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Goodman Theatre Scene Shop Makes Set Magic

By Casey Cora | February 19, 2013 6:21am

FULLER PARK — Blink and you’ll miss it, but situated behind a nondescript building facade is a massive warehouse where elaborate sets are created for one of the nation's most revered theaters.

Set production moved to the Goodman Theatre Scene Shop, 363 W. Pershing Road, from an old warehouse on the Near West Side in 2008.

"I walked in and said, 'This is our shop,'" production manager Scott Conn recalled.

The 60,000-square-foot space is ideally located for deliveries and imports, with easy access to the nearby Dan Ryan Expressway. Plus, it's a straight shot north for transporting sets to the vaunted theater at 170 N. Dearborn St.

The shop's interior sort of resembles a huge Home Depot, with building materials and props sharing space on the racks.

It's laid out so each group of workers — welders, painters, metal fabricators and carpenters and the like — has its own area to work. Scene artists work in another large room, painting set pieces both large and small.

All told, the shop employs 18 full-time workers and several part-timers.

Their work begins long before the curtain rises, after a set designer and director finalize their vision for a production. Crews often work on short deadlines, typically eight to 12 weeks, to build sets for a season's worth of plays from scratch.

Getting every last detail right — and satisfying the occasionally picky director and designer — is Conn’s job.

"The deadline pressure is enormous. It’s really one of the biggest challenges of the job," he said. "Since no two productions are alike, each presents its own unique set of circumstances to navigate, from page to stage."

Consider the recent production of "Other Desert Cities."

Almost the entire play takes place in the living room of an aging conservative couple's Palm Springs, Calif. home on Christmas Eve 2004, with only a few lighting changes to mark the passing of time.

That's a testament to the play's gripping acting, but the subtlety of the set — a father warming his hands by the glowing fire to distract himself, the framed pictures of Hollywood and political stars adorning the wall, an all-but-forgotten Christmas tree — helps tell the story.

Roche Schulfer, the Goodman's executive director, puts it this way: "The set is a backdrop and playing field, as well as an important indicator of time, place and period, so attention to detail is paramount."

Walking throughout the scene shop, Conn, of Galewood, is quick to point out props from past productions. Among the inventory: benches, chairs, decorative doorknobs, bike tires, a rack full of enormous Oriental rugs, chandeliers, a grandfather clock and a tanned, plastic hog tied to a rotisserie rack.

“There are definitely some things that jump out at you right away,” he said. "You never know what you're going to find."

The Goodman Theatre, now in its 87th year, continues to bring award-winning productions and top-flight talent to its stage. Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," directed by longtime Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, begins March 9.