Alumni Create New Worlds on St. Louis Stages
Story via St. Louis Post Dispatch
There was the colorful spectacle of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ “Romeo and Juliet” in Forest Park, with neon-striped staircases, trees bedecked in ribbons and blankets of flowers underfoot.
There was Shakespeare in the Streets’ “Blow, Winds” on the steps of Central Library downtown, where the building’s wide, stone front displayed endlessly changing projections, a kaleidoscope of realistic images and abstract designs.
And in the intimate Wool Studio Theatre, there was New Jewish Theater’s production of “Life Sucks,” a fabulously surreal environment where giant Wonderland blossoms shared garden space with an outdoor bathtub.
The plays could hardly be more different, but they had something in common: They all boasted sets designed by Peter and Margery Spack.
In fact, those productions are just a sample of their recent work. Between January and July, the couple opened eight shows on different St. Louis stages. More already are lined up for the rest of the year. (Their latest is Rebel and Misfits Productions’ “The Realistic Joneses,” through Aug. 12.) They’re already booked for the last show of the coming season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, a hit comedy called “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Each promises the team’s signature touch: expansive imagination shaped to real-world demands.
“When we do a show, the most important thing is the characters,” Peter Spack says. “What is their path before they come onstage? What is their future?
“The set is a snapshot, linking the audience with their lives.”
The Spacks, who live and work in a downtown loft, have made theater an important aspect of StudioSpack in recent years. All the shows are in St. Louis.
But StudioSpack also takes on projects around the country, designing trade shows, corporate meetings, hotels, lavish private parties and sets for TV programs. Peter Spack, 36, has designed a lot of car shows; one year Margery Spack designed Christmas in the White House for the Obamas.
Neither one is the “creative” nor the “engineering” partner. “Sometimes I do the details, and Peter’s big picture. Sometimes it’s the other way around,” explains Margery Spack, 37.
Married since 2006, she and her husband come from opposite ends of town; she grew up in Florissant, he in Mehlville. They think they ran into each other at some high school theater events, but their friendship blossomed at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts when they entered the same program in stage design. By the second semester of their freshman year, they were a couple; after graduation, they moved to New York.
The New York years gave them great experience, designing everything from those car shows to glamorous charity parties. Soon his freelance work was going so well that she quit her job with a big design firm so they could launch StudioSpack.
Theater, however, wasn’t part of their life or work until they decided to come back home.
So much of their work involves designing on computers that their physical location scarcely mattered. For example, when they designed “Romeo and Juliet,” they “toured” Verona on Google Maps. (When they designed “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish, they did the same for Amsterdam.) Besides, Peter Spack says, “Everybody who moves to New York eventually begins to wonder, is it worth it?”
“Both our families are here,” his wife adds. “I got an extra five years with my grandmother because we came back in 2007.” Also, they had St. Louis friends from their conservatory days — some of them were making theater here.
When Edward Coffield — longtime production manager at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, now artistic director at the New Jewish Theatre — spotted the couple one night at the Rep show, he put two and two together.
“Hey,” Coffield said, “you two can design my next show!”
And so they did.
Since then, they have designed sets for the Rep, New Jewish, Max & Louie, Insight, Union Avenue Opera and Circus Flora. That takes in a wide range of material and style, as well as constraints of venue and budget.
“Our brains want to do the same thing every time, but you learn to control that,” Peter Spack says. There are always big variables that have to be addressed. It means that nothing — nothing — can ever be a do-over.
Problems and parameters
For examples of how wide-ranging their work can be, look at two shows they designed last season: “Never the Sinner” and “Intimate Apparel.”
Both were New Jewish Theatre productions, and both were performed in the Wool Studio. That’s where the similarities end.
“Intimate Apparel,” which brought the Spacks the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for outstanding design of a play, deals with an African-American seamstress who makes ladies’ underwear in old New York. It has many settings: her bedroom, a fabric store, the bedrooms of two of her clients. The little Wool blackbox is no place for an elaborately structured set.
“So much furniture, so many locations!” Margery Spack recalls. “But it had to be intimate.” Well, yes, it did — it’s right there in the title.
“And one of the first things that the director (Gary Wayne Barker) said was, he wanted it to be a jewel box.
“So we figured out how to give him that,” she says.
The result was breathtaking. The Wool doesn’t have a conventional stage, but the “Intimate Apparel” “stage” stretched from one end of the room to the other, with white fabric billowing from ceiling to floor. Variously lacey or silken, the fabrics echoed the garments the seamstress made for her clients — and each hid one of the settings.
Margery Spack pulled down her own curtains to create the memorable effect.
“Never the Sinner,” a drama based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, opened the Wool completely. The actors performed on the floor, with the audience on three sides in tiered seats. Scenes in homes, in clubs, in court and in prison all were staged there, with a few essential pieces of furniture placed as needed.
But birds were all over the place, a metaphor of predator and prey that echo Loeb’s passion for ornithology. Victorian-style scientific renderings of birds, eggs and feathers were everywhere. Margery Spack wore a skirt with a bird pattern to the show on opening night. Nobody except those involved with the show knew that originally, there were to have been more birds, depicted on pull-down screens of the sort used in old lecture halls. But they never worked properly. The Spacks scrapped them and made the point in other ways.
“There’s always some problem — the size of the stage, the size of the budget, something,” Margery Spack observes. “But those problems set parameters that give you something to work with.”
It’s an advantage to know that the possibilities are not, in fact, limitless.
Peter Spack agrees. “Once I know what I can’t do, I say, let’s see what I can.”
Of course they won’t do it alone. Scenic artists always work in collaboration with others: playwright, director, designers who specialize in costume and lighting and sound. In many of their projects, the Spacks explain, their job is to design something that satisfies the client. In the theater, however, they are artists among other artists.
“I am just happy to be able to do art with people who want to do it with me,” Peter Spack says. “It’s always an ensemble project.”
Margery Spack points out that everybody in that ensemble, from the director to the scene painters, shares one goal: “to make the audience feel something.”
Then she paused. “But I don’t ever want to tell people what to feel.”