Crew brings set design of ‘American Idiot’ to life

Set designer Abigaile Wiker, center, shows some of her ideas to fellow crew members in the prop shop.
Set designer Abigaile Wiker, center, shows some of her ideas to fellow crew members in the prop shop. adrey@centredaily.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second installment in a three-part series about the making of Penn State Centre Stage’s production of “American Idiot” — the Green Day musical.

“American Idiot” is the first show Abigaile Wiker designed at Penn State.

In August, when she really started to get to work, she said she was 10 percent terrified and 90 percent excited.

“Once I got kind of in the groove of it and started actually working through it step by step, it became a lot easier. It flowed a lot more,” said the junior Bachelor of Fine Arts theater set design major.

Starting out in Penn State’s architecture program, Wiker said she didn’t even know there was such a thing as a scenic design major.

She got into the program last minute, and it turns out she ended up right where she was meant to be, Wiker said.

Penn State Centre Stage’s production of “American Idiot” — a high-intensity punk rock opera about a generation of young Americans trying to find meaning in a post-9/11 world, with score by Green Day — opens on Friday.

But the show has been in the making for quite a while.

The show’s director, Erin Farrell Speer, has been “living with the show” for about a year, and Wiker came on board in April.

“She has really done an enormous amount of research based on my initial vision for the production so we were in touch all through the summer about initial feel and ideas,” Speer said. “... she really has embraced the feel of the show that I wanted.”

By late November, Wiker had finished her design process — models, renderings, draftings and paint elevations.

What she designed is a unit set, meaning that no scenery comes on or off stage, she said. The whole set is on stage the entire show.

Wiker chose to do it that way because the scenes change so fast. That said, the set has a lot of pieces that move around and transform — like several moving platforms and a staircase.

“The whole thing is basically climbable, which was also really fun to design a very jungle-gym like, diverse set,” Wiker said.

Incorporating projections into the show also helps to create different locations, she said. “Every scene they’re somewhere new. It’s the Middle East or it’s New York City.”

‘Summer has come and passed’

She also passed her draftings off to Technical Director Chris Swetcky in November.

“My job is to take the scene designer’s dream ... and make it a reality. So I take it from paper and make it into a full-scale, fully executed design,” said Swetcky, assistant professor of technical theater.

That starts with budgeting — which for “American Idiot” meant $3,500 for the scenery and another $750 for paints, he said.

Then the drafting phase involves figuring out how to split up the set so it fits in a truck — because it gets built across campus from the theater in the Academic Activities Building — and then figuring out where the bolts will go and making sure it comes back together relatively easily, he said.

It’s also the time to figure out what materials the crew will use to build the set, Swetcky said.

The set is drafted in AutoCAD, a computer-aided design and drafting software.

“We actually did a full 3-D model — kind of like Abbey did — just in a lot more detail. So it shows all the bolt connections, all the framing, the lauan layout, all that sort of stuff so we know exactly how everything comes together and make sure it actually works,” he said.

The physical build started when the students returned from the semester break and was completed in several weeks, he said.

Between building and painting, almost 40 students were involved with the set production, in addition to two full-time carpenters and a shop supervisor, Swetcky said.

‘Like graffiti on the walls of the heartland’

On the last Wednesday in January, with only two work days left until set load in, the Theatre and Production Studios in the Academic Activities Building was bustling.

The painters were working on a base coat of graffiti over 150 different posters from the ’90s CBGB punk rock era plastered over the set’s walls.

The set’s being made to look like an abandoned warehouse, said Wiker, who also oversees painting and props.

Paint charge Carolyn Harper, a junior BFA theater set design major, makes that happen with the help of several other painters.

Wiker gave her the paint elevations, and Harper said she figured out how to achieve the desired look. And she mixes all the paint colors that Wiker chose for the show.

Meanwhile in the props department, students were busy trying to make stuff look grungy and “gross” for the junk piles that go on stage.

Designing junk might be the hardest thing, Wiker said, laughing.

The show has dozens of props — everything from a destroyed couch to “drug stuff,” she said.

‘My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating’

The set was loaded into the theater on Jan. 29. By the end of the day, 90 percent of the set was moved in, Swetcky said.

For a few days after that, the crew worked to wrap up little things to make sure everything was safe and ready to go for the actors, he said.

Overall, the process was “incredibly smooth,” Swetcky said.

The hardest part is making sure everything is rigid and secure enough because the actors are dancing off the walls, he said.

“We do what we do because we love it, and we spend hours upon hours upon hours because we want it to be what we want it to be and to be perfect,” Wiker said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz

If you go

What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “American Idiot”

When: (previews) 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Feb. 20-25; 2 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 25

Where: Playhouse Theatre, University Park

Info: theatre.psu.edu/americanidiot; 863-0255 or 800-ARTS-TIX