Period set designs bring classic play to life at Evergreen
Jerry Berebitsky is a man of grand vision and nitty-gritty details.
Well known for the large and intricate puppets he builds for the Procession of the Species, the Olympia man is putting his considerable gifts to work at The Evergreen State College, where he’s the theater department’s technical director.
His first full-scale production at Evergreen, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” plays this weekend in the college’s Experimental Theatre.
An Evening and Weekend Studies class on modern drama is mounting the play, directed by Marla Elliott and Tom Rainey. “Sisters,” translated by Sarah Ruhl, is a quirky comedy about the titular sisters and their brother, whose small-town lives are shaped by longing, love and marriage.
Though he favors an asymmetrical style, Berebitsky created a traditional box set, which places a picture frame around the play.
“The characters are held in this environment that they long to be out of,” he told The Olympian. “The confinement of the space represents and reinforces the confinement they have in their lives, emotionally and mentally.”
There’s a big difference between building a set of narrow wood framing and thin plywood and dreaming up a 24- by 25- by 30-foot peacock of metal and plastic, as the designer did in 2016 for the procession, Olympia’s annual April celebration of the natural world and human creativity.
But both theatrical design and puppet-making call upon his own creativity and love for collaboration, as well as his thoughtful approach to technical challenges.
“The process is pretty similar,” said Berebitsky, who’s done design and technical direction for theater, opera and dance companies and other colleges, including South Puget Sound Community College. “Once I’ve identified an animal, I look at images of different species. I am inspired by a few different species to create a representation of that species. I want to get the essence of that animal.”
He also does exhaustive research to find the essence of a play and a particular production. “In my office, I have a wall full of images from Russia 1901,” he said. “Some of them relate directly to what we’re doing in the set and some of them just evoke the feeling that we want to bring forth.”
His designs are collaborations, both on the practical level — students help with sets at the college and volunteers build at the Procession Studio downtown and carry the creations through the streets — and on the inspirational one.
Of the play, Berebitsky said, “On some level, I feel I have this opportunity to collaborate with Chekhov. That’s a beautiful thing.”
And his procession animals — 2009’s elephant, 2010’s spider, 2013’s giraffe and the two smaller peacocks that joined the flock last year — involve a kind of collaboration with the real creatures.
Berebitsky didn’t get to hang out with giraffes, he said, but he visited Lattin’s Farm to watch peacocks and Point Defiance Zoo to see elephants.
As for spiders, he added, “There were tons of spiders on our back porch that my children and I explored in detail. It’s a beautiful part of the process.”
And whether it’s for a procession or a play, his projects involve managing lots of detail work. The “Sisters” set required two smaller-than-standard beds, built by student XiuXiu Bunting, a senior studying visual design.
And Berebitsky is already thinking about a production next school year that will require him to build a shallow swimming pool, a task complicated by the weight of water.
For Procession puppets, too, weight is a major factor.
He recalls the 22-foot-tall giraffe’s weight at nearly 90 pounds.
“My goal is to keep the load on most individuals to about five pounds,” he said. “That may not seem like much till you factor in that this weight can be about 15 feet above their heads and that people carry this for an hour.”
While the new job is keeping him busy, Berebitsky still serves on the board of Earthbound Productions, which produces the procession, and he’s at work on a new puppet set to debut April 28.
Naturally, the creature is top secret, but he’s tackling a new challenge.
“Each of the animals kind of moved down the center of the street, wobbling a little back and forth, and we could spin them around once in a while,” he said. “This will move in ways that are more varied.”
What: A modern drama class at The Evergreen State College presents Anton Chekhov’s classic tale of humor and heartbreak in a small Russian town circa 1901.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (March 15) through Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Experimental Theatre at The Evergreen State College, 2700 Evergreen Pkwy. NW, Olympia
Tickets: Free; parking is $3