Sunday, July 13, 2008

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Setting the stage
A well-crafted set complements the acting
By Doug Kreutz
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 07.11.2008

Editor's note: This summer, we are taking a look at the people who make the arts a reality, from the audience to the artists behind the scenes. This week: set designer James Blair.

James Blair's work is behind the scenes. Literally. As the associate artistic director for the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, he designs sets for the theater's small stage — creating fanciful and realistic backdrops for the scenes that play out there

"It's a great profession. It lets you draw on so many different experiences," says Blair, 56, whose extensive theater experience includes acting and directing as well as set design. "In my work, you're an interior designer, you're an artist, and if you can approach it from a directing or acting standpoint, that makes it even better."

Working closely with Susan Claassen, managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre, Blair strives to make each set a compelling — but unobtrusive — part of the production.

"Jim Blair is truly a Renaissance man. He is a multifaceted jewel," says Claassen. "We have collaborated for over a decade, and I cannot imagine the Invisible Theatre without him."

Recently, we asked Blair to step off the stage and respond to some set-centered questions.
How did you become a set designer?

"I started designing sets in high school. I had a great drama teacher, Mrs. Tyson, who really just let me go. Then I worked with a community theater that was just starting up. I designed, built and painted probably 12 sets in three years. The first set I did for the Invisible Theatre was in 1989 or 1990."

What's different about designing at the Invisible Theatre compared to other theaters?

"The way the stage sits in the space at IT is very unusual. It is at a 60-degree angle in the room instead of being square on. This means nothing is ever square or symmetrical."

It's a very small stage. What are the dimensions — and how do you design sets for such an intimate space?

"The widest part of the stage is 22 feet, then it drops to 17 feet. All of the sets, whether they are a realistic interior or a fantasy space, are all finished so that the front row, which is 3 feet away, cannot see any seams or nail holes. I probably obsess over details most people never notice."

What's the most challenging set you can recall?

"Every set has its own challenges, even the 'simple' ones. 'When Pigs Fly' is a musical review we did that needed a false proscenium, several sets of curtains and effects like an underwater scene. We had to store some of the costumes and scenery in the lobby!"

Is there a collaborative process in designing a set?

"Susan and I have a wonderful collaboration on the sets. We each approach the process from the design side, as well as a performer and a director. When we brainstorm the sets, it is often a case of finishing each other's sentences and trying to decide who thought of something first. It is the best experience you could ask for."
What are one or two of your favorite sets?

" 'Accomplice' is a mystery set in an old English mill with a waterwheel. It was one of the first I did for IT. It worked just the way it needed to. 'Shirley Valentine' went from a kitchen with a working stove in the first act to the coast of Greece in the second act."
Is there a set you'd like to get a second shot at?

"Not really. You always want more money and more time, but every set is what it is. People ask me if I am sad to tear them down at the end of a run, and I'm not. I think of them like a sand painting that you create, enjoy and then destroy."

Can a set distract from a performance?
"A set that does not serve the play is very distracting. Usually an over-produced set that shows off is distracting."

Are there some subtle little "miracles" that a set designer must perform without anyone noticing?
"Of course there are, but a magician never gives away the secrets."

Any brief words of advice for a young person who wants to become a set designer?
"Get in there and do it. Do as much as you can. Do the building, the painting. Work on the light crew. Lights can ruin or save a set. Act. Suddenly the size of the steps and the distance between the table and chair become very real."

● Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192.