Set builders help Mt. Abe musicals reach new heights

BRISTOL — Behind every great play, quite literally, is a great set. Nowhere is that sentiment more true than Mount Abraham Union High School, which has relied on a dedicated team of volunteer set designers to put on elaborate musicals each fall.
“What they do is absolutely essential, it’s a great confluence of mighty rivers,” said Anne Gleason, who was co-director of the most recent Mount Abe production. “They are always exceeding expectations — we’re fortunate to be supported by such artistic people.”
This past weekend, the school staged a musical version of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” in front of a packed house.
The set, built over three months on the 60-foot-by-25-foot stage, looked as if it had just arrived from Broadway. The two-story structure integrated multiple sets, such as Scrooge’s Parlor, Mr. Fezziwig’s Bank and the offices of Scrooge and Marley Ltd. The brightly painted scenery included balconies, ladders and swinging doors.
Paul Stetson, who teaches architecture and computer-assisted design at Mount Abraham, has been helping build sets for school productions for 15 years. For this most recent production, he supervised the professional-grade carpentry and worked with a 12-person production team. That group met regularly throughout the fall to plan, design and build the expansive set.
“We met every Saturday from 8:30 until 3:30,” Stetson said.
In addition to that team, the scores of volunteers who helped with the sets included Mount Abraham faculty, students and parents.
Mount Abraham art teacher Elise Cleary got roped into helping with “The Wizard of Oz” years ago, and has been involved ever since.
“That first year, they asked me to make trees that threw apples,” Cleary said.
She’s seen the set grow from modest beginnings to something everyone is proud of.
“We used to just paint the back wall, but six or seven years ago the sets started getting bigger,” she said.
Stetson said for each new set, the production team will see how plays have been staged in different theaters, and also look online for ideas. After a design is selected and a scale model is built, construction begins. It’s a long, painstaking process, and often is not complete until the day before the first performance.
“We’ve had saws out here before opening night,” Cleary said. “Sometimes the actors will be rehearsing and I’ll be painting the set behind them.”
The production team is in constant contact with the directors, who suggest changes to the set to fit the needs of the play.
“The directors sometimes see things that we don’t notice, so they’ll direct us, and ask us to do this or that,” Cleary said.
Stetson said that each set has an entirely different set of challenges.
“‘Beauty and the Beast’ had different levels, ‘West Side Story’ had a balcony and a fence — they’re all very different,” he said.
Past years’ productions have included complex special effects, like smoke, snow and simulated flight. Stetson estimated that $1,500 worth of lumber went into the set of “A Christmas Carol.”
Stetson said that when he first started, set designers would use flats and paint scenery onto the theater’s back wall. Now, the production team designs entire sets from scratch. The set designs get more ambitious every year.
“‘Oklahoma!’ had a great set — the opening scene was a windmill with a barn,” Stetson said.
In recent years school has put on a number of colossal shows, such as “Oliver,” “Peter Pan,” “My Fair Lady” and “Seussical.”
“It has gotten bigger and more elaborate every year,” Cleary said. “I had no formal training in set design — I learned a lot on the job.”
KEN LABAS IS a lighting designer for Mount Abraham Union High School stage shows.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Though the production team for “A Christmas Carol” consisted of 12 adults, Cleary said they try to incorporate as many students as possible.
“We try to get students involved in the carpentry and painting, and also parents that are willing to come in,” Cleary said.
This year for the first time, Mount Abe students can take an independent study in set or costume design and earn credit. A handful of students took advantage of the new opportunity, and worked on the set for a total of 45 hours.
Some of the adults that help with the sets have been doing it since they were students. Steve Cobb, who graduated from Mount Abraham in 2005, has been involved with the productions since he was in seventh grade.
“In the past we’ve used flash paper and fireballs for the Scarecrow in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ cryogenics and carbon dioxide to make columns of air, flashpots and engineered explosions,” Cobb said.
Cobb learned about pyrotechnics while working on the ski patrol at a resort in New York. He also handles all the rigging for when actors are lifted through the air.
“Most shows at some point, something’s getting lifted,” Cobb said. He often works with Ken Labas, a fellow Mount Abraham alumnus.
Co-director Martha Chesley said putting on “A Christmas Carol” cost $27,000. She said that the productions generally break even, and if they do not, the school pitches in to cover the deficit. The production is primarily financed by ticket sales from the four performances in the 500-seat auditorium. Fundraisers during the year also help offset the cost.
“We’re trying to break even all the time,” Stetson said.
Stetson said that when describing their favorite memories about Mount Abraham, graduating seniors will often mention the fall musical. Cleary added that alumni come back every year to see the production and say hello to Chesley and Gleason.
Chesley, who has been directing productions at Mount Abraham for more than 20 years, said the value of the set design team cannot be overestimated.
“We have no idea the impact we have on kids — the plays are all-inclusive and everyone who wants can participate,” Chesley said. “Paul and Elise and the others — it really takes a village to put this on.”
THE SET FOR this year’s Mount Abraham Union High School musical, “A Christmas Carol,” featured a whole village scene with parts that open up to reveal various home interiors.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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