In a phone conversation with Paul Shortt, the CEA Hall of Fame scenic designer explains the distinction between the theaters for which his set for Tom Dudzik’s Over the Tavern was created. It was presented at St. Louis Repertory Theatre late in 2010, and now it’s coming to the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Marx Theatre, opening on Jan. 27.
He tells me that “downstage center,” the front portion of the Playhouse’s thrust stage, is not the most important position.
“It’s the middle of a circle, like the sweet spot on a tennis racket,” he says. “If you’re too far downstage, you’re ahead of the people on the sides. If you back up a bit, you’ll feel them on the left and right via your peripheral vision. But if you go too far upstage, you’ll feel you’re too far from the front row.”
He stops himself and says, “This is all incredibly boring.”
But he’s wrong. It’s the nuts and bolts of how a great designer makes a set work for audiences. Shortt retired from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music in 2006 after teaching and designing productions there for 37 years. He continues to do imaginative work for the Playhouse such as The Fantasticks, a lovely, intimate design for the musical that capped off the theater’s 50th season last spring. This year it’s another nostalgic show, Over the Tavern, set in 1950s Buffalo where a family lives in a flat above a bar they manage, with four mischievous kids coming to terms with adolescence, fractious parents and questions about their Roman Catholic faith. (It was a big hit for the Playhouse in 1999.)
Shortt says the scenic design process is more than simply creating a look and feel for a production.
“We think about the characters and their dreams. We visualize things, almost like seeing a film in your mind. When a show is a realistic drama like Over the Tavern, you picture the environment — their class distinction, their economic level, the mood or tone of the play.”
Life is hard for this family, he says, running a bar in a working-class neighborhood, so “without getting too depressing with the set, you want to show that life is a struggle.”
While Dudzik created many humorous moments in the play, Shortt says it has a serious undercurrent, and he likes to focus on “the growing pains, the neuroses, the fears the aspirations” of each character.
“You visualize it through their eyes,” he says. “Empathy, that’s all it is; empathy with some imagination.”
As a kid who grew up in the 1950s, Shortt feels a personal connection.
“I resonate with this show,” he says. “I love the period — how uptight people were, a mean father. I can see it. I can feel it.”
He studied a Roman Catholic catechism from the Playhouse’s props department for a better understanding.
“All the rules — it’s all there, follow the rules, follow the formula, follow God’s law and everything will be fine.”
Such immersion lends to the totality of his vision and results in the ultimate design. Shortt loves to dig in and understand characters, their feelings and their world. In a note for the Over the Tavern program he describes “a wonderfully rich milieu for which to create a plausible, living environment.” That’s truly how he finds the “sweet spot.”
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]