Designer and director Doug Ham’s recent work has included some remarkable set designs.
At the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, his design for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” consisted of colossal, colorful, multi-dimensional pyramids on which were played wide-ranging scenes in far-flung locations. The Next Stage Repertory Company’s “Tally’s Folly” was set in an exquisite, delicate and decaying boathouse to portray a pervasive psychological landscape. “Chicago,” at Ashland High School, was placed in a cavernous speakeasy with an orchestra on bleachers center stage.
Ham is preparing to direct “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” at the Craterian theater, and is designing sets for “The 39 Steps” at Ashland High School. Last week, we chatted at Bloomsbury Coffee.
EH: What makes a good stage set?
DH: If an audience can look at it, understand it, accept it, and know where they are, then it becomes a backdrop for the actors. The most important thing is that the set is an establishment of the location but doesn’t overtake the show. Every show is a new challenge: to do the research, figure it out and understand how it’s going to work for the space. In a small space, you have to be imaginative to make a show work. I designed for a professional company in California with a 50-seat theater. I put a two-story set in there. You have to be creative.
When I read a script, I start imagining where it’s at, what it looks like and what I can do to give the director a lot of choices. As a director, you want different areas, different levels on which to place the actors for a more dramatic scene. If you just have a plain stage and you don’t have a way for them to move to another level, the stage pictures can get boring.
For “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” there are six characters, but I will add an ensemble of 12 more, all Charles Schultz’s characters, like Pig Pen and Peppermint Patty. It will be visual choreography — some fun stuff. It will have a pen-and-color feel to it. I want it to look like the comic strip. There will be a level stage, but upstage I will have a stair unit for the glee club scene. When they’re at the ball game, I can use it as bleachers.
EH: Is it different working with young people?
DH: I just treat teenagers as equals. I don’t talk down to them. I try to give them the knowledge I’ve gained over many years, and teach them how it’s important to work as a team, to be humble, and not get the diva thing going on. I tell them in England they expect every actor to be as good as the lead actor; they don’t applaud when a star comes on stage. They just expect everybody to tell the story together. I tell them how important the actors are to the technicians, to respect them, the same thing with the actors because one can’t live without the other. I think they get it.
In “The 39 Steps,” there are about 36 scenes. It goes from a train to a bridge to the Scottish Moors to everywhere else. We’re going to do some projections, still photographs and movie clips.
It’s scary. You get a new script and you think, “Oh, am I ever going to make this work?” Then, magically it comes, it’s there, and that’s the excitement.