Sets are an integral part of theatre. Some of the most iconic musicals of all time have recognizable stages; think of the alleyway in CATS, the revolving turntable in Les Misérables, the underground river in The Phantom of the Opera. Sets quite literally set the scene for the musical, providing the audience with necessary context like time period and location.
At the Bobby G Awards, the state-wide high school musical theatre program, the Outstanding Achievement in Scenic Design category seeks to honor participating schools and the students involved. The 2023 nominees include Durango High School, Erie High School, Liberty High School, Montezuma-Cortez High School, and Niwot High School.
The students participating in their musicals’ scenic design are involved from the start. Natalie Kowalski, a senior at Liberty High School, has been part of the scenic design crew for her school’s productions since freshman year. Even with her experienced hand and a team of help, she says the entire process of creating the set for The Addams Family took upwards of three months.
In the brainstorming process, there are many elements to consider. What is the color palette for the show? Will any set pieces need to move? How will lighting elements be incorporated? At Durango High School, collaboration and communication between the designers was vital to bring their vision for Anastasia The Musical to life. Cruz Colvig, senior, took charge of the structural development of the set while Benjamin Hinkley managed the painting and Ayana Glass oversaw the lighting elements. “We were in constant communication to make sure everything would work together,” Colvig said.
During the construction process, passion overrides stress. For Jonathan Sandner, freshman at Montezuma-Cortez, building functional structures is the most rewarding part of the process. He explained, “There’s just something about it that keeps me interested and makes me feel like I accomplished something.” It’s a trait he says he shares with his father, Nicholaus Sandner, the director of Montezuma-Cortez’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Nicholaus shared, “Students learn so many transferable skills by helping build the arts, and it always makes me proud when my students come back from college and tell me that they impressed their professors by their building skills. It makes for a well-rounded theatre person.”
For Jorryn Strah, sophomore at Erie High School, this was her first time working in scenic design. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was my first real theatre experience and it was incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Between the physical set looking amazing, the shows being fantastic, and the amazing people that I had the privilege of meeting, I am incredibly grateful to have been a part of the set designing and building process.”
Besides building (pun intended) vital skills as a designer, these students learn more about how scenic design impacts the actors’ ability to share a story. The designers for Niwot High School’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Lyric Bishop, Kaiya Brown, Paige Ioerger, and Jason Watkins agree: “The actors can bring this story to life to a point, but the thing that gives the story its breath are the scenes. If you don’t set the scene, it will be hard to understand some very important details, mood and subtleties.” Additionally, Aimee Winsor, sophomore at Liberty, explained, “[The set] gives the actors something to interact with so they can understand the scene better too, and adapt and improve the delivery of their lines.”
By the production’s opening night, seeing their world come to life is a magical experience. Ari Moll, junior at Erie High School, said, “It felt great to know that I was a part of something I was very proud of. I enjoyed a lot of the hard work that went into the project simply because I was excited to see the result.”
Special thanks to the following contributors who helped inform this article:
Durango High School (Cruz Colvig, Ayana Glass); Erie High School (Ari Moll, Jorryn Strah, Mackenzie Ross); Liberty High School (Natalie Kowalski, Aimee Winsor); Montezuma-Cortez High School (Nicholaus Sandner, Jonathan Sandner); Niwot High School (Lyric Bishop, Kaiya Brown, Paige Ioerger, Jason Watkins)