Setmakers’ magic turns illusion into reality

For a few weeks every year, Middlebury Town Hall Theater Box Office Manager and Jackson Gallery Director Ellie Friml steps out of the box office and onto the stage — not to sing, but to paint. 
Together, she and her husband, Bill, craft the scenery behind The Opera Company of Middlebury’s productions. Ellie is the company’s scene artist and set designer; Bill serves as technical director. Together, they were responsible for a set of one-way mirrors that created ghostly apparitions in the opera company’s 2012 production of “Thaïs”; a looming, gold-paneled palace wall of old ceiling tiles for “Macbeth” in 2016; and once, for the opera company’s 2014 production of “The Italian Girl in Algiers,” a life-size, operational Greyhound bus that burst across the stage. 
“I lost a few years watching that one,” said Bill of the Greyhound scene. 
A massive wooden wall that captures the mood of the ill-fated king in 2016’s “Macbeth” was built by the Frimls and their team using plastic ceiling tiles painted to look like wood.
Photo courtesy Town Hall Theater
This year, from June 1 to June 9, The Opera Company of Middlebury will perform “A Streetcar Named Desire,” André Previn’s operatic interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ play of the same title. 
The Frimls, New Haven residents, have been making sets together since 1982. Ellie grew up in Charlotte and designed her first theater set while she was a student at Champlain Valley Union High School. When she’s not designing sets, she makes hand-woven tapestries. Bill works in technology and construction. Ellie and Bill, now in their 60s, met in the Mad River Valley while they were young. The pair married and raised two kids together, Nicholas and Tina.
The Frimls have only ever worked in small theaters in Vermont, but theater professionals say the sets they design are extraordinary. 
“Bill and Ellie could work for any professional theater in the country. We’re so lucky that they live here and work here,” Opera Company of Middlebury Artistic Director Doug Anderson said this week.
Working for a small-town theater poses unique challenges. At Town Hall Theater — a 134-year-old building — every prop has to fit through a door no larger than the average mudroom entrance. The sets must be pre-built in pieces that are then assembled onstage. The iconic New Orleans balcony from which Marlon Brando howled, “Stella!” in the 1951 screen adaptation of “Streetcar” had to be built in pieces and meticulously hung from the rafters while the tech crew assembled it. 
This year the Frimls also had to contend with the Middlebury Union High School Junior Prom, which was held in the theater on May 12 and required different scenery than that being put together for “Streetcar.” The Frimls and a crew have been working around the clock since then to build the set.
For the OCM’s 2012 production of Massenet’s “Thaïs” the Frimls constructed a set of one-way mirrors that became a variety of locales, including this one of the church with stained-glass panels.
Photo courtesy Town Hall Theater
“Theater crafts are tricky,” Anderson said. “You want everything to look great, but you’re working with limited time and an extremely limited budget.” 
The Frimls have worked with Anderson for years to bring his theatrical ideas to reality. Once Anderson formulate his vision for the set, Ellie and Bill execute it. They source materials from local lumberyards and basements and transform them into palaces, small town parks, busy Main Streets — whatever is required. 
For each set in each show they get to wrestle with the demands of giving scenes the illusion of reality while working with some real-world constraints that test their ingenuity and creativity, and perhaps their patience. For set of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Bill constructed a staircase and balcony in the style of a home in New Orleans’s French Quarter, which Ellie painted to look distressed and hung with Spanish moss.
For many shows Ellie has created dramatic floors — “Doug likes a decorated floor,” she said. So she paints the floor. But that means the floor can’t be wet while the actors are rehearsing or while Bill is building on stage during the day. So she spends late nights alone in the theater, painting cobblestones and kitchen tiles and creating optical illusions of depth. She prefers to listen to electronic dance music while she’s paints. 
“Ellie paints surfaces you swear are 3-D, the real thing,” Anderson gushes. He is equally impressed with the scenery that rises up off the floor: “And how do you build a wall that looks like it has been there forever when it’s just canvas and pipe and plywood? Bill is a structural genius.” 
For this summer’s opera, Bill has dealt with more than demands of building a balcony. The stage for “Streetcar” extends to just a few feet from the first row of theater seats. “You just don’t get this close to professional opera,” he said. 
The Frimls said they build sets because they love the creative challenge and the people who come to be part of the opera company. “There’s a strict no diva policy written into the bylaws,” said Bill. He said that the technical staff get an inside look at how professional singers and directors work. “You get to see the real people behind the voices,” Bill added. “We’d never be this close to it all otherwise,” Ellie added. 
Anderson said the Frimls’ all-nighters and late nights are a big part of what sets The Opera Company of Middlebury’s productions apart from those of other small theaters. “Our shows have a professional sheen that any opera company would be proud of, and our ‘Streetcar’ is no exception. There will be a real ‘wow’ factor when audiences see it for the first time.” 
Ellie and Bill are looking forward to watching the audience on opening night. “I feel special that I was here at the creation of some of these beautiful moments,” said Bill. “To witness the birth of an opera, that’s a beautiful thing.” 
See the Frimls’ beautiful sets and enjoy the wonderful music and acting in “A Streetcar named Desire” on Friday, June 1; Thursday, June 7, and Saturday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 3, at 2 p.m. 

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