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May. 22, 2019 | Wednesday
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Behind the 'scenes:' Creative and technical ingenuity at play in sets at Shaw
Lesslie Tunmer, the Shaw Festival's head of scenic construction, holds a miniature model of set for The Ladykillers. (Jill Troyer/Special)

When the dark comedy The Ladykillers opens at the Festival Theatre on June 11, the set will play an integral role in the production, and many hands are busy making sure it will perform its part as envisioned.

The set is designed by Judith Bowden and it’s the job of the skilled staff at the Shaw Festival’s scenic construction and scenic art shops to make her vision a reality, delivering the creative spirit as well as flawless functionality.  

Lesslie Tunmer, head of scenic construction, says with a wry smile, “This one was one of the harder ones to get my head around.” He explains it can be quite a journey taking the tiny maquette, or miniature model, to a full-size, fully functional set with all the requisite moving parts.

PIC: Head of scenic construction, Lesslie Tunmer holds a maquette for The Ladykillers. The set is designed by Judith Bowden and Tim Carroll directs the production.
Head of scenic construction, Lesslie Tunmer holds a maquette for The Ladykillers. The set is designed by Judith Bowden and Tim Carroll directs the production.
Scenic carpenter Bob Vernon works on a full-size set piece.
Scenic carpenter Bob Vernon works on a full-size set piece.

The Ladykillers takes place in an old woman’s home in London after the Second World War. A ragtag band of amateur criminals moves in, posing as musicians, while in reality planning a big heist. Mishaps, misadventure and mayhem ensue to create what the Shaw Festival calls “a deliciously macabre comedy.”

Tunmer says there are several tricks, or gags, that had to be built into The Ladykillers set, and they have to work seamlessly on stage, so “this one was  a tough one.”

But Tunmer clearly revels in solving the puzzle and he’s delighted to show off how it all works, and share the ingenuity behind it all. The audience will enjoy the laughs they get from surprise moments and never see the clever mechanics making it all work.

All of the sets built for the Shaw Festival must be movable. “A big part of the design is changeover, because entire sets have to move out and new ones move in, between afternoon and evening performances,” Tunmer explains.

Many set pieces are “also moved by actors as part of the show and it can’t be complicated, because if they’re concentrating on moving the set piece, or if it’s too heavy, they can’t focus on acting,” he adds.

Tunmer demonstrates with a large set piece under construction for Cyrano de Bergerac. It moves, he notes, “with the touch of a finger.” The actor need only press a button, which instantly raises the whole thing onto wheels, making it easy to slide to a new position.

Another touch of the button sets it down so it won’t slip. It’s all done with compressed air and the controls are hidden inside the walls.

PIC: Head of scenic construction, Lesslie Tunmer, demonstrates opening hidden panels in a set piece for Cyrano de Bergerac.  
Head of scenic construction, Lesslie Tunmer, demonstrates opening hidden panels in a set piece for Cyrano de Bergerac.  

The whole set gets built and assembled in the scenic construction shop, a cavernous warehouse buzzing with sounds of hammers and power tools, filled with the scent of sawdust, and alight with sparks from the welder’s blow torch.

It’s tucked into the back of the Virgil Business Park, quite removed from the downtown theatre stages where the sets are destined.

As the pieces are completed, they move to the adjoining space, the scenic art shop. It’s the domain of  scenic art head Gwyneth Stark. She and her team take charge, transforming the structures of wood and steel to mimic the most minute of details in the maquette.

PIC: A maquette for The Ladykillers set. 
PIC: A maquette for The Ladykillers set. 

Stark explains that most of the brick walls in the set are opaque, but other parts need to initially appear solid, and later be transformed with a change of lighting. That section will be painted on screen and it has to match the texture and depth of the solid pieces. “It’s all shadow and light,” Stark says.

PIC: Scenic art head Gwyneth Stark explains the different treatments required for the brick surfaces of the set.
Scenic art head Gwyneth Stark explains the different treatments required for the brick surfaces of the set.

The audience might reasonably assume the wallpaper they see on a set is – well, wallpaper. But that’s not the case.

In the old home that is the central location where action unfolds in The Ladykillers, the wallpaper is painstakingly created with hand-cut stencils to create the exact look needed for the design.

Scenic artist Becky Lee is the  master of stencils in the scenic art shop. She says “actors take a lot of time rehearsing, but we take a lot of time making and creating.” For The Ladykillers, at least three different wallpaper patterns had to be created.

PIC: Scenic artist Becky Lee with stencils for wallpaper for the set of The Ladykillers.
Scenic artist Becky Lee with stencils for wallpaper for the set of The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers opens on June 11 and runs at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 12.

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