Behind CATCO's Curtain: The Scene Shop


Earlier this season, we had the opportunity to delve into the birth of the visual story that we all see come alive on stage when we spoke with Eric Baker about his unique set design for CATCO's production of The Elephant Man. But where do Eric's plans come to fruition? The answer: the CATCO Scene Shop.

The Scene Shop has been in the Vern Riffe Center since 1988 when the building first opened, and even before it housed Ohio's state government. Today, it is one of the only places like it in Columbus, and it's pretty busy–producing 35 to 40 sets per year for theatre companies around the city.

Joe Wolfle, who serves as CATCO's Technical Director (TD) and calls the Scene Shop his office, shares the plans for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as he describes how a new set is born.

He says that the whole production team, including set, costume, lighting, and sound designers meet about three to four months before a show begins to discuss preliminary concepts, which provides a format for the TD to provide feedback based upon time and budget constraints. Eventually, the set designer will provide the TD with both a paint elevation package that details colors and material suggestions, in addition to plans outlining the actual labor that needs to be completed.

From there, the TD will put a bid packet together with all of the necessary supplies for each element of the proposed set design and labor priced out. Final negotiations are made with the client after that.

Jon Baggs, who handles most of the technical direction and install for shows produced by the Jewish Community Center's Gallery Players, adds that these negotiations are often difficult to reconcile when it is important to the technical designer to have a well-crafted set, but it also matters to the director that their vision is carried out.

"There is a delicate balance between what we can get away with and the time and money that we actually have," Jon said.

Joe says that he has always enjoyed the collaborative nature of the Scene Shop, as well as live theatre in general, and Johanna Breiding, CATCO's Production Technician agrees.

"I like working through tasks as I go along and being able to creatively problem-solve. I also like working on art projects with multiple people and being able to see the finished product on stage," Johanna said.

Shop Foreman Steve Puhl, Jr. says that he also enjoys the finished product of the work that the tech crew does in the Scene Shop, even though sometimes after a show is over the entire set has to be disposed of.

"It's nice to see things repurposed as much as we can, but seeing our finished product and how it works with the actors on stage is fulfilling enough to me for it to get thrown away after," Steve said.

Steve and Joe proceeded to say that when they went to the landfill to throw away the set from The Elephant Man earlier this season, they disposed of it right next to a dead horse, and as they were pulling away, a garbage truck unloaded two dead deer right on top of the horse. What a way to say goodbye to several months worth of work!

This story was told in jest, however, and Joe stresses that it is important for live theatre productions to have well-crafted sets.

"If the audience is not distracted by the set, then it's doing its job, and it's the same with a poorly-made costume or a bad actor. Nothing should distract the audience from the story being told on stage," Joe said.