If set design in a theatrical play is successful, it showcases the actors performing onstage in front of the scenery. But for the upcoming production of Mary Poppins, presented by the Wilton Children’s Theater on March 11-13, don’t forget to notice the sets and think about all of the many hours that the Wilton parents of the actors voluntarily put in to make those sets look fabulous.
Every parent with a child in a Wilton Children’s Theater (WCT) production has to volunteer 20 hours doing something to help produce the show—makeup, costumes, publicity, ticket sales, set building and more.
A three-year board member of WCT, Sue Donato Alexander is very involved in the summer stage productions. But for the fall and winter shows, she opts to volunteer for set painting when her 7th grade son, Simon, is in the cast, allowing her to use her professional art and design background. She currently works in store design at Crate & Barrel, teaches painting, and has a background in graphic design, but says painting the sets calls on so many different artistic skills.
“It’s a really cool challenge for me. It’s so different, and I have a lot to learn about the magic of set design. You have to think differently. It’s not as precise as doing something on a canvas. These big canvases are seen at a distance, so what’s nice about that is you have to think in Disney terms—everything is big and magical and fun. It can also be loose and creative, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Working with the theater professionals who help the production gives her the opportunity to learn more about set design and theatrical painting.
“The concept is collaborative. We have a great guy [helping] the show, Anthony Medaglia, and another gentleman, Brooke Burling, who has a theater in Monroe. They came up with the scale and engineering of the sets. I’m learning the tricks and magic from them,” she says, adding, “In the theater world, everyone has a lot to learn from each other.”
Because it is a non-profit organization and the grown ups behind WCT are almost all volunteers, every little bit helps. Donato says the WCT was grateful that all the paint they’re using for the sets was donated. “It’s a nice challenge because those are the colors we’re working with, so how can we make it great with what we have.”
For Mary Poppins, Alexander was able to have the scenery flats—large 4 ft. x 8 ft. plywood panels—brought to her home to work on them there. “That was great for me, because after dinner and the dishes, I could go paint for a bit, or on my day off I could devote a couple hours to painting.”
The sets she painted for this show included the children’s nursery, the Banks family’s parlor and a lot of the backdrop for the chimney sweeps’ rooftop “Step In Time” scene.
The sets were just loaded in to the theater at Middlebrook over this past weekend. “There was a good handful of parents who donated their time, had their paint clothes on and had their paint brushes in hand, ready to work. We got so much done and we had fun doing it. Everyone pitches in,” Alexander says.
She’s also quick to point out that there are many people working on set design, in addition to Medaglia, Burling and her. The entire area of “set design” is being overseen by volunteer parents Julie Stein and Margaret Santacroce who are the set producers.
“They’re gathering all the stuff and making sure that everyone has all the materials that we need, and organizing everyone to be there for [set load in] and painting day. And also breakdown—after the show the whole crew has to break everything down and get it back into the storage facility we have. So just one aspect of the show is a lot of work, but we all love it,” Alexander says.
Doing this work is also fun and gratifying to give back to an organization that her children love being a part of.
“It’s very rewarding for me, to know that I’m doing it for a great reason. I love art, but I love art with a purpose,” she says.