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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Derek Smith creates the world for "Chicago's' actors

Derek Smith is Barter Theatre's resident set designer. (photo by Billie Wheeler)
Derek Smith is Barter Theatre's resident set designer. (photo by Billie Wheeler)
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 31, 2016

Derek Smith, resident set designer at Barter Theatre starts out with a concept. By the time he's through, he's built a world on the stage — a world that comes apart, so it can be moved on and off the stage.

"We usually start with a group meeting with the director and all the designers (set, costume, lighting, etc.). The director talks about ideas and general concepts, and we brainstorm from there. Then we go back to our individual workspaces and work on our ideas. We'll create some ideas, drawings or sketches to show the director. Then we have individual meetings with the director and talk about our ideas and keep tweaking from there.

"Set design collaborates quite a bit with costume design. We have a pretty good idea of where the show is going, so we're usually not that far off. But I do have to make sure that I don't design a set that the costumes are going to blend into," Smith says.

He started working on his ideas for the set for "Chicago" in late March or early April.

"Luckily the director had a lot of great ideas of being true to the standard, the "Chicago' that everybody knows. But also there are a lot of similarities with today's culture and how we elevate our celebrities and seek out fame and fortune. This helped put a fresh perspective on it in our minds as designers.

"This one came together pretty quickly from the first initial sketches. There wasn't a lot of redesign," he says.

The show is set in the jail where 90 percent of the show takes place. It's a one-unit set. This means that one set stays in place throughout the performance, and furniture pieces and props are brought onto the stage to create the other scenes.

Its inspiration is the 1920s, but it isn't a period set. The ubiquitous jail set pays homage to the "20s with Art Deco details and a nod to the Broadway marquees. Six rolling cell doors are used to create different cells by combining them in various manners.

"You also have to make sure you leave enough room for the dancers. You can't put a lot of scenery in their way," he says.

The set is approximately 30'x30' and is 14'6" tall. There are two spiral staircases, one on each side of the stage and an elevated platform that wraps around the set. While the audience can't see it, the framework is composed of steel to ensure that it's sturdy. The rest of the set is standard lumber, plywood and luan [a tropical hardwood plywood product, usually 1/4" thick] except the bricks. They're constructed of Christmas board, which is a pressed Masonite material textured to look like brick.

The staircases are one of Smith's favorite parts. "It's not a design element I've worked with a lot, so it was something new and exciting to create," he says.

The set comes apart so it can be removed from the stage, and the set for "Something Wicked This Way Comes" can be moved to the stage.

"I always think about how every set is going to have to be repped [the term used for swapping sets in a repertory theater company that has more than one show in production simultaneously]. It's almost second nature. The technical director and I will sit down and chat, and he'll say, "If we make this one little thing narrower, it will be easier to rep.' We work together and make small changes, so it all works," Smith says.

The designs for the set look very similar to any construction blueprint. There is an overview of the set looking down on the stage and section views, which the lighting designers use to see what angles they have. Individual detail drawings (e.g. side and back walls and section views of those walls) let the technical director know how far things are set back, what's solid and what's not. The drawings provide all the dimensions. For example, the doors are 4' wide. They also include color elevations for each element for the scene painters.

Smith's office is filled with small three-dimensional models of the sets he's built. "I love making these models. I come from a background of making things, whether it's a painting or a sculpture. The AutoCAD part is theoretical; the model makes it real. I learned to draft by hand, but now we have wonderful computer programs, which make it easier to make changes."

A native of Kingsport, Tennessee, he's always been a Barter fan. "I've been coming to Barter since I was a little kid. I grew up with Barter and have always loved it," he says.

He went to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, as a painting major. He interned at Barter as a scene shop carpenter between his junior and senior years. Upon graduation, he came back to Barter as an assistant scenic artist and helped paint scenery. He was promoted to a supervisory position and then became the resident set designer. He designs nine to 12 shows a year and has designed more than 60 shows in his tenure at Barter.

Playgoers can see Smith's world on stage when "Chicago" opens Sept. 29.

>> Aldridge creates the movement for "Chicago'

Topics: Theatre

This scene elevation of the set of "Chicago" gives audiences a peek at what the production will look like.