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Designing Doesn’t Stop, Even When Stage Shows Do

Theater seats are empty, orchestra pits mute and the stages — bare and undressed, or still wearing last season’s fashions. Among those in the theater industry rocked by the pandemic are the scenic artists who create the environment and aesthetic that defines the works onstage. And though right now the shows can’t go on, the designers still must, and many are finding innovative ways to stay busy.

“We’re artists, so we’re used to using our hands and expressing ourselves,” said the designer Anita La Scala. “It’s interesting in a pandemic what can come out of that, creatively speaking, and I think everyone is being put to that test.”

Here’s a look at what La Scala and some of her colleagues have been doing — if not for money, then for an expressive outlet while the world is stalled.

Set and costume designer and co-founder, Malaprop Theater

Known for “The Playboy of the Western World” (The Gaiety Theater/The Lyric Theater); “Ask Too Much of Me” (Abbey Theater)

Sheltering in Dublin

Project Recreating famous artworks with her parents

Before the pandemic, O’Cathain was working as a production design assistant at the National Theater in London, but since lockdown, she has been living with her parents in Dublin.

Her portrait project began as a response to a tweet from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that called for art fans to recreate paintings from the museum’s galleries. What she called a “five-minute form of after-dinner entertainment” became a larger series, and she was soon hooked.

“Something about working with my parents to stage them and photograph them, and then sending it out to the audience I had gathered on social media started to feel a tiny bit like designing or making a performance for an audience,” O’Cathain said. “There was an audience, there was creative content, and there was a response and thus a community.”

Using fabrics from her mother, who is a textile designer, and odds and ends from the house — underwear, blankets, utensils, raincoats, bicycle helmets, yoga mats — O’Cathain worked to select and resourcefully stage the artworks.

Starting with “iconic duos or iconic portraits of couples,” like “American Gothic,” “The Kiss” and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, O’Cathain said, the pieces add up to a cultural history of couples: “They show all the different ways we’ve invented of performing marriage and intimacy.”

Resident scenic designer, Albany Park Theater Project; assistant professor of scenic design, Trinity University

Known for “Into the Breeches” (Alabama Shakespeare Festival); “A Doll’s House, Part 2” (Repertory Theater of St. Louis); “The Winter’s Tale” (Shakespeare Festival St. Louis)

Sheltering in San Antonio

Project An opera-house-themed cat door, a.k.a., the Teatro del Gatti

Before things shut down, Neale was at work on immersive theater projects in Chicago and Miami, while sheltering with his wife in the home they moved into about a year and a half ago. One home-improvement idea came up quickly: the need for a cat door for their two feline companions, Ted and Rufus (named from the “Bill & Ted” movies). Neale wanted to use his self-described “wacky” style to create something novel. First thought: Western saloon. But swinging doors seemed as if they’d be an issue for the cats. His wife then suggested a stage instead, as an “homage” to his career.

He ended up making the whole thing from scratch, using strips of basswood for the stage, clay cast paw-prints for the filigree of the proscenium, and footlights made from casts of bottle caps, with working LED lights inside.

Initial reviews from his stars were mixed. Ted, the more “sophisticated” of the two, freely wandered in and out, while Rufus was more reticent and confused. Not everyone, it seems, is born for the stage.

Scenic designer; adjunct lecturer

Known for “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” on Broadway

Sheltering in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Project Garden design

Werle was designing the world premiere of “Trevor: The Musical” at Stage 42 and teaching at New York University and Brooklyn College when the shutdown happened. She and her husband, Paul Jepson, a stagehand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have been living on what she is being paid for the one class she is teaching at Brooklyn College, as well as unemployment checks.

Since both have been out of work, they turned to the yard of their house in Midwood, where they’ve been living since 2014. Werle, whose father is a landscape architect, began taking classes at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2017 toward a certificate in horticulture. Thinking of how plants can become a part of storytelling, she and Jepson transformed the yard into a whimsical greenhouse teeming with hundreds of plants. Werle designed and painted and Jepson built and lit the structure.

The eclectic plantings — cucumbers, aloe, marigolds, sunflowers and tomatoes — alongside eBay purchases and various props that Werle uses to “break down the boundaries of the garden spatially” is meant to create what she calls a “textured, layered feeling” similar to what she aims for onstage.

Theater/event designers, ARDA Studio

Known for “A Night With Janis Joplin” (Pasadena Playhouse); “Disney on Ice”

Sheltering in Pleasant Valley, N.Y.

Project A boat-themed baby nursery

In February, the married design team were in Belgium, preparing for the Australian tour of “Magic Mike Live,” with the set builders in Europe. Returning home to New York City just before lockdown, the couple relocated to a family house in upstate New York with their baby, Emma, who was born in November. Work had stopped.

Inspired by how Emma responded to the children’s books they were reading to her, La Scala and Bissinger decided to create a whole nautical scene for their daughter. Bissinger transformed Emma’s cradle, built by La Scala’s father and passed on in the family, into the boat. She came up with the idea of using fabric and beads left over from shows they were working on that were paused or canceled to make the clouds and rest of the backdrop.

La Scala said that the project reflects their design approach, showcasing a number of elements and fine-tuning from there. “We respond to the story, right?” Bissinger said. “And in this case, the story is Emma.” He added: “She’s a little baby who really appreciates bright colors, patterns and textures that are soft. So we’re kind of responding to her in the same way that we would respond to a play or a show.”

Puppet and scenic designer (also actor, director and playwright)

Known for “Hercules” (Delacorte Theater); “The Woodsman” (New World Stages)

Sheltering in Queens, N.Y.

Project Embodying comic-book villains

Raised on comic books and the 1990s “Batman” and “X-Men” animated series, Ortiz has been recreating characters from his youth — and for him, it’s the villains that hold the most appeal. “I never wasted my time in thinking I was Batman,” he said. “I was like, no, I really get what the Riddler’s about. He makes a lot of sense to me.”

Doing roughly one look a week, Ortiz has recreated nearly a dozen characters, each with his own twist. His Scarface and Ventriloquist were inspired by the “dark deco” style of the animated “Batman” series, while his Scarecrow was styled in tribute to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Catwoman — who he intended to be a 1940s-style Hedy Lamarr or Veronica Lake type — turned out more like a 1960s Ann-Margret, but with black hair.

Following what he called the “old-fashioned approach” of latex on plaster used by the renowned special effects and makeup designer Rick Baker — along with tips picked up from the cosplay community and drag shows — Ortiz focused on materials he already had at home. After creating a look, he photographed himself in character and posted on Instagram.

“A lot of my creative life is about making tangible that which is someone else’s imagination,” Ortiz said. “It’s not that often I get to play dress-up myself.”

Scenic designer

Known for “Chasing Bono” (Soho Theater); “Talk Radio” (Old Red Lion)

Sheltering in Bristol, England

Project Sculptures from household scraps

Dorey said he was always interested in “the idea of one’s own space and contained little worlds” but hadn’t had time to explore it before. When lockdown happened a week away from the opening of three shows he was working on and it became clear that the shows would be canceled, he turned to making miniatures, a process he calls “meditative.”

Dorey uses mundane household scraps, like plastic lids, packaging, electronic parts, discarded toys and sometimes natural items, like wood or stones, to build these miniatures, which reflect his interest in “climate change, isolation and where we are going as a species.” Dorey said that he is interested in “the aesthetics of rot and rust and decay,” and slowly realized that even his sci-fi sculptures, of spaceships and U.F.O.s, fit into the larger theme of a society that has collapsed because of the ravages of climate change.

Making the miniatures has been creatively inspiring. “When you are building a model for theater, the focus is on precision and it must be made to a certain set of limitations,” Dorey said. “When I sit down I can just start making without any plan, but allow myself to see how it grows in front of me.”

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