A Donut, Watercolors Form Basis for "The Siegel" Set

Tania Thompson
 | Mar 27, 2017

​Set design for The Siegel during a break from rehearsal.


The "donut"


In the Paint Shop, set design illustrations guide how the set parts will be painted.


Paint Shop artisans on a lift paint one of the 10 canvas set panels.


Jon Lagerquist, SCR’s technical director


Various colors of paint used to create the watercolor effect.

Over the course of a few days, a circle formed on the Segerstrom Stage. Viewed from a high perch at the back of the theatre, it looked like a donut made from wood, which it was. In theatrical terms, a ‘donut’ is a ring that revolves around a stationary center point and this moving circle becomes part of the set designed by Michael B. Raiford for the world premiere of Michael Mitnick’s The Siegel.

The play follows Ethan Siegel, who plans to propose to Alice; the only problem is that Ethan and Alice broke up two years ago and she’s in a serious relationship. Ethan is undaunted in this comedy that takes place over two days’ time. For the set to serve the story, it has to reflect multiple locations—both indoor and outdoor—and be fluid enough for the action to move effortlessly.

Raiford’s design illustrations show what the set looks like from the front—including what goes on the stage, what goes in the air, how the set feels, how it should be painted, the color palette, props and what materials are to be used.

Love Makes the World Go Round; Motors Make the Set Go Round

In early talks about the play, director Casey Stangl wanted to explore the idea of “love makes the world go round” and saw the set as a revolving circle. From that emerged the idea of the donut to bring various locations in and out of the story.

Jon Lagerquist, SCR’s technical director, received Raiford’s illustrations and started to both research how to make the 32-foot-wide donut happen—keeping things to budget—and how to execute the rest of the design.

“We looked at what stock pieces we had available so that we wouldn’t have to build everything from scratch,” says Lagerquist.

He found an outer ring stored at SCR, borrowed the donut frame from another theatre and in the end created what Raiford envisioned with four concentric rings, one of which revolves with the help of more than 130 little wheels. The movement comes from a large loop of wire rope that has a friction drive on the drum and friction drive around the actual turntable. The motorized turntable can spin continuously in either direction for actors to walk or move locations (living rooms, bedrooms, and three restaurants) into place.

The Scene Shop artisans built the structure using Lagerquist’s technical plans created from Raiford’s illustrations.

“Jon and his crew did miraculous things to make all of this work together,” Raiford says.

But that was just one part of the set.

Making a Watercolored Landscape

For another aspect of the world of the play, Stangl was drawn to the idea of watercolors to form the set backdrop on a series of different walls.

“Look through an office window as it’s raining, and you’ll see the colors soften and blend,” Raiford says. “That’s what helped us realize watercolors were a great way to see a soft city landscape in the spring.”

He designed 10 walls—muslin fabric stretched over wooden frames that ranged from 16 to 20 feet at the highest points—that were painted to give the feeling of a skyline seen through the rain. Eight of the walls are stationary; two of them have moving doors to allow furniture to move on and off stage. To achieve the watercolor palette, Raiford created several sets of painted elevations to communicate to the scenic artists how to paint the set.

Judy Allen, lead scenic artist in SCR’s Paint Shop, prepared small canvases on which to test the colors. Once approved, her crew had roughly one-and-a-half weeks to finish the panels.

First, the muslin is coated with starch to close the pores of the fabric and mitigate shrinkage. Then, thin layers of white tint and clear coat are applied to prepare the surface for paint. That’s followed by the wash of colors, applied from custom-mixed pots of paint.

“The challenge here is that the colors have to be translucent because of backlighting behind the panels,” says Allen. Light boxes mounted behind the panels can sparkle like stars or serve as high-rise office window lights in high-rises for an urban landscape.

Her team also worked with the canvas flats that learned vertically against the tall walls of the Paint Shop and, “well, gravity happens. We had to catch the drips.”

The Care and Feeding of a Set Designer

Raiford grew up in Florida, where his early memories of family arts outings included Holiday on Ice shows. Through backstage visits, he “became so obsessed with those costumes!” He went to school for music as an undergraduate, singing and drumming, and then took his obsession to a practical level when he designed costumes for a drum corps national tour. That got him noticed by Michael Cesario, who headed up the MFA program in costume design at the State Uniersity of New York at Purchase. Cesario urged Michael to seek his MFA (which he ​earned at the University of Texas at Austin) and mentored Raiford to what is now a highly active career as one of the nation’s top designers.

For SCR, he has designed Orange, Going to a Place where you Already Are, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Death of a Salesman. His theatre and opera design credits include Ford’s Theatre (Washington, D.C.), Actor’s Theatre of Louisville (more than 20 shows, including a dozen world premiere productions at the Humana Festival of New American Plays); Opera Boston; Geva Theatre; Austin Lyric Opera; Hyde Park Theatre; and Blast, The Music of Disney for a national tour in Japan.

Back on the Segerstrom

Once all of the set pieces for The Siegel are assembled on the Segerstrom Stage—including the donut, the painted panels, the props—the actors move from the rehearsal hall to the stage and members of the creative team are on hand to tweak, adjust and otherwise make sure that everything supports the final production for what audiences see.

It’s a moment of truth, of sorts, for Raiford, who chuckles when he says, “I try not to let the knowledge of what I do ruin the joy of what I do!” He allowed himself a moment of joy during the run of Orange when, looking at the seemingly bare stage and saying to himself, “Oh, that’s really pretty!”

For The Siegel, Raiford says the whole production—what the creative team designed, the artisans built the script and the cast—makes for a beautiful show.

“There’s a heightened magical quality about this show—for example when two of the characters go for a walk and the silhouetted trees come in and the skyline has all those twinkly lights,” he says. “I hope that for the audience, it’s a way to see how all of this serves the heart and soul of the story.”

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