of Learning.

Jenn Mikitka paints a banner for the set.

For the past few weeks, the shop has been in constant use, as technical director Justin Miller, shop foreman Eben Alguire and about 20 Pitt students weld, drill, hammer and glue together the set for Pitt Stages’ production of “Hair.”

WD-40 is used as cutting fluid to reduce heat as metal is drilled.

Officially opening tonight at 8 p.m., “Hair” will run for the next 10 days at the Charity Randall Theatre, showing every day except Monday and Tuesday of next week. Other than Sunday’s 2 p.m. matinee, showtime is 8 p.m.

But last night, the “Hair” cast and crew held a free, unofficial preview in the wake of this week’s election results to provide a safe space for those who felt victimized or marginalized, according to ensemble member Zack Williams, a senior communication major. He also mentioned the relevancy of “Hair’s” themes to today’s social climate, adding that many audience members were in tears after the show.

“We’re using the show as a protest piece for the ideology that Washington, D.C., seems to be going [toward],” Williams said.

This year, Pitt Stages picked shows that deal with themes of diversity and social justice, coinciding with Pitt’s Year of Diversity. “Hair” is set in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and addresses war, racism and inequality in a way that remains relevant today.

That’s why set construction is crucial — it’s the difference between the audience immersing themselves in the tensions of Vietnam-era New York City and just feeling like they’re simply watching players act on a stage.

In the scene shop, Miller had just four weeks to build a set that would transform the stage at the Randall Theatre into a something out of the ’60s, with vibrant colors and set pieces that represent the era.

The empty stage transformed into a makeshift hippie village, with anti-war banners and picnic tables surrounding an abandoned, rusting bus.

“My job is to interpret the designer’s plan into something that [the shop] can build,” Miller said.

Miller gives Megan Bresser advice on the best way to build a set piece.

Much of the work done by Miller and his crew over the past few weeks has been building the bus and large metal trestles that make up the centerpieces of the design.

Not only a place for constructing sets, the scene shop also serves as a learning environment, where students are immersed in the process of stagecraft.  

“I want to make sure that the process of building the set is also an educational process,” Miller said. “I ideally want to work on as little of the set as possible.” He tries to lay out plans for the set pieces that he can then hand off to students to complete under his supervision.

Though Miller wants most of the work in the shop to be done by students, he is never seen without a tool in his hands.

As Miller welds, a red sheet protects the rest of the shop from the extremely bright light of the welding torch.

In addition to Miller and Alguire, the scene shop has several paid employees working on the set. Megan Bresser, a junior theater arts major, has been working in the shop since 2014.

“It’s satisfying to see what you made be up on stage,” Bresser said.

Megan Bresser has worked on dozens of productions since starting at the scene shop.

Kevin McConville, a junior theater arts major, has worked on the last five Pitt Stages productions as a shop employee.

“Each show is different. [“Hair”] has a lot of metal work and is lighter on carpentry,” McConville said.

Kevin McConville measures a piece of wood to use on the bus fenders. The bus is one of the centerpieces of the set.

The shop employees have experience with theater tech, but another 16 students working in the shop do so for lab credit for Intro to Stagecraft, a class Miller teaches.

Though many of the students working on the set are inexperienced, Miller said they all find their strengths during their time working in the shop.

“I have students who have never picked up a hammer,” Miller said. “Some of them have found out that they really like carpentry or that they like painting more than they thought they would,” he said.

Theater arts major Fenice Thompson measures for a cut.

With only a few weeks to build the sets, work in the shop is fast-paced. Add the inexperience of many of the students in the shop and safety becomes a concern — one that Miller does not take lightly.

A welding helmet sits in a dusty corner of the shop.

Communication among the crew members is key to keeping safe. The crew calls out when they are doing something that could be potentially dangerous.

Before he cut into a metal bar, a process which creates potentially damaging noise levels, Sean Gallagher, a student in Miller’s course, yelled, “Cutting.” The other crew members responded “Thank you,” to acknowledge that they have proper ear protection.

Sparks fly as Sean Gallagher cuts a metal support beam for a set piece. Gallagher and everyone else in the shop wore ear plugs during the cutting.

“Hair” will be Miller’s first musical at Pitt.

“I’m excited about working at a place that puts on shows like this,” he said, adding that Pitt has “a good base of students who are interested in learning tech.”

Miller teaches Zach Romah how to use a lift, known to the crew as “the genie.” He tells Romah “We aren’t used to moving upwards so make sure you’re looking around as you go up.”

For many involved in the production, opening night is only the beginning of their jobs. But Miller and the students’ job is to tear down and rebuild, over and over again. Audiences will see their month of hard work for a little over a week, then on Nov. 20, the crew will demolish it all, and get to work on the next set.

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