Behind the scenes

While student actors perform, adults do much of the work

Sunday News Correspondent
November 09. 2013 12:47AM
Set designer Jim Pingree, second from right, talks with director Bill Westenberg and painter Martine Archambault as crew members paint the staircase that serves as part of the set for Bedford High School's production of "Legally Blonde the Musical." SUSAN CLARK (SUSAN CLARK/Union Leader Correspondent)

BEDFORD -- When the curtain goes up on a high school theater production, the audience may be unaware of how much community support went into bringing the play from script to stage.

Since August, Bedford High School parents, volunteers and staffers have worked countless hours to design and build the elaborate sets and provide the 120 costumes for the 31 actors performing in "Legally Blonde the Musical."

Carpenter Greg Uliasz, Lurgio Middle School Principal Ed Joyce and high school Assistant Principal Gary Dempsey worked with painter Martine Archambault and several parents after school and evenings until 10 p.m., as well as on Saturdays, to bring director Bill Westenberg and set designer Jim Pingree's vision to life.

Volunteer Katie Strube and parent Martha Benson created the costumes from discount clothing purchased at Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Savers Thrift Store. Other costumes and props were provided by Manchester's Palace Theatre.

"It's wonderful that this professional theater company is quick to extend a helping hand to the local high school programs in the area," said props coordinator Colette Jurnak, a parent volunteer.

Strube, who has a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Syracuse University, also provided some items from home, including a pair of boots and a dress and jackets from her mother's closet.

"The cast thinks I'm Elle," said Strube, referring to Elle Woods, the main character in "Legally Blonde."

"My bedroom is all pink. Everything that's on Elle's walls is from my room. I feel authenticity really helps."

Adding another touch of authenticity is Bedford High senior Annie Kollmorgen, who dyed her brunette hair blonde to play the lead role of Elle, the perky sorority sister who enrolls at Harvard Law School to win back her boyfriend.

Pingree, who also teaches film making, web-page design, computer animation and video production at the high school, said the first steps in creating a play's scenery are doing research, drawing sketches and meeting with the director and technical crew. Every designer needs to use his or her artistry to support the director's vision, he said.

"For this show, the director wanted the same feel as the Broadway show. On Broadway, the sets rise up from the stage floor, so we adapted it and looked at it technically for what can be done here. Ideally, you want to go with the original scenery," he said, adding that Scene 1 of "Legally Blonde the Musical" contains four set locations.

Pingree and the crew created a two-story, hot pink staircase, a Harvard Yard and a hair salon. Lighting also plays a major role in the set design, particularly when images of prison bars spread across the stage during the jail scene.

"There are so many set pieces, the pit orchestra is performing in one of the catwalks to make room for the set pieces behind stage," said production manager Lee Joyce, parent volunteer as well as he principal's wife.

While acting is challenging and fun, Pingree said, he wants the students to be proud of the work that goes into the production as they learn the craft. Pingree also works with student crew members behind the scenes, including lighting director Emily Lambert and audio engineer Ben Anthony.

Pingree, of Goffstown, acted in minor student-theater roles while studying pre-med at the University of New Hampshire, but when a required course in psychology was full, he took a puppetry class instead. It wound up being a life-changing experience. After earning his bachelor's degree in zoology at UNH, he earned a master's in set and lighting design from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He then earned his teaching certificate at Franklin Pierce University and decided to put his MFA background to use. He has been teaching in New Hampshire for 24 years, the last six at Bedford High.

In Bedford, Pingree's artistry has produced sets with monkeys swinging from 16-foot vines and birds perched on trapezes in "Seussical," for which he used 3D software to build the set. To solve a production problem in "Almost Maine," he improvised using a common household item to produce an aurora borealis.

"For one production, Jim was able to take a $3 pie plate and fashion it into a gobo - something that filters light from an instrument - that created a 3-D planetarium effect," Lee Joyce said. "He created a stunning night sky effect across the width of the theater that costs most theaters $10,000 for $3. "

"Legally Blonde the Musical" will be presented at the Bedford High School Theatre from this Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m.; next Sunday at 2 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 22 and 23, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, and may be purchased at or at the door.

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