Behind the scenes during the making of ‘Tartuffe’

November 21, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Ethington Theatre’s recent production of “Tartuffe” was a sumptuous feast for the senses. (Photo by Slaven Gujic)

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the November issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.

By Laurie Merrill
GCU Magazine

The seven students selected as designers for the set of “Tartuffe” paid rapt attention as Claude Pensis, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production, took a seat at a meeting last summer.

He started the session with a single question: “Did everybody look up ‘deconstructionism?’”

The students shifted in their seats. It was William Symington, COFAP Assistant Dean and Scenic Designer, who shattered the quiet.

“One of the ironies of what we do is there is a language here,” Symington said. “You have to talk. Theatre is collaborative. We all work together. We have to talk. A lot. You may not know where to start, but start you must.”

Start they did, with drawings, screenshots, construction paper cutouts – and ideas, lots of ideas. The tongue-tied beginning gave way to fluid communication and glamorous costumes, ornamental props, spectacular steel-and-wooden scenery and more.

In short, the fledgling impresarios who commenced in June with scarcely more than their titles gave birth in October to a grand, full-scale production brought to life by a cast brimming with energy and talent: Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” Ethington Theatre’s second production of the season.

The wigs, costumes, scenery, lighting and props in the show were all designed by students. Here, Orgon (Cameron Cluff) speaks with Madame Pernelle (Sarah Schalick). (Photo by Slaven Gujic)

Here are some scenes from their journey.

It’s not just hair – it’s status

Wigs of the period, fashioned with varying degrees of fanciness, were a reflection of status, sex and age. Some were simple and short.

Others were spectacularly coifed, curled and adorned with glittering gems, silk flowers and fancy ribbons. But perhaps their greatest significance is that they were the painstaking, handcrafted result of meticulous trial-and-error by junior Trustin Adams, the hair and makeup designer.

Each of the 12 wigs required about 25 hours of labor, Adams said.

“And they all started as swimming pool noodles,” he said.

Not only the wigs, but every aspect – the lighting, scenery, costumes, props and more – required a profusion of creativity as well as significant labor from a small army of craftsmen.

“We build everything from scratch for everybody,” said Nola Yergen, COFAP costume designer. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Undergraduates were tapped as designers for “Tartuffe” because it’s a criterion for competing in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, which showcases the finest regional productions.

Students were assigned roles of dramaturg, stage manager, lighting, scenic, costume, props and hair-and-makeup designers.

“Tartuffe is the biggest show we’ve ever student-designed,” Adams said.

It was also the first time Pensis directed a Kennedy Center production.

Deconstructing deconstructionism

Deconstructionism has been described as that which challenges the fixed nature of assumptions and things.

Juniors Tarnim Bybee, lighting designer, and Keeli Rodriguez, scenic designer, likened it to asymmetry.

Bybee imagined a stage illuminated with sparkly orange, blue and pink hues in a hall-of-mirrors effect.

“It’s beautiful – but it’s off its rocker,” she said. “I wanted to  exaggerate it an unhinging way.” 

Rodriguez described the set, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, as where “deconstruction and asymmetry connect.”

Senior James Coblentz, props designer, suggested putting a different feather duster – one a powder puff on a stick, another elaborately fluffy, yet another a single feather – in the housekeeper’s hands each time she appeared.

Coblentz crafted as many as six such tools.

Adams scrupulously researched hair-and-makeup trends under the reign of King Louis XIV. As late as rehearsals in early October, he could be seen perusing makeup-application videos on YouTube.

The Tartuffe character Orgon, left (Cameron Cluff) with Cleante (Jeremy Carr). (Photo by Slaven Gujic)

Views of two main characters

For the character of Orgon – the wealthy head of household whom the hypocrite Tartuffe plans to defraud – Adams proposed “a fantastic mustache and eyebrows.”

One hairy eyebrow could be askew. “I wanted to show him as a very intelligent human being – but he’s gullible, he’s able to essentially sign away his life to a man he shouldn’t trust,” Adams said.

Pensis warned against making Orgon seem too foolish.

“I don’t want him to be laughed at,” Pensis said. “Orgon has to be an attractive man.”

As for Tartuffe, Pensis said, his inner scoundrel should peek through.

“It’s a practiced look so that he looks pious when in fact he is not,” Pensis said.

To help attain that look, senior Marija Petovich, costume designer, dressed Tartuffe in a long, dark, green waistcoat – but then added mismatched buttons.

Rodriguez’s scenery included hanging large, green-and-gold windows on each side of the stage leading up to an even larger door – built by students from beams of hollow steel – in the center.

“The doors are the biggest, most eye-dropping piece on the stage,” Rodriguez said. “People will be on the edge of their seats wondering who is going to come through them.”

Of course, at one point it was Tartuffe.

“When Tartuffe enters, he will cast a long shadow,” Bybee said. “His site color will be green because he’s greedy, he’s a thief.”

Other lighting was intended to illuminate the extraordinary wealth of the family.

“I want it to look so grand that the audience knows that they – the family – have a lot to lose,” she said.

Harkening back to the relatively mum start of preproduction, Symington encouraged the designers to practice putting zest into presentations.

“For the Kennedy Center, you have to be excited,” Symington said at one meeting. “It’s a sales pitch. Something like a thesaurus is your friend.

“It’s not a tomato,” he added. “It’s a vine-ripened, locally sourced, organic tomato.”

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected]

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