Set Designer Will Shupe: Making Magic On A Shoestring

BY CARY GINELL

Will Shupe is a familiar presence in Ventura County, whether it’s in his many chameleon-like roles on stage at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center or providing character voices to the old Moorpark Melodrama and the High Street Broadcasts. Recently, Shupe took on the role of director, working with kids in Simi’s production of The Lion King Jr. But Shupe’s talents take on a more constructive element – literally – behind the scenes. The same creativity he brings to performing and directing is put to good use in designing and building sets, sometimes for the same show he is appearing in. We caught up with Will (not an easy thing to do) and talked about his history as a set designer and construction artist.

VCOS: In the chronology of things, where does carpentry fall in your life?

WILL: It comes in second to acting. I started acting and realized that I couldn’t make any money. So I started building sets and stage managing to pay the bills and it slowly became my profession.

VCOS: It’s your main profession now?

WILL: Yes.

VCOS: Did all of this start here, on the stages where you performed?

WILL: Actually it started back in college when I just started learning how to do some things, but once I got out here to California, I realized that I could make extra money building sets and stage managing on top of the paltry acting checks I was getting every week. I had to do what I had to do to make extra money for the year.

VCOS: Did you have a carpentry background already?

WILL: A little bit. My father built entire communities. He was a land developer, so I got to go along with him. I wasn’t terribly good at it but I did construction all through college, which helped. But that was completely different from building sets.

VCOS: What was the first set you built?

WILL: The first set that I built was for Maltiplicity. It was a melodrama. We had to have a working buzz-saw with a log that would go toward the buzz-saw. We had to have two of each of the characters: two heroes, two heroines, and two villains, and that’s why they called it Maltiplicity. 

VCOS: Was that an original show?

WILL: Yeah, it was a Scott Martin production; Scott used to direct and write a lot of the melodramas that played at the Magnificent Moorpark Melodrama, under Harve. Do you remember him?

VCOS: No, that was before my time here.

WILL: Harve Bredemann was Linda Bredemann’s husband. The two of them ran the theater back in the ’90s. At the time, Harve built all the sets. Well, he was getting up there in age, so I started helping him and he started paying me to help him. The next thing I knew, I was building the sets for him. And for everybody else for the next ten years!

VCOS: OK, let’s say you’re given an assignment. What does your regimen look like?

WILL: It starts with the size of the theater. It then goes to a pie-in-the-sky, if-I-could-do-anything-I-wanted-to kind of thing, what would I do? Then I take it down to its basic elements. Take The Lion King, for example. I asked myself, what is the most important thing you need for that set? For this size theater, you need a rock, something that shows height and meaning, and it also has to be able to move so it takes on the appearance of something different. Also, since there are a lot of little kids in the show, it needs to have a raised level in the back so that they can be seen when they’re dancing three-deep. Those are the two most important things that we had to do with this show.

VCOS: Is that a common thing that you deal with in every show, where you try and find a central object that is versatile enough to work in more than one scene?

WILL: Yes. In the show that we’re doing now, Billy Elliot, I’m creating one big back wall, two stories high, which doesn’t take up a lot of space because you need plenty of room for dance, plus I’m building ten-foot high pillar posts that are eighteen-inches square that are on casters so they can roll, and will have different textures on them to create different areas, because there are fourteen different scenes just in the first act. It’s all over the place.

VCOS: Have you ever used rotating turntables to move set pieces around?

WILL: Yes. The bigger they are, the harder they are to rotate, so you have to keep it simple if you’re going to use something like that. The rock in Lion King is a great example. It’s only three-feet by five-feet, but it gets so much bigger on stage because of the rake, which goes up from eighteen inches to three feet high.

VCOS: What is the rock made of?

WILL: It was refurbished from a couple of old benches, and we have a base plate that has casters on the bottom of it that will help it turn, and then it has a piping flange in the center that sits on a hole in the wood and spins around.

VCOS: Have you ever consulted with anyone in the film industry regarding lightweight props and set pieces?

WILL: Our set was decorated with styrofoam. I took a sander and carved the styrofoam into rock shapes and then painted it with shadows and highlights until you get it to where you want it.

VCOS: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced building a set?

WILL: Without a doubt, Peter Pan. Why anyone would want to do Peter Pan is beyond me. It’s three acts, and unless you’re in a giant theater and you rent the sets or somehow manage to get a deal from Foy to rig everything up – because they have to come in and point fingers and make sure that everything is secure so that no one is going to die on their rig – it’s just so much, between the ships and the house and all the different places in Neverland. It’s ridiculous. We did that on this stage with…everything, with the house, with the dog house, with the rocks, with the mermaid’s den, with the pirate ship. It was a two-story ship that folded up all the way to the back wall, and you could put the cyc [cyclorama] in front of it. Now that means three feet. We stacked an entire double-decker pirate ship into two-and-a-half feet.  We literally had the entire crew working on it, during the twenty minutes of intermission, lifting up all the pieces and putting them in place. It was like a giant erector set, putting it in the posts and setting it down, dropping platforms, flipping them out. Everything was hinged together and it all folded up into two-and-a-half feet. So, sometimes the director wants what he wants, and when that happens, you’ve got to figure it out.

VCOS: I imagine there’s a lot of learning from previous experiences when you go to do a show that you’ve already done before.

WILL: Yes. When we did A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, there was a director who tried to do too much…oh wait, I’ve got a better one for you: Into the Woods. We had this director who had four rocks and he said, “Depending on where these rocks are, since we are in the woods, let’s do this…” and it became this weird show about moving these four rocks. It took forever and added twenty minutes to the show, which was already three hours. So the next time we did it, we used sliding trees (laughs).

VCOS: What would make your life as a set designer a lot easier, besides an increased budget?

WILL: Being able to have a fly system. Most community theaters don’t have one, so you’re forced to have to create a unit set or water it down to its basest elements. You just can’t do everything that you want to do. And you never have either time or the budget for it.

VCOS: What does a standard fly system look like?

WILL: You might have anywhere from twelve to forty battens that you can bring down with ropes and fly scenery in and out. It all depends on the height of the roof. It would have to go way up so that it can go through the sheaves.

VCOS: Any spectacular failures that caused you to say, “What was I thinking?”

WILL: Oh yeah. It was right here in Simi. I was doing a two-man show with Fred Helsel called A Tuna Christmas, and I decided, three days before we were going to open, that once I built this entire giant set, I was going to throw a projection on it and paint the Texas skyline on every inch of it. I think I finished at about 7:28 on opening night…and they open the house at 7:30 for an 8:00 show! The last instructions to the cast was, “Don’t touch anything!” (laughs). And it looked great. It looked just like I had pictured it. Except it was completely out of focus. I stepped back and looked at it and said, “What was I doing for the last three days straight?”

VCOS: Anything else that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it?

WILL: Nothing turns out the way you want it. You’re always self-editing.

VCOS: OK, let’s turn this around. What is the most spectacular, brilliant achievement you did that you’re most proud of?

WILL:  I worked with Jeff Rack on a set for The Hobbit and we created this giant mountain with a dragon puppet whose wingspan, when it came out from behind the mountain where it was hidden the entire time, was around twenty feet. The head came up about twelve feet off the ground and had people inside it working the wings and the eyes and everything. But that was one of the best sets I ever created. We had different doorways that were part of the mountain, so that was like a hobbit hole, and then it would go away and become a jail cell, so the actors could run all over this thing like rabbits. We had twelve or thirteen hobbits plus all the goblins and elves, and it was a lot of fun. Then we created this disc that had plastic on the back so you could shine light through it, and every time Bilbo would put on the ring, you would see this glow come out and hit the floor right around him, and that’s how you knew he had turned invisible. We created a lot of really cool concepts with that show.

VCOS: Last question – what is your most valuable tool? The thing or the ability you need the most in putting together a set.

WILL: The ability to repurpose. There is so little money to work with that theaters have to keep everything and you have to learn how to see something and be able to repurpose it into something else. For example, you take this rock here, which we used in The Lion King. That was one sheet of styrofoam, a platform that was cut down, plus three benches that I took the legs off of, and then I found some old four-by-fours, and that was it. Four hours later, it became the centerpiece for a kids show and you’ve got thirty kids crawling all over it for three days.

VCOS: Do you enjoy this aspect of theater more than acting in shows?

WILL. No, it’s apples and oranges. I like to act if I’m not making the set. I gave up professional acting so I could do what I wanted to do with it. But this is a completely different creative outlet than acting. If you’re an actor or a musician, you get two completely different kinds of satisfactions. I like it because most of the time I can design stuff on a cocktail napkin, and since I’m the designer/builder, the conversation, is really small. I just say to myself, “Oh yeah, we can do that. I can make that work.”

VCOS: That’s the phrase any director loves to hear more than anything from someone like you. “I can make that work.”

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Will Shupe will put his hammer and saw away long enough to act in his next role, the Emcee in Cabaret, which runs at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center from September 9 to October 15. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.

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