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Setting the Stage: Twentieth-Century Theater Models on View at Bruce Museum
Detail of the set model for “Carmen”, set design: Mario Sala. Created for the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1914. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera Archives, Lincoln Center, New York.

GREENWICH, CT.- The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut celebrates the imagination of the theatrical set designer and the craftsmanship of the model maker with its newest exhibition Setting the Stage: Twentieth-Century Theater Models, on view through Sunday, March 15, 2009. The exhibition spotlights over twenty scaled versions of sets designed for Broadway, dance, opera and other theatrical productions and is the latest in a long-standing series of shows presented by the Bruce Museum that feature traditional small-scale rooms and houses. Setting the Stage: Twentieth-Century Theater Models is supported by the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund and a Committee of Honor chaired by Dorothy M. Cholnoky, Erika Hall and Emily G. Toohey and formed in honor of long time Bruce Museum volunteer and miniaturist enthusiast Renée Hack.

Through scaled set models, sketches, and photographs of the actual set used for theatrical performances, Setting the Stage explores the process of planning imaginative and elaborate sets for stage productions in the twentieth century. Visitors will have an opportunity to compare and contrast sets created for dance, opera and theater throughout the exhibition and explore the historic context of the models.

Setting the Stage: Twentieth-Century Theater Models features models made for major Broadway plays including sets by Tony-Award-winning designers, with each model accompanied by a brief summary of the play it depicts. On view are Tony Walton’s sets for Anything Goes, Sleeping Beauty, and A Tale of Two Cities, which is currently playing on Broadway, Robin Wagner’s City of Angels, Kiss Me Kate, and Young Frankenstein, which is also currently on Broadway, and Ming Cho Lee’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, Enigma Variations, and Ah, Wilderness. Designer Scott Pask will be represented with models from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Pal Joey, which is coming to Broadway during the coming season. Designer Heidi Ettinger will contribute a model from the 1998 revival of The Sound of Music. Opera sets include models made for early productions of the Chicago Lyric Opera such as La Bohème, Boris Gudonov, Le Prophette and Tosca, and models designed for more recent productions of the Metropolitan Opera. The show also includes early twentieth-century avant-garde studies done by Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Colin for the Ballet Russe on loan from the Lifar Collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art. in the show.

A designer usually begins with sketches to translate ideas and works with the director’s vision of the play. Eventually, especially for complicated productions involving a larger cast, the designer builds scale models of the entire stage representing some, if not all of the sets. The scale models allow the designer and director to view the stage from all angles, work out the sequence and position of set changes, plan lighting, and create a pattern for the actors to move around the stage - all before detailed construction drawings are produced. Set models are built in a variety of scales, ranging from 1/4 to 1 inch to the foot, depending on each designer’s preference.

Scenery, or set design as we know it today, is a product of the Italian Renaissance. To a large extent, set design is based on the discovery of the rules of linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), who around 1415 developed a mathematical system for creating the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface. In 1545, Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) published Architetura, the first work detailing the design and construction of a court theatre with a raised stage located at one end of the room.

The perspective scenery was designed to provide the Royal Chair with a perfect view. The front half of the stage floor was level, the rear half sloped up towards the back wall increasing the illusion of depth.

During the nineteenth century three major approaches developed in European stage design. The trend towards historically accurate scenery began in Germany around 1810 and is attributed to Josef Schreyvogel, the director of Vienna's Burgtheater. As early as 1804, the manager of the Court Theatre at Mannheim, Germany, joined several pairs of wings with door and window flats creating a more realistic scenic environment. Actor-manager Mme. Vestris (1797–1856) is credited with introducing the box set to the English stage.

At the end of the 19th century, designers Adolph Appia (1862–1928) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966) revolted against the traditional European scenic practices. They objected to a three-dimensional actor standing on a flat floor surrounded by acres of "realistically" painted canvas. Their controversial ideas, published in numerous books and periodicals, would become the basis of the New Stagecraft, one of simplification and suggestion. Appia developed a plastic, three-dimensional set with steps, columns, ramps, platforms revealed in directional light. Craig’s designs were monumental. Like Appia he broke the flat stage floor with platforms, steps, and ramps and replaced the parallel rows of flapping canvas with an elaborate series of tall screens which could suggest the essence of the locale.

Twentieth-century set design builds on all of these ideas combined with effective lighting, but uses modern technology to dramatically change the set between scenes. Conventionally, stagehands may move props in and out from the wings, but the entire set may be mounted on a giant turntable, or set pieces are dropped from or lifted up into the large space above the stage, often “on the fly” with the actors on stage.

Successful set design is not a means to an end, but rather it builds on close collaboration and communication between director and designer. By visually depicting the place and the mood, the set gives perspective to a play and validates the work of the actors.

Lenders to the exhibition include The Metropolitan Opera Archives, Lincoln Center, New York; The Historical Scenic Collection, Northeastern Illinois University/Lyric Opera of Chicago; and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

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