by GABRIELLA SOUZA
photography by ERIC LUSHER
Behind the welding masks, paint-covered gloves and ancient sewing machines are the folks of Virginia Scenic, who create set designs for theater, opera and dance companies – local and across the country.
In this unassuming one-story building in a Portsmouth industrial park, past modest front offices, double doors open to reveal 32,000 square feet of spacious, high-ceilinged rooms. Drills scream, welders hiss and the piney scent of just-cut wood fills the air. Across the tan floors and gray cinderblock walls, unexpected items grab the eye.
A black motorcycle with purple flames licking its sides fills a black wire cage. A grape-hued throne that would look at home in a Dr. Seuss book sits in the corner.
This is Virginia Scenic. Here, tools transform wood, cloth and metal into exotic locales, storied ages and dazzling scenes. Materials come alive through the hands of those who love the stage but don’t consider themselves the stars and prima donnas.
For 20 years, the theatrical construction company has built sets for opera and dance companies across the country as well as for local theaters and touring productions. It represents the more practical side of show business – literally, the work done behind the scenes.
Virginia Scenic is a rarity for a community like Hampton Roads. Most theatrical builders are located in performance hubs like New York and other big cities, says Scott Orlesky, director of production at Phoenix Entertainment, a Maryland-based theater company that produces touring shows. But its uniqueness makes the company more attractive to clients. “You don’t have to compete with the guys in New York who are adding their higher rent into the bid,” he says.
The quality craftsmanship keeps them coming, Orlesky says. Since their first partnership five years ago, Phoenix has used the company almost exclusively, for shows like Spamalot, Grease and Rock of Ages.
In July, the company started its latest endeavor – the touring set of We Will Rock You, a musical showcasing Queen’s greatest hits. Owner Joy Callan is excited because the designer they are working with worked on the Beijing Olympics.
The motorcycle and throne are destined for this show. There’s also a multilevel “Heartbreak Hotel,” where bohemian clothes dangle on a clothesline; a set piece that swivels to reveal a motorcycle that blasts onto the stage; and a rock column where stones fall out to show off a $10,000 guitar in all its glory.
At 9, guys in jeans, work boots and bandanas open loading dock doors to let in the sunshine before starting work.
Before they could start building, they needed a plan. In early July, the staff of 20 studied long sheets of paper, the detailed blueprints of the show’s arc and the scenery that would illustrate it.
Callan led the discussion. She got her start with the company when she was 18, working with her father as a carpenter, and stayed on, learning that she loved to craft with her hands. She bought the company in 2007, when she was 28.
On this Friday, the coffee pot is on and the harmonies of Bohemian Rhapsody break through the customary Pink Floyd. Callan keeps watch on the action from a 1950s diner set, complete with chrome stools, a leftover prop.
Jason Tuthill hums as he measures out boards for the stage platform – the base of the set. He loved the theater, but it was a practical realization that led him to Virginia Scenic. “At some point, you have to answer the question of what you want to do to make money,” he says.
Now he understands and appreciates the skill that distinguishes him from the performers – the ability to envision a show from sketches and plans. It’s like looking at Lego instructions, he says. “You have to be able to see the end before you even start.”
At the work stations around him, sparks fly as pipes are welded together. A buzz saw whirrs. Thin shards of metal glitter on the floor like sequins.
Tuthill likes that he is part of something bigger than himself. Also, his brothers and best friends are among his co-workers. Still, he doesn’t want to sweat all day forever. He sees his future in set design.
Pink Floyd is back on the stereo. Tuthill predicts Queen’s stadium anthem We Will Rock You will be the shop’s new favorite before long.
In a room with enough paint splatters to impress Jackson Pollock, Christie Marcley Stancliff gets ready to create the set’s floor. The designer had envisioned it covered in droplets of metallic, red and black paint – a little punk, a little glam.
Stancliff walks to an adjoining room and kicks off her Crocs. She repeatedly dips a paint brush into a bucket and holds it above the expansive floor until droplets fall, moving around her handiwork with a dancer’s grace.
“Ugh,” she says as a slight deluge of red hits the black matte floor, “too much.” Then, a second later, “Actually, it might be fine.” That’s one thing she’s learned in this job – not to sweat the small stuff.
It was 20 years ago that a friend in New Orleans asked her to help out on a set at a local theater. She was hooked after one visit. Stancliff says it was being on stage, the people creating around her and the flurry of activity. She gave two weeks’ notice at her design job the next day. She’s been at Virginia Scenic 10 years, lured here by a colleague.
Later, Stancliff will check her work for gaps from atop a ladder. It might be only the floor, but the audience will see it during the entire show. Then she’ll be on to creating brick walls using a plastic base and cheesecloth-like material and creating fake rust for pipes.
“Now, that’s cool,” a passing employee remarks, gazing at the floor.
“I’m glad you think so,” Stancliff says with a smile.
Emme Greer spends her evenings tucked into a low-ceilinged corner of the building with George and Gracie.
George came to life shortly after Pearl Harbor. He’s loud enough to make you want to plug your ears and is festooned with flames. Gracie wears a sign – “Warning: I Bite.”
Greer conjures back stories for her sewing machines during long nights alone. George is a cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking, canasta-playing New Jerseyite. Gracie’s simpler. She’s an assassin.
Greer is Virginia Scenic’s soft goods supervisor. On this August night, she hems a 27-foot-long scenery cloth so it can be hung by a metal bar. Made of a unique hole-covered fabric, the screen is opaque when light shines from the outside, translucent when lit from within. It’s printed with the image of an old theater curtain that “looks like someone left it out in the rain,” as Greer says. The colors bleed into a bright rainbow.
Greer toyed with other careers – writer, artist. Sewing always pulled her back. She loves the control it brings, the precision and the skill it requires.
Gracie whirrs persistently, but her work here is quieter than the welding and sawing in Virginia Scenic’s bigger rooms. Greer’s work is more delicate. She grips the fabric to keep it square and slides it under the sewing machine’s striking needle, sensing the pull of the fabric.
Greer will sew until 9 p.m. or so, then turn off George and Gracie, pack up her belongings and turn out the light. In a month, she and the other staff will pack up their handiwork and ship it off to meet the performers.
But tonight, inside this dark building, the scenery waits to come alive another day.