Theater Review - Scene of the crime

Set designer Rochelle Barker finds raw emotions in raw materials

The play Mortal Acts depicts a man obsessed with stucco who suffers a nervous breakdown.

As resident set designer for Theatrical Outfit, which staged the drama in 1997, Rochelle Barker needed to figure out how the Mortal Acts set could reflect the character’s disintegrating mental state. Barker’s knack for conveying a play’s themes and the characters’ internal struggles in the physical features of her sets has made her one of Atlanta’s most sought-after and visionary designers.

Months before Tom Huey’s drama debuted at the 14th Street Playhouse, Mortal Acts’ design team — including Barker, the sound, costume and lighting designers, and Theatrical Outfit’s new artistic director Tom Key — sat down, scripts in hand, in a drab, institutional room at the theater’s old offices at Fifth and Peachtree streets. They needed to brainstorm ways for Mortal Acts’ design elements to convey the main character’s fractured psyche.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Barker gravitated to the notion of a man with stucco on the brain. “The play was very much about a person trapped in his own mind,” Barker recalls. “I kept thinking about how with stucco, you plaster over things, you cover up things.”

Then it came to her. What if, as the character descends into madness, more and more stucco starts to appear — on the furniture, the props, the costumes?

Thinking she was making a joke, “everybody at the meeting laughed,” recalls Key, Mortal Acts’ director.

Then, all at once, everyone at Theatrical Outfit stopped laughing.

“We looked at Rochelle in amazement, because we realized it was actually a brilliant idea,” Key says. “In 10 minutes, she was splattering stucco all over the set.”

It’s a typical example of how Barker, a soft-spoken “backstage” artist who shuns the spotlight, contributes enormously to the character of Atlanta theater.

Since moving to Atlanta 15 years ago, Barker has designed sets for almost 150 shows at virtually every area playhouse, from small, itinerant companies like Synchronicity Performance Group to the enormous main stage of the Alliance Theatre. Every bit as much as the work of Atlanta actors and directors, Barker’s sets transport audiences to the world of the play. She makes fanciful locales tangible, like the moonscape of Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the title character’s cavernous lair in Dad’s Garage’s Bat Boy: The Musical. And she makes mundane places vivid, subtly infusing a realistic set like Alliance Studio’s Wit with the anxiety of a cancer patient.

Though she spends her most productive work hours at her computer or a drafting table at her home office in Tucker, Barker’s creative process resembles a crime scene investigator’s — and not just because she likes to work between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. While a forensic detective will examine the scene of a crime and reconstruct the deeds that took place, Barker takes the events of a play’s script, and creates the scene in which they happen.

“I like to apply psychology to my sets,” she says. “I don’t just say ‘Let’s paint this peach,’ but ask, ‘What happened here?’ You examine the psychology of the characters and create the environment they would live in.” At least the cops on “CSI” don’t have to worry about audience sightlines, the logistics of actor movement or the current costs of building materials.

In fact, criminal justice intrigued Barker as a rising junior at Western Michigan University, and was one of her many minors, including art, film and sociology, in addition to her English major. But she discovered her true muse by accident. When a film class was unexpectedly canceled, she enrolled in a theater production course as the closest substitute. The class’s hefty workload intimidated her — requiring students to do everything from build a model set to spend 60 hours working in the scene shop — but she was surprised to discover an aptitude for the craft.

She also realized that theater encompassed all of her minors: “It’s art. It’s sociology. It’s criminal justice, since most plays are about a crime of some kind.” She graduated with a minor in theater, and received a master of fine arts in theater design from Penn State in 1989.

For her newest set, Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s farce What the Butler Saw (see review on page 61), Barker applied psychology to Brad Sherrill’s randy shrink to determine the look of his office at an English asylum. “He wants his office to look classy, professional and comforting to people — especially the ones who have shown up to put their relatives away,” she says. “But it’s also where he seduces people, so it has sexy elements. He has a psychiatrist’s couch, but it’s burgundy and plush, and surrounded by satin curtains.”

The spacious Greek-revival style set could fit in a lavishly appointed day spa, and features a frieze of naked people in Kama Sutra positions, in keeping with Butler’s comic sex drive. But Barker finds herself equally motivated when she works at Atlanta’s smaller-scale playhouses like Dad’s Garage. They pay less money and often require more hands-on labor, but tight budgets inspire improvisation worthy of any comedy team.

For instance, last January for Dad’s Garage’s evening of punk rock-themed short plays 8 1/2 x 11, Barker built a set out of trash to epitomize the punk ethos.

“To me, punk rock was about people who society said were garbage, but they turned garbage into art.” So Barker festooned her set with old bicycle parts and other garbage gathered off Atlanta’s streets, and covered the walls with plastic trash bags. “I only paid $30 for the bags, and as a matter of principle, I didn’t charge them for it. I’ll just write it off my taxes this year.”

Barker generally prefers doing conceptual sets like the wall of trash bags or the enormous birdcage of Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s 2003 comedy School for Wives than realistic ones like Butler’s. But she’s mindful of not indulging herself too much.

“You don’t want to be too symbolic with a set, or end up telling the whole story for the audience,” she says. “Some people do what we call ‘design masturbation.’ The nice way to put it is to say, ‘She makes pretty pictures,’ but they’re often more about the designer than the show itself.” Powerful sets like Barker’s don’t just show a location, but hang with atmosphere, like the descriptive prose of a novel or the cinematography of a movie.

Barker describes herself as an “extroverted-introvert,” but she may be one of those people who think of themselves as shy without ever acting that way. She laughs easily and proves talkative in meetings and in one-on-one conversations. And she lectures students twice a week as a part-time instructor at Georgia State. But she admits to having horrible stage fright and avoids attending the opening nights of the plays she designs.

“I don’t like the way people seem to feel obligated to compliment you,” she says.

She wears a wedding ring on a necklace to signify her commitment to Peter Shinn, the Alliance Theatre’s master electrician, whom she met in 1989 when she took a job as the Alliance’s props manager. The couple live in Tucker with their three dogs. But they’ve never made their union official. Barker says that at a time of high divorce rates, she’s skeptical of marriage as an institution, but she also hates the idea of being the center of attention at a wedding ceremony. She would rather create a theatrical spectacle than be one herself.

As one of Atlanta’s most versatile and acclaimed designers, Barker says she’s “never not working,” and she usually juggles four to six sets at once, for a total of 12 to 14 shows a year. Upcoming sets include the stylized jukebox for Theatrical Outfit’s remount of the 1960s musical revue Beehive in July, and a still-life painting design for Theatre in the Square’s Much Ado About Nothing in August.

In her spare moments, Barker enjoys writing, and says she dabbles with everything from social and political philosophies to writing alternate endings for movies and books that end badly. But she shies away from the idea of seeing her work in print.

“I’m afraid of permanence, and publishing seems very permanent. With theater, you build a set and then throw it away,” she says.

Instead of leaving a legacy of printed words, Barker would rather construct the fleeting, imaginary real estate of live theater.