The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 22, 2004


Savoyard set designer inspires rave reviews

This is the second in a series of weekly articles on the Savoyard Light Opera Company, which will perform The Secret Garden, its last show in Carlisle, from November 12 to 21 in the Corey Auditorium. Due to space constraints in the Carlisle School, the 30-year-old troupe (which began in Maynard and moved to Carlisle in 1988) is forced to seek a new theater home after this season.

Kurt Lanza, set construction chief, and Brian Harris, set designer, in front of a portion of the set for SLOC's Secret Garden. (Photo by Larry Miller.)
It has happened often in the Savoyard Light Opera Company's theatrical history: the curtain opens, and before an actor can even set foot on the stage, the audience erupts into wild applause. The applause is for the set itself. Yet the creator of the impressive sets that audiences of the Savoyard Light Opera Company (SLOC) have come to expect is one performer who will not be taking center stage for a bow. Brian Harris of Sterling, who has been designing, building, painting and otherwise implementing set designs for SLOC for the past 18 years, stays behind the scenes (literally), often recruited to move the sets he has created.

Sometimes the praise goes even further than mere applause. Harris got what he calls his "best review" one year when he designed sets for the Gilbert and Sullivan show H.M.S. Pinafore. After offering favorable comments about the cast of the show, a newspaper reviewer went on to say, "The real star of the show was the sets," Harris recalls.

At the moment however, audience appreciation for Harris's set design is still weeks away. Harris (who is also the president of SLOC's board this year) and his stage construction crew are currently spending weekends and spare moments in the Carlisle Historical Society barn on Concord Road, where they are building and painting the sets needed for The Secret Garden, opening on November 12.

"Because the Corey Auditorium is such a small space, we can't build it on the stage," says Harris. "It's all in pieces, with numbers on the back. Then they fit together like a puzzle when we get onto the stage." The official "put in" date, he says, is October 31.

Although actual construction on the sets began after Labor Day, around the same time the cast began rehearsals, the process of set design began sometime last spring. "It starts with reading the play andresearching the era to get a feel for the atmosphere," says Harris. Then, after conferring with the director, lighting designer and costumer (to make sure all these elements will work together), Harris began putting his ideas on paper then onto his computer.

In The Secret Garden, a musical based on the classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the design of the set has to reflect several locations. The story opens in India, where Mary Lennox lives with her parents who die in a cholera epidemic. Subsequent scenes depict Mary's journey from India to her Uncle Archibald's manor on the Yorkshire moors in northern England. The remainder of the musical takes place inside gloomy Misselthwaite Manor, and on the grounds and gardens outside.

One way in which Harris dealt with the problem of switching back and forth from indoor to outdoor scenes was to create four rotating units. One side of each tall, rectangular unit depicts bookcases and indoor furnishings while the other side shows shrubs and topiaries.

"I think this year's set is going to be very impressive," says Kurt Lanza, who has been constructing sets for SLOC for about 20 of its 30 years. "Sets with moving parts are always more impressive. The sitting room flips from interior to exterior, for example, and the garden gate opens and closes."

Harris is willing to share print-outs of a few of the set designs he has generated on computer, but insists on keeping others top-secret until the curtain rises on the first night.

"There are lots of surprises that people will see when they come in," says long-time SLOC member Tina Zolla, the show's ticket manager, who also pitches in as a member of the set-painting crew. On Harris's skills as set-designer, Zolla says, "Brian is meticulous in everything he does. You can really see the quality, and some of the processes he uses are amazing."

But with all the months of work that go into design and construction, what about "strike"— the inevitable de-construction of the set by the entire cast and crew after the final show? How does Harris respond to the demise of his design?

"It's not that bad. People think they'll find me sobbing in a corner, but it's not like that," says Harris. "There's actually a feeling of closure. I say, 'well, that's done for another year.' Then I start thinking about next year."

For more information on the Savoyard Light Opera Company and its upcoming performances of The Secret Garden, call 1-978-371-SLOC or visit their web site at

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito