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Secrets of the set: bamboo skewers and recycled paper at Boston Court

September 2, 2010 |  3:30 pm

It was all done with bamboo skewers, recycling and free pizza. The ambitious set of “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder,” a play about the struggle to compile the Oxford English Dictionary, is itself a minor marvel.

The co-production by Boston Court and Circle X ends its run Sunday, when the tech staff will strike designer Brian Bembridge’s elaborate creation. Bembridge’s task was to recreate the garden shed in Oxford where Scottish lexicographer James Murray spent some 30 years compiling the dictionary, an adventure also made famous by Simon Winchester’s bestselling “The Professor and The Madman.”

In 1879, Murray put a call out to the readers of England to submit citations for his project. He received hundreds of thousands of paper slips, collected and stored in sacks. “Apparently there were entire families of mice living in the sacks and eating their way through lost volumes,” says Moby Pomerance, the play’s author.

The set would show the shed or “scriptorium” at the height of Murray’s project, so the tech staff was faced with filling every corner and cranny with paper. “I kept telling Moby he had written a play about a Sisyphean task, and now he’d dragged us into one,” laughs Liza Tognazzini, Boston Court’s production manager.

Bookwonder2 To create the myriad of slips that clog the hutches of the shed, the theater marshaled a fleet of volunteers, and a low-budget solution. “We ended up buying bamboo skewers, the kind you use for barbeque, and sticking the paper scraps, textbook pages, and cardboard pieces onto them, the way a waitress spikes her orders. That kept the sheaves of paper scraps together,” explains Tognazzini. “We had eight-hour shifts, with 15 [to] 20 people working at any one time. We just kept the pizza and soda coming. The lobby was a disaster for days.”

But the paper-jammed scriptorium was only half the set design. Pomerance explains that director John Langs felt that the shed should break open and the audience “would see some otherness, a world beyond the scriptorium.” So behind the naturalistic, gloomy shed is a bright, abstracted world consisting of a paper-covered tree and a 35-by-15-foot cyclorama -- the curtain covering the back wall of the stage -- covered with overlapping sheets of paper, like straight-edged leaves. At the end of the play, Murray’s daughter runs her hand along the fabric cyclorama, and it ripples in response to her touch. “Like a girl dragging her hand across water,” Pomerance says.

Boston Court, a 99-seat theater, managed to keep to their $2,600 budget without killing too many trees.

“Everything on the set is recycled: all the paper, cardboard and packing material we used,” Tognazzini says. “Even the cyc was something our props master salvaged from a warehouse.”

The slips in the shed are covered with real definitions of words starting with the letter L, key to a certain scene in the play. As for the text on the upstage cyc, Tognazzini pauses. “They’re… um… anatomical descriptions from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]. Technical terms for certain body parts. Let’s just say it’s a joke for anyone who got close enough to look.”

Final numbers? More than 500 labor hours for the set, 56 hours for the cyclorama alone. Props master Chuck Olsen drove 800 miles roundtrip for the period-specific shed stove (which actually works).

Boston Court has no space to store the enormous paper-covered cyc, but it's not trashing it.

Tognazzini put out the word on a local theater list serve and immediately had some interest. “What these folks intend to do with it I’m not sure,” she says. “But at least it’ll end up in the hands of another theater company.”

Audiences have a few more days to catch the show before Boston Court loads in their next play, “Futura,” a thriller based on typography.

“The ‘Good Book’ set is so naturalistic in the foreground and so surrealistic in the background. They went to astonishing lengths for this production.” Pomerance says. “When you write a play and see it so beautifully realized, you think, ‘Oh, I guess I wasn’t completely insane.’ ”

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder,” Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday. $27-$32, (626) 683-6883 or 

Top photo: The set of "The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder." Credit: Liza Tognazzini / Boston Court Performing Arts Center

Bottom photo: A crew member compiles the paper-bedecked cyclorama on the back wall of the stage. Credit: Liza Tognazzini / Boston Court Performing Arts Center