Behind the Scenes: Set Design for SS Musical

Samuel Rampelts’ designs for the musical’s backgrounds are looking wonderful. (Nikki Golestan/Sewickley Academy)

Samuel Rampelts’ designs for the musical’s backgrounds are looking wonderful. (Nikki Golestan/Sewickley Academy)

Nikki Golestan and Ella Sanfilippo

The set work for Sewickley Academy’s musicals is nothing short of excellent, and the designing, building, and painting process takes a lot of time and commitment to produce. The massive undertaking of the set for the musical includes elements of creativity, mathematics, artistic freedom, and historical accuracy for the period of the show. This requires a diverse team of skilled people to pull off.

Sewickley senior Samuel Rampelt was recently recruited to help with the set design for this year’s musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I was a senior teacher for Mr. Jackson and we were discussing the musical, things he was planing and such,” Rampelt said. “I had my sketchbook out and was doing some sketches and I told him I was interested in helping. From there we started working together.”

Despite having little experience with set design in the past, stating that his only experience with anything like it was “drawing by and playing with cardboard” as a little kid, Rampelt has a knack for art.

He gets his inspiration from landscapes around him. “I’m working on a hilly background right now; hills and mountains have always been artistic to me,” he said.

Rampelt has an interest in attending art school in the future to strengthen his talent, though he is not certain if he wants to go down the design route or the fine art route.

More of Samuel Rampelt’s splendid sketches for the set of the musical, sure to be a wonderful final product. This page depicts the fronts of two houses that will be constructed on stage. These set pieces are not stuck in one place; each one can be pulled open onto the stage to reveal the interior of a business in Anatevka. (Nikki Golestan/Sewickley Academy)

About his work with the show, he said, “My experience so far has been really fun, I’ve been able to do a lot of sketches and I’m excited to design the final piece with all the ratios.” Rampelt also works with Nathan Bell, our Technical Theatre Director and head of set design.

Mr. Bell has been at Sewickley since 2014, and since then he has been doing outstanding work not only with the annual SS musical but on many fronts all around the school, including the technical aspects of theater from the Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School, as well as teaching a wide variety of Technical Theatre classes in the MS and SS.

He enjoys working with kids, stating “that’s why I decided to pursue a career in teaching after I already started a career in the theater. I got a master’s degree in education because I liked a career working with kids.”

He continued, “Sam is a very creative student. He has a bunch of interesting ideas, so Mr. Jackson and I have been working with him to guide the process and allow him to bring as much creativity as he can to the scenic design.”

The process of set design is a long and difficult journey. You start with the script, utilizing details including the setting and stage directions.

“Once you have that as a starting point, you bring your creativity in to create the setting; for instance, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” this year’s musical, they tell us it’s a small urban village in Russia called Anatevka, but beyond that it’s up to our creativity to choose how things will look,” Mr. Bell said. “You have a lot of freedom to bring your ideas.”

Though your creativity can run free in some aspects of set design, there’s a bit of a catch when it comes to actualizing what’s in your head in the real world.

“Often the biggest challenge is taking the creative ideas and making them into a full-size reality,” Mr. Bell said. “This involves scale drawings, which are accurate drawings of set-pieces”. Scale drawing is one of the final steps before you can take your hard work and creativity over to the carpenter’s bench and begin the physical build.

“My favorite part about working on a set is the hands-on aspect. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I don’t think I would be able to maintain my sanity if I sat at a desk all day,” Mr. Bell said.

The students also play a major role in why Mr. Bell enjoys this job.

Mr. Bell hard at work in his office, already anticipating the opening night of the musical in less than five weeks. (Nikki Golestan/Sewickley Academy)

“There may be times when some of the magic will start to wear off and it feels like a grind, and almost every time that feeling is counteracted by the seemingly endless enthusiasm from a kid who is getting into it and is super passionate about it,” Mr. Bell said, “and I identify with that because I’ve been there.”

Though much of the set is hand-painted, not everything on stage sees the touch of an actor or a tech theatre kid’s paint brush. The theatre department also utilizes projected images to get the desired effects and backdrops.

“We have a relatively new projector; a big whoopty doo high-end projector,” said Mr. Bell.

The projector is a really helpful tool in creating a more dynamic experience for the audience. When a theater rents a show, they receive one big painted backdrop with the script. With the use of a projector comes opportunity to present multiple different looks using the single backdrop; for example, a backdrop of mountains could transform between seasons with the aid of a projector.

Mr. Bell and SA Theatre Director Mr. Jackson have a dynamic that works well in the production process. While it’s Mr. Jackson’s job as the director to have the big ideas, Mr. Bell says that “the nature of technical theater is the practical implementation of someone else’s artistic vision, which means I have to [actualize the idea] in a way that’s realistic and practical, in the time frame and with our budget.”

Set design includes both a ton of creativity and artistic freedom as well as physical and material limitations, so it really takes all types to pull off a great set. With Sam Rampelt newly on the design team and seasoned pros like Mr. Jackson and Mr. Bell, the set of Fiddler on the Roof seems to have a very promising future.

Sewickley Academy’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” will be performed in Rea Auditorium on February 27-29 at 7pm. Tickets are free, and will be available to reserve soon; tickets get claimed very quickly, so check the Sewickley website frequently and get them before they’re gone!