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MC's stagecraft rivaling professional theater

Jeff Rankin
Professor Doug Rankin demonstrates Sweeney Todd's articulated barber chair.

It is sometimes jokingly said that a new Monmouth College theater production will “open on Broadway,” since the Wells Theater is located at the corner of Broadway and Ninth St. in Monmouth. New technology, however, is now beginning to blur the lines of distinction between MC and professional stage productions.

That was made readily apparent on Wednesday, as MC theater professor and chief scenic designer Doug Rankin gave a sneak preview of the stagecraft behind the college’s upcoming production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” which he billed as “our most ambitious show ever.”

Rankin said that not only are college students using the same software as Broadway designers for creating sets and lighting, but the set materials themselves are no longer limited to old-fashioned wood, canvas and paint.

Speaking to a group of mostly retired area residents known as OFTA (Old Friends Talk Arts), Rankin began his presentation with an overview of how computer-aided drafting has revolutionized stage design since he was a graduate student at Northwestern University 25 years ago. He then graphically demonstrated how digital designs translate to actual sets, as he unveiled a reclining chair and trap-door apparatus to be used by Sweeney Todd—the Demon Barber of Fleet Street—currently under construction on the Wells Theater stage.

“The entire assembly is built out of steel, as is the majority of the set for this show,” Rankin explained. The only part of the set constructed from traditional theater materials, he said, is the backdrop—a colossal wall of factory windows built out of wood—“but it’s intended to look like steel.”

The adoption of digital technology by the theater world has been relatively recent, Rankin said, but it has quickly snowballed and virtually eliminated stagecraft techniques that dated back to the Renaissance. “When I first went to Northwestern, all we had was a word processor with a black screen and a 9-inch floppy disk,” he recalled. “At that time, the department did 15 shows a year, each of which needed 15 to 20 major mechanical drawings, and all of them were done by hand using a T-square and a triangle. It was almost an around-the-clock job for a team of draftsmen to crank out all those drawings.”

Rankin demonstrated the theater department’s software program of choice, Vectorworks, which is capable of generating complex three-dimensional color renderings of stage sets from any angle, as well as elaborate lighting design plans. “Broadway designers formerly used AutoCad programs costing $20,000,” Rankin said, “but now the majority use Vectorworks or something similar.” The interesting thing, Rankin noted, is that the software company provides Vectorworks free to college students, so they get to learn stage design using the same tools as professionals.

While he has become a master of designing sets electronically, Rankin said he has not totally abandoned the crafts in which he was trained. “I don’t like giving up the handwork; I really like paintbrushes and modeling clay,” he admitted. But he has figured out techniques for melding traditional and modern stagecraft, such as rendering patterns for three-dimensional stage models using the computer. He held up a cardboard model of the set for “Lysistrata,” which was cut out of patterns generated in Vectorworks and assembled in a few hours.

“Twenty years ago, it would have taken two weeks to build this one model,” Rankin said.

In addition to its time-saving features, Rankin is sold on the ability of design software to instantly make global changes. “It can change the color scheme of a set at the touch of a button, or correct a set feature that conflicts with difficult sight lines,” he said. Rankin doesn’t rely solely on vector-based software, however. He also demonstrated how he makes liberal use of Adobe Photoshop to create custom textures on his set designs. “I have a disk with about 5,000 different surfaces I can choose from,” he explained, “plus I regularly use Google to pull photos and graphics directly off the Internet.”

With so much technology at his fingertips, Rankin said it still is unable to solve all his problems. A case in point was the design for Pirelli’s elixir wagon, a moving cart that is a key component of the Sweeney Todd set. “I worried for six months about how I was going to build an undercarriage that both fit the period and was durable enough for the production,” he said. “I spent another month drawing it,” he continued, “but on recent a trip to Maple City Steel to pick up supplies, they happened to mention they had an antique cart on metal wheels under the stairs. It turned out it had the exact same dimensions as the cart in my drawing.”

As impressive to audiences as the elixir wagon will likely be, it is Sweeney’s chair that holds the real “wow” factor. Employing an actual headrest off an 1880 barber chair, it not only looks the part, but has an appropriately diabolical mechanical mechanism, using springs and counterweights to slide a lifeless body off the seat and down a chute concealed by a trap door. The chair sits atop a 6-foot-tall platform, the bottom half of which houses the kitchen in which Mrs. Lovett bakes her infamous pies. “The overall platform weighs over 1,000 pounds,” Rankin said. “The chair itself, which flies in from above on cables, weighs 250 pounds.”

Rankin admitted he still has some work to do before he is fully comfortable with the trap-door mechanism: “The bodies fall pretty fast, and we’re using real live bodies.” He explained that he will probably employ additional counterweights to slow the rate of descent of the actors.

While it is obvious that the digital age has already wrought revolutionary changes in college stagecraft, Rankin was asked by an audience member what he considers the single most significant result of the new technology. “That it allows me more time to work with students,” he replied.

“Sweeney Todd” will run April 15-18 in the college’s Wells Theater. A concert version of the show will be staged April 9 at Galesburg’s Orpheum Theatre as a fundraising event for the historic facility.