Last weekend’s production of Pajama Game at Wilton High School was a tour de force trip back in time to the 1950s, made realistic by the performances of a very talented student cast. What made it even more believable for theater-goers was the Broadway-quality set that brought a 1950s pajama factory to life right here in Wilton.
The magically transformative set design was dreamt up by WHS’s theater department set designer and stagecraft teacher, Christian Planton.
“Part of my job is a part-time teacher; I teach architecture, stage craft, engineering, and design. I’m also the theater manager, set designer, and tech director. Normally those would be different jobs for different people, but I do them all,” he says. Planton, has been working as a teacher at WHS and creating incredible sets that allow magic to happen during performances on the Clune and Little Theater stages for years.
Planton spent the past three months alongside parent and community volunteers as well as student actors, putting together the Pajama Game set.
“Anybody who comes into the space has to deal with me. I have to check out their technical people and make sure that they’re up to snuff, and if it’s simple I help them out. Or if it’s a show, they have to hire their own people and I supervise that, safeguarding the space for the town,” he explains.
But that’s just the tip of the job iceberg.
“Another main part is working on the shows, and making sure that it’s done first and foremost, safely, near budget, and making sure that the students get the right experience, as close as we can make it to real life, and that we have a successful show, and that people enjoy themselves. And in that capacity, teach as much as I can on how to do things, supervising whoever is doing lights and sounds, repairing and making sure all equipment is there and working, and any other tech element.”
Planton’s career in theater stretches back to grade school.
“I started doing tech in Westport in sixth grade. In fifth grade, I was one of the munchkins in the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz, and I pretty much didn’t like it. But I saw the other kids doing lights and stuff and I thought that looked fun, so I started doing it there. I did the lights in middle school, but in high school I liked the painting and the building a lot more. So with the help of my teacher, Mr. Joe Ziegahn, a very talented, fantastic man, I decided this is what I want to do for a living.” From there, Planton attended SUNY Purchase and earned his BFA in set design.
Planton’s process requires first and foremost, “research, research, research,” after he reads the script three times.
“First, because it should be enjoyable. Second, you should start formulating ideas, just general concepts. Then the third time you read it, you dissect every word. You look for props, if they need a door or a window; whatever’s going on technically in the show. After a while, you’re doing all those things while you read it. By the time I finish reading a script, I generally know what I want to do, and then it’s doing tons of research.”
The Pajama Game set featured a life-size factory with a stairway up to a second-story walkway that was always present on stage. “The idea was to always have it there–it is the factory workers’ lives. My little dark part of it is that here is the factory, it’s always there looming over them, so that’s how I built it up. I decided we needed to have a factory there and it can never leave because no matter where they go, it’s there. Sid even says, ‘If this place folds, I fold with it.’”
Although Planton is the designer and the primary builder, he knows he can’t go it alone.
“I never know who’s going to show up and what help they’re going to give me, and that’s why the set always changes. This show wouldn’t have happened without three parents whose kids have graduated. The volunteers are usually parents and the kids in the show are required to do at least five hours of help.”
As for his favorite sets from WHS productions, he’s got a couple.
“In West Side Story, we had a two story building that spun around, and the store that the kids hung out in came out and opened up. In Les Miserable I had a lot of fun making the barricade.” But Planton sees all of his sets as equals.
“It doesn’t matter if I like the show. Professionally, I never turned anything down because it’s still about people who you work with, and the experience of the work. Is it great if you’re working on something you love? Absolutely. But it’s still a job, and you have to satisfy the script and put it on stage. You work just as hard no matter what. It’s still your name on the marquis.”