Designer brings backstage into spotlight

by Amy Kingsley

Fred Kinney makes his living designing sets. Locally the fruits of his metier have included the menacing Victorian interior he created for Angel Street and Bus Stop’s 1950’s diner – the one earned a mention in the Independent Weekly’s annual theater awards.

His designs have varied from the realistic to the fantastical, have included moving scenery, flying actors and homey interiors. But the one thing they’ve had in common is a certain point of view. In each he presented an imaginary world to viewers, a place where suspension of disbelief relied on cloaking theatrical mechanics. Costume changes, prop handoffs and scenery shifts all occurred in the invisible backstage.

For Triad Stage’s production of Noises Off!, Kinney is charged with designing a set that uncloaks the backstage action. And that, according to the Pittsburgh-based designer, is no small feat.

“The biggest thing is, how do you do a front and a back that’s visible?” Kinney says.

The answer: plenty of elbow grease.

Christian Young, the technical director, has been working 16-hour days since the week after Christmas building the 18-foot tall sections that, coupled with a turntable and eight panel doors, will function as the reversible stage.

“Due to the nature of the show, the actors have to be able to safely fall on the set,” Young said. “It’s been bigger than the average show, more complicated, and we had to build it over break.”

Young has worked in theater on and off for 23 years.

“This is one of the most technically challenging productions I’ve worked on,” he said. “But I love making things work.”

Making things work in this case has required Triad Stage to remove the three rows of seats furthest upstage. This is the first production in which the theater has actually removed seats to accommodate the set.

The main stage at Triad Stage is a three-quarter thrust, which means seats surround it on three sides. Kinney and Director Eleanor Holdridge flirted with the idea of transforming it into a more traditional, proscenium stage. The final design incorporated elements of both.

“This is very much a comedy of falling down,” Kinney said, “and of things falling apart. And because there are a lot of very specific things the play calls for, the design is in the unspecific things.”

Purple walls, chintz, custom wallpaper and vinyl floors are among the embellishments Kinney has added to the elaborate moving stage. As for the back of the stage, which the audience usually would not see, he let Young design it.

The play Noises Off! concerns the backstage antics of a motley theater troupe, but the offstage relationship between Kinney and Young is a model of professional respect. The two have worked together on four previous productions that have instilled in each a level of trust in the other.

“We have a shorthand with each other,” Kinney said. “If I was in Christian’s shoes and this was a designer I didn’t know, I would be really nervous.”

Young knows when he needs to consult Kinney and when he can exercise his own judgment. This seamless communication has transformed an almost impossibly large production into something doable.

“[Noises Off!] is pushing the limits of what we can do in almost every way,” Kinney said.

“There’s a lot of changes that need to be made that I will just do,” Young said. “Because Fred knows that in the end it’s going to look like the model.”

The give-and-take between the two makes for a production process that is in Kinney’s words, almost like a living being.

“I look at set design as an organism that grows,” Kinney said. “Everyone who works on it feeds and waters it. The design influences the directing, too. Even though we think of it as being director-designer-technician, it’s not always like that.”

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