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Behind the scenes at Seussical
Bringing the world of Dr Seuss to life on stage
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
With Seussical the Musical, the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre does what anyone who has ever read Horton Hears A Who or The Cat In the Hat or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas would probably consider impossible — bring the bizarre, goofy world of Dr. Seuss to life on stage.
It’s not an easy task. Part of the appeal of the Dr. Seuess books, besides the language, are the illustrations, with instruments, cars, houses, and deeds that defy all parameters of physics and logic in the real world.
Yet in Seussical, the entire cast of characters is there, on stage. There’s the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, Gertrude McFuzz, Mayzie La Bird, the Whos of Whoville… all singing, dancing, goofing around and generally behaving as if they just stepped off the page.
In the middle of all this craziness is a monstrous, three-story rotating set with stairs, spires, and balconies that took a team of people six weeks to build. And they didn’t build it as all one piece either; the set is modular, built in smaller, separate pieces and put together about a week before show time.
Of course, it’s so impressive that most audience members won’t necessarily see “the set.” What they’ll see is this massive, fantastical structure that’s part of the world of Dr. Seuss. But the work that goes into bringing that world to the stage is pretty fantastic in itself.
The person tasked with creating the actual, physical place where the Cat in the Hat balances a goldfish bowl on an umbrella or Horton the elephant winds up in a tree top bird’s nest is Brian Roney, the Civic Theatre’s Technical Director since 2004. He’s in charge of building the sets; managing the stage crew, the interns, and the volunteers; and overseeing the budget.
The set building process begins with a sit down between the director, the scenic designer, Roney and David Ball, the Civic’s scenic artist. Doug King, who handled directorial duties for Joseph a few years ago, takes the director’s chair for Seussical, while the scenic designer is Jennifer Schmied, a veteran of several Civic Theatre summer shows, including 2005’s Beauty and the Beast. Usually, both have different ideas of what they imagine for the set, so they hash out what the essentials are for the production, what really needs to be there. “Then, I take their pictures and drawing and figure out how to build it in six weeks, so that it can go together in two days,” Roney says.
Seussical is an enormous production, but from a technical aspect, Roney says it’s relatively simple — there’s one rotating set, three drops, and a few extra pieces like a helicopter and a palm tree. But the centerpiece, that rotating set, is a monster. It’s three stories tall, about 28’ at its highest point, and situated on a turntable (“a three-story turntable is a little tricky” he says). The toughest part is that the three-story, 28’ set is modular, with all the pieces built separately. Because other performers were using the Civic Theater stage until just a couple weeks before Seussical, Roney and his team weren’t able to put the whole thing together until recently. “I spent almost a week breaking it down in pieces that were manageable for two people (Roney and David Ball), because I can’t always guarantee we’ll have extra help,” Roney says. “This show, I lucked out and got a community service volunteer and a couple volunteers from the cast, so it went up fast. But with two of us, it would have taken us three days.”
As Roney says, he and Ball have had a lot of help with Seussical; in addition to volunteers and interns (Ball’s daughter is also helping out), the big summer shows usually include enough in the budget for an extra carpenter or painter. That’s not always the case though. “When we don’t have the budget, I build, he paints, and we put everything together,” says Roney, whose first job right out of college was as technical director of the Croswell Opera House in his hometown of Adrian, Michigan (just two months after he was hired as an assistant, the technical director left, leaving Roney to pretty much do everything himself).
The rotating three-story structure isn’t the only set in Seussical, and Roney says thast one of the things the audiences are going to love is how the show recreates the visual look of the books. “The interesting thing about this show is the mix of ‘one dimensional’ cut-outs directly from Dr. Seuss books, mixed with the three dimensional pieces,” he says. “We have a three-dimensional bird’s nest sitting on a one-dimensional palm tree, and a flying helicopter that basically looks like a one-dimensional façade, but someone will be sitting in it.”
The cast and crew still have to get through technical rehearsals as of this writing, where sets and music and lights and actors in Louise Heckaman’s costume all come together on stage for the first time. Roney is very happy with how things have come together so far, though there are still some aspects of bringing Dr. Seuss to life on stage that have to be ironed out. “The elephant in the palm tree…” he says. “I’m still waiting to see how he gets up there.”
Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Seussical the family musical
July 21,22, 28, 29, Aug 4, and 5 at 8 pm.
July 23, 30 and Aug. 6 at 2 pm
Arts United Center
303 E. Main
Tickets: Adults $24, Students 23 and under $16, Sunday Senior Matinees $20
For tickets, go to www.fwcivic.org, or call (260) 424-5220