Set designer gives Pentacle’s plays a sense of place
Technical director and set designer Tony Zandol stands in the Art Glogau building where set pieces are made and stored just up the hill from the Pentacle Theatre. He is working on a set for the drama “Amadeus.”
Director Larry Roach describes his approach to “Amadeus,” the Peter Shaffer play opening Friday at Pentacle Theatre, as “semi-minimalist.”
That was supposed to extend to the set, but Pentacle technical director/set designer Tony Zandol had other ideas, and those ideas prevail, at least on Zandol’s set.
“I don’t mind the minimalism, but we’re talking about 18th century Vienna, and there is a certain kind of opulence,” Zandol said.
So Zandol’s set, with a suggestion of a patterned marble floor, lavish fabric drapes, detailed columns and a Baroque proscenium with an ornate cartouche, prevails.
That is typical Zandol, according to Roach, who said the designer’s detailed sets often look good enough to move into.
Active at Pentacle Theatre since 1985 and one of only two full-time employees at the theater since 1993, Zandol, 53, is creating his 99th Pentacle set with “Amadeus.”
Even with director Randy Bowser, whose approach to productions such as “Metropolis,” “Hair” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” has been called obsessive and demanding, Zandol has a comfort zone.
“I love working with Randy,” Zandol said.
“It’s not like they can out-demand me.
“In fact, I’ve had directors say they got so much more than they expected.”
“I enjoy stagecraft, and I totally defer to how he goes about creating something,” said Bowser, who plays Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus.”
“He is able to visualize. He sits in the front row a lot, chain-smoking and surveying the whole picture,” added Bowser.
Even now, Zandol remains so self-critical that he won’t go to opening night, preferring to wait until the last week, knowing he will see something in his set he dislikes.
Working with his hands is something natural to Zandol.
“There aren’t many of us around who know how to do that,” he said.
“I grew up with that. My dad had a shop and built things.”
Bowser recalled how Zandol, who typically works 18-hour days and ignores holidays such as Memorial Day, will get an idea in the middle of the night.
Instead of filing it away for later, he gets up, goes to the theater and makes it happen.
“I have a tendency to get sucked into things,” Zandol said. “It takes a lot of time.”
Creating and building a set is more than just taking cardboard, wood and fabric and making them look like something else, however.
“It’s creating a reality and meeting the needs of the play and communicating a play,” Zandol said.
Directors have learned to listen to him, although he insists the projects are collaborative.
“The truth of the matter is, as far as I’m concerned, he is a genius,” said longtime Pentacle director Jo Dodge, who is known for having strong creative opinions herself.
“I’ve learned to be honest with her,” Zandol said.
Roach, who made his acting debut in 1987 in a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Pentacle — the same show that Zandol had his one and only acting part — said Zandol’s zeal and often overwhelming commitment pay off.
“He invests himself so deeply that details we know the audience will never see are attended to with such veracity,” Roach said.
This season’s “Proposals” set was a summery back yard of a two-story house, complete with trees; “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” in 1995 featured a swimming pool with water; “A View From the Bridge” in 2000 came complete with a clothes line, a Brooklyn apartment building and an apartment stoop.
Speaking of his favorite sets over the years, Zandol tends to speak in personal terms rather than of physical realities.
“I think the best sets of the last 99 sets, and when they have worked best, there really is a collaboration,” he said.
“When a director has forced a concept I didn’t agree with, that’s a problem.”
Zandol used to give in more easily.
“I have a responsibility also,” he said. “After all, I am the technical director of the theater.”
“He really does have a concern about the script,” Bowser said. “The needs of the script he really has a feeling for.”
With “Amadeus,” the challenges just energize him: trying to create 18th century Vienna in 21st century Salem.
“The challenge to it and the fun part is it’s not like I could go to the Baroque Furniture Store and get Baroque furniture,” Zandol said.
Instead, he transformed everyday furniture, such as outfitting a wheelchair with fabric, paint and wood to give it a period look and finding someone to build a fake fortepiano that looks authentic.
The lavish drapes are just a clever blending of different everyday fabrics, the ornate columns are plywood squares with strips of wood.
The marble floor is painted cardboard, on top of a wood base.
“He reuses things, he buys things in bulk,” Dodge said. “He just doesn’t waste anything.”
The squares were painted by students in Dodge’s Chemeketa Community College acting class.
“I think this is also a good example of how things operate,” Zandol said of the volunteers’ handiwork.
“I come up with all the ideas, but I can only do so much.”
If Zandol describes himself as becoming more assertive over time, Dodge agrees that he also has grown in people skills since taking the job.
“He has grown, his interest in the community, his personality; he has blossomed as a person,” she said. “He has developed working with volunteers.”
Zandol regularly has about 15 volunteers working to build his sets, as well as help from the director and cast members. Senior citizens and students are part of the construction process, which can run four weeks, not including Zandol’s creative time.
Zandol’s creative side is not limited to Pentacle.
He also teaches stagecraft at McKay High School and at the summer theater program, Children’s Educational Theatre.
“I think it’s the interaction,” he said of the students. “I love it; they’re great.
“They’re smart; they’re real enthusiastic. I can boss them around and tell them what to do.”
Zandol’s inner sanctum is a tiny office deep in the recesses of the Glogau Building, a corrugated metal building overlooking the Pentacle parking lot in West Salem.
The cavernous space includes a large, two-story workshop where sets are built in segments, with the rear space divided into two stories of storage and Zandol’s office.
“I like to save some of the odder things from shows,” Zandol explained.
There are metallic horse heads from “Equus” along one wall, oversized gears from “Metropolis,” toilets from “Communicating Doors,” decorative ships from “The Pirates of Penzance” and archways from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “The Lion in Winter.”
The prop rooms are a pack rat’s delight, the upstairs stuffed with odds and ends such as empty liquor bottles, glassware, platters, artificial flowers, umbrellas, musical instruments, paintings, radios, telephones, typewriters, crutches and drapes.
Downstairs, the storage is furniture, including sinks, sofas, rugs, doors, windows and a 1920s stove and refrigerator.
Zandol’s own tiny office is lined with books and set models and such memorabilia as a chandelier, glass grapes, an antique phone and a period pay phone from “A View From the Bridge.”
When he’s not doing sets and lights (he shies away from sound work), Zandol can be found working on the landscaping around the theater or doing his own gardening.
Although he doesn’t go to movies much, he occasionally goes to theater at the University of Oregon in Eugene and plays around on his computer.
“I love watching TV,” he said. “I really do.
“During the ’70s I didn’t own a TV.”
A native of Dallas, Zandol studied art at what now is Western Oregon University and Portland State University in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“I wanted to be an artist or a teacher,” he said.
But time eventually found him driving a forklift for 16 years at a local cannery. He gave up that job six months after he went to work full time at Pentacle in 1993, but he cautiously has maintained his Teamsters’ membership.
His taste for theater was whetted from 1982 to 1984 at Salem Theatre of Performing Arts, first at its location off Commercial and Owens Street S, then at the Grand Theatre downtown. His first set was for the “City Lights” musical revue, and he hit his stride when he did the set for “The Grand Scandals” in the early 1980s.
“It’s the kind of experience you couldn’t have anywhere else,” he said of the low-budget company.
“There’s no money, no budget for anything. You have to be really creative.”
Eventually he responded to an opening for a costume designer from Pentacle director Louise Larsen, who was doing “Who’s Happy Now?” in 1985.
Zandol went on to direct six productions at Pentacle, doing shows as diverse as “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” “Voice of the Prairie,” “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Dracula,” but he tired of the all-consuming demands after six shows.
“It was way too much work,” he said. “I didn’t think I was very good at it.
“I didn’t think I was as thorough as I thought I should be.”
The hours, the days and weeks of work might seem like drudgery to some, but the job is a real “trip” for this man.
“I get to go to all these places, to Fire Island (“Lips Together, Teeth Apart”), ancient Rome (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) and Brooklyn (“A View From the Bridge”),” Zandol said.
“My only fear is that he would ever really go away,” Dodge said.