Scene shop creates rotating set for ‘Philadelphia Story’

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Photos by Eric Shea.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Bratton Theater smells like sawdust in the weeks before the season begins.

Drills buzz and work boots scuff as the basic set for The Philadelphia Story comes to life. For the first time in Chautauqua Theater Company history, the set rotates in a full circle on a large, custom turntable.

“This is definitely the most technically exciting season in the four years I’ve been here,” said Jonathan Zencheck, CTC’s technical director.

Zencheck has on his everyday plaid, button-up shirt paired with argyle socks. He carries the checklist of things to do before the show opens. Next on the list: installing fake grass.

The five-person scene shop headed by master carpenter Matt Ward, known for his bulldozer belt buckle and angular black glasses, creates all the sets for the three major productions this summer. The Philadelphia Story, which previews Friday and opens Saturday, will use CTC’s first-ever turntable, which gives the show two different sets. It features French doors and windows set in a dividing wall so both sides are always visible.

Director of the play Andrew Borba and scenic designer Tom Buderwitz chose the turntable because of the ubiquitous duality in the show’s plot. The sets give the audience two distinct perspectives: the sitting room and the porch just outside the room.

“The set allows the audience to change their perspective on the characters as the characters are changing their perspectives on their own lives,” Borba said. “It’s really dynamic when it moves.”

Zencheck pulls out his cellphone to show a video of the rotation. All the actors will remain on the set, and the lights will be on as the turntable pivots around a central point.

As it glides, corners jut off the stage and almost reach the audience. When it turns during the show, three crew members will rotate the entire set from hidden points, Zencheck said.

The real challenge to the piece is aligning the wheels to allow the turntable to move without squeaking or dragging, Ward said. It is Ward’s first year working at Chautauqua but not his first time working with Zen-
check, who is now in his fourth CTC season.

The two work together at a theater in New Jersey, where they both have worked with turntables. Together, they breathe life into the set.

“We all love what we do and take it very seriously, but we make pretend for a living and that’s very cool,” Ward said. “We try not to stress out and have fun and just make stuff.”

While it’s Zencheck’s job to technically design a show — taking drawings from the designer and figuring out how they can be made — Ward delegates the production of each piece of the set and makes the more complex, detailed pieces himself.

His passion is in the scene shop, though he went to school to study sculpture and design.

“I like physically doing things and building things with my hands,” Ward said, as he sweeps sawdust intermittently and fiddles with a screw. “I’m very happy just building cool stuff.”

While Ward builds, Zencheck serves as the liaison between the designer and the scene shop.

“I like to think of it as the designers create this piece of art and it is the job of the technical director and his team to bring that art to life using tech savvy and theatrical knowledge that we have,” Zencheck said. “It’s our job to make sure their creation actually happens.”

With his ball cap turned backwards, Zencheck speaks frankly about his love for being a technical designer. Unlike most jobs which can limit creativity, he said, building for theater allows room for interpretation.

“That’s what I love. There’s no wrong answers, just ideas,” he said. “That’s not something that really exists in the real world. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just ‘get it done’ and ‘create art.’”

Both Zencheck and Ward reiterate that the only way “it” gets done is because of the skill of their small but dedicated team. They work late nights constructing the giant puzzle that must come together seamlessly on opening night.

Though it won’t be Zencheck’s first opening night with CTC, it is his first time as technical director. Previously, he served as both assistant technical director and master carpenter.

“After being here for four years, this is my family,” he said. “We are all on a level playing field … everyone is important, and it takes a whole community for that to happen.”