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Art&Seek Q&A: Set Designer Rodney Dobbs

by Manuel Mendoza 23 Oct 2008 8:56 AM

On Golden Pond, which closes this weekend at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is a naturalistic play so it needs a believable set. Set designer Rodney Dobbs has done a commendable job, creating a lived-in look for the summerhouse of an elderly couple spending their 48th year on the lake. We asked Dobbs about the set […]


On Golden Pond, which closes this weekend at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is a naturalistic play so it needs a believable set. Set designer Rodney Dobbs has done a commendable job, creating a lived-in look for the summerhouse of an elderly couple spending their 48th year on the lake. We asked Dobbs about the set and set designing in general.

Art&Seek: What was your goal for the On Golden Pond set?

Rodney Dobbs: With a realistic set such as this, I always try to create a space that suits the action of the play, allows the director to create interesting movement and invites the audience to forget that they are in a theater. OGP had only a few “requirements” such as doors to certain locations, the falling screen door, talking about and going “upstairs” and looking out the windows to see the lake. I also worked with the director, stage manager, set dresser/prop person and [Contemporary Theatre artistic director] Sue Loncar in locating and putting all of the “junk” on the stage that indicated this cabin had been loved and well used for many years. The real rough wood paneling I had used (and loved) before, and the color scheme of the set actually was taken from the furniture that we found that suited the play. Overall, I was very happy with the set, although it did come down to the wire to get it done. Typical!

A&S: How did you go about finding the photos, stuffed animals, hats, decorative plates and other knick-knacks that give the Thayer summer home its lived-in look? Were some of the props made for the production?

R.D.: Very few of the props were specifically made for this show. There were a few pieces of children’s art that the prop mistress’ kids made that are hung on the set. Some of the hats came from the costumer. Much of the decorative deluge came from Sue Loncar’s house and her husband’s office. They are both avid collectors of almost everything! I brought in — a number of books, magazines, newspapers and photos from personal sources, as well as the Pocket Sandwich Theatre’s prop room. The prop mistress brought stuff from home and that she borrowed from SMU. Some of the cast members even added personal photos that had meaning to them. Cast and crew brought in old and broken fishing poles for the holder on the wall. It was really a collaboration, and very few things that were brought in did not end up on the set. It was really just a matter of placing them and making them not look too “planned” — more like they had been accumulated over a long period of time as suggested by the script. Sorting it all out after the show will be a real chore!

A&S: What’s your background? How did you get into set designing?

R.D.: My father was in the construction business and the summer I was 16, I started working for the company he worked for, building houses, apartments and commercial buildings. I continued this job every summer and break through my college years. I learned about carpentry, painting, plumbing and wiring — all of which has served me well in the theater business. My undergraduate degree from Arkansas State University is in art with studio concentrations in commercial art and jewelry. I came to Dallas in 1976 to work as a commercial artist, and my first theater experience was with Dallas Repertory Theater (now long gone) in Northpark Mall. I helped build sets there with a fabulous set designer named Skelly Warren, who had his master’s degree from Chicago Institute of Art. He taught me a bunch and when he moved on, I designed a number of sets for DRT in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I also met Joe Dickinson there and started the Pocket Sandwich Theatre with him in 1980. In the 28 years of the Pocket I have designed eight or more shows a year there. Practice is good, and I learn something new on almost every set I do. I have also designed for Wingspan, Pegasus, Garland Civic, Garland Summer Musicals, Dallas Alliance and others. I’ve lost count, but it has to be over 250 shows by now. This is the fourth show I have designed for DCT, having earlier done The Dining Room, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Last Night of Ballyhoo (all three times). Since 1995, I have had a “day job” at Greenhill School as Technical Director and teacher of tech theater and jewelry. I keep designing sets because I love to create things. There are few things in my life that satisfy me more than the lights going up on a set I have designed.

A&S: What’s your favorite set that you’ve designed? What role did it play in the show?

R.D.: Tough question! I guess as a good “parent” for my set designs, I should say that I love them all equally. But … a few come to mind. I had great fun designing and building a four-sided refrigerator for the Wingspan’s FIT festival show a few years back, Art on the Fridge. The sheer simplicity and functionality of the piece was very fulfilling. All the doors opened, people climbed in and out of it and the ice in the door worked!

Some of the shows I have done for Garland Summer Musicals were inspiring simply because of the size. It is rare that I ever get to design sets for a 40-foot proscenium with 20 fly rails. Large scale can be exhilarating.

One other set does come to mind. It was for a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre sometime in the early ’90s, directed by Bruce Coleman. The first act took place at a sidewalk cafe on the streets of Paris. The second act was in the junky basement that the Madwoman used as her parlor. In the very small and limited space of the Pocket, the transition of scenes was a real challenge — so I made it even tougher. As the lights came up for Act II, walls folded out, flew up, platforms hinged down and the whole set transformed right in front of the audiences’ eyes from one place to the other, as the actors made their entrance. People told me it reminded them of an opening music box. It got applause every performance and it took six or seven actors — in addition to the stage crew — pulling ropes and pushing levers to make it happen. I barely slept the week the show went in to get it all done. It was a very gratifying exhaustion.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly conversation with a person involved in the arts in North Texas.

Photo: Contemporary Theatre of Dallas

  • Brian

    Great job as always, Rodney! You’re very talented!

  • bruce

    your madwoman set was one of the best you ever did for me! what a great memory!

  • Garrett

    this is pretty cool. way to go old man, I’m proud of you.

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