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Setting The Playhouse Stage

Ever wonder what goes on backstage at the Westport Country Playhouse?

Neither did I.

But when a friend suggested I call Andrew Kirsch — a 2002 Staples grad whose career has zoomed from intern to shop carpenter — I did.  I never miss a chance to snoop around in Westport’s hidden corners.  And the Playhouse has some of the best.

Andrew Kirsch proudly surveys the "tick, tick...Boom!" set.

It’s hard to imagine a young person who loves his work more than Andrew.  Staples gave him a set-building boost; Emerson College honed his skills.  Now he spends several months a year in the Playhouse’s newly renovated workrooms, creating magic out of nothing more than a director and stage manager’s dreams — then tossing it in the dumpsters a few weeks later, when the next show is ready for load-in.

Right now, “tick, tick…Boom!” is ending a successful run.  But Andrew is hard at work on “How the Other Half Loves,” opening soon.  Two families share the stage together — unaware of the other — so the set is a typically complex puzzle.  It’s Kirsch and the crew’s job to make it seem easy and believable — while still inspiring awe when the curtain rises.

One of Andrew’s 1st shows was “Journey’s End.”  Set in French trenches toward the end of World War I, the show needed a bunker to cut the stage down dramatically.  “We had to give the illusion of depth and shadows,” Andrew recalls.  “At the end of the play, the bunker collapses.”  And it had re-collapsed every night.

“The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” by contrast, called for an ornate set, including a dramatic, overhanging backlit mural.

Andrew thrives on ever-changing challenges.  In addition to carpentry, he does framing, flooring, welding and fabricating — and in a variety of time periods and styles.  “If a show takes places 300 years ago, things should look like they were cut by hand,” he notes.  “We use a table saw, but it has to seem like we didn’t.”

The set builders work meticulously because they are professionals.  But they know too there is no room for error, because Westport Playhouse audiences are sharp.  “They notice everything,” Andrew says.  “And they know the shows.  They know what to look for.”

As a member of the International Association of Stagehands and Theatrical Technicians, Andrew works at other sites beyond the Playhouse — the Klein Auditorium, Shubert, even Harbor Yard.  Last month, he helped rig the Levitt Pavilion Tom Jones concert.

“I like the variety, but I also like working here at the Playhouse,” Andrew says.  “It’s a small crew, a nice team.  I’m learning a lot.”

The skills he’s learning are much in demand.  Bigger theaters may beckon.

“At some point, who knows where I’ll be,” he says.  “Right now, I’m building my career.”

Literally.

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