Fluidity’s the key for set designer

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 16, 2001

Through his 30-year career as a scenery designer, Rick Polenek managed to avoid the grueling pace of summer stock theatre.

Monday, July 16, 2001

Through his 30-year career as a scenery designer, Rick Polenek managed to avoid the grueling pace of summer stock theatre.

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Until two years ago, that is. It was then that Polenek began sharing the job of set design at Minnesota Festival Theatre with another designer. Then this year, the schedule didn’t work out for the other designer, so Polenek has gone it alone.

&uot;It’s fun. It forces you to think on your feet and go with your hunches,&uot; Polenek said of the pace. &uot;Usually your first guess is the best anyway.&uot;

A small theatre with a small staff also allows Polenek, who lives in the Twin Cities, to see a project through from start to finish, something he doesn’t get to do at the larger theatres. &uot;I enjoy designing and building, being a jack of all trades,&uot; he said. &uot;A lot of my creativity comes from sitting here late at night.&uot;

Of course, he’s assisted during the day by MFT interns. &uot;I try to make it so they can learn something and have fun,&uot; the designer said.

He also tries to come up with a reasonable work schedule for them, since they also run the shows in the theatre at night, he said.

Polenek himself didn’t know he’d make a career of scenic design until college. &uot;I was enrolled in an art program in junior college, not connected to theatre at all. I must have acted in a production, though, because the drama professor asked me to design a set for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ I did some watercolor sketches -&160;because that’s all I knew -&160;and he turned them into a set. I thought, ‘Wow!’ and I immediately went into the theatre program,&uot; he recalled.

&uot;Godspell,&uot; which begins the second week of its three-week run Tuesday at the Albert Lea Civic Theatre, was actually the first production Polenek designed after college for the Chimera Theatre.

&uot;I had a lot in the back of my mind,&uot; he said of designing the show for MFT. &uot;Terry Lynn Carlson (MFT’s artistic director) and I talked through a lot of ideas. There are a lot of different ways to treat this show.&uot;

When they decided on a carnival treatment, they pulled out a lot of carnival images. &uot;We both gravitated toward a big ring in the center,&uot; Polenek said.

It’s not always possible for a designer to do exactly what he wants with summer stock, given the time constraints of a new show opening every two weeks.

&uot;Sometimes we can’t realize what we visualize,&uot; Polenek said.

But there was already a 16-foot diameter ring in the basement of the workshop, and that cut the crew’s construction time down considerably. In addition, saw horses, crates and planks left from &uot;The Robber Bridegroom&uot; two years ago have been painted bright colors, again saving the crew lots of time.

Polenek is also stringing lots of lights in this show – even out into the audience. &uot;The sky’s the limit as far as what we can do,&uot; he said.

The designer said one of the most challenging sets he ever designed was for the Ordway Center production of &uot;Adventures in Love.&uot;

&uot;It all came together at the last minute. I got a call two weeks before the show was to open. It was a new show, and the creative team was from New York,&uot; Polenek recalled.

&uot;There was no precedent. The scenes evolved during rehearsals,&uot; he said. &uot;The challenge was to develop a unit set for all the different scenes, and to try to stay fluid in that time frame.&uot;

He was pleased with the overall effect, he said. &uot;I’ve done several shows for the Ordway since.&uot;

When Polenek is finished with MFT’s season, he is doing a production at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, followed by props for an Ordway Theatre production in August, then set design for a production at St. Mary’s University in the fall.

Before deciding to go to work freelancing 2 1/2 years ago, Polenek provided art direction for Target Stores, Northwest Airlines, the NBA and most recently, Sesame Street Live. &uot;I learned a lot,&uot; he said of his job with Sesame Street. &uot;It was uplifting in a lot of ways to go to work for Sesame Street every day.&uot;

But being on his own has also opened doors. &uot;I couldn’t be working for MFT if I still had a full-time job,&uot; he said.