The Magic of the Theatre by Jim Mica


Legend tells us that the Summer Savoyards began back in 1961 with some college students using their fathers’ bathrobes as kimonos and pretending to be Gentlemen of Japan. We have become more sophisticated since then, but the principle is the same: we use mundane materials to magical ends. 


With a new Pinafore about to set sail in 2016, I’m reminded of an older Pinafore we mounted in 1991.  Our set designer was E. George Erdman III that year.  He was a local boy who had made it to work on Broadway but was back.  His Pinafore was a massive two-story job with a 16ft high bridge, lanterns on poles running on the steps to the upper deck, and a great rope rigging.  Some 40 of us worked on that set.  We started the build in the WSKG parking lot using two by fours, three inch screws, ¼ inch lag bolts, and plywood facing.  Once we had assembled it we tore it down to truck it over to the Anderson Center.  There, on the stage, we rebuilt the whole thing. 


At one point in this final instillation, I was sitting in the audience with my feet up for a moment when I got to watch four –yes 4—crew members carry in the main bridge railing and place it up in front of the great ship’s wheel.  This railing was more than a foot wide, a good 3/4 of a foot deep, and at least 8 feet long .  It was mounted on doubled 2X4 pillars.  This was a new finishing piece I had not seen before.  It looked like rich polished mahogany, but I knew that was just the paint job because we certainly couldn’t afford such expensive wood.  It really looked impressive enough to be the railing on an English ship of the line! 


Now, stop and think about this for a moment:  HMS Pinafore.  Gilbert names a mighty English battleship after a little girl’s apron.  The might of the great empire is being mocked.  E. George wanted us to sense this irony by having us look at our set –which had no sails and only one puny cannon—and see the pride of the English Navy.  His use of rich dark colours, and massive shapes, did this quite well.   But the true beauty of this piece was only revealed to me when I had to go up on the set itself –to sweep up some sawdust.


Up close and personal, I could see that this ‘massive’ railing wasn’t made of wood at all.  It was a hunk of Styrofoam carved to look like wood!  It had taken four guys to carry in it and place it, not because it was heavy but because it would have broken with less support.  Once placed and lighted, however, it was truly impressive!


The magic of the theatre: Styrofoam into wood, or sometimes stone.