A! Magazine for the Arts

Derek Smith, resident scenic designer at Barter Theatre, holds his 3D model of the Taran set.

Derek Smith, resident scenic designer at Barter Theatre, holds his 3D model of the Taran set.

The Jungle Comes Alive-But Only For a Limited Time

November 10, 2012

A broad tree rises from a bed of roots into a green canopy. All about the trunk flowers of red and blue sprout and hang amongst ferns and vines. A large branch forms an arch and from atop it something stirs.

This could describe an equatorial jungle, or the stage at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

"The jungle is almost a garden of Eden," said Derek Smith, resident scenic designer at Barter Theatre. "Our goal was to create a magical untouched jungle paradise." This particular jungle paradise comes from the scene shop at Barter Theatre.

Inside the shop saws whir as workers craft new horizons. "The first day here I realized part of my job was scene design." Smith said. "I knew nothing about theatre. Stage left and stage right meant nothing to me."

Smith talks about his experience with Tarzan in his office adjacent to the shop, mentioning the differences between crafting the paintings that line his walls and designing a set like Tarzan's. A crucial factor, he says, is the "ability to find a common ground between aesthetics and functionality ... In fine arts there's no functional issue with a painting other than if it will hang on a wall."

This functional aspect is what makes the set of Tarzan so unique. In many plays the extent of set interaction is opening or closing adoor. "The set is basically a giant jungle gym for the actors," Smith said. "They interact with it so much. Maybe that's why they think of it as another character."

Of course Tarzan isn't complete without aerial acrobatics. "They are not hooked to a wire," Smith said of the brachiating actors. "Even in Broadway they have these shackles and buckles. We decided early on we didn't want that. It distracts and detracts from the magic. We may have swung someone into a tree once or twice during tech, but it's mostly been smooth."

This unrestricted energy helps supply the glamour Smith designed the set to create. "For inspiration I looked mostly at rain forest photographs," Smith said. "We wanted it to look as natural as possible, but still magical in the musical theatre sense. We spent almost all of tech dressing the set with birds of paradise, orchids, vining up the tree and hanging vines. It's the untouched natural beauty that lends to the narrative. The humans coming are such a stark contrast."

Across the room from Smith sits a scaled down model of the set. The shoe box sized predecessor to the life sized habitat is incredibly detailed. "This is different from anything else I've done," Smith said. "As my first main stage musical it's different in scope both in terms of budget and space. From beginning of design to end of construction it took at least three months."

Did the three month jungle trek bear fruit?
"Everything I've heard is positive," Smith said. "The audience responds to it, the actors enjoy going to work there every day. I couldn't be happier with it. The shop did a great job turning my drawings into the real thing. I am my own worst critic though. If I ever created something I was completely satisfied with I would have to stop. Where do you go from there?"

Growing the set from models to the full stage ecosystem was a long and sometimes arduous process. "Working at Barter is really hard," Smith said. "But it's fulfilling at the same time. We can get trapped in our own little worlds, but when the whole collaborative process comes together, when you sit down and see it with an audience, that makes it all worthwhile."

When the story finally reached his stage, Smith said he was surprised. "My first impression: it's much more emotionally powerful than I thought," Smith said. "It's a story about family, becoming a man and what it means to be a man or a wild man. What does it mean to be civilized? And who is more civilized the humans that arrive or Tarzan?"

"Tarzan The Musical" is nearing the end of its run at Barter Theatre; it closes Nov. 17. For more information about last chance tickets visit www.bartertheatre.com or call 276-628-3991.

Tarzan production-341: From "Tarzan: The Stage Musical" now playing at Barter Theatre.