Backstage: Thinking out of the box with R.J. Peters

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews College Production Manager R.J. Peters about the challenges of producing two very different shows in repertory.

Thinking out of the box — and sometimes within it — is all in a day’s work for R.J. Peters as another opening of another Canadian College of Performing Arts show looms.

Actually, it’s two shows featuring Year II students, playing in repertory, that are keeping CCPA’s affable production manager on his toes.

Peters, a College alumnus, as well as an actor and director whose more recent credits include starring in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s Billy Bishop Goes to War and directing the Alumni Company’s musical hit Avenue Q, has his work cut out for him with the openings of Stage Door and Middletown, two shows that present unique challenges.

It’s not just that Stage Door, the classic Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman-scripted valentine to live theatre set in Depression-era New York couldn’t be more different tonally and content-wise than Middletown, Will Eno’s dramatic, darkly comic and surreal meditation on the human experience within a small town.

It’s that these disparate shows require different types of sets.

With such opposites playing in repertory, the sets must be designed in a way that lets their respective directors — Jim Leard (Stage Door) and Stuart Aikins (Middletown) — faithfully realize their visions on backdrops that must alternate five times over four days.

“It’s one space and there’s a changeover either overnight or between shows, a matinee and evening,” said Peters, the reliably resourceful set designer who doubles as lighting designer.

“I’ve got stage managers but it has to be simple,” he said shortly after pulling into the College’s parking lot with his white GMC pickup truck loaded with “everything a 1940s boarding house would need’” including a vintage chaise lounge, writing desk and other props and furnishings that will adorn Stage Door’s traditional box set.

“These shows couldn’t be more different. Stage Door has this Kander and Ebb sort of feeling, sort of a farce and Middletown is this existential walk through life.”

His solution was to keep the stationary Stage Door set that depicts a boarding school for aspiring stage actresses in place upstage.

When Middletown is being performed Stage Door’s box set will be obscured by a cyclorama serving as a backdrop for the more abstract vision for Aikins’s production downstage.

Stage Door is about realism, and I didn’t want to do it in such a way where we had to always move a bunch of stuff, so the realism all happens upstage,” he said.

A six-foot-fence will be positioned in front of the cyclorama, supplemented by projections for Middletown.

“In Middletown we’re all over the place — in houses, in the hospital, outside. We even go into outer space,” Peters said. “It’s dealing with suburbia. It starts with a nice white picket fence that moves from pristine to dilapidated and aged.

“We’ll have doors that slide off, hospital beds that slide off, that kind of thing but most of the magic will come from the projections.”

To take the audience out of this world, Peters will also be creatively using a chair and some scaffolding for a key sequence.

While his objective with the Year II plays has been to keep things as simple as possible, he admits it’s not always easy.

He doesn’t miss a beat when asked which is more challenging to create.

“Jim has the more demanding show. There are a million props, while Stuart has the ability to go abstract, so you can also mime something or come up with clever little devices. You can suggest a library with a sign that simply says Library.”

As much as he loves working with his creative collaborators, he admits he’d rather do anything other than a box set.

“As soon as you do realism your life gets taken up,” he says with a laugh.

“You can’t do this show without a box set, but you’re not building a set. You’re building a house, right down to the moulding to the wallpaper to the floors. You have all that detail.”

Stage Door’s set model.

Peters created a small scale model of the Stage Door to get things started, and to give students – who have been rehearsing in various studios – a point of reference.

While there was a single Year II production last year involving 23 students – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it was necessary to split the class and stage two shows this year, said director of education and programming Heather Burns.

It was because there was a larger-than-normal class size this year – 32.

“It’s really hard to find one play with 30 different roles and we wanted as many of them as possible to have this experience of working with a character instead of just being an ensemble,” said Burns, noting the shows, historically known as “theatrical treasures” are part of the performance component of the program.

“What we strive to do is give them opportunities to have a role and work on that character in the context of a performance which gives them the experience of knowing what it really is to put all this training into a practical, tangible experience for them.”

Stage Door opens Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. and also runs Dec. 14, with a Dec. 15 matinee at 2 p.m. Middletown opens Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. , with a 2 p.m. matinee Dec. 14 before closing night Dec. 15. Visit for tickets.