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Performing Art
"I know how each and every one of our sets goes together piece-by-piece," Jeff Ellis says. "It's a big Tetris game. Fit the shapes in the holes."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 7 years ago

Set Commander

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Jeff Ellis has spent a month juggling set pieces for an opera that’s still six months away.

Fortunately for Ellis, there are advantages to building an opera set based on the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The scenery is rustic and unfussy. The lines are clean and the design is minimalist.

Puritans weren’t exactly known for their opulence.

What makes “The Crucible” — Sarasota Opera’s final production of the 2011 season — unique is that it’s the first main stage opera to be built entirely at the Sarasota Opera House.

Rather than send the production out to bid to the usual scene shops in Oregon, Virginia and upstate New York, Sarasota Opera opted to construct it onsite, using its own stable of carpenters and scenic painters.

This route saved the opera $25,000. The average set costs $100,000 to produce and ship.

However, unlike the Asolo Repertory Theatre, which has a 45,000-square-foot scene shop on Tallevast Road, the Opera House has only its stage and 2,000-square-foot scene shop with which to work.

“I had to be convinced,” Ellis says of the decision. “We don’t have the space and the tools. I even questioned my skills. I haven’t run a build hands-on in 10 years.”

Ellis is being humble. Now in his sixth season as director of production at the Opera House, the 36-year-old Ellis has worked in theater since he was a teenager.

He started his professional career as carpenter, building and drafting set pieces at community theaters around Washington, D.C., where he grew up.

When Ellis was 22, he built a scaled-down version of the Alamo and a 20-foot-tall cowboy boot for Bill Clinton’s 1996 Texas Inaugural Ball.

He got his bachelor’s degree in technical direction from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“I went into management when I was young and stupid,” Ellis says. “I thought it would be easier.”

He lets out a loud laugh.

In addition to managing the live productions of five operas, Ellis also oversees seven departments: scenery, costumes, lighting, sound, props, wigs and makeup and stage management.

In season, he averages about 70 hours a week.

“The sheer amount of information I have catalogued in my brain is kind of overwhelming,” Ellis says. “It’s not like I was a professional carpenter who got into management just so I could tell guys to push scenery around.”

The bulk of his time is spent managing the opera’s winter and fall productions. When “La Cenerentola” (Cinderella) opens Oct. 29, Ellis’ team will cease construction on “The Crucible” and focus entirely on Rossini’s two-act fairy tale.

Ellis has worked on all but one of the 15 sets in Sarasota Opera’s storage facility. Once the company stages “Don Giovanni” in February, he’ll have handled all 15 productions.

When another theater rents a set from Sarasota Opera, Ellis often flies to that city to help the crew assemble the production. Two weeks ago, he flew to Texas to help the San Antonio Opera construct “Pagliacci.”

At the height of the opera season, Ellis’ crew refers to the backstage wings as “the Rubik’s Cube” because it’s filled with a labyrinth of cumbersome set pieces.

Although “The Crucible” is the last show of the opera’s winter festival season (it opens March 5), dialogue on how to construct the set began back in February.

The set, which was designed by Michael Schweikardt, will take about eight to 12 weeks to construct.

Like all good managers, Ellis is personable and authoritative.

Weaving in and out of planks of wood that, when finished, will be a flying wall 17 feet high-by-40 feet wide, Ellis gives concise orders and polite requests.

Even when he loudly asks his crew not to rip the plastic drop cloth covering the stage floor, the command comes across as chummy, like a frank exchange between old friends.

“If I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be a sportscaster,” Ellis says. “I’m a huge sports fanatic, and I have a fairly good mind for detail.”

Playing favorites
Jeff Ellis’ favorite production is “Hansel and Gretel.”

The set was built in 2001 and has been rented out more times than any other Sarasota Opera set.
“It’s a pretty set,” Ellis says. “And it’s easy to change out. You roll six big pieces out on stage and you’re done.”

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