Incollect 10-18
Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
Aug 10, 2016

Theater is interior designer Charles Pavarini III’s first love. A classically trained dancer who had studied with Alvin Ailey and counts musicals like Chorus Line among his performances, Pavarini remembers, “Since I could walk, I always wanted to be in theater in some way.” The president of New York-based Pavarini Design, also a product, set and costume designer and interior design educator, returned to the stage earlier this summer as curtains lifted on his latest production: West Side Story, the Leonard Bernstein musical based on Romeo & Juliet, set in 1950s New York, at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

A Broadway-caliber production, the musical ran for the month of July in an all-weather, open-air tent with its own set of design challenges—a far cry from the interior of, for example, last year’s Kips Bay manse, where Pavarini designed a space remembered for its innovative, eyeshadow-infused paint. With this opportunity to return to the stage, he says of his early inclination towards the bright lights, "Now, I feel really blessed that I’m able to use that inner feeling in this arena."  Before one of the performances, the designer chatted with EAL about the relationship between interior and set design:

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
Charles Pavarini III on set

Tell us about the creative process of set design. What are some of the important aspects of the creative team?
When you go to a musical, you’re not watching somebody sing. You’re not watching somebody dance. You’re watching how they tell the story, and it takes the music, it takes the light, it takes the set, it takes the direction, the singing, the acting. All of that tells the story.

Without sound, no one can hear you; without lighting, nobody can see you; without costume, you’d be naked in a dark, soundless environment; and without the set, you would not have the place. Those to me are the four most critical aspects of the creative team. We create how the audience sees the production.

How do interior design and set design compare?
For both, you have to create an environment. In interiors, it’s much more permanent. [West Side Story] is up here for a certain period of time; even a Broadway show is for only a certain period of time. With interiors, that has to be a permanent installation. A [residential] interior, I feel, expresses how clients feel about themselves.

If the interior is really done well and the designer has listened to the client, that interior becomes an expression of them. It becomes a lifestyle—we create a lifestyle. With [theater,] it’s temporary; we’re looking for dramatic elements, highlights of light. [Similarly,] when I design interiors, a great deal of how I design is with light—I use lighting as a design tool. 

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
Pavarini’s floor plans for the set of West Side Story 

You interview your interior clients multiple times in order to learn as much as possible about them, and you also ask them to tear out images they like in order to better inform your design. Where do you start when designing a set? 
I work with the script first; the script is like the client. For West Side Story, I started by reading the script and making notes: “They’re in a side alley; they’re under a bridge.” I list all the different scenes. Not always can you create a different set for different scenes, because I’m not in a brick-and-mortar theater, [so we needed to ask:] How are we going to change that scene from the drug store to the street? 

Sometimes in the script there are actually clues: "Someone walks over and puts a coin in the jukebox" means I have to have a jukebox. “They sit on the stools in the drugstore” means I have to have stools!

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
West Side Story unfolds on Pavarini's set at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

This outdoor space didn’t have the mechanics one might find in a traditional theater, so you worked with the director and the choreographer, and integrated pieces of the set into the performance, which were moved by the actors themselves. And you made adjustments to the set just one week before opening night, during Tech Week, when the company runs the entire show through on the stage for the first time. What were some other ways the set influenced the actors, or vice versa? 
I designed the entrances and exits for the actors; one fence is up higher, and I specifically wanted to do that because I don’t like straight lines. I created an entrance under the fence: In West Side Story, these are gangs that are coming in; they’re not strolling onstage. The gangs sneak through fences, they jump over fences. The set is designed around the characters. There are two gangs in the play: The Sharks and The Jets. I wanted to keep all of The Sharks on one side of the stage, so no matter what you see happening, you know that's one gang, one area of the neighborhood. 

I also consider how the audience views the show. What I was so pleased with, after I designed this, was how the director and choreographer use the set. You can design a beautiful set, but if it’s not used, you’ll never see the full capability of the set.

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
West Side Story unfolds on Pavarini's set at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

Your process included sketches, computer CAD drawings and paper models. How did you work within the constraints of the stage itself? 
I wanted to give you the feeling of a very raw New York using the truss [stage framework], which effectively became under the highway. I wanted to use fencing to let the audience feel that these two gangs were trapped, and they can’t get out. There are two moveable fences; I wanted them movable so you could see different aspects.

[In the fight scene], I was clear from the beginning of the design process that I wanted to see the fight through the fence. I wanted the audience to be fenced off from what was happening. With the upstage fence, you’ll actually see [that the actors] are caged in.

That’s how we developed it, from dissecting the script to being creative in terms of theater craft. What is the audience seeing? We don’t have the luxury of blackouts and curtains, so everything needs to be fluid. I feel we achieved that—taking the scenes from one to the other in a very fluid manner.

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer

Charles Pavarini III returns to the stage as set designer
West Side Story unfolds on Pavarini's set at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

You have a personal connection to the story: The film version of West Side Story was filmed near Lincoln Center's location. Your family’s firm, Pavarini Construction Company actually built Lincoln Center! 
There’s a connection there. Somehow, some way, I have a connection to that neighborhood!

Theater is impermanent. Is it hard to let go after the show is over?
Saying goodbye to something like this is hard, but that’s theater! It’s never permanent. Chorus Line ran for 20 years, but it had an ending. I’m used to it [from interiors]: You do a showhouse, and tear it down after four weeks. But what’s permanent is that memory. I still have the memory of being onstage singing “What I Did for Love” [from Chorus Line]. I still have that memory of looking into the audience and singing that, because I knew it was the last time I was going to be able to dance like that.

Theater—once it flows in your blood—it keeps flowing!

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