It was a long climb to reach the Dom Ballroom when Stage 212 was renting it for our productions. It had been built around the turn of the 20th century as a gathering place by area residents of Slovak descent, and had been used for wedding receptions and dances for years until it's usefulness had faded. It had seen better days by the time we came in to bring it back to life. For most of the year it was a cavernous empty room with a long bar along the west wall, a dance floor area in front of a small stage, aging plaster and paint which sometimes landed on the floor, and a roof that leaked here and there no matter how many times it was repaired.
Four times a year, it was transformed into our home for a few months, and we made the best of it. A call would go out to board and members that a day had been set for all to gather and build our stage, and there was always a large group that showed up to help. Even though we knew it would be demanding work, it was also a celebration that another show was starting. Most of our building materials were stored in the basement so it meant carrying things up three flights of stairs, and the procession seemed endless. It was an exciting and exhausting day, but one that presented the best example of "Community" theater.
The goal of the day was to attach three foot legs to platforms and bolt them together to form the basic foundation for the set. Sometimes it was a simple, smaller layout, while other shows required several levels or two stories, and summer musicals often used every platform we owned.
I designed the set for West Side Story by making a small model out of painted and shaped poster board to a 3/8" = 1' scale... so 1 1/2" X 3" equaled one 4' X 8' platform. Since my motto could be said to be "More is more!" this set began just inside the entrance doors in back with a series of ramps onto the main stage area and as far back on the existing Dom stage as it could go. It was roughly 50 feet wide and went from the stage floor to the ceiling. so when the audience entered it appeared to be receding in an endless alley of gritty brick and stone buildings, with a long ramp leading to a loading dock center stage which was neutral territory. One front building on stage right with a fire escape was Shark turf and a covered back porch on stage left where the Jets claimed as there own. There were entrances and exits everywhere you looked, between each of the six buildings that were painted in forced perspective, behind a shack on one stage front side and a wooden fence on the other, and even under the loading dock and back porch so the entire stage was filled and abandoned in a flash. I have no idea how many crusty bricks and cracking blocks I painted, or how many foam rubber stones I carved and painted and stapled on, and when it was done, we all just sat and took it all in. I had designed many sets, but this one was a cut above, and I was thrilled with the way it came out.
I had one idea from the beginning that I kept a secret until it was all painted, and when I shared it with some of the staff, they were appalled, and couldn't believe that I wanted to "ruin it." I announced to the cast that for the next rehearsal I wanted them to wear old throw away clothes, but didn't tell them the reason. After the rehearsal I uncovered a table full of spray paint, brushes and a variety of old cans of paint... I announced that I wanted them (in character) to add the finishing touches by covering the entire set with graffiti... sans anything too graphic or nasty. I sat back and was totally entertained as the rival gangs wrote or drew sharks or jets only to be altered or crossed out by the next artist. There were barefoot prints everywhere, and Paul Boyle changed the "No Parking" sign on the loading dock to "No Farting." They had a ball getting as much paint on each other and chasing around screaming and behaving like four year old's letting loose with the inner bad little kid. When the last "T" was crossed and they were done with this act of vandalism, we all agreed that it was the perfect way to ice the cake.