“How about I give you a tour?” Kevin Harper said.
He stood in the middle of a living room, decorated with hunting trophies and various other items of Alaskana. The room had a couch in the center and several doors leading off. On one side was a staircase, which led up to an upper landing with a number of other doors. These doors, however, didn’t open into other rooms: All of them led to a backstage area.
Harper was walking around the set for Fairbanks Drama Association's production of “Noises Off,” a play that, quite unusually, takes place in both the staged living room and the backstage area.
“The thing about this play is, the set has to revolve,” Harper said. “Not too many plays have that.”
Kevin Harper knows the theater well. He’s been the Fairbanks Drama Association’s primary set builder for 15 years and has served as the theater’s maintenance supervisor for 12 years.
“Noises Off,” written by Michael Faryn and first performed in 1982, is a farce in three acts. The story follows a group of actors rehearsing a play titled “Nothing On,” during the production of which everything goes wrong. The action takes place in the onstage living room in the first act; in the second, the set is spun around and the audience gets to see the pratfalls that are taking place backstage. These theatrics presented Harper, who has built more than 130 sets for the theater, with his biggest challenge to date.
“This is, by far, the biggest set that I’ve ever built,” he said. “I’ve built maybe, out of that 130, almost a dozen two-story sets, but they were all fixed. Nothing moved.”
Beyond the revolution of the stage, Harper said one of the complications presented by the text is the physical and visual comedy.
“A farce has a lot of misunderstandings and doors slamming and running around. This has eight doors. Most plays have no more than five, but this has eight,” he said, before walking around to the backstage area. “When it revolves, this is what the audience sees. The characters can’t talk, because they’re in a performance. The stuff you saw in act one, now you can see what they’re doing backstage. They’re really mad at each other and there’s a lot of comedy and they go up and down these stairs and there’s a lot of antics going on.”
While the play itself offers up a lot of tough tasks for a set-builder, Riverfront Theatre, where the production is being staged, compounds these with its size. The stage area is only 24 feet by 30 feet, which means the set has to come apart into three pieces for it to rotate.
“This is the pivot point,” he said, pointing to a piece of piping in the center of the set. “The staircases have to be attached, one on that side, one of this side. They’re independent units and everything’s on wheels.”
The set is rotated by six cast members between acts. Harper said it takes them less than five minutes to do so, which he said is “pretty good, considering what they have to do.” Tim Lamkin, the play’s director, initially designed the set, and Harper worked with him, making adjustments to ensure the mechanics all worked within the limited space.
“Most sets take two to three weeks to build. This took six weeks,” Harper said. “This took the longest of any set I’ve built.”
In the lead-up to opening night, he was working from eight to 11 hours a day, seven days a week. Harper had help — from the director and a few others — but estimates he built about 60% of the set on his own.
“I recycle everything I use. I use screws, not nails,” he said. “This needed some extra stuff. We are a nonprofit and we have a small budget.”
According to Harper, the wooden poles that prop up the upper landing came from his property in Goldstream and the staircase was built using slab wood from Fox. He also said that he and Lamkin decided to “Alaskanize” the decor, with things such as moose antlers and an antiquated pair of snowshoes.
“It about killed me to do this whole thing. I’m almost 60 years old and I’ve been doing this since I was 44,” he said. “I usually build sets by myself, but this one … there was just no way.”
Harper grew up in Northern California. In high school he was in the Drama Club, eventually becoming president. He said he would do a little bit of everything, from acting to set building. He continued dabbling in theater productions while at college. He came up to Alaska when he was 22 and started working in construction.
“Almost 25 years went by before I even went to a play when I came to Alaska,” he said. “I worked up at Chena Hot Springs and I owned land about 5 miles away. My wife and I lived out there. We had a cabin and we lived completely off the grid.”
He worked in maintenance and she made a living as a nurse at the hospital. The couple eventually had two sons and decided to move closer to town, settling in Goldstream to raise the kids. They went to a couple of plays sporadically, but Harper said the idea of working in theater “didn’t even enter my mind” until one of his sons began taking an interest.
“My youngest son got interested in theater when he came of age. He auditioned, he got some parts,” Harper said. “So I helped out. And when they found out I was a carpenter, they asked me to start building sets, because I had an eye for theater.”
He initially began volunteering to help out with just the plays his son was in, but, given his carpentry skills and his background in theater, it soon became a full-time job.
“This organization, when I started out, for the first five years, they would do seven productions per season. Most companies would do four a season, that’s the kind of rule-of-thumb,” he said. “I was knocked out.”
Harper said he is essentially self-taught as a set builder. He described set-building as “half standard carpentry and half artistic ability,” noting that there are tricks of the trade that differentiate the craft from regular construction. As an example, he explained that, because the audience is 30 feet away and the set is under the glare of strong theater lights, some construction details of the set are somewhat masked.
“Paint and tape covering blemishes and things like that — nobody can tell. Under these lights right now, It looks pretty stark, you can see all the screw holes and blemishes and plywood. But once we get these standard theater lights on, it all kind of disappears and becomes real.”
Riverfront Theatre last put on a production of “Noises Off “the year before Harper started. Then set-builder John Bartlett taught him how to build stage archways and what materials to use. Harper called him a “mentor” and a “wealth of information.”
“The guy was a genius,” Harper said. “When I started working here, he taught me a few things. Over the years that I knew him — he passed away a couple of years ago — but a couple of times every year, he would tell me ‘if ‘Noises Off’ lands in your lap, turn it down. Say ‘no.’ Don’t do it. I beg you, don’t do it.’ And I said, ‘OK, John I promise.’”
“I didn’t listen,” Harper continued. “And he was right. It was a lot of work!”
The show will run for one more weekend, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.
“I’m relieved that it’s working as well as it is. There are so many facets to the set that have to work in synchronization with other things. There are trick doors, trick door knobs, trick window panes that get dropped onto the set,” Harper said. “This one was a challenge. … But you have a deadline, you know — which is opening night.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.