STAGE WRITE: A Set Comes to Life

Editor’s Note:

As a member of the Joseph Jefferson Committee (the Tony Awards of Chicago), Elizabeth Richter has immersed herself in Chicago theater. “Stage Write” is her new series for Classic Chicago Magazine taking her readers behind the curtain for a better understanding of what makes Chicago one of the world’s great theater cities.




By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



“To enter a theater for a performance is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.” – Simon Callow (English actor, director, and writer)

A successful play can transport us to a magical space, but what first sparks our ability to imagine a different world, a different place, somewhere one has never been before? When the curtain rises or when the lights come up, one first experiences the set. This might be a bare stage with unpainted brick wall or an elaborate 18th century palace. Whatever appears before our eyes gives us a significant clue about what is to follow and sets our expectations.

For Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, that first glimpse becomes reality in a 100-yearold former paper processing factory five and a half miles due west of the theater. Steppenwolf is one of the few theaters in Chicago with a large dedicated shop, where all its sets are built and, in some cases, stored.

Painting area featuring special ventilation and curtains that can be closed for spraying

Ornate floor patterns cut with computer guided saws and assembled xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xx

With 75,000-80,000 square feet of space, there is ample room for an astonishing range of activities from cutting and assembling lumber, to creating mechanical devices, to painting set pieces, to collecting and storing props, to building units that can transform themselves from room to room or inside to outside in a matter of minutes, a seemingly magical process in itself.

Set elements assembled for painting for Choir Boy

Choir Boy set pieces under construction

In charge are a trio of scenic magicians, Jenny DiLuciano, Props Director, responsible for anything you can carry into a moving van or eat or drink (on-set food included); Mike Donahue, Technical Director, overseeing all technical operations and budget; and Tom Pearl, Director of Production, who works with the director to build the creative team and shepherds the design process overseeing 40 full time employees and 20-40 additional part timers depending on the needs of the show. His annual budget is more than $3.5M for an average of eight shows in a normal year.

(L to R) Jennifer DiLuciano, Mike Donahue, Tom Pearl

But we’re hardly at the beginning of the process. The building of a set starts long before this team get involved, when the set designer first reads the script, six months or more before opening.

“The conversations always start small. Generally, I read the script two or three times…the first just for fun. Then the comb through…then what do I need…Before I meet with the director, I pull together my first thoughts,” said Arnel Sancianco, set designer for Steppenwolf’s next production, Choir Boy, the set in progress on the day of my visit. Sancianco has designed a wide range of sets from The Mousetrap for Court Theatre to Master Class for Timeline Theatre to other Steppenwolf productions including The Crucible.

Arnel Sancianco, set designer

Choir Boy is summarized by Steppenwolf: “Pharus Young is now a senior at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an institution committed to building ‘strong, ethical Black men,’ where he endeavors to be the best leader of the school’s prestigious choir in its 50-year history. But in a world built on rites and rituals, should he conform to the expectations of his peers in order to gain the respect he desperately seeks?”

Sancianco was immediately taken with the script. “I knew the play had a Tony nomination. I was enamored by the story; it’s about legacy…It’s such a great format. What starts out as a high school drama, a coming-of-age age story turns into a friendship story and becomes a mystery… who’s responsible for this. I couldn’t put the script down.” Sancianco starts with a model and plays with concepts. “I use a scale model of the theater…. Whenever you think about legacy you think about worship, praise. This being a Christian prep school…I saw the academic equal to worship…l looked at [designs of] rotundas, libraries, where religion and education held closely together… the Library of Congress, that beautiful rotunda with books stacked on high was an image that held on to me.” He was inspired by classical images like the Jefferson Memorial, but he wanted to avoid the whiteness of marble and granite and looked to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, for color inspiration. He met with the show’s director, Kent Gash, and in 2020 they came up with a final design in consultation with Tom Pearl on budget. Covid delayed the project, requiring additional budget tweaks.


Choir Boy set model

Choir Boy floor plan

The scene shop normally gets involved in planning 3 ½ to 4 months before rehearsals start. “Ideally, we actually start building 4-5 weeks before rehearsals begin, “explained Pearl. In this case, Covid interrupted the process, now on track for Choir Boy’s mid-June opening. From DiLuciano’s perspective, Choir Boy was fairly simple; it has minimal set dressing compared to others. However, there is one element that presented unique challenges to Sancianco and ultimately Donahue. “Where do we put the showers?” Yes, showers. There are three scenes in which boys appear in the shower, including one scene with five boys in five showers.

The obvious issues were where does the water come from and where does it go. Water on stage is not new for Steppenwolf, but showers are. Sancianco first planned to bring shower heads down from above. “Kent said let’s use the arches. Let’s not bring in another element,” Sancianco said. “Now that I know where it’s coming from, where does the water go?” Fortunately, his neoclassical architecture style worked with raised platforms. “We could build in grates and allow the water to go straight down.” The set, of course, had to hide the shower components when other scenes are happening. But there was another issue, how to make it safe for the actors. “We’re looking at using special paint so it’s a nonslip surface, expanding the drainage, making sure water splashes upstage, and when they leave, dripping, we needed grips so they don’t fall.” One final challenge, water supply and temperature.

Shower heads imbedded in the pediment

Shower drains fit into the set base

“If we couldn’t get temperature-controlled water, we couldn’t do showers. I can’t force these actors to be under cold water. We need to spend the money on temperature-controlled water. If we can’t do this, we would have to cut it,” Sancianco said. And where is the water supply on this open structured set? “They’ll figure out a place,” he assured me. DiLuciano has a place to store the water container temporarily, in her crowded prop storage area on the second floor. The large square tank and its attachments will permit temperature and pressure-controlled showers for the actors.

Water storage tank for showers

The prop storage area has rows of furniture, beds, desks, stoves, whatever you can imagine on stage. Props come from all sorts of sources. A stack of televisions came from a hotel liquidation sale. Items are often altered to be more useful; chairs are reinforced to handle more than one actor at a time using them. Wheels are added to a desk for ease of moving. “There are certain tables that have been in so many shows…we might say this is a useful table, we’d better hang on to it,” said DiLuciano. Props are photographed and recorded digitally for efficient retrieval and occasionally for loan, like an ornate chair for Navy Pier’s Santa Claus.

Dummy from The Doppelganger

Chair outfitted with wheels for easy removal

Santa chair

Recycled hotel televisions

Stage blood once came under the jurisdiction of props, but the blood itself has transitioned to costumes since using the right fabric and right fake blood product that can be cleaned regularly and successfully is critical. Steppenwolf’s production of Guards at the Taj, set in 1648, presented unusual problems of blood management on stage. Different kinds of blood flooded the stage from, among other elements, the gruesome effect of chopped-off hands. “The way we set up the supply and drain, there was no way to get it watertight. We had a long 40-foot drain…we were leaking bloody water all over the place… we finally were able to limp along through the run,” Pearl recalled.

Many used sets are taken apart for recycling, but some live on after a Chicago run. A Steppenwolf set is currently on Broadway, The Minutes written by and starring Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts. Another set is stored soon to be shipped to Ireland for a production in Galway, originally scheduled pre-Covid. And some props are just too special to de-acquisition, like the iconic centerpiece from The Grapes of Wrath. It’s hard to see the truck without recalling the powerful story of the Joad family.

Truck from The Grapes of Wrath

Set construction and assemblance is arduous, but creative and rewarding. “There’s variety which is what I love about it,” said Pearl. “Every play has its thing that we’ve never done before.” For Choir Boy, the construction team is dealing with the showers. The finished set will be moved to the theater and put in place in about three days in time for tech rehearsals. The actors will get used to showering on stage. “My job is to make them comfortable,” said Sancianco. Beyond that, he hopes the audience comes away with an appreciation for the challenges faced by young Black men, supported by the decisions made for the set. “This play becomes more and more relevant with time; we aren’t taking steps toward change,” he observed. Whether it’s a wheel on a chair, a stage full of blood, or showers for five, it’s the set that frames the magic that draws us all to live theater and Simon Callow’s “sacred arena of the imagination.”