Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Oklahoma--Scene Design

Show Button for Oklahoma

Oklahoma, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was produced Spring Semester, 2007 in the Snow Drama Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Oklahoma is widely considered the first modern musical.  It begins with Curly singing, Oh What A Beautiful Morning as he prepares to call on Laurie.  They tease one another in their courtship ritual and Laurey ends up accepting an offer to the box social from Jud Fry, the obsessive farmhand.  She does this to spite Curly.

At the box social, there is an auction for the lunch baskets the girls have made and Curly sells his saddle, his horse and his gun to earn enough money to win Laurey's basket so she will not have to be with Jud. 

At the end of the barn raising and box social, Jud confronts Laurey and she fires him.  He threatens her but finally leaves.  Curly and Laurie marry three weeks later and Jud shows up at the wedding and attempts to kill Curly.  Jud is killed in the process and the justice of the peace who has just performed the wedding proclaims it was self defense.  Curly and Laurey ride off at the end in the pretty little surrey with the fringe on the top.

There are several sub-plots but since this is such a well known piece I will not list them here.

As the design team met together, we agreed that the concept of Oklahoma would be a hand tinted, sepia toned photograph.  I remembered as a young boy, a lady in our neighborhood, whose husband was a photographer, hand tinted black and white photographs.  I had the privilege of watching her do it one day.  She would mix paint on a dinner plate and then using her finger as a brush she would rub the paint gently on the photograph.  The photos had a soft and nostalgic quality that I have never forgotten.

That meant that the colors of the scenery, costumes and lighting would need to be dulled and faded.

As we discussed the show and the concept, I suggested we create the set in forced perspective to simulate the wide open spaces of Oklahoma.

We decided to do most of the scene changes in front of the audience and it became important to us to show the scene changes in Act I as if the audience was a camera and it was panning across Laurey's property.

To recap, the concept became:
1.  Hand Tinted Photograph
2.  Forced Perspective
3.  Scene Changes Pan

I drew a set of thumbnail sketches in 1/8" = 1'-0" scale of what I thought our production of Oklahoma ought to look like.  After they were approved, I drew them again in 1/4" = 1'-0" scale.  Because the scene changes were going to be so important, for the first time in my career I storyboarded them.

Thumbnails Act I and first scene change
Also idea for corn rig

Thumbnails showing Act I Scene 2 plus scene change
Another idea for a corn rig

More thumbnails for Acts I and II

I decided to use portals to define the space rather than just the black curtains.  I chose portals for both practical and artistic reasons.  Portals are useful in the Snow Drama Theatre because the proscenium is very wide and it is a difficult theatre to mask the backstage area from the audience.  The portals we used were eight feet wide, which we then flanked with the black curtains.

The portals were painted in a sepia tone, but the inside edges were painted in ecru and the border was painted irregularly to abstract the deckled edge of an old photograph.  Each portal was designed to be smaller than the one in front of it as well to establish the forced perspective.

In the original drawings, I had Laurey's house on stage left.  As I worked through the design, I switched it to stage right.  I felt it balanced the picture to place it stage right, plus it facilitated the panning scene changes much better.

Act I Scene 1--Laurey's house

Act I Scene 1

Laurey's house was built in two pieces.  The porch piece detached and exited between portals one and two.  The rear of the house exited behind portal three.  The window up above was practical and Laurie called to Curly from it.  The forced perspective was achieved first by the portals in descending size, and second with the corn.  We created a cornfield by covering a sheet of plywood with blue foam, carving it into rows and "planting corn" in it.  The cornfield moved by embedding inline skate wheels into the plywood to give it a very low profile.  In the back, between the cyc and the scrim we created another cornfield, but the corn on that one was much smaller to simulate that it was in the distance.  There was a small windmill behind the scrim as well.

Full size corn in foreground, small size corn and windmill in the back behind the scrim

Windmill and corn behind scrim and groundrow

The corn by the henhouse

I made the corn by gutting about thirty Tiki torches I had purchased at Big Lots for about a dollar apiece.  I walked the canals and ditches around the countryside for cattail leaves and helped my brother thin his iris and collected those leaves as well.  My students and I then attached the iris and cattail leaves up the bamboo pole with green floral tape, then we created the tassels from floral picks I bought at a Christmas clearance sale and finally painted them with Design Master spray paints.  When the corn was finished, we sleeved it into holes in the blue foam.  The ASM called the corn wagon the giant skateboard.  We happened to have a stuffed raccoon, so I placed it in the cornfield.  Why not?

Rocky Raccoon

Act I Scene 2--The Smokehouse

Act I Scene 2

The Smokehouse set was designed in more extreme forced perspective than the farmhouse.  The walls splayed and the exposed timbers up top were spread like fingers across the stage.  The lighting designer backlit this for great effect.  We covered the walls with a combination of tools and implements and cut-out girly pictures from the Police Gazette.

Because I wished to simulate the camera panning across the property for these scene changes, I designed a window on the stage right side of the smokehouse, on the same wall as Jud's bed, to suggest that Jud would try to look at Laurey's window from his.  Made him that much creepier to me. 

Act I Scene 3--The Grove

Act I Scene 3

The trees turned out to be one of my favorite scenic elements in the play.  Originally, they were supposed to track across the stage during the scene change, but that proved too costly so we flew them instead.  It proved to be a pretty scene change because we had hidden stagehands behind the smokehouse that dragged it off while the trees flew in.

I designed the trees to be flat and flown, and the trunks were two dimensional but painted to appear three dimensional.  I wished the tops of the trees to be textured to catch the light, so we purchased a great deal of silk ficus foliage and stapled it up and covered them.  The lighting designer skimmed them with sidelight and it turned out to be very beautiful.

When Laurey collapsed in the grove, the ballet began and we flew the trees out.  The ballet is a dream sequence and all went to bare stage with a lighted cyc.  At the end, Richard Clifford, the director just wanted the red rag to fly in for intermission.  I requested we add a fly cue and bring the grove back in before the rag flew to re-establish reality for Laurey.  We tried it, we liked it.  I think it was the correct choice.

The Ballet

Act II Scene 1--The Barn Raising

Act II Scene 1

At the top of the act, we saw several of the townsmen with poles, pushing the front section of the barn vertical.  I designed three barn pieces in forced perspective.  The section down front was the largest and each one was successively smaller.  We also found paper lanterns in two sizes and had a string of the larger ones on the second frame and the smaller ones on the third frame.  All contributing to the idea of forced perspective.

Using poles to raise the barn

Act II Scene 2--The Skidmore Ranch

Act II Scene 2

The Skidmore Ranch scene is where Jud swears his love to Laurey who rebuffs him.  Jud grows angry and she fires him.  Curly saves her finally confesses his love to her.  He proposes, she accepts.

This was a simple scene with a corner of the ranch house on stage right with a flower garden wagon (made the same way as the great corn skateboard), a bench and a coal fired stove.  The scene was at night and we flew in a moonbox and a star drop behind the black scrim.

Act II Scene 3--The French Scene

Act II Scene 3

The scene change between the Skidmore Ranch and Laurey's place is the most involved change in the show, and Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a delightful little scene to facilitate that change.  It involves Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim.  It also involves a lot of kissing.

We chose to utilize the French scene as intended and dropped an act curtain in front of the scene change and placed a section of fence in front of it.  When the French scene was finished we raised the act curtain and were back at Laurey's place for the wedding, the death of Jud Fry and the grand finale.

Act II Scene 4--Back at Laurey's place

Act II Scene 4

This scene was much like the scene at the top of the show, except the cornfield was gone and there was different outdoor furniture to facilitate the wedding.  There was a table in front of Laurey's house and another makeshift table for gifts made of planks and crates.

After the death of Jud, Curly is found not guilty by a jury of his peers and he and Laurey ride off in the pretty little surrey with the fringe on the top.  I happened to have a colleague on campus who collects surreys and wagons.  He loaned us one of his for the run of the show. 

The pretty little surrey with the fringe on the top, drawn by six strong men

A few thoughts on scene changes
The original idea or concept for the scene changes was to have the scenes change in full view of the audience magically.  For example, we have a turntable on the Snow Drama Theatre stage and I originally wanted the smokehouse to be dragged into place by the turntable.  I wanted it to begin with the back of the smokehouse to the audience, be dragged into place by cables mounted on the turntable and brought to the front and turned around by the turntable. 

It would have been really spectacular if we had been able to manage that.

I also wished the grove to be dragged across the stage from stage left to stage right as if the camera had continued to pan across the property.

Both of those scene changes would have been costly to do and complicated to engineer.  Add to the fact that the sequence of scenes in act II don't lend themselves to spectacular scene changes and reality set in.  We do not have a Broadway sized budget at BYU-Idaho.

As a designer, I was faced with the decision, "Do I spend my money on the scenes or do I spend my money on the scene changes?"  The answer was obvious.

I enjoyed working on this production of Oklahoma.  We had a great design team and all of us were together on the concept.  This was a true pleasure for me.

Production Details
Directed by Richard Clifford
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Lighting Design by Ray Versluys
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall


  1. Hi Gary,

    I love your work. I'm painting a scene/prop for Oklahoma and love it. I'd love to find a part time steady job doing this. Do you have any recommendations?
    Thank you,

    Elle Ellechat33@gmail.com