The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown


—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Photos by Anvi Hoàng 

The wood shop at IU Opera Theater, where six operas are produced every year, is no less than a wonderland for children as well as curious adults alike. Things to play with are bountiful here, be it wood, plastic, foam, metal, or even bamboo. You can start unraveling the mystery in the magic and spectacles on stage that the audience enjoy so much right here in the woodshop where objects take their first shapes and sizes.

Master crafters Ken D’Eliso and Andrew Hastings man the wood shop. They build the sets before sending them off to the paint shop. Between themselves, they share sixty years of experience in theatrical building. Do not bore them with questions about building a house, ask them about building bridges and chandeliers and organs and gismos. Their stories would make you feel like you are riding a roller coaster in an idyllic back yard.

Ken D’Eliso grew up in Southern California, in a neighborhood where everybody is into media business of some kind. He found his tribe instead, in high school.

woodshop-1 (ken1)

What is fun in building sets?

Having done this for a while, I think round walls are more fun than straight walls. Also, I don’t want to be negative about it, but there are always problems to be solved. The designer wants something, and that could be a problem to us – How could we do that. That part is fun where we figure things out. Sometimes I’ve been given drawings and not asked to start building right away. The drawings are for me to look over and formulate questions. Sometimes I have an idea, not necessarily at work, but on my way to work. Then I may discuss it with my boss. So it is fun to solve problems. It is fun to make unusual things versus standard things.

Part of the curved wall built by Ken D’Eliso.

What do you mean by “problems”?

They are not negative things or headaches but more like a situation for us to figure out like a math problem – not a bad problem.

What is the order of set building? 

It could vary. Sometimes we want to build things because another thing sits on top of them. Or we’re going to build things because the paint shop wants them in advance so they can paint them. The building evolves over the course of the process. Sometimes we don’t have all the drawings to get started so we start with what we have.

One of the things that we are considering for this show is that there are some of the things we might not want to build too soon because of, in spite of the construction, environmental sensitivity: too much humidity, too much drying. We are going to build some small frame and large things that once they are built, we want to make sure that they don’t start to warp because of the moisture. It will be drier here in the next couple months in Southern Indiana. So things have to be thought through as part of the scenic process.

The order of building varies. How can you make sure things click when they come together?

Well, the goal is to make sure that what we build now works with what we build later. That’s part of the process that Alissia has to go through to figure out.

Ken’s favorite band-saw.

I saw you work with the drawings. Where are they from?

The drawings that are provided by the designer won’t always tell exactly how to build things. Then my boss, the Technical Director, will render them into a more carpenter-friendly version.

Would you say your job is pretty straight-forward: you build and you solve problems?

Sure, that is what I do. But it is not the same with every single show that I build. Sometimes we get to a point where it may be too difficult to make it accurate as the drawing and I am left with having to figure out myself the best way to build it. I enjoy that process. Sometimes it is nice to be off the drawings. And sometimes I can even work with the designer.

When you build something difficult like that, do you have to be present when the students assemble it?

Upon occasion. We often redo shows, and it could be a five-year gap between now till we reuse them. So we want to make sure that the portion of things we send out of the shop for reassembling down on stage is very simple. In five years, all the kids who work on this production now will be graduated and the new ones come in. So we try to do all the thinking for them in terms of making sure that it goes together easily.

What do you enjoy most about this job and is the working environment here diverse as you like?

Each project is unique and fun in its own way. Generally, there is plenty of fun to be had. The best part of it is: we work on something and then send it to the paint shop, they paint it, then it goes to that elevator, then it goes down stage, and the kids put it back together. We often cannot assemble to the degree it needs to be assembled in this space, so sometimes we don’t even see it done until they put it together on stage. And this part is great. Then they finally put some lights on it and have people in costume on stage. That is an enjoyable part, to watch the rehearsal.

It is more diverse in Southern California, but I make do with it. I consider myself fortunate to be here, doing what I enjoy doing, for twelve months out of a year. It is not as intense as my previous experience working with production companies in Southern California where every moment saved goes into someone else’s pocket.

Now I am getting older, I don’t necessarily miss the hectic, break-neck speed required in a more competitive environment like Los Angeles.

Pipe organ, nearly complete – Photo courtesy of D’Eliso.

After seven years working here, what are some of the fun ‘problems’ that you have solved?

I can show you the pictures of them. Building spiral staircases are intriguing. Floors that had an angle or depth. A chandelier. Or a pipe organ.

What are the smallest and biggest things that you have built?

A wall or tower is big because we have a very large stage. Small sets tend to be swallowed up by the space that we have. So we have to take that into consideration.

A small object is a bed from a well-known Van Gogh painting that I built for the premiere of Vincent. I practically begged them to let me build this bed because it is iconic with a lot of Van Gogh works and it was really fun to build.

Van Gogh bed – Photo courtesy of D’Eliso.

What is a day of work like?

I actually think about tomorrow as I leave today. I think about what part I am going to take in the morning. So I just come in and pick up where I left off.

Are you happy with your job here?

Oh yes. It is a palace here compared to some other places I have worked. Production companies would form nearly for one production. We would need to rent a small space somewhere and set up a complete shop, build it there and when we are done we pull out. This [shop at IU theater] is a luxury.

What is your favorite tool?

There is a large band saw over there that is unique, the largest I have ever seen in a wood shop.

Andrew Hastings landed this kind of job right out of college in New Jersey, and has been doing it ever since.

woodshop-6 (andrew)

What is fun in building this set?

We haven’t got into the truly fun stuff yet. Pretty much of all the things that we’ve built thus far are standard. The fun part is the bamboo fences. Every time we’ve got to use the non-traditional materials like bamboo, it tends to be more exciting.

Are you working on that in a few weeks?

It is a timing issue, mostly because of how we have to build to meet the design. The bamboos are not as robust. So we have to time it. If we make the bamboo wall now and it has to sit for several months, it has the potential to warp or twist, and the end product won’t be what we want. If we time it correctly, we can cut down on that kind of issue from happening.

The wood shop from above.

Is the timing issue specific for this project or a common one in building?

That is something we have to consider every time we build things. It is one of the best way for us to ensure that the products that we hand off to the paint shop aren’t twisted or warped just because they sit around.

What is fun about your job?

I like the fact that nothing is the same. You really get some creative outlet. You’re just not building a house but it is always different. You deal with a lot of different designers who have different visions. Also, the variety of the building. You never know because it is different from show to show. With this one, we are going to deal with bamboo. How often do you get to build with bamboo? Not too often. Some shows are heavy on metal. So I spend a good portion of my time welding. There are not a lot of jobs out there that give you the fun of variety.

And there are always some constant challenges, whether it is deadline or human imagination. You may have some designer who imagines something and Ken and I and Alissia are the ones that have to make that come true. Most of the time we can give it a good go or serve, but sometimes the laws of physics won’t let you do it. Discovering those things are definitely one of the most appealing part of this job.

Do you have a preference for the material to work with? 

Like any craftsman, I think having nice materials makes your job easier. Of course we can’t always spend money and build everything out of the absolutly nicest stuffs because they cost a lot. Sometimes you get lucky to have nice, clean, non-bend material.

I do enjoy welding. I do ninety-eight percent of the welding. Fortunately, it always comes at a time where I need a break from building the same thing over. For example there are forty odd platforms and I have to build each one the same, and they all have to match together. Right after I finish them, I have a nice welding project that I have to go do. So it is a nice change of scene here which also ties in to one of the things that makes the job enjoyable.

Stack of platforms built by Andrew Hastings.

Your title is ‘scenic carpenter’?

That changes depending on where you work. Here I am a scenic carpenter.

People often thing of ‘carpenter’ and ‘wood’ together. But here you work with different materials. So you are more than just a carpenter? 

I’d like to think that that is part of what makes a theatrical carpenter special, that we have the ability to do things that are beyond building a house or a chair – both are things which Ken and I can do. But here we are doing this. It can be difficult for people, even here on this campus, who might be in another building, to recognize that. They are like, “Oh, you are just a carpenter.” In the simplest form, yes, I am a carpenter. But it is so much more than that. 

What is one of the most fun things you have built? 

Before coming here, I built a working suspension bridge that was about 40 feet tall and 60 feet tall that has a drawbridge in the center that works, all out of all metal. Here, I built a balloon that has a steel frame and the three boys rode in – it looks like a hot-air balloon. That was pretty neat. We did a lot of pretty cool and interesting stuffs for Akhenaten last year that are out of the ordinary. It is not often that you get to build an Egyptian show. And this one is my first Vietnamese opera during my 25 years of my career.

Storeroom in the wood shop.

 What are the smallest things that you have built?

I do a lot of welding of some metal brackets or decorative items. Most of the time, because the stage here is so huge, the things that we build have to be commensurate with the size of the stage. So we don’t have the opportunity to build too many really small things. Something 4×4 is considered small. There are a lot of the things on the back side of the set that we sometimes have to manufacture. Maybe it is a specially constructed hinge or hook that holds something together.

What is something new you want to have in this shop?

I wish we had a panel saw.

What is your favorite tool?

I do enjoy the rounder.

Andrew likes using this rounder.

At the end of the day, you are a happy man?

Oh yes. I like what I do. What not to like? New things everyday, interesting and intelligent people – those who get into the arts. All makes the workplace and your work more enjoyable. That is why I have been doing it as long as I have been doing it.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

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