Dinner theatre is last hurrah for WBU production designer

When ordinary patrons enter the Harral Studio Theatre, they likely see set pieces and props squeezed into a black box. But Jay Sawyer sees something different.

As production designer for Wayland Baptist University since 1990, he's been responsible for helping transform the simple dark space into other worlds for each play produced. Over those years, he's hauled sand for a beach scene, formed a rat maze with wood and created a gymnasium floor with paint.

This time, it's Art that has him busying about the theatre, where the black floor is now colorfully decorated with primary colors. No doubt this show will be etched indelibly on his memory, much like all the others he's done while at Wayland.

But this one is his last. Come this fall, Sawyer will be sharing his knowledge and skill with different audiences when he takes a similar position at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.

Besides his duties in the theatre, Sawyer has also served Wayland as associate professor of theatre and communication arts and Director of Harral Complex, in which he oversaw technical and logistical needs for all activity in Harral Auditorium and its adjoining wings.

As far as production design goes, however, the process is really more of a collaborative effort between himself and theatre director Dr. Marti Runnels. Both men bring their own interpretations, likes and dislikes and concept ideas into the meeting and what emerges is a conglomeration of the two.

Since his first Wayland production of Godspell in the fall of 1990, Sawyer has logged countless hours making sets come together and creating dramatic masterpieces from ordinary materials. For that show, an almost verbatim recounting of the Gospels, Sawyer and Runnels adapted the musical to a psychiatric hospital setting, creating a rat maze of sorts with wood and costuming much of the cast in scrubs. He also acted and sang in that production.

Other shows stick out as professional high points as well. Suddenly Last Summer is one of those. For this production, the theatre was transformed into the back porch of a Louisiana plantation, complete with a large papier mache tree draped with Spanish moss, a gazebo and plants everywhere.

"We had to leave the lights on all night long because of the plants and water them every night," Sawyer recalls. "Right before opening night, I look back and realize the set needed fog. I grabbed the fog machine and fogged it up really well so it had a misty look to it."

Seascape is another proud moment Sawyer mentions, recalling the seven yards of sand used to create a beach on the Black Box stage. Black lights, fluorescent paint and lighting techniques that created a shadow of an airplane overhead all helped create a unique design. A few years earlier, Sawyer had created a sandy beach scene for Waiting for Godot as well.

It's hard for Sawyer to pinpoint just one best experience. Memories of one show trickle into another, until almost every production has been mentioned. But not all the memories are as pleasant. In theatre, as in life, things don't always go as expected.

"In theatre, you're not supposed to say the name of the play Macbeth because of a supposed curse," Sawyer explained. "At Wayland, we have a play we still call 'the windmill show' because that production was so cursed."

Sawyer chalks that show up as "probably my worst experience here" because of numerous cast changes, vocal problems with cast members, accidents all over the set and injuries to the technical crew. and that was all before the play ever opened.

Another bad memory on the technical side came from a production called Corpse! The set involved two rooms, so Sawyer and his student helpers created a turntable without motors and engineered a platform for the set. Six ropes were placed around the platform and students helped pull the set around during scene changes. ideally. Most nights, the platform got stuck somewhere in the middle and created awkward silent moments until students could free it.

These days, Sawyer can laugh about such situations, and he said much of that just comes with the territory of theatre work. Sometimes an idea works, and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes the best concepts are not grasped by audiences.

"Sometimes you don't do everything just for the audience. Sometimes you do it for yourself or the director. It's not just art for the audience but art you're creating for yourself," he said. "Marti and I have had a great time together. We've had shows we walked away from and said, 'that was really great,' and we've had some we just said, 'That's over; let's move on.' But we've tried to create a program where students get exposed to a real-world experience as much as possible."

Runnels is candid in his appreciation for Sawyer's work at WBU.

"In a school with a two-man department, you are never really done when you go home, and most of the time you don't go home," Runnels said. "Of course, no one would keep this kind of insane schedule if they didn't love the work, and Jay clearly loves the theatre and the opportunity to work with students and other people.

"If you don't believe it, just stand around with him for 10 minutes and he'll have a theatre story for you about some former production at Wayland. The sets Jay has created have received recognition and praise at both the American College Theatre Festival and the Christian University Theatre Festival. I know his easy-going personality will be a welcome sight on the Sul Ross campus and likewise will be missed here."