Three tall rectangular structures made of soldered metal with ladders that ascended to balconies silhouetted strange shapes against the pink-lit background, and made the paper mache brick wall look like many smaller building from a distance. The fire escapes, brick wall, clothes lines, bedrooms—every decoration you see that comes to life on the stage of “West Side Story”—came from the mind of Jessica Petino, a junior BFA theatre production and design major.
Going into the back entrance of Kasser Theater, down an industrial-looking hallway and through a heavy black door is the back stage, where all of Petino’s creations stand ready to be thrust out onto the stage for the night’s performance. Upon entering the vicinity there is this feeling in the air, like something great is about to happen. It’s like entering an enclosed bubble closed off to the world.
After being chosen as a set designer more than a year ago, Petino immediately set to work with her assistant, Emily Frank, a sophomore BFA theatre production and design major. The first step was to read the script three times, once for enjoyment, then to highlight important things and lastly to get anything that might have been missed. Then Petino had to meet with the director to get his perspective of the show and to see what he wanted the audience to feel and see.
The next step was research, a lot of it. Petino found books on life in New York City in the 1950s, researched what gangs graffitied in the city at that time, and even spoke to her grandfather, who had grown up there, for advice. By the end of her research she knew “West Side Story” like the back of her hand, reciting lines and even reading a book on the making of the musical. Then through her research,
Petino found images that she used in her touch test, where Petino put all the pictures in front of the director and saw what he touched. After the touch test, Petino started to design and came in with sketches. After that it was a back-and-forth between Petino and the director to get the set design right.
“It’s supposed to look like a dangerous city,” Petino said. “I wanted it to feel closed in because that’s what the city is. It’s almost supposed to feel like a jungle gym because you want the audience to remember that these are kids.”
Petino also wanted the outside and inside colors to contrast each other. Outside consisted of all greys and neutral colors, while inside, which was a safe place, was warmer colors. Petino even worked with the costume designer to have this contrast. While the set is dark and dreary, Maria and the ladies wore vibrant-colored dresses to stand out against the grey fire escapes. It’s like there are two separate worlds living in this already small, compact area in the city.
Some of the designs didn’t turn out the way she wanted, but in the end they turned out better than she imagined. The brick wall was supposed to be a full wall, but due to the limited budget, only half was constructed. This turned out for the better because, when the lights were cast on it, the wall looked like a beautiful silhouette. They were also supposed to have four fire escapes, but there could only be three, and they were supposed to be taller as well.
Next Petino and her assistant put together a model box, which is a 3D miniature model of how the stage will look in scale, made of thick paper and wood. That took about 50 hours to make—20 for the towers alone.
“We were both learning,” said Frank. “She gave me research images and described what she wanted, and I would add things to the sketches and come back when it all flowed, and she would say, ‘That’s exactly what I want.’ We think the same way, so communication with her was easy.”
This was Petino’s first big set design so it was definitely a learning experience. Getting to work with moving elements was hard, but she really wanted to use the fire escapes because they were different. She had fun designing, especially in the making of the brick wall, where she got to mess it up and make it look worn. After all her work, the technical director took over and in three weeks the set was made.
“Its nice seeing everything finally come together,” Petino said. “It looks so different now because you never know what something is going to look like until all the elements come together.”