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Posts Tagged University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Kit Mayer Just Wanted to Have Fun

Photo by Barbara Kelsey

All the action in Playwright Michele Riml’s Henry and Alice: Into the Wild happens on one set that is described at the very beginning of her script:

Lights up on a typical bare camping site. A picnic table, an old rim for a fire, a stump for chopping wood and some kindling are the only things on the site along with a couple of rocks and tree stumps. Overhanging the site is a large branch. 

When a set is so specifically defined, I wondered how the scenic designer approaches the project. For Park Square’s production of Henry and Alice, the set is designed by Kit Mayer.

According to Kit, in consultation with Director Mary Finnerty, he quickly established that he needed to design a highly realistic natural setting. That drove the rest of the decision-making process.

“I hadn’t done a highly realistic set with nature before, but it wasn’t that difficult to understand the space and the main elements needed to make it like a campground. Once we’d made the choice to go natural, it came down to finding what’s easily obtainable,” Kit said. “But we first had to determine where we would be and what kind of natural setting we wanted.”

Knowing that Michele Riml is a playwright from Vancouver British Columbia, an area with which Kit has familiarity, Kit pulled inspiration from that location. Doing so helped Kit to pinpoint what kind of trees to use that would be possible to acquire (making realistic fake trees would be too time-consuming and costly to do). Birch and pine trees are plentiful there so Kit selected birch.

Front view of Kit’s set model for Henry and Alice.

“We couldn’t go with pine trees. They’d dry out plus create a fire hazard,” Kit pointed out. “Birch trees–dead ones; we never chop down live trees–are easy to get. When I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska, we could go into the woods and drag them out.”

To get birch trees for Henry and Alice, Kit, who lives close to La Crosse, Wisconsin, simply kept his eyes open for dead birches in people’s yards as he varied his routes for a few weeks when driving to and from home. When he spotted dead birches, he’d knock on the homeowner’s door, offering to haul them away at no cost.

“Then I had to think about what to do with the floor. I ended up covering it with a ground cloth and throwing dirt, leaves, branches and other natural materials on it to create a sense of reality. And I just bought a fire ring and burned fires in my yard to age it and get it to look proper.”

Kit also has a background in lighting design that makes him able to keep in mind how to design a set to complement with lighting needs. He asks himself, “How would I like to see the set if I were the lighting designer? How can I help make the lighting more interesting and possibly easier?”

Finished set. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

For instance, Kit knows that having tree leaves will lend itself to patterned light to create that natural effect of sunlit leaves throwing shadows. Where he puts trees can also impact Lighting Designer Michael Kittel’s design for Henry and Alice; no trees should block key lights.

About his set design, Kit declared, “It was just fun to do.”

Having fun was also a huge factor in Kit accidentally stumbling into theatre arts. He hadn’t started college until his 20’s and did not want to end up with a desk job for work study. With his background in construction work, he was offered the chance to work in the Theatre Department, which to him “looked like the funnest place to work” so he accepted.

“I wasn’t a Theatre major,” Kit reflected, “but they sucked me in. They recommended a class to me in my first semester. Then they asked me to design a show in my second semester. I didn’t even know that such a career was possible, but I’d found my niche and enjoyed it. I got excited; and in my second year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I became a Theatre major. I later got my MFA in Design and Technology from the University of Minnesota.”

In his long career as a scenic designer, Kit’s work has been seen nationally from Maine to Alaska but also internationally in Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. He is a designer and founding member of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre in Alaska and the Resident Designer for Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minnesota. He has designed the sets for numerous Park Square productions throughout the years; and now, through October 22, you will get to see his latest endeavor in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

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