Talking Senic Design with Grant Neale
Creating sets is no easy task for any theatre, but Shaker Bridge Theatre has the unique challenge of designing for in-the-round and thrust setups in particular. Thankfully, Grant Neale, who has performed several roles at SBT over the years, is familiar with these specific needs. In fact, he designed the set for the next show in SBT’s lineup, Wittenberg, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Upper Valley. The show, which Grant was also going to act in, is now indefinitely postponed. However, thanks to Grant and company’s tireless building and painting, the set is already up and waiting to be used. SBT may not be able to put on a play for its audience right now, but hopefully this Q&A with Grant will provide you with some entertainment in the meantime...
SBT: Have you done a lot of set designing and building during your theatre career?
Grant: Yes, I guess I have done quite a bit of scenic design over the years, though I have certainly never hung out a shingle as a scenic designer for hire. I have often designed sets for shows that I direct because I often use a sort of metamorphic set for the shows I am directing, and it's just simpler for me to execute the design than to explain what I want to someone else. In recent years, I have designed some sets for school shows through The Apollo Theater's education wing. It is a joy to share some stagecraft skills with middle schoolers in the Bronx and Manhattan. You have to cover EVERYTHING with plastic because they get paint EVERYWHERE!
SBT: What was your favorite part of designing/building the Wittenberg set?
Grant: Bringing the Wittenberg set to life was a pretty interesting process. Our Artistic Director, Bill Coons, wrote and asked if I could come up a week before rehearsals began to make the set. I couldn't because I was directing a show in NYC that opened that week, so I suggested we engage a wonderful young actor couple, Valorie Kissel and Travis Morris (he is also a scenic carpenter), to come up and get the majority of the set made that week. Bill said "yes,” they said "yes," and I sort of fell into the role of Designer. Our director, Kent Burnham, sent me some pictures of the set he had used when he had previously directed the play in Arizona, so I really just riffed off of that earlier design. Val and Travis did great work, so the bulk of the set was constructed when I arrived here, and my plan was just to quickly do some texture work on the stage floor and finish up some other details. But when our rehearsals were suspended due to COVID-19, I decided to stay in the Upper Valley and put a lot more love into the set. I was able to spend a good bit more time texture painting and adding details than I would have been able to in the midst of rehearsals. So, I think my favorite part of working on the set for Wittenberg was painting the stage floor. The play is set at Wittenberg University in Germany circa 1517 and I want the stage floor to sort of feel like the quad of an old European University. I had fun figuring out how to make it look like blue stone tiles. I made the tile pattern fun and unpredictable to reflect the fun and unpredictability of the play.
SBT: Have you worked on any other sets at SBT besides the Wittenberg set?
Grant: Yes, I have been able to help out Bill with a few sets for shows I've acted in here at SBT. My "day job" when I am not acting (and often when I am acting) is as a scenic carpenter to make ends meet. Bill has done my wife, LeeAnne Hutchison, and I the honor of hiring us for five shows here, so it has been my pleasure to help out a bit with the sets for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally (who recently passed from COVID-19, bless him), the Horowitz play North Shore Fish, and last season’s Over the Tavern by Tom Dudzick.
SBT: What’s it like to design and build a set in a smaller theatre, such as SBT?
Grant: It's really great to design in a space like SBT’s! There is plenty of height, so it doesn't feel confined even though it is not a huge space overall. I have worked in many tiny theatres in New York and some have very low ceilings which can feel a little oppressive.
SBT: Is designing a set for a play that’s going to be performed in-the-round or on a thrust stage challenging, or do you find that it brings out your creativity? Or both?
Grant: Of course, it is both challenging and inspiring. Particularly to design for a thrust space, which Bill has done many times over the years. In-the-round is comparatively simple because there are only so many things you can do without building a set upward that will block your audience's view. A thrust is tricky because you want to create a three-dimensional environment and yet not impede the sight line of an audience sitting on three sides of the action. It's a fun challenge, and challenge almost always breeds creativity in the theatre.
SBT: Do you prefer coming up with designs or getting your hands dirty doing the actual building and painting? Or do you like it all equally?
Grant: Since the beginning of my acting career I have often had to work as a scenic carpenter out of necessity. So, I have sometimes resented needing to do it because it has gotten in the way of my time to create. I've loved having the skills to keep myself alive and to execute my own ideas. I love coming up with the idea, that is the moment of creation for me. The rest is just, “get her done.” But it can be really fun to mess around with wood and paint, as long as I am the one who gets to say "great" or "good enough."
SBT: Do you think having the unique perspective of also being an actor helps with set design?
Grant: Oh yes! Because I am an actor, I know what is possible for an actor to accomplish with scenery pieces, and what it will be like for an actor to move around or flow through the space.
SBT: Why should audiences stay excited about SBT’s production of Wittenberg even though we don’t know when theatres will be able to reopen?
Grant: When we all get to return to the theatre (in the not too distant future I hope), SBT audiences are in for a treat! The scenery will immediately invite them into an interesting place and time. Plus, the wonderful actors with whom I had the pleasure of rehearsing with for a week, under the thoughtful and fun direction of Kent Burnham, are going to knock the audience's socks off! When I think of how happy we will ALL be upon returning to the theatre together (with our audience experiencing this surprising, hilarious, thought provoking play that throws together Martin Luther, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, and the Virgin Mary) I am filled with absolute JOY! See you then, in Wittenberg!