The Shape of Things, which runs every night at the Guild Hall in Porter Creek until October 11, continues playwright Neil Labute’s reputation for blunt depictions of men and women at war with each other.
Four students, played by Santana Barryman, Jeff Charles, Rowan Dunne, and Andrea Bois, navigate their way through gender politics and art theory against the backdrop of an American university campus. The young cast mostly succeeds in bringing depth and venom to Labute’s biting dialogue, but the real star of the show belongs to one of theatre’s unsung heroes: the set designer.
Sculptor Donald Watt had been designing play sets in Whitehorse for three decades, yet The Shape of Things presented a unique obstacle for the experienced artist.
“I like the challenge of manipulating a confined space to portray different configurations of rooms, or spaces, or feelings,” explains Watt. “And The Shape of Things has 10 different locations.”
So Watt’s task was to create a set that could be maneuvered into 10 different configurations representing settings both inside and outside, while keeping in mind that theatrical scene changes only last a matter of seconds.
“It concerned me,” he admits.
But after picking his way through Labute’s script a dominant motif bubbled to the surface of Watt’s imagination.
“Two out of the 10 scenes are staged in an art gallery and one of the other scenes is in a lecture hall,” he says. “So three of the scenes are dealing quite heavily with an art space.”
With the art-centric nature of the play at the forefront of his mind he decided to construct his set out of plints.
A plint is a box-like object typically used by galleries as a structure on which to present a given work of art. Stood vertically, they resemble pillars; laid sideways they look bench-like; in combination they can mimic many things, 10 unique settings, for example.
Though the plints satisfied Watt’s vision of versatility, there was one more test his concept needed to pass.
“No matter how great I think my ideas are the director needs to work with them.”
So Watt pitched his brainchild to the play’s director, Laura McLean.
“She was pleased with the simplicity and thought of it,” confirms Watt.
So with his design approved, all Watt had left to do was build a whole pile of the suckers, 15 altogether.
All his plints share the same base dimensions, one foot by one foot, but their lengths vary. He made five that were four feet tall, five that were three feet, and five that were two.
Perhaps he was tempted to paint his props a multitude of colours, but in the end he chose cover them all with a grey primer. This allowed lighting designer Ryan McCallion to alter the emotional tone of each scene.
“He was given a clean palette to work with,” says Watt. “He could change the mood by making it a warm grey or a cold grey.”
With these dynamics in place, they play felt equally at home in design doctors’ offices or living rooms. In one particularly creative instance, the plints were used to represent a tree in a scene that took place outdoors.
All that was left for him to do was cash in on his complimentary ticket.
“They actors used the set really well,” he says. “And the acting was really good on opening night.”
The Shape of Things runs at the Guild Hall until October 11. The play starts at 8:00 p.m. and tickets cost between $23 and $25 depending on the night. They are available at Whitehorse Motors or at the door.