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Artisan Spotlight: Karin Rabe, Set Designer for An Act of God

Karin Rabe
Alley Theatre Properties Master

As the Alley’s Props Master, every day you oversee the creating of all props for the Alley. What was it like to have this new role as Scenic Designer for An Act of God? Can you tell us about the process?
It was fantastic and a lot of fun. Although I was trained as a scenic designer, I’ve spent my whole career as a Props Master bringing other designers visions to life on the stage. It was fun and challenging to shake the rust off and work with James Black and the other designers to develop my own vision of what An Act of God should be. And because the other designers were also all Alley staff members, we already had a great rapport and were able to work together as a team very well.

When James and I initially met we both had already developed our own ideas of what the show should be and look like and as he started describing to me what he envisioned, I pulled out my initial ground plan and research, and it was almost exactly what he described. We were very much in sync from the beginning. From there, it was about developing the final look of the show. We discussed lots of fun things which led to lots of fun research, like watching lots of Monty Python and the 1986 Clash of the Titans. At one point we had lots of columns on the set, which obviously didn’t make the cut. Then I stumbled onto the painting that we eventually used as inspiration for the backdrop and portal frame: a 1739 painted ceiling from the Göttweig Abbey by Paul Troger, titled the Apotheosis of Charles VI. It had the right amount of biblical imagery, and at the same time was a little bit irreverent like the play itself. The original painting actually features Charles VI riding a chariot pulled by 2 white stallions. It was fantastic.

You’ve been creating worlds on stage for years as Props Master, but was there anything about creating this set that surprised you?
All the math! We use math every day in props, but this was a different kind of math. We knew we wanted an elevated platform for God, a stairway for him to ascend at the end of the play, and we wanted to be able to do projections behind that. The problem with the Neuhaus is that you can’t really raise the ceiling to get more height, and Mr. Waite is quite tall. Oh and the sofa needed to be as far upstage as possible so that when he was sitting, he was still visible to all the seats in the house. We did end up making some changes to the space: removing a few seats to pull the proscenium downstage a bit so we could have more upstage space to project from behind. So, the math in figuring out how high the steps could go, and still have a complete balanced picture was a huge challenge. Everything is custom fit to Todd.

PS. That math minor I got along with my theatre degree really helped.

What was the greatest challenge for you personally?
Trying to balance the wants and desires of being a designer with the reality of being the Props Master who has to make those desires come to life within a budget. Luckily we have an awesome Associate Technical Director and scene and prop shop staff that were instrumental in making my dreams come true.

I also now understand what our scenic designers mean when they say they hate drawing furniture for us to build. Because the sofa is such a wacky shape, I had to draw it for the prop shop in order for them to create it. Side note: it’s kind of built like a modular piece of IKEA furniture.

What would you say is most crucial in creating a successful scenic design?
Hands down, teamwork. Without working with the other designers and the Director to create a world where the actors are comfortable, it would be hard to have a cohesive look and it may not help tell the story.  Because Andrew Vance, our lighting and projection designer, is also my husband there were many nights where we’d discuss different ideas for the set, the lighting and the projections. The math I mentioned earlier also comes into play for the lighting, so if I’d designed things a bit differently, it would have resulted in a totally different look. Working together was instrumental, and I’d say we were more than successful. Team work, as they say, makes the dream work.