Phoenix Theatre: BackstagePASS
|Spring 2019 • Act 12 Scene 5|
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Recreating the past: 30-year old set design
By Kaitlin Adams & John Threlfall
The Phoenix Theatre's productionof 7 Stories by Morris Panych is taking a step into the past.
Premiering 30 years ago in May of 1989 at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver (shown right with Peter Anderson as the Man), it was Panych's first major play and since has been considered one of his best.
Ken MacDonald's original set design was also considered a masterpiece. Inspired by the surealist art of René Magritte the cloud-covered, set of the seventh-storey of a building emphasized the very nature of the play.
"I've waited thirty years to direct this play," says Phoenix director and UVic Theatre professor Fran Gebhard (shown left, whose past shows at the Phoenix include The School for Scandal, Crackpot, Wreckage, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Les Liaisons Dangereuses).
“Ken MacDonald’s original set is so iconic. It adds an important layer to the meaning of the play, with the surreal elements of Magritte’s work perfectly underscoring Panych’s existential themes. I really couldn’t see the play with any other design,” says Gebhard.
And so, to celebrate the play's 30 anniversary, this Gebhard asked her good friends if she could direct Morris Panych's play using Ken MacDonald's original 30-year-old set design.
7 Stories takes place on a seventh storey window ledge where a man is in the midst of an existential crisis. While reflecting on his life, he is interrupted by the quirky residents and their hilarious, self-absorbed problems. Through their interactions, the Man finds the courage he needs to take the next step. It's a quick-witted, fast-paced comedy that philosophizes about life and death, right up to its existential conclusion.
“I want people to look at this play, see themselves in these characters,and understand that’s it’s OK to laugh at ourselves!” says Gebhard.
Fourth-year Theatre student Conor Farrell oversaw the design adaptation of MacDonald's original vision. Logistically, this meant adapting plans from the 20th anniversary mounting at Theatre Calgary in 2009 (which echoed the original set with a few modifications by MacDonald for their theatre space) and creating one cohesive construction that works with the Phoenix Theatre's Roger Bishop space and accommodates the saftey fire curtain in the Bishop. The resulting set structure stands over 23 feet tall and includes a flexible, quick-release portion that gives way in the case of a fire so that saftey proceedures are maintained.
“Ken’s original design was built for a very different space, so we’re changing it slightly,” explains Farrell, “We’re taking the base design and trying to keep all the integral parts. We’ve spoken with him about how we need to change it and gotten his okay for that."
In addition to his actual design work—using Vectorworks, a drafting program, and building a traditional set model—Farrell also did a fair bit of research into 7 Stories itself: writing a research paper about three-decade’s worth of productions of this now Canadian classic, meeting with director Gebhard and design professor Patrick Du Wors, working with the all-student creative team, overseeing the actual set construction, and having a Skype call with MacDonald himself.
“It’s a new kind of challenge,” says Farrell. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I would do something differently, because it needs to keep the spirit of the original design alive.”
Farrell is also a member of seven-person painting class that has been learning about scenic painting this year. Overseen by Bryn Finer, also the Phoenix Props Coordinator, this team of upper-level students have been tasked with painting all of the sets this season. For the blue-sky set that fills the stage of 7 Stories, they used (can we get an amount of paint?) and on 2046 square feet of canvas that was prepainted and then laid over the set construction that underpins the massive 23-foot wall of the apartment building.
So much of 7 Stories relies on the actors rehearsing on the specific architectural elements of the set. While huge construction process was going on, the cast was able to rehearse on a smaller, moveable set piece—ensuring the safety of the actors.
but specifically that of second-year student Lyle Hendriks, portraying The Man, who is perched on the building’s ledge. The construction of the structure itself is being headed by Head of Scene Construction, Charles Procure and his student team of carpenters.
The construction of the structure itself is being headed by Head of Scene Construction, Charles Procure and his team of carpenters. With this plays unique reliance on the set itself, a rehearsal set piece was built to be used by the actors while the scene shop perfected the actual set structure, ensuring the safety of all the actors but specifically that of second-year student Lyle Hendriks, portraying The Man, who is perched on the building’s ledge.
by using MacDonald’s set design highlights the whimsical nature of the play and the outrageous personalities of the building’s residents.
As for 7 Stories, Farrell is looking forward to seeing it come to life on opening night. “That’s the fun of the show: how to act with very limited space,” he says. “This set is a challenge that the actors have to solve.”
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Director Fran Gebhard
BOX OFFICE: Tickets go on sale March 5: $26 Discounts on weekdays & matinees: Students $16, Seniors $21. Call 250-721-8000.
Award-winning Victoria playwright Mark Leiren-Young talks about the significance, history and secret origins of Morris Panych’s modern masterpiece 7 Stories in celebration of the play’s 30th anniversary. Mark is currently teaching humour writing and TV writing at UVic.
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