If you're wondering what crazy invention Charles Ford, the creator of that incredible fire-breathing Snowdown dragon, will think up next, he's hunkered down in his studio, working on set designs for Durango High School's fall musical "Anything Goes." It will be the 55th set of his career.
The cluttered room, its walls lined with books, masks, props and models is where Ford spends much of his time away from his job as technical director at the high school and where he spoke about his work this week. This is where sketched designs become computer drawings, then scale models and finally real set pieces.
Ford's designs have become highly anticipated elements of the Thespian Trou-pe 1096 productions and have a professional polish that is rare at this level. However, this is a craft that he learned from scratch, having had no training or experience in building for the stage when he first moved to Durango 20 years ago to teach math and English at the old Smiley Junior High School.
He became involved with amateur theater in town, both onstage and behind the scenes, and one day Mona Wood-Patterson, director of theater at the high school, called to ask if he could make some masks for a play called "Clumsy Custard." This was the beginning of his work for the high schools, and the start of an enduring working relationship with Wood-Patterson that took a romantic turn. The pair married in 1999.
"The best teacher is experience," Ford said of stagecraft, and his designs have become more daring over the years. Wood-Patterson, with her passion for theatrical experiment, has also been instrumental in pushing Ford away from conventional realism.
Furthermore, he said, "Audiences are different now from 15 years ago." He must cater to the expectations of a generation of cinema-goers who expect cinematic effects and stunning transitions like those in last fall's "Fiddler on the Roof" with its spinning sets and surreal dream sequence.
On a practical level, Ford points out that the Durango High School stage requires a flexible set, because it has no fly space above the stage to lift scenery in and out. This restriction has been the mother of much invention, and he says that they regularly "push that stage beyond what it is meant to do."
Unsurprisingly, Ford and Wood-Patterson are theater buffs who visit New York when they can for a shot of culture, culling inspiration from what they see. But Ford's design ideas often come from unexpected sources.
A set for "Little Shop of Horrors" was modeled on the dodgy, run-down street in Sheffield, England, where Ford and Wood-Patterson lived during a year on a teaching exchange.
For last year's "Aladdin," he borrowed from the interior design of the Alhambra, a Moorish palace in southern Spain the couple visited. This show, with its giant sphinx and fire-breathing snake, he calls "the ultimate tech blowout."
But the work he is most proud of is his design for last spring's "The Tempest." For this most metaphysical of Shakespeare's plays, Ford created a decidedly non-realist set inspired by his research into magic and alchemy. The centerpiece was a huge sphere made of electrical conduit, which the actors played on, within and around. He thinks of the sphere as "a nothing," a space that could represent any place: a cave, a boat, thin air. For Ford, this set represents the maturity of his craft. He believes that after learning the ropes, stage designers go through a phase of "showing off" and then finally begin to "make the art that supports the actors, and the director's vision."
One of Ford's stranger projects began the day Wood-Patterson called and said, "I need a dead baby." The prop was required for Sam Shepard's hard-hitting play "Buried Child," produced in 1992. Ford hit the books, studying the processes of decay and plastering his walls with disturbing images. He recalled that the final product, with soil embedded in its cheeks, gave cast members nightmares.
"It had to be right," he said.
After telling this macabre story, Ford was at pains to protest that he is not obsessive, just a hard worker and a stickler for detail.
"In theater," he said, "you can't obsess for too long before deadlines intervene."
If Ford is ever stuck on a design, he looks to his wife's vision. For him, "the director is the most important part of the show." Perhaps this is the secret to a long and successful relationship. It's probably not a bad recipe for marriage, either.
Their partnership is "the opposite of what people think," Ford said. People often see them as a classic combination of one creative, right-brain director and one methodical, left-brain technician. In fact, he said, Wood-Patterson is extremely organized and approaches each project as a series of steps; whereas, he is often the one taking "a holistic view" of the play.
Asked what keeps him going after 55 shows, he said: "There's still a lot of work to do here."
The high school theater program is the couple's baby, and they are not ready to let go of it yet. Then there is the fun of collaborating with his teenage work force. Watching kids find their niche in theater, whether it be performance or sound design, is rewarding for Ford.
But the thing that really drives him is more ethereal. It is what he calls the "spiritual" aspect of making theater, when a solution for a difficult problem arrives from nowhere and suddenly "you can see every part of the assemblage." It is this "sense of creation" that nourishes Ford's motivation.
The funny thing about these moments of inspiration, Ford said, is that they come only when you are working really hard at something. There is a quote on his studio wall from the animation genius Jim Henson that sums up Ford's approach.
"The only way the magic happens is by hard work. But hard work can be fun."
firstname.lastname@example.org Richard Malcolm is a writer who lives in Durango.