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Artistic set design with utilitarian theories

Don Zastoupil's set for Camelot Theatre Company's production of "Brigadoon" is a knockout, a 19th century Scottish village, all cobblestone and thatch. If it also looks vaguely familiar, that's because Zastoupil, Camelot's resident scenic designer, has recycled much of it from earlier plays. It is another instance of doing more, with less, in a small space.

"The only part of the set that's brand new is the bay window upper stage left," Zastoupil says.

If the play's the thing, the first thing about the play is the set. It is the first thing you see, and the thing that sets the tone for the whole play.

Zastoupil, who began designing sets for Camelot Theatre Company in Talent about three years ago, isn't much on fancy design theories.

"I'm a utility builder," he says. "It's all about helping the show flow."

Showing a visitor around the darkened set, he freely points out a designer's secrets. Big rocks at the front of the stage are polystyrene covered with a foam coat. He adapted the village's rock walls from those he made for "Dancing at Lughnasa" last spring and gave them a new paint treatment.

The half-round seats on either side of the set are from a production of "Promises, Promises." The thatched roof of a village house is a bamboo screen cut so that the stalks run at an angle.

"I always cheat the angle," Zastoupil says.

Put lights on this stuff, and it all comes together, and you're in the hills of old Scotland.

Zastoupil, 49, came to the Rogue Valley about three years ago from Sacramento, Calif., where he'd been a prop master with the Woodland Opera House. He also designed and built sets for the Sacramento Theatre Company and in his day job ran a United Van Lines branch.

His eye and his imaginative use of space and materials were soon making their mark on Camelot's productions. Livia Genise, Camelot's artistic director, wanted a fountain for "Do I Hear a Waltz" but knew there was no way.

"You want a fountain?" Zastoupil said, "you gotta fountain."

His set for a 2006 production of "The Miracle Worker" was adapted from a design by Karl Beckman and was compared by some to Richard Hay's designs with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"He's so creative," Genise says. "He'll say something that spurs something in me, and I'll do the same for him."

His "Fahrenheit 451" looked like a cross between the Athenian Agora and Woody Allen's "Sleeper." For "The Dresser," his gorgeous 1940s England included a tiny, backstage dressing room. In "Steel Magnolias," he created a Truvy's beauty parlor you could almost believe had truly begun life as a carport.

He put in an I-beam above the rear of the stage to enable an actor playing an actor playing Tarzan to swing onto the set of "Shakespeare in Hollywood." The Camelot building is too low-ceilinged for a rope attached to a point overhead to allow a proper swing. So Zastoupil rigged the beam and coasters to allow the ape-man to swing onto the stage zip-line style.

For "Sockdology" he created a curtain and a pulley rigged with sand bags, precariously, behind a screen.

"That was the scariest," he says. "It worked for the whole run of the show."

He was introduced to Genise by a mutual friend and, perhaps inevitably, soon wound up designing. There are some not-so-subtle differences in designing for a small theater in Oregon and one in a city of Sacramento's size. He used to use a lot of "flats" — painted canvas or wooden two-dimensional structures — that could instantly be brought onto a set.

"Here, I pretty much have to build on the spot," he says. "No matter how much measuring you do, you never know until you get it out here."

If there's anything he misses living in the Rogue Valley, it's the easy connections he had for materials in California.

"I'd meet with my buddy, and we'd go aback and forth," he says. "You can use this, and I'll use this.

"It used to be I'd get a call from somebody saying he had a whole house we could use."

Zastoupil says his greatest challenge was the carousel he once made for a production of "Carousel."

About the nearest he gets to philosophizing about stage design is to say that it's one of a set of crucial elements, all of which must be strong for the whole to work.

"All it takes is for just one thing to not be there," he says. "When the acting is off, I don't look good. When all the elements are in place, it works."

Genise says she doesn't know how he does what he does.

"He can see the set in his mind," she says. "I've learned to trust him."

Here are few of Zastoupil's professional secrets:

He doesn't overreach himself or the stage ("I only do what I think I can pull off successfully").

He avoids designing scenery that adds change-time between scenes, with people scurrying around in the darkness to move stuff.

On a small stage where some scenes must be suggested, he will include some signature piece in a scene — say, a table — to indicate that the location has changed.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble@mailtribune.com or 776-4478.

Don Zastoupil stands on the set he created for 'Brigadoon' at Camelot Theatre in Talent. Zastoupil used polystyrene covered with foam to create the rocks, properties from past productions for the set’s rock walls and bamboo screens for the thatched roof on the small houses to transport audiences to the hills of old Scotland. - Photo by Bob Pennell