Classic Seuss comes to life

Posted: April 11, 2014

Behind the stage of Minnehaha Academy’s auditorium, the books of Dr. Seuss are coming to life. Students paint these whimsical and wildly chromatic landscapes while listening to the huge indie stars of today, ranging from Lorde to The 1975 to Bastille.

The color buries itself in these young painters’ nail beds and clings to clothing, creating a permanent, plasticine stain that can only be removed by slowly chipping away at it with a knife.

These larger-than-life pop-up book style sets are being created for the Minnehaha Academy Players’ performance of Seussical The Musical will run from April 24 through the 26th.

The sets themselves are pulled from the pages of art teacher and Seuss set mastermind Nathan Stromberg’s copies of Dr. Seuss books and thrown onto the stage in a menagerie of odd shapes and bright colors.

The process begins with the selection of the spring play.

“I wanted to do something fun for the spring musical,” said acting teacher and play director Nicholas Freeman. “After our play last fall, [The Anatomy of Gray] which was on the heavier side, I thought we needed something a little lighter.”

Once the play has been chosen, Stromberg sets out to “establish a visual identity” for the production.

“This means reading the script and talking to Mr. Freeman, trying to get his vision for the play as the director,” said Stromberg. “For this play, it’s pretty easy because everybody already knows what Dr. Seuss looks like. There actually is a visual identity. The challenge with this one is determining how to make it feel totally familiar as Dr. Seuss, but also have it be unique and original.”

In order to accomplish this difficult task, Stromberg starts by reading through stacks of Dr. Seuss books and sketching out scenes from the 20 or so stories that Seussical combines.

“I have to figure out what looks best, but also feels the most like Dr. Seuss,” said Stromberg. “I looked in particular at things like the backgrounds behind the characters and the little blips of grass and all the Seussy details. I took little pieces of different ones, so I’m not copying any of them exactly, and put them together and color them in my own way. They feel exactly like something I could have taken from a book, but it’s not directly [copied].”

Once he has a sketch and an idea, Stromberg builds a miniature replica of what the final product on the stage will look like. The tiny colored pencil drawings will grow into six-foot tall props and platforms.

Because of their sheer size, the pieces propose an engineering challenge, which sometimes interferes with aesthetics.

“Anything that doesn’t have to support weight is just brilliant,” says Stromberg. “I can just trace it out on a big piece of foam and paint it. Some of the other props have to support weight, which is trickier. You have to build a structure underneath and then try to disguise it under a false front.”

Even with such a classic and recognizable look, Stromberg still has a very specific vision in mind.

“The idea is that from the front, it will all look two dimensional, like a book come to life,” said Stromberg. “I’m not trying to make Seussy props look 3D. I don’t want it to look like The Grinch, which is a terrible movie. I want it to look like you’re actually opening up a book.”

Given the whimsical nature of the play, there is room to play with the sets and makes them his own.

“For this play, I have to fabricate some really crazy props,” said Stromberg. “For instance, there’s a group of Whos who make noise for Horton to hear, and when they do, they’re supposed to blow these giant Who trumpets. I have to figure out how to make Seussy looking instruments. Things like that I have no reference for.”

Despite the stress, and the more than 100 hours Stromberg will have logged by the end of the play, the work does come with some rewards.

“[The best part has been] just the creative craziness,” said Stromberg. “It’s different from anything we’ve ever done. The best part about creating any set is always when it feeds the actors, and when they’re able to get into their characters because of their surroundings.”

While he’s created around 16 large set pieces for the play, Stromberg favors some over  others.

“We’re creating this big mid-stage two foot high platform that has a ramp leading up to it that has a weird, funky archway and a kind of Seuss tree growing out of it,” said Stromberg. “It’s something that I pretty much completely made up, just from a drawing that feels exactly like it could have been taken from a book. It’s pretty wonky; it’s pretty crazy, and I like that. Right now it’s fun to see because all I had was a little drawing that I made that was only 3×4 inches with colored pencils. And now it’s real.”

Starting from a small sketch and growing to fill the stage of the auditorium, the set of Seussical is sure to shock and awe the crowd.

“When that curtain opens on that first night and people see it and there’s a gasp,” said Stromberg. “I think it will be that big and that crazy that it will hopefully surprise people with how cool it is. I don’t want it to seem like a high school production. I want it to seem like it’s a very professional production. That’s also how Mr. Freeman views theater and I really think he’s right on with that. You know, that’s the goal.”

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