Every summer since 1981, the local musical theatre company, Cabrillo Stage, has produced entertainment for thousands of Santa Cruz residents and visitors.
Their annual musical productions are created in the artistic styles of Broadway, and are one of Santa Cruz County’s highly anticipated summer performing arts events. For Cabrillo Stage’s 36th Summer Festival, the company has presented two full-scale shows performed in the Aptos Cabrillo Crocker Theater. Currently running is their production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The Cabrillo Stage crew has worked round the clock to bring the love story of Beauty and the Beast to life. As with all of their productions, the show is a collaboration between diverse professional artisans, including talented musicians, dedicated performers, elaborate costumes and set design. Although the production stays almost entirely true to the familiar traditions of the Disney movie, certain elements stand out as being remarkably innovative.
Cue Skip Epperson – Cabrillo Stage’s outstanding Scenic Designer. Epperson’s stunning work created Beauty and the Beast’s magical environment and contributed to the company’s glowing reputation. Since first designing for Cabrillo Stage in 1991, Epperson has become the company’s resident designer and co-chair of the Cabrillo Theatre Arts Department. He won the Gail Rich award and was the first set designer awarded with the Rydell Fellowship.
As one of Santa Cruz County’s best visual artists, Epperson brings his unique skill and artistic vision to each production, including Beauty and the Beast. In every scene, the audience experiences spectacular sets emulating Belle’s French countryside village or the Beast’s mysterious, enchanted castle. Epperson’s imaginative design and attention to detail make the fairytale world more real, and create a vivid, lifelike interpretation of the “tale as old as time”.
Local Santa Cruz goes behind the scenes with Skip Epperson to learn more about his visual art and Cabrillo Stage’s fascinating production process.
Local Santa Cruz: Please share about your artistic background – what led you to become a set designer?
Skip Epperson: I grew up without any real theater experience until undergrad. I was majoring in Engineering and Studio Art at a liberal arts college when I began working a work/study job in the theater scene shop. I built the sets on three shows before ever attending one of the performances. The set designer asked me to take notes during a dress rehearsal. Begrudgingly, I went and when I saw the props, the costumes, the orchestra, and the set that I had worked on all together under the lights, I was awestruck and hooked. I had stumbled onto a beautiful art form and it was clear that I had to do more. The canvas was so big, and the technical challenges so many, that it seemed to be a perfect fit for me. I continued through a masters program in scene design and then onto professional work on both coasts as designer, set carpenter, scenic painter, and props master. I joined the faculty at Cabrillo College in 1991 and have been teaching and designing full time since then. It has been a joy!
What is the process of bringing your artistic visions into reality on a stage?
Each design comes from a fresh look at the script. I look for “mood” and “feel” as well as the show’s physical and movement needs. I then try to see how it all comes together to tell the most beautiful story that can be told in the space that we are working in with the time, money, and manpower available. I try to boil a show down to its essentials – what is absolutely necessary to make it work as a whole. What are the big moments and the spacial needs? How does the show flow within a scene and from one scene to the next? What are the signature colors, and texture, materials, and shapes? It is like an amazing 3D jigsaw puzzle where you are unsure of what the final picture really looks like, what the pieces really are and how/if they fit together.
I work with sketches and quick models to figure in the big pieces and then refine the design bit by bit. I am a hands-on designer, I love the process of working with the artisans and technicians of creating from prototypes to finished products and details. It is a creative journey with my technical director, Marcel Tjioe. He is in charge of figuring out how to safely build, install, and implement the show on-time and within budget. He is a genius in working together to make the sometimes crazy visions into reality. The theatricality of the whole research, develop and build process is a performance in itself. Each and every person on the build team adds their talents and expertise to make the show a living design.
How do your ideas impact the creation of the show overall – how does everyone collaborate?
I love the opportunity of collaborating with so many amazing directors, actors, artisans, and technicians. From initial concept meetings with a director through continued production meetings of rehearsal refinements, it’s fun to see the blurring of the line of whose idea is whose. I try to help develop and clarify a director’s concept and vision. I usually try to give several different ideas, but there is typically one that really speaks to me and just feels right and excites me. With Beauty and the Beast it was the turntable and rose projection concept that was exciting. At Cabrillo Stage, Marcel and I had never created a project quite as complicated and challenging, with automated sliding wagons and a motorized two-story turntable. We had lots of discussions on planning and movement, materials, and construction. I drafted out the design and built a detailed scale model of the set and its pieces to help us work out every detail to get it built, installed, and opened in less than a month after opening The Addams Family.
Director Janie Scott, lighting designer Jake Maize, and stage manager Alina Goodman and I spent hours working out the movement of the pieces scene by scene using the set model. Rehearsals are always challenging with an imaginary set plan taped out on the floor of the rehearsal studio, but a two-story staircase that moves with the action can turn a brain inside out. We also had the complicated detail of flying four actors up to twenty feet in the air. It was terrific working with ZFX to fly the actors, but it took a lot of coordination and planning to make sure that what we were building and planning would accommodate the needs to look spectacular and keep the actors safe. The schedule did not permit Janie to get her cast onto the turntable until about two weeks before opening – not much time to see if the plan would really work.
What inspired your set design for Beauty and the Beast?
Finding a visual style to help tell the story was found with Belle’s love of books. The gorgeous covers and book illustrations at the turn of the last century inspired a way to articulate the story visually and help to frame this magical story. Additionally, much of the design came from the feeling of the movement from the music of the show. Circular, curvaceous, and spiraling lines contrasting strongly with the harshness and rigidity of the Beast’s world reflected the tension of the show.
Research in Gothic architecture and French provincial style provided the visual language to bring it all together. The Beast’s seclusion in a tower of the west wing helped isolate his character. We wanted the rose petal drops to be seen clearly and remind the audience that time is ticking. A stained glass rose window provided a terrific opportunity to project the rose and the visions of the magic mirror. It also provided a terrific end to Gaston’s villainy and a beautiful backdrop for the Beast’s transformation.
Beauty and the Beast
Cabrillo Crocker Theater, Aptos
July 20 – August 13
Tickets available at 831-479-6154 or cabrillostage.com
Actor photos credited to Steve DiBartolomeo.