When you walk into the Fulton scene shop, located in a warehouse off Manheim Pike, just east of Park City Center, it feels like you’re in a shopping mall that’s gotten trapped in a crazy time machine.
Rooms are stacked with shelving from floor to ceiling, all filled to overflowing with all kinds of stuff.
Wall sconces, circa 1952? Got ’em. Along with chandeliers, candleholders, lamps and lanterns from every era you can imagine.
A trumpet? You betcha. Heck, you can practically scrape together a whole orchestra. And add an old gramophone while you’re at it.
A carousel horse? Well, of course.
Go to another vast area that has a Lowe’s/Home Depot vibe and you’ll find massive pieces of pressed wood being sawed, shaped and painted and turned into staircases, faux brick walls and colorful storefronts.
Theaters create new worlds every time they open a show. It takes plenty of planning and work to build the sets, paint them to look like more than just pressed wood, and then decorate them to turn them into homes and offices and, in the case of the Fulton’s most recent show, Monumental Film Studios, circa 1927.
That’s the setting of “Singing in the Rain,” which runs through the end of December at the Fulton.
So how are these sets created? What goes on in that vast warehouse time-warp shopping mall?
A little bit of everything.
“We’ve got an average of about five weeks building time,” says Bill Mohney, the Fulton’s technical director. “We want to keep it a consistent flow. There’s usually something going on here, but we always have our crunch times.”
Sets used to be built at what’s known as the Mack building, down the street from the theater on the corner of Water and Orange streets.
They moved to a new scene shop about a year ago, though the process took awhile.
The old shop was 7,500 square feet, but that square footage was divided among three levels.
The first floor held props, the second was where the sets were built and the third was where they were painted.
The new space is 12,500 square feet, and it’s all on one level.
For Mohney, who started working at the Fulton in May 2006 (his first show was “Grease”), the larger space was a godsend.
“We definitely needed more space,” Mohney says. “It makes the work a little less challenging.”
Properties manager Katelin Walsko, who’s in her third season at the Fulton, agrees.
“In the old place, things were piled up, disorganized,” she says. “Here, we can spread everything out.”
“This is a wonderful space,” says Erin Dickinson, the scenic charge artist, whose job is to oversee the painting and finishing of the sets. “But as in life, we are always short of space.”
Indeed, larger props and furniture are stored in another warehouse. And the costume shop is now in the Mack building.
A set begins in the mind of the set designer, who consults with the director. It involves two basic elements: how the set will be built and what it will look like when it is painted and finished.
The designer then puts those ideas into specific drawings, which are given to the technical director and the scenic charge artist to create.
Once he’s got the design, Mohney begins thinking in mathematical terms. Being good at geometry is a must for a tech director.
“I break it down piece by piece,” Mohney explains. “And then I turn it into a specific budget for the show. If it’s way over budget, I ask what can we change, what can we cut back on?”
Some sets are unit sets, which usually means the pieces are huge. Other sets have lots of moving scenery, which can bring on its own challenges.
Mohney and his crew cut out the shapes of all those backdrops and other things like signs, doors, windows, staircases and whatever else might be needed.
Construction has gotten a bit easier since the Fulton got a computer numerical controlled router, better known as a CNC router.
The router can cut wood the way it’s been programmed to by a computer.
Say Mohney needs a brick wall. The router will automatically cut out the bricks.
“In the past, the bricks would have been hand painted or fabricated. It was very labor intensive and messy,” Mohney says. Mike Meservey, the assistant technical director, does most of the work on the router.
Transporting sets from the shop to the theater presents its own challenges.
“When we were down the street, it was not hard to move sets,” says Dickinson, who began working at the Fulton last season with “Sunset Boulevard.”
Things have gotten more complicated.
In the last several years, the Fulton has been producing some of its shows with other theaters, including the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Florida (where “Singing in the Rain” opens Jan. 8) and Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Sharing production costs between two theaters allows for a bigger budget, but the set has to be designed to travel.
“Durability is important when we travel,” Dickinson says. “The show will close on a Saturday, and Sunday we’ll pack it into a truck — a semi — and it will be sent to Florida.”
Dickinson always includes a touch-up kit with the specific paint colors they might need in case things get bumped or banged en route.
“It can get tricky because the entire set has to fit into that truck,” Mohney says. “Sometimes compromise is necessary.”
For Dickinson, how the set looks is all important.
“I love mixing paints,” she says, noting that it’s one of her biggest challenges to get the colors exactly right.
Do the colors match exactly? Do they pop? Does a storefront look like the storefront the designer had in mind? Is that the exact shade of purple the designer wants? Does it pass the 30-foot rule?
“The closest people will be to the set is 30 feet away,” Dickinson explains. “So don’t guild the lily. Nobody is going to see the tiny details. I had to get used to painting big.”
For properties manager Walsko, sometimes it’s little things that can get to her.
“I get into details,” she says. “Like if there is a bar code on an item when they didn’t have bar codes.”
Walsko is highly organized. She has to be. When a designer wants a lamp, for example, she needs to know every lamp they’ve got, to see if they can use one or need to buy another.
“I have a photographic memory,” she explains. “And I was very lucky because the former prop master had an amazing filing system. She had a binder with notes for each show.”
One entire room is devoted to fabrics used for curtains, bedspreads, blankets and tablecloths.
Other rooms in the shop are organized around sundry items that might just be needed in a show: glassware, office supplies, musical instruments, lighting fixtures, fake flowers, money, typewriters, suitcases, cash registers, bathroom items, fake food and more.
“I try to get as specific as I can,” Walsko says.
In addition to keeping track of everything, her job involves researching the time period in which the play is set, so the props will look right.
While she loves the new space, Walsko knows chaos is right around the corner.
“I am constantly putting things away,” she says with a laugh. “My middle name is Hoarder. Things pile up quickly.”