Yuen Ning '21

Behind the Scenes of a Theatrical Production

This fall, our theater department decided to do something we’ve never done before: we put on a show where the students not only were actors, but also playwrights, set designers, and dance choreographers. Based on Sophocles’ Greek classic, Antigone, we created our own version of the play: We Can’t Call It Antigone.
On the first day of school, theater students, new and returning, gathered in the lobby of the Campbell Performing Arts Center. Though in the past year I had been working in the theater frequently, it was my first time meeting Laurie Sales, our theater director who had just returned from a sabbatical. Enthusiasm emanated from her eyes as she greeted us and told us about her ideas for the fall play. As a theater prefect, I was more than excited to take on the role of set designer along with a fellow senior, John, and share my passion with the new students joining Stagecraft. After all, Groton’s advanced Stagecraft program was what struck me the most when I first arrived two years ago.

Going to the backstage shop somewhat resembled going home for me—somewhere I felt comfortable spending time, somewhere I belonged. The faint smell of sawdust and the razing sound of the miter saw filled the shop as I entered every afternoon, and I would make my way to the corkboard by the backstage door. Over the two months, it transformed from a bare corkboard to a mood board filled with sketches, photographs, and inspirations that spiraled from the theater department.

John and I made sketches of possible set designs and discussed the elements and themes of the designs with the staff. Many aspects of the set which we had to take into consideration were completely unfamiliar yet fascinating to me—a set isn’t merely about its appearance, but also about the different levels it allows the performers to create, the effect of scenic painting under different lighting and from a far distance, and the safety and practicality of the structures.

Having finalized the set design, we made a to-scale model of the set and relocated ourselves to the scenic paint area. A myriad of paint cans sat along the shelves and filled any empty space on the table; we generously poured the custard-like paints into buckets, mixing in different colors and awaiting a surprise. John and I were the only scenic painters, and it was as if we had been given a huge canvas. We experimented with a variety of techniques and tools to paint, discovering unexpected ways to create a realistic scene that looked totally different up close. Similarly, creating images on the door panels, which depicted the story of Antigone, pushed us to find unconventional ways to make art. Yarn, beads, foam boards, and spackle (plaster-like putty) allowed us to create dimensions in the panels, and the power of high and low lighting created illusions to the  human eye. We only saw what the set would look like to the audience when the walls and door were set up on stage—every stroke we took was risky, anticipating a surprise.

On the night of the show, I took a seat in the audience after helping the actors with makeup and costume. It was my first time watching the full performance, despite being in the theater for all the rehearsals. The lighting cues emphasized specific colors in the walls; the varying depths of the backdrops along with the smoke rising from behind the walls created a different world onstage. There were many times when I had to remind myself that this was in fact a high school play, and I felt a sense of gratitude that I’d never felt before.

Having the opportunity to see our design come to life—from a few sketches to a full theater set—is probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at Groton, and one that I will forever be grateful for.