Creating sets and costumes is often a matter of problem solving, for George and Lori Zelenak. They have proven time and again to be up to the challenge. The 2018 production of Beauty and the Beast went on stage in the 10th year the pair assisted the Black Hills Drama Club with sets and costumes.
Though George usually concentrates on the scenery and Lori focuses on the costumes, sometimes the two collaborate when costumes or personal props need a bit of structure. The fantasy world of Beauty and the Beast where characters include a tea cup, candle stick, clock and duster offered the couple an opportunity to really show their creativity and craftsmanship. Lumiere’s candlestick hands were a particularly fun challenge, finally solved with a pair of inverted flower pots, cardboard and switches to turn the lights on and off.
George and Lori’s involvement in the program began after their daughter Megan graduated from BHHS in 2008. Megan had found a passion for costume design in the Black Hills theater arts program, and her work there helped to earn a scholarship to Central Washington University in Theater Tech. Megan has shared ideas and theater set concepts with her parents through the years. One of which is the “20 foot rule,” a time and money-saving principle that the world on stage only has to look good from 20 feet or more away.
“Once I learned the 20 foot rule,” George shares, “the work went a lot faster.” He could overlap edges of wood and only finish the side that is visible to the audience. It’s a real creative process. Whatever he comes up with needs to be durable, lightweight and assembled at the school over a weekend. Safety is a prime factor in how the set is designed and built.
The 20 foot rule can apply to costumes as well, but they still need to hold up to the choreography, multiple costume changes and last through several performances. “I learned to sew buttons on really tight,” adds Lori.
Once Upon a Mattress was one of the most elaborate sets George built. The story took place in a castle. The band was staged in what would be the ramparts. “There were all sorts of tunnels and doorways, plus a hidden door to roll the throne room in and out of view,” describes George.
On the other end of the spectrum was Metamorphosis, which required a pool of water that the cast walked through. He built a shallow pool that held 3000 gallons of water on the stage. The water changed the acoustics of the room to absorb some sound and reflect others. “It was a simple build but had a powerful effect,” says George.
The set he’s most proud of was for Grease. The set was styled like a giant juke box.
Lori’s work with costumes begins with brainstorming and gathering ideas the moment she learns what show the kids will be doing. Then she spends about two solid months sewing and fitting costumes.
Lori and George both hunt online for ideas and inspiration, but usually come up with their own designs. Sometimes they will search the area to see if other theaters are doing the same play or musical, and go watch it. “We can get a feel for it, and see how it works on stage,” says Lori. They travelled all the way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, one year to watch Music Man when they learned BHHS was adding that musical to the line-up.
The 2018 production of Beauty and the Beast is Lori’s favorite so far. The main characters didn’t have many costume changes, so she could spend more time on each one. There is always a large cast. Many of the supporting characters can often be outfitted by reusing costumes from previous productions. It’s a matter of turning long sleeves into short sleeves or adding or removing trim.
The theater arts teacher and drama advisor, Dave Heywood likes to have several levels on stage to get as many kids on stage as possible and sometimes even the band. That means George’s set designs incorporate risers, stairs and a platform for the music players when possible.
“The musicals are a real collaborative effort,” says Lori. “The whole art department is involved.” Choir Director Kathleen Alviar works with the singers. Andrew Landowski with the band, and Dave Wegener the visual arts teacher, brings in art student and assists with painting the sets. “Kids are involved in all sorts of different levels,” Lori adds.
George and Lori usually drop in on dress rehearsal to help work out any kinks in costuming and scenery. “Seeing how the costumes and finished sets help bring the actors into character and really pull the show together is the best part,” says Lori, “and they are wonderfully appreciative.”