A few years ago – around 2001, 2002 – I had a cannon in my basement in Rockville, Maryland. You could see it through the front windows, where it was aimed. I wondered if the mailman would report us to Homeland Security.
It wasn’t a real one, but it was incredibly realistic and man-o’war-size (about five feet long). It was made out of scrap wood and styrofoam and was one of the most ingenious set-design pieces I’d seen in several years knocking around in community theater. We put it in our basement because the theater company couldn’t afford storage space, and the only other option in the short term was to put it in a dumpster. It didn’t seem right to get only one show’s worth of use out of such a great piece.
Scenic design – the sets, costumes, and lighting — are an essential part of theater, as important as the acting or the singing or the orchestra. They can evoke joy, or controversy. The Library of Congress on Feb. 12 will open an exhibition in its Music Division foyer in the James Madison Building titled “Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design,” featuring set designs of famous productions and famous designers from its vast theatrical collections, to include opera, ballet, vaudeville and musical theater.
The exhibition includes the work of 21 designers for 28 productions, including Nicholas Roerich, Robert Edmond Jones, Boris Aronson, Oliver Smith, Florence Klotz and Tony Walton. It represents a tiny portion of what the Library offers in this area, and it’s noteworthy that many separate collections here “speak to each other” in that so many luminary figures of the stage — from the musical, production, book or dance cadres — interacted with each other on myriad shows.
Productions highlighted will include the Ballets Russes, the Ziegfeld Follies and the musicals “My Fair Lady,” “Grand Hotel,” “Show Boat” and “Chicago”; also included will be holograph music manuscripts from George Gershwin and Frederick Loewe, not to mention letters and scripts by Ira Gershwin, Freddy Wittop and John Kander. The exhibition closes July 25, and then will travel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for display in its Library of Congress Ira Gershwin Gallery from this coming August through February, 2016.
I’m out of theater now, but fondly recall activities onstage and off. I produced two shows for the Washington Savoyards — backstage management, from renting rehearsal space and the set build to directing the stage crew and paying the cast.
Pete, William and Cayetano built sets that were clever, beautiful and–this is important–safe. Pete was responsible for that very lifelike cannon.
The cannon was in the basement for, oh, two years, but finally the day came when we wanted to put our house on the market. So I called William, and asked if he could help me get the cannon over to the storage bay for the Victorian Lyric Opera Company. They thought it might be usable for one of their productions of “HMS Pinafore.” I assumed somebody had a truck.
William and Cayetano showed up with a subcompact Toyota. They pulled the cannon into its two sections, stuffed the muzzle in the back seat and somehow tied the heavy caisson section with ropes onto the roof, and off they went.
There were interesting squash-marks in the carpet, but we got the house sold.