RRTC’s Murdered to Death set a star

By Jake Davies - West Carleton Online

CONSTANCE BAY – A good theatre set doesn’t blend in to the scenery, it doesn’t chew the scenery, it is the scenery.

It needs to be flexible; convey a feeling, time and place; but it can’t overshadow the show, even though it can often be one of a live theatre production’s stars of said show.

Not only that, it has to be able to be built in a small amount of time with a volunteer crew all while fitting in to the very tight budget of a community theatre group like the Rural Root Theatre Company (RRTC).

The set for the RRTC’s upcoming spring production, Peter Gordon’s mystery spoof Murdered to Death, hits all those marks and more.

“We’re going to make a bay window just off stage, it’s going to make the whole place look bigger,” Glen told West Carleton Online Saturday (April 2) from the NorthWind Wireless Fibre Centre theatre in Constance Bay.

Saturday the RRTC stage crew and several of the production’s actors, came by the theatre to start work on the set of Murdered to Death, a stately, but starting-to-show-its-age, manor owned by a brand new widow.

The set is the main entrance to the stately manor, with several rooms connecting just off set to the room which holds the main action.

Glen has been with the RRTC for more than 20 years filling a variety of jobs including acting, directing and in this productions’ case (as well as others), set design. He says the set is the first thing an audience sees.

“In today’s modern community theatre, there are no curtains,” Glen said of the importance of the set. “The first thing an audience sees when it comes in to the theatre is the set. Even if it’s in darkness. So the set has to convey the period of the play, it’s the 1930s; it’s got to give the impression of being bigger than it actually is; and the attention to detail. I’ve sat in theatres, a play I saw done somewhere in the St. Lawrence, and it was set in the ‘50s, but it had a push button telephone on the table. And it annoyed me all night. This play takes place in the ‘30s, so we have to make sure we don’t have the wrong stuff for the period. People notice that stuff. When you’re sitting for long periods of time, getting a little bored with it or whatever, that’s what you’re looking at.”

The set designer has to keep in mind the budget when creating a set and the practical effects that might be needed to pull off the production. And Glen knows all about that, as he is also the theatre group’s treasurer.

For example, in Murdered to Death, a spoof of the Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, the aforementioned bay window, gets a new bullet through it each and every day the play takes place. Glen and his team came up with the idea to move that bay window just off stage. Now, instead of having to have several sheets of candy glass and some special effects available for each production, the crew only needs a sound effect of glass being shot and the talents of the capable actors involved in the production.

“It achieved two purposes,” Glen said. “It took it off stage so all we needed was a sound effect, and it gave the impression the room had a bay window that went out that way, so it made the space feel bigger. It added another dimension, and we’ll paint scenery on the back window so it looks like you can see out the window.”

Glen is working from a sketch on a piece of paper of what the RRTC hopes to re-produce as a set. There are no measurements on that sketch, but attention to detail is key.

“When this door opens, there will be an image of stairs painted on the back wall behind the set,” Glen said. “Just to give that hint, that’s where the stairs are. And then you start looking and thinking, what does this house look like? There’s a fireplace here. A double-door here, a bay window, a dining room through there and a hallway out there (he says pointing to several spots off stage). If I was doing this properly, I would assume the front door of the house is right there, so through this window, you would see people coming up to the house. That’s too complicated for us, so we’re not going to do that. We have a fireplace, and because this is a manor house, it can’t be some cheap little fireplace, it has to be elaborate with a mantle.”

The stately manor house has to show the style of living the owners have come accustomed to.

“She’s a widow of a wealthy man and she lives in a manor house typical of an upper middle class family,” Glen said. “But it’s getting a bit seedy. It’s running down a bit and they’re getting too old to look after it. Once it’s all painted I just go around with a rag with a little black paint on it and sort of lightly brush it on in some areas. Or go in the top corner of the set and peel a bit of wallpaper. Those sorts of details.”

Glen says the RRTC’s set design has been improving over the last couple of productions.

“We’ve had some good sets over the years, and then we got a bit sloppy, in my opinion,” he said. “I want people to leave thinking, ‘wow, that was quite a set.’ When I go to Kanata theatre, I’m blown away by the sets.”

While building the set is one of the biggest jobs for the theatre company while preparing for a production, they are not given endless amounts of time to get it done.

“The agreement with the NorthWind community centre is the RRTC doesn’t get access to build their set on the stage until two weeks before the curtain rises on the show (March 16). And on April 15 the community centre has comedy coming in. So, whatever is done today, the black curtains will have to be able to be pulled over it, and that’s fine. Painting will start next week.”

Glen says it takes about eight to 10 hours to build the set and “three hours with a good gang and it will be painted.”

So, 16 to 18 hours “to be safe,” to finish the project, spread out over several days and a few weeks.

Glen and his wife have been RRTC members since the theatre troupe’s second year.

The RRTC launched in 2002, performing out of the West Carleton Community Complex in the Roland ‘Roly’ Armitage Hall.

“They had done two performances there, and my wife and I went to one,” Glen said. “We had a new set of lights put in at the community centre theatre here, nothing to do with the theatre, and we heard the rumour they didn’t like their current location. The fire marshal was concerned about exits being blocked, it wasn’t ideal. I went up to two people involved with the show and asked if they would like to move to Constance Bay, and that was it. That was 2003, so I’ve been with them for 20 years. My preference is acting and I’ve managed to do that every two or three shows. I’ve directed a couple. I like working behind the scenes as well. It’s gotten to the point when it comes to painting, particularly special effects, we did a stone fireplace once, it was on a flat surface, but when I was done painting, when everyone came in the next day they thought I built a real stone fireplace. It’s all about deception. You can get away with illusions when you paint well.”

The Constance Bay resident is a long-time community leader as well, serving as a long-running member of the Constance and Buckham’s Bay Community Association (CBBCA) volunteer executive even longer than his time with the RRTC. Glen says he’s probably been involved in building, or helping to build, around 25 sets for the RRTC.

“If someone needs some painting I’m the go-to guy, and I’m alright with that,” Glen said.

He says about the only thing he hasn’t worked on is costumes.

Glen is excited about the spring RRTC production Murdered to Death, directed by RRTC member Ronald Gardner. The play has 10 cast members and follows in the tradition of those old English-style murder mysteries made famous by author Agatha Christie. Murdered to Death was the first of a trilogy written by Peter Gordon. It introduces the “inept and bungling” Inspector George Algernon Pratt battling against the odds and his own incompetence to solve the murder of the house’s owner. It soon becomes clear the murderer isn’t finished murdering either. It is believed Murdered to Death might have the highest body count of any RRTC production in history.

“I came from the UK, and this is an Agatha Christie spoof,” Glen said. “A murder mystery involving stately country homes, dead bodies everywhere, it’s like that game Clue. Professor so-and-so in the library with a candlestick. There’s always a colonel, there’s always some dumb cop. There’s a lot of emphasis on the class system. The cop isn’t nearly in the same class as the colonel. One of the females pretends to be very upper class, trips to Paris, and turns out to be a bit of tramp in the end. It’s all an act. So that actor actually has to do a pair of accents – the posh accent and the upper east side accent. All the actors worked with a coach for the accents. It was hard for Martin Weeden who plays Inspector Pratt, to not slip in to a French Inspector Clouseau accent, but this bungling inspector is English.”

The RRTC continues to work in its spring production which will debut on the NorthWind Wireless Centre Theatre on April 30 with a 2 p.m. matinee. The show will from May 2 to May 5 every night at 7:30 p.m. and the curtain closes May 6 with a final matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 each and available here.

You can also purchase tickets or get more information by calling the RRTC at 613-485-6434.

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