As the old saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” And in the case of a highly anticipated, Tony Award-winning musical, one man’s trash is set designer’s inspiration.
Described as the “grown up’s prequel to Peter Pan,” Peter and the Starcatcher relies on the audience’s imagination in order to tell the tale of a boy who decided to never grow up.
In order to give the audience a taste of both worlds — the real one and that of Never-Neverland — set designer Donyale Werle certainly had a tall order.
In the first versions of the production, before Werle was brought on, the show started with a single piece of rope — a simple prop that was manipulated to showcase different places.
“It was almost like anti-design. It was really sort of not design,” she said, of her initial approach.
Keeping that simplicity in mind, Werle and her crew began looking for inspiration. They visited construction sites, researched early 19th-century industry and Victorian storybook theaters.
“At some point, we started to think, what we really do need was sort of the bookends to the story, which in our vernacular became the frame which then became the proscenium. It became very theatrical,” she said.
They wanted to tell a story with the scenery and leave holes for the audience’s imagination to fill.
Between that approach, the set’s budget and a designer with a passion for sustainability, utilizing recycled materials was a no-brainer.
“One of the good – and bad – things about theater is there’s not very much money,” she said. “Because the show is about your imagination and about making something out of nothing, it just made 100 percent sense – not only are you making decisions off financial reasons but off dramaturgical reasons.”
Obviously that took additional effort to find the right materials but it wasn’t as difficult as you may think, Werle said. When the word got out they were looking for recycled pieces to incorporate into the set’s design, the deliveries followed.
The producers made a pitch to the various tour venues around the country to contribute reusable items to help build the tour proscenium. Minneapolis’ Hennepin Theatre Trust sent in a variety of items, including children’s toys, old silverware, used rope, buttons, cords, old cooking tools, tin can tops and more.
“We started getting boxes from all over the country of objects the theaters were collecting,” she said. “So in Denver, which was the city where we first started, they gave us some beer caps – because it’s a Coors town. So we got boxes and boxes of beer caps. And Seattle sent us wine corks.”
They tried to cater the materials to the storyline. In one example, incorporating kitchen and cooking utensils for scenes involving a character with food on the brain.
Werle said they also worked closely with the costume designer, trading materials and swapping ideas to create an all-around cohesive look.
“I would say, for this show we were 100 percent collaborative,” she said. “It was a lot of back and forth. It’s hard to even say what ended up on set and what ended up in the costumes, there was so much transferring of stuff and ideas.”
From the research stages to the set’s completion, Werle said it took about two years, adding that certain details continue to evolve over time.
The effort clearly paid off.
Among the five Tony Awards the production received in 2012, Werle was among the honorees for her sustainable set design.
“You never think that’s going to happen,” she said. “And it’s kind of a little, scrappy show that’s made out of junk and a piece of rope — how it even made it to Broadway and then the fact that we were able to win Tonys, it’s sort of a feat of the playwright and the directors, who were able to really capture the imagination with the staging.”
Peter and the Starcatcher makes its Twin Cities premiere from March 11 to 16 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.