The Booms and Clanks of Set Design


Erin Williams

Sophomore Valeria Cortes uses a circular saw to cut a piece of wood to use for the “Mamma Mia!” set.

On an island in Greece, beautiful buildings stretch across the landscape. These buildings are white with wooden balconies, and make up most of the architecture. This is “Mamma Mia!” 

Set building is one of the intricate parts of making a play come to life. McHale Facility Manager John Vales says it’s taking what you have done on paper and making it happen.

“You start with scenic design, which is a product of a lot of different conversations with the director, reading the text, and researching the background of the show,” Vales said. “So, when you get to the set construction and building of the set, a lot of that has already been done. You already have a lot of research, and you have a good direction for what you are doing.”

Every day, students come together to build theater sets. Sophomore Valeria Cortes is one of those students who help make the scenes come to life. She is also the stage manager for the show. 

Junior Sam Fultz and Sophomore Justin Snay work together to build stairs for the “Mamma Mia!” set. The stairs were built to go in the Taverna scene. (Erin Williams)

I always enjoy doing tech for all the shows,” Cortes said. “I enjoy the people I work with and what we do. For this show, I am the stage manager and get to spend more time watching the actors practice. I have never seen Mamma Mia, so I don’t know what to expect. My ASM, Shelby Ping, and I are excited to see it come together. This is my first time as stage manager, so it’s a new experience.” 

Cortes gives her perspective on working with Jeff Szymanowski, the scenic designer for “Mamma Mia!” 

“When we create the set, first Jeff does his research and figures out what we’re doing,” Cortes said. “Then, we have set days where he will give us different tasks. On those days, even though we do different things, they all end up going together. The main thing is being able to work together and always ask questions.”

The set building is not the same every day. Every day, something new comes up. 

There are many funny stories already,” Cortes said. “Every day is super fun. The funniest story so far was when Sam was making fun of Justin Snay’s laugh, and Justin snorted and the whole room burst into laughter. Then we started making fun of everyones’ laugh.”

The music in “Mamma Mia!” is integral to its storyline. Vales says that he is a big fan of ABBA music. 

“The fact that this combines music from a bunch of their different albums, but makes it into one storyline is fun,” Vales said. “The music is fun. It’s a bit different than some of the other musicals we worked on recently which were more conventional, and written for Broadway, whereas this is a little bit different. It is more of a jukebox musical, again because it combines a lot of different songs from Abba and creates the storyline around it, however, the music just works. It works in the same it would in a Broadway show.”