On the loading berth of the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, a accumulation of men stands about a window seat. The bank has a lid, and aback it’s lifted, the hinges crepitate continued and loud. “We’ll aloof aerosol it with a little WD-40,” one of the men says. “That’ll booty affliction of the creak.”
Standing abutting to him, John Iacovelli all-overs as if stung.
“No,” he says emphatically, “that would be absolute bad. It’s all about the creak.”
“I admiration if I should put a agenda on it,” he adds, as he active central and assimilate the date to baby-sit the adjustment of about 950 pictures and knickknacks on the set he has advised for the McCoy Rigby Entertainment assembly of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“No WD-40 allowed.”
The window bank in catechism is breadth two attentive old sisters abundance the anatomy of a abandoned old man they accept done the favor of dispatching, and breadth their drama-critic nephew discovers it, ambience off the screwball contest of the play. The aboriginal anatomy will be taken out and addition put in; assorted characters sit, angle and lie bottomward on it. Alike with its august creak, the bank has acquired Iacovelli a few headaches. There was aboriginal affair about its sturdiness, and after he credible that the aback had not been cut out to acquiesce admission to the “bodies” from backstage.
A few added problems accept additionally presented themselves, but he isn’t anxious — it’s allotment of the game. Assembly designers architecture and again they adjust. This morning he spent an hour putting up pictures to adumbrate the assured bond in one allocation of the wallpaper, which is absolutely abysmal amethyst acrylic emblazoned with a ablaze arrangement that he created aback he couldn’t acquisition wallpaper he liked.
Design, again adjust; Iacovelli has been accomplishing it for added than 40 years. “Peter Pan,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Joe Turner’s Appear and Gone,” “Camelot,” “Sleepless in Seattle” — he has advised sets on Broadway, in Beijing and Athens, for civic tours and hundreds of productions in about every L.A. amphitheater you can name. While Iacovelli was finishing “Arsenic and Old Lace,” David Mamet called, allurement him to architecture the set for his new ball at the Odyssey.
Iacovelli additionally has formed on films including “Ruby in Paradise” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and in television on “Babylon 5,” “Resurrection Blvd.” and “Ed.” He won an Emmy for a assembly of “Peter Pan” on A&E.
But it isn’t the allurement of high-profile credits or awards that compels him to architecture his own wallpaper, absorb hours in austerity food attractive for doorknobs, and captivate about archways and staircases. It’s the joy of allowance to accompany a ball to life, of bearing a set so adept that the admirers will accord no anticipation to all the assignment it required. The sketches, blueprints and models; the tonal choices of color; the accurate calculations of bank acme and appliance placement; the chase for the appropriate doors and sconces; the adeptness to assignment with bound deadlines and performers’ concerns.
“In the end, the set is there to serve the actors,” he says. “It is a apparatus for action.”
For Iacovelli, assembly architecture is about analytic problems. Alike aback those problems are his own. Alike aback those problems accommodate alive through a blight analysis and several circuit of chemotherapy because, well, the appearance charge go on.
I met Iacovelli added than 20 years ago through my husband, with whom he has been accompany aback the 1980s. I did not see him generally because he is absolute active all the time — he additionally designs all the sets for shows on Princess Cruises and, until aftermost year, accomplished assembly architecture at UC Davis. I have, however, credible abounding of his sets and consistently wondered how such things appear into being. Aftermost fall, I asked if I could chase him through the process. Having afresh retired from Davis, Iacovelli agreed.
He additionally told me that he had aloof been diagnosed with a anatomy of lymphoma, and not at an aboriginal stage. Aback I asked him if he’d rather not accept me complicate his activity alike more, he articulate surprised. “Not at all,” he said. “It will be fun.”
And it was fun, except aback it wasn’t. For months I tagged forth while Iacovelli did his work, badgering him with every array of question: “What does ‘scumbling’ mean?” (Mixing a duller acrylic with a added active one, generally on a floor.) “Did you absolutely aloof acquaint that guy to use chewing gum to ample in a gap on the set?” (Yes, he did, but it was softened, not chewed.)
During those months, Iacovelli was generally in the hospital. “This is not absolutely what I had in apperception aback I retired from teaching,” he said at one point. “But it is what it is.”
Design, again adjust.
Iacovelli knew he would be alive on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” directed by Casey Stangl, continued afore he knew he had cancer. Producer Tom McCoy, who forth with wife Cathy Rigby, the extra and above Olympic gymnast, runs the amphitheater alternation at La Mirada, brought him on lath in February 2019.
Stangl, with whom Iacovelli had formed at South Coast Repertory a few years earlier, had asked for him. “John is absolute acceptable at creating interiors that are beautiful, abundant and actor-friendly,” Stangl says. “He understands the assembly needs.”
Before he does anything, Iacovelli reads the play, aboriginal for amusement and again for problems. Too abounding arena changes or a account that conflicts with the basal needs can account him to about-face bottomward a project. Theatrical assembly architecture is not a awfully advantageous profession — Iacovelli was paid $5,000 for his assignment on “Arsenic and Old Lace” — but for those who apprehend it, the siren alarm of amphitheater is bewitching, a lover you cannot quit.
“I adulation it,” he says simply. “It is aggravating and backbreaking and absurd and I adulation it.”
There is a lot of activity in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which makes assertive pieces of the set nonnegotiable: the access arch up to the bedrooms, the arresting apartment door, the windows that accessible and are ample abundant to ascend through and, of course, the bank below them, with its laughter-inducing creak.
“That crepitate was a miracle,” Stangl says. “We anticipation we’d accept to use a complete effect.”
The bigger claiming was the doors. There are six of them and they all accept to be absolutely functional.
“That’s a lot of doors, alike for a comedy,” says Stangl. “And you appetite the set to extend a bit alfresco those doors. John is absolute acceptable about those affectionate of details.”
“I capital to use applique as a burden — the wallpaper, carpeting, fixtures. Alike the staircase,” Iacovelli says, ablution into a abuse adjoin designers who cut corners on staircases. “It can ruin a ball for me,” he adds, bedlam but absolutely serious. “I absorb the accomplished time thinking, ‘How adamantine would it accept been to accomplish a access that looks like an absolute staircase?'”
In July, Iacovelli began alive on sketches of the abode and the arena plan, which situates the basal elements of the set in accord to the stage. Assembly architecture is an art anatomy that involves an alarming bulk of math, the algebra of calibration and the geometry of afterimage lines. No allocation of the set should block the appearance from any seat, nor should any admirers affiliate be able to glimpse the backstage area. Markings for appliance and doors and alcoves are added in altered colors of ink until the arena plan resembles article like a adapt that has been attacked by a accumulation of accouchement armed with a Spirograph and a affection for cartoon arrows.
All of which is interpreted by Iacovelli’s assistants, abounding of whom are his above students, who again actualize a white model, a replica of the set baby abundant to fit in a ample shoebox.
When Stangl saw the archetypal in aboriginal September, she was captivated with the aback belvedere Iacovelli had added to accord the activity about the cafe some elevation, but she adopted a congenital bank to a sofa. Iacovelli advised the bank and added an ottoman in abode of the sofa.
“The ottoman was genius,” Stangl says. “It didn’t block annihilation and it accustomed the actors to sit bottomward in funnier ways.”
He tweaked the affairs and again beatific them out to three shops for bids. The aboriginal account for the “Arsenic and Old Lace” set was $40,000; in the end, abacus in backdrop and set dressing, it amount about $54,000. The alone allocation of the aboriginal architecture they couldn’t allow was an architectural roof attack that capped the set, advised to attending like the exoteric of a third floor.
“We didn’t absolutely charge it,” Iacovelli says, abacus with a sly smile, “I consistently architecture a affection that can be absent if the account doesn’t awning it; sometimes it prevents fights over added things.”
In October, while he waited on the bids, Iacovelli accomplished up assignment on three added plays. He additionally started chemo, a activity not accepted for its adequation or ease. The abutting ages the bids came in and the Set Boutique abreast Monrovia, run by Will Lidderdale, was called to body the set. Construction began in aboriginal December, abrogation Iacovelli chargeless to assignment with the prop adept and acquisition the appropriate wallpaper, carpeting and fixtures.
Linoleum City in East Hollywood, accustomed in 1948, is a aboriginal stop for abounding assembly designers. Rolls of linoleum bearded as grass, copse attic and bath tiles, bedraggled and clean, are ample in one bisected of the warehouse, every affectionate of carpeting apprehensible in the other. Iacovelli knows what he wants — “I’m cerebration article you would see in an old casino.” He anon finds one sample he likes, but there’s too abundant dejected in the arrangement and he promised the apparel artist he would break abroad from blues.
He finds another, with blooming and gold, and sends a photo to Stangl, the prop adept and the apparel and lighting designers. He places an adjustment with the admonition that it ability change if anyone altar (no one does). Again he’s off to Burbank in chase of the absolute wallpaper at Astek, addition business that every assembly artist knows, but accomplishment eludes him. The samples with the appropriate colors accept patterns that are too baby for a set, and beyond patterns are too ablaze or too blue. “We’ll amount article out,” he says as he leaves.
After the holidays, Iacovelli makes a few trips to the boutique to see how things are progressing. He additionally makes a few trips to the hospital, including one that causes him to absence a artist presentation during which the casting is acclimatized with the set and does a read-through. From the ER he arranges for addition abroad to accompany bottomward the model, some backdrop and set dressing.
“One of my advisers consistently said that your affairs should be acceptable abundant that they could body the set alike if you alone asleep afore they started,” he says at one point. He laughs. I do not.
The absolute abutting week, Iacovelli is at the Set Boutique to airing through the set with Jason Evans, abstruse administrator for McCoy Rigby, and acclimatize the “something” he had ample out apropos the wallpaper. Lidderdale’s assignment is in pieces but its amazing brightness is apparent.
As he examines the windows and the doors and goes up and bottomward the staircase, Iacovelli offers Lidderdale and his agents abounding adulation and a few directives. The big window that goes over the window bank needs Plexiglas; the attic that goes beneath the cafe does not charge to be painted. Best important, the “wallpaper,” which Lidderdale stenciled by hand, is too bright. Iacovelli wants it covered with a tobacco-colored glaze. “Use a besom first,” he says, clearing afore a bit of bank that will be covered by the cafe to analysis the process, “then blemish it off with a towel. Like little cat paws.”
The set is loaded into the La Mirada Theatre a few canicule later, beneath than a anniversary afore aperture night in January. It takes two canicule but by the second, the date has been absolutely transformed. The anesthetized walls are absolute (aged but not gloomy); the access is solid yet graceful; the daybed bank is adequate with countless ancient cushions; and the walls are covered with all sorts of pictures that are aloof careful enough. The big windows accessible easily, as do all the doors, alms glimpses of the kitchen, the cellar, the advanced porch.
In abounding ways, the set is the best complicated and important appearance in the play; Iacovelli advised it to extend on either ancillary all the way to the bend of the stage, to draw the admirers in. While introducing the ball on aperture night, McCoy credibility to it with pride and asks Iacovelli to stand, which he does to abundant applause.
As with an absolute house, things charge to achieve a bit. In the aboriginal act, a account avalanche from one of the aback walls and is aerated off the date by the amateur headed in the appropriate direction. In the second, the advanced aperture bounces accessible already aback it is airtight shut. “I anticipate it looks bigger after that picture,” Iacovelli says aback the appearance has ended. As for the door, he shrugs and says, “We’ll amount it out.”
Not that the admirers minded, or alike noticed. The attendees are all too active bedlam at the chicane about the window seat, which creaks with astonishing satisfaction, every time it is opened.
And Iacovelli has some news: On the aboriginal day of the load-in, he heard from his doctor and he is in complete remission.
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