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Arts & Culture

At The McNay, Set Design Takes The Spotlight

I caught up with Steve and Sam Gilliam, a pair of artists whose work works best when you don’t notice it. Their work is being featured at the McNay Museum of Art, but it won’t hang on walls. It won’t be erected prominently in front of a major building and it won’t be sold at a Sotheby’s Auction.

The Gilliams design sets for plays -- their most memorable was "Fiddler on the Roof."

"The set was choreographed to move from one transition to another. And that was our innovation for the design of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' " Steve explained.  "The curtain would go up and there was Tevye’s house and we would play that scene, and then we would move to the next scene and the house would move or turn around and become another location."

This prevented the necessity of curtains coming down to cover scene changes which, he noted, necessarily interrupts the flow of the play.

"So the set played a very important part of that," Steve said.

I asked him about sets for touring productions. "Doesn’t that necessarily complicate the job?" I said.

“Oh, it definitely does," Steve replied. "You have to figure out how it fits onto a truck. Or how big the doors are to get the scenery off and into the theater."

These are all things that aren’t on playgoers’ minds at all, but are front-of-mind to set designers. The Gilliams are coming to the McNay Art Museum on Thursday, March 13 to give a talk about their adventures in set design, and to answer questions like the one I asked Sam:

"Is the best set the one that screams look at me! Or the one that somehow fades into the background?" I said.

“Oh, I would say the one that fades into the background," Sam answered.

A wine and a sing-your-favorite-Fiddler-on-the-Roof-song reception happens afterwards.