Queen of trash
Tasia Simon, 41, is gluing garbage to the floor of "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's gritty play about the terrors of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The set re-creates a brothel in a shantytown, where residents scavenge anything to make homes: crates, corrugated tin, pipes, steel off cars.
A thrown-together look takes time and care. Junk covers Simon's worktable. She places a plastic Easter egg on the concrete floor and stomps it, then glues the pieces to the floor. She puts a dead cell phone in a vise, squeezes until it pops and puts those pieces on. Then bottle caps, an empty birth-control packet, bits of bicycle tires, a doll shoe, crushed medicine bottles and sunglasses.
"I'm just kind of making it up," she says cheerfully. "I went up to my attic, my garage -- 'Oh, get rid of these.' My mom leaves stuff for me. I go in and take my daughter's stuff. Everything has a second life. Part of me is repulsed by it, and part of me says, 'It's really neat.'"
In her ninth season, Simon says she doesn't mind that her work gets dismantled at the end of every season. "Part of the fun of it is just knowing that only a certain number of people will see it. I don't want to hold onto it outside the context of the play. I like the process, I like that people look at my work and they laugh. 'Wow! That's my favorite piece you've made.'"
The noisy set shop, a former skating rink, sits diagonally across the street from the upscale Ashland Springs Hotel and has been used to build sets for 24 years. Air hoses, nail guns and saws hang from overhead trusses. Sawdust and foam beads litter the floor. The sappy smell of fresh-cut sugar pine fills the air. The budget for sets this season is $1.16 million, 1 percent more than last season.
"It's rare to be under budget," says Bruce Jennings, a construction supervisor who's worked at the festival since 1979.
Workshops have rules, and the one for music is an important one. An overhead radio plays above the din all day, and the rule is, if you hate what you hear, you have to wait at least 30 minutes before you can change it -- even if it's polka music, which was tried. Once. "Music is a big thing, here," says Rebecca Knipfer, 25, covered head-to-toe in foam beads. She's carving fake grass mounds for the rain forest look in "Ruined." "We're isolated, and it's kind of nice to have music keep you going, keep you motivated."
My kingdom for an iPod
Props aren't simply bought and distributed around the sets; they're built from scratch. An exception is a shiny black toilet and pedestal sink for this year's modern-day "Hamlet." The bathroom fixtures came from Lowe's and will be attached to internally circulating pumps, which will come in handy in the scene where Hamlet throws up.
Annette Julien, 39, is in her 12th season, one of five people in the props department. She spent the past two months -- entire sets can be built in as little as three weeks -- making four chandeliers for "Pride Prejudice." The job required buckets of resin, 16 molds carefully poured around electrical wire, rope for the arms, mirrored cellophane to make them shiny and hours of buffing.
"That's all I did," she says.
With a budget of $375,700, props include an iPhone for Claudius and Polonius in "Hamlet," a PDA for Osric and a cell phone for the English Ambassador. Jim Clark, 48, properties department manager, put out a request for an iPod on the festival's internal e-mail system and got 15 offers within half an hour. The iPod didn't need to be operational.
Sofas are another illusion. During a break in the lunch room, I am invited to sit on one, carefully. "Don't sit down fast!" folks yell. Hidden under a thin cushion is a sheet of plywood, giving it rigidity so actors can spring out of them. The sofa backs are unusually low, too, so they don't block sightlines.
Oregonian Chicago costume designer Mara Blumenfeld (left), and cutter, Cathy Stump (right), size up a costume for actor Christian Barillas who plays Charles Bingley in "Pride & Prejudice." The play calls for Regency-style fashions, including 32 bonnets, top hats and military millinery, all made from scratch.
The Pounding Room
Just across the walkway from the festival's comfy Members' Lounge, four women and one man bend to their bonnets for "Pride & Prejudice." It's a "big build," as they say, with 32 hats -- elaborate, open-faced bonnets, top hats, military hats, mob caps -- in the Regency style. Their workroom is cozy and bright, with separate tables for each worker. Chat takes the place of music.
"We do not play music in the shop as a loose rule because we have so many people working in the same space and because we need to interact with the designers and managers and colleagues," says Lauren Toppo, in her 19th season.
The costume department has the largest production budget: $2.27 million this season, down 3 percent from last. Forty-two people work in costumes, twice the number of the next-largest production department, stage operations.
Toppo is making a bonnet for Lydia, who is 15 and headstrong, flirty, married, wealthy and flaunting it over simpler Jane and her four older sisters. Lydia gets a bonnet of silk, lace, piping and ribbons that reflects her personality. At the moment, it resembles a pink porcupine, with pins stuck all over it. Toppo reinforces it with baby flannel, netting and extra seams. Her deadline is two weeks away, and she's feeling "pretty good."
Millinery requires patience and good hands," says Lene Price, in her 25th season. "They have to be nimble and gentle. You're born with them. You don't want things to look man-handled."
"Well, I don't have them," Toppo replies, to laughter and admonishments from her co-workers.
Down the hall is the Pounding Room, where they can take out their frustrations by bashing rivets into armor and leather seams flat. Next door is the Fume Room for shellacking bonnets, dying shoes, spray-painting belts and such. Air exchangers refresh the air 45 times every hour.
The festival makes its costumes available for rental, and "Saturday Night Live" is a client.
Don't touch that wig
In a brightly lit room beneath the Bowmer Theatre, Jakey Hicks, in her ninth season, and Raquel Bianchini, in her third, pull individual strands of human hair through netting with tiny hooks. Their workroom looks like a hair salon with four barbershop chairs, mirrors and makeup lights. They're making 27 wigs for "Pride & Prejudice," each with specific "curl placement" on the sides or front. Some wigs for "P&P" can take up to 60 hours to build.
For indoor shows, they use human hair from Asia, stripped and recolored. For outdoor shows, they use synthetic hair because it holds its shape better in wind, rain, mist, snow and temperatures that can climb to 107.
Wigs are so fragile and require so much labor that no actor is allowed to touch them. To reduce wear and tear, a wig person fits each actor before each show and removes it immediately after. Rules from Actors' Equity, the labor union for professional actors, state that actors cannot be scheduled into the wig room prior to 30 minutes before a show, so the last half-hour is a traffic jam as actors line up. Each actor shows up in makeup and with hair prepped, and gets five minutes in the chair. Some actors change wigs midshow.
That can make for long days. A wig worker may begin in the morning by prepping wigs for the day, then have a show at 1:30 p.m., followed by wig removal at 4:30 p.m. Then another show at 8, and wig removal and cleaning at 11 p.m.
The wig shop is the only department that builds, runs and maintains its creations, Hicks says. Her seven-person crew also gives haircuts to actors during the season if they use their real hair.
"You can teach anybody the mechanics of building a wig," says Hicks, but some actors get touchy about their hair. "Remember, you're interacting with someone who's trying to be someone else. You're putting something on their head. We get five minutes with each actor to put on their wig, make sure it's secure and send them out of here feeling and looking good. You have to be good with people."
Besides hair, the wig department also does specialty makeup, which includes scars and eyelashes. Many actors today sport tattoos, which usually must be covered by clothing or makeup.
"You're gonna get hurt"
"Take me up!"
"Watch your head!"
"I got it!"
Voices echo through the empty Bowmer Theatre as men crawl over the towering castle walls of "Hamlet." They're rehearsing the first changeover from "Pride & Prejudice" to "Hamlet," and it takes four hours to dismantle, stack and precisely store one set and assemble and wheel into place the second. With practice, they'll pare that to 2 1/2 hours.
Amy Hutcheson is one of three female stagehands out of 21 working this morning. In 23 seasons of moving scenery, she's been bashed and bruised, but at least she's not sitting at a desk, she says.
"You're gonna get hurt," she says on a break from the changeover.
Every year, she and her colleagues must prove their stamina and agility. They have to complete two circuits of climbing and descending ladders within 30 minutes, pass a treadmill test, carry 75 pounds, lift 50 pounds overhead and assemble a bucket of nuts and bolts to show fine motor skills.
Hutcheson says that to pass the test, she lost 163 pounds. "It was kind of life-changing."
When the curtain goes up, the same can be said for those of us attending the theater.
-- David Stabler