Joel C. Abels, whose many hats — or, if you’d prefer, wigs — this summer include producer, director, production manager, actor, singer, dancer, drag performer, publicist, scenic consultant, VectorWorks software neophyte, volunteer coordinator, box-office strategist and potential time-management self-help author — wanted his StageWorks Fresno production of “Mamma Mia” to be big.
How big is it?
Here are Five Things to Know about the show’s scenic design and concept:
It’s big because it has to be.
The production is set in Shaghoian Hall, a nearly 750-seat performance space that is normally used for concerts. StageWorks has done two previous titles in the venue, starting with “Master Class,” which used a minimalist design, and then “Les Miserables,” which had a semi-staged concert feel.
For “Mamma Mia,” Abels as director wanted to go the fully-staged route. The material demanded it. And with a cast of almost 40, the set needed an expansive feel.
“I thought that with this show, let’s try to do it really, really big,” he says. “So Johnny did.”
That would be Johnny Cano, the show’s scenic designer, who has immersed himself in “Mamma Mia” for weeks.
Abels told him at the beginning of the process that he didn’t want to use projections — one of the trends in theater design — but to put the main focus on the set.
Using VectorWorks 3D design software, Cano came up with a look for the show capturing the musical’s sun-splashed, Greek-island setting while also keeping in mind some important limitations. An alleyway with windows frames a main, two-story unit with a balcony. Dock pieces and a stone retaining wall add a seaside feel.
Because the Shaghoian isn’t normally a theatrical venue, it’s harder to design for. None of the set pieces can be screwed into the stage, That can make it a challenge, engineering-wise, because all of the set pieces have to be self-supporting. And no matter how elaborate the construction, the set has to be able to be broken down in just a matter of a few hours after the final performance, because another group is booked for the venue the next morning.
Another challenge: The Shaghoian is a very tall space. Cano designed the two-story set with walls 16 feet, 4 inches tall, that wouldn’t get swallowed up in it.
Scenic design is about illusion.
That terra cotta roof? The tiles are actually made out of document shipping containers from Office Depot.
“That’s the cool thing about theater … it’s all about tricking the eye,” Abels says.
Helping out with the magic is Rene Nielson, the scenic painter and properties designer; and Austin Montierth, the master carpenter and technical director.
Most of it happens in the scene shop before the move-in to the actual theater. As the scenic painter, Nielson has been working for weeks translating Cano’s designs onto the many wooden flats that make up the set of the show. She devises a grid to scale, first drawing in the designs, then selecting colors, adding the color and directing volunteers to work on some of the simpler chores. Some of the designs are big enough that they don’t fit on just one flat, and in that case, Nielson has to be able to make the image come together seamlessly.
If theater is about illusion, it’s also about economy. Many of the flats are reused from previous shows.
It’s a lot of work.
The show comes together in about 30 days. Complicating things is that StageWorks has another show, “La Cage Aux Folles,” scheduled to open just two weekends after “Mamma Mia” closes. “La Cage” will be performed in the much smaller Dan Pessano Theatre, next door to the Shaghoian, but it still has an elaborate set planned. After “Mamma Mia” is finished, the crew has to go to work quickly on “La Cage.”
Working long hours and up till the last minute is sort of a theater tradition. A few years ago in “The Full Monty,” paint was still drying on opening night.
When you’re on the scenic team, does that mean you’re extra critical of the finished product?
“Until opening night, and then it’s done,” Montierth says.
“When you’re in tech week, when you are there to find the flaws, you can be hyper-critical,” she says. “Until opening night comes. But that’s it. We don’t change anything after that. You just say, ‘Look how pretty it is.’ “
And about all those hats …
A big reason for Abels’ crazy-busy summer is that not only is he directing and designing “Mamma Mia,” he’s starring in “La Cage Aux Folles.” He plays Albin, the drag-queen dad. With nine costume changes (seven of them as a woman), seven wigs and six pairs of heels, the logistics of just being in the show, much less offering input on how it looks, would overflow anyone’s schedule.
But scenic design is in his blood. One project he took on was figuring out a bed for Donna, the mamma in “Mia” whose bedroom is an important part of the scenic design. He enjoyed getting hands-on.
“The cool thing about this is that I’ve lost about 10 pounds,” he says of working on the “Mamma Mia” set. I’ve been dealing and sweating and building. I do love this.”
Abels says that if he decides to do two back-to-back productions next summer — and that is still an if right now — he will hire a production manager to free up some time for his creative endeavors. He’s getting stretched pretty thin these days, you could say.
Still, it’s been worth it. He’s proud of what his scenic crew has accomplished with his vision for “Mamma Mia.”
“We have big ambitions, as you know,” he says. “We haven’t bitten off more than we can chew with this show, but we’ve come close. This is the biggest we’ve ever done.”