Set design for Manatee's Players' 'Les Mis' presented challenges and opportunities

mclear@brandeton.comAugust 11, 2013 

The barricade scene at the Manatee Players' production of Les Miserables. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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BRADENTON -- As soon as Rick Kerby started thinking about staging "Les Miserables" at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, he knew the set would present challenges.

"It starts with the script," said Kerby, the artistic director for the Manatee Players. "Then you dream big, and then you look at your limitations, at what fits into your budget and the space."

The computerized turntable of the classic Broadway staging of "Les Mis" would have been much too expensive.

Kerby, who directed the current production turned to a set designer who had recently become available, 28-year-old Osprey resident Kirk V. Hughes.

"The limitations take you out of what's expected," Kerby said. "People would be looking for the turntable, but we couldn't do that. I knew Kirk was capable of creative solutions."

The result was that the

beautiful, fluid, painterly set is one of the highlights of the Manatee Players' production of "Les Miserables," which is already a huge hit with critics and the public.

Hughes had designed sets for Manatee Players and several other area theaters, including Florida Studio theatre and the Players Theatre in Sarasota, before he left to finish his degree in set deign at DePaul University in Chicago.

"Ironically, the last show I did for Manatee Players, was 'Chicago,'" Hughes said.

When he was finishing school, he sent resumes to theaters in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, but he wasn't sure whether he would come back here or stay in Chicago. The call from Kerby and the opportunity to design "Les Miserables" made his choice easy.

He had worked in Oklahoma, where he started college, in Florida and in Illinois. He said the artistic attitude of theater directors in west central Florida suited his tastes and his aesthetic values perfectly.

"My background is in experimental theater," Hughes said, "and I find that the minds of directors here are really open to unusual approaches."

One of the early ideas for the set was to have it dominated by salvaged doors and windows.

"I like found objects because they come with their own history," Hughes said.

Doors and windows had an aesthetic appeal, but they're also rich with symbolism about change and opportunity that fit the story.

Eventually, the idea was narrowed so that the set became dominated by windows. Some frame the stage almost continually, others come in to evoke settings. There are factory windows, chapel windows, windows of villages and cities.

And some points, Hughes and lighting director Joseph P. Oshry have the warm glow of candlelight shining through some of the windows, offering the sense that while dramatic events unfold in the streets, there's another reality going on within people's homes, removed from and beyond the world of the play.

Because of the way "Les Miserables" unfolds, there are few opportunities to darken the stage and change sets, and a local theater's budget doesn't allow for automated sets that change with the press of a computer key. So Hughes had to invent ways for the set to be continuously in flux, with new elements coming in and out as settings and eras change. "The set," Kerby said, "becomes a character in the play."

Aside from practical and symbolic concerns, Hughes had to develop purely aesthetic concepts for the set. He and Kerby decided they wanted to take an artistic, painterly approach to the look of the set.

It started with the letters and numbers, projected on scrims, that identify the year and place. The traditional staging used a traditional typeface; Hughes instead chose one that looked like brush stokes.

Hughes and Kerby used "Liberty Leading the people," a painting by Eugene Delacroix, created in France in 1830, from the same era as "Les Mis," as an inspiration. Hughes adopted the muted color palette of the painting, and even emulated Delacroix's brush strokes in painting the set.

Hughes already had three more shows lined up. He'll be doing the set for "Crazy for You" at the Players Theatre in Sarasota, and "Young Frankenstein" for the Manatee Players, both of which open in October, and "Shrek: The Musical" early next year for the Manatee Players.

He's enthused because both theaters encourage creativity and end up with strikingly unusual and effective sets, like the one he created for "Les Miserables." "It's great, he said, "to work with people who are so open to exploring unconventional ways of doing things."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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