Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown--Scene Design

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown
You're a Good Man Charlie Brown was produced Spring Semester, 2006 in the Kirkaham Arena Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho

This play is a series of vignettes to illustrate a day in the life of Charlie Brown and the other characters in Charles M. Schulz world of Peanuts. 

Each vignette is supported by a song and all of them are directly based on moments from the award winning comic strip.  The play begins with each of the characters talking about Charlie Brown and giving their opinions of him.

Charlie Brown is unable to talk to the "cute little red-headed girl", he is unable to fly a kite, he loses the baseball game, doesn't get a valentine and yet in the end he is still optomistic and full of hope.  His sister Sally is upset because of the poor grades her teacher gives her.  Lucy wishes to be queen, acts as a psychiatrist, and tries in vain to get Schroeder to confess his love for her.  Linus suffers separation anxiety from his blanket and Snoopy entertains by being a vulture, a WWI pilot and dances for his supper.

The play ends, nicely bookended with everyone confessing that Charlie Brown is a good man.

I had seen a particularly bad production of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown in the early 1970's and when Justin Bates told me he wanted to do this play I was less than enthusiastic.  We discussed it over lunch and he told me how he felt about the play and it's message of hopefullness.  He told me that Schulz had been criticized for penning the strip about a perennial loser like Charlie Brown and Schulz responded by saying Charlie Brown was not a loser because no matter what happens, he never gives up.  This is the idea that Justin wanted to communicate to the audience.  A message of hopefulness.  I began to look at the material in a different way and started to find it endearing.  I had always liked Peanuts when I was young.

Justin said he wanted a unit set with an area set aside for each character to have individual moments in.  He also wanted to have several levels but was very clear that they couldn't impede the action.  He also said he wanted  the look of the show to mimic the look of the Sunday color edition of the strip.  He wanted to pay homage to Charles M. Schulz.  I had a clear idea of where to begin.

I picked up a few books with reprints of Peanuts comic strips, particularly the ones with the Sunday editions and began to study them.  I found that often Schulz would use a single, flat color for the sky and a different color for the ground.  His sky wasn't always blue and his grass wasn't always green.  The background was merely there to provide an environment for his characters to exist in.  Every now and then, when it was necessary he'd add a wall or the corner of a house or some of the props that were important to the world of Peanuts.

Schulz had a very loose line style which was mirrored in Vince Gauldi's jazz theme for the television specials.  Most of the time all that separated the sky from the ground would be quick pen strokes that communicated grass simply and elegantly. 

I designed a series of levels, all curved and all painted in colors I had seen in the Sunday strip to create the different areas for each of the characters.  Each of the levels were six inches above the one below so the actors could move up and down with grace and ease.  There was also a ramp between levels where the height was greater than six inches.

Levels for characters
To acheive the different colors in the sky from the script, I decided the easiest way to accomplish that would be to hang a cyc in the Kirkham Arena Theatre.  A cyclorama is not traditionally used in a black box theatre but it is not completely unheard of.  Between the upper platform and the cyc I designed a Charles M. Schulz style ground row with blades of grass and a couple of trees.

Elizabeth House, our charge artist at the time captured the essence of Schulz's line work very well in the painting of the trees and groundrow, as well as all the other props.  Each surface was to be painted a flat color first and the linework to be added after with Van Dyke brown instead of black.  I like Van Dyke brown because it is so dark and yet it gives a little back whereas black just absorbs the light and appears to be a void on the stage.  Van Dyke also gave us the appearance of India Ink which I think emulated the style of the cartoonist better than black would have.  Elizabeth also played the part of Lucy in this production, by the way.



Linework in grass, tree and doghouse
After the deck and the groundrow, all that was left were the special props and set pieces.  These needed to be oversized so our adult actors would appear to be children in scale to the props.  I studied the original Schulz drawings and I also measured my own furniture against my children so I could get an idea of the scale we'd have to use.

Schroeder and Lucy at the piano

Linus and Lucy on oversized sofa

No Valentines for Charlie Brown

The Doctor is in

Lucy and Schoeder at the wall

Snoopy with bullet hole decals on doghouse

Oversize baseball gloves made by

Fire hydrant

Since this is a musical, I had to make room for the orchestra, which in this case was a band.  I located the band on an elevated platform at the rear of the theatre so they could have a clear view of the stage and the performers.

The band

I was grateful that Justin cajoled me into taking this script seriously.  I had developed a bias toward the material because of a bad production.  I found this particular production of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown to be compelling and inspiring.  I credit the director for that.

Production Details
Directed by Justin Bates
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighting Design by Ray Versluys
Costume Design by Patty Randall
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director: Patty Randall


  1. Love it! Gary! You are a genius.

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