The curtain is never drawn, so the TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley audience is caught up in the romance of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice before the actors even set foot on stage. Austen’s novel of manners is magically transformed into a world-premiere musical, playing now through Jan. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
To immerse the audience in early 1800s England, award-winning scenic designer Joe Ragey used his creative imagination, skills and 50 years of experience to design romantic and beautiful scenes.
“The over-arching scene is surrounded by gold vines. Visual images are floated, projected on the scene,” said Ragey.
The images of estate gardens and interiors and town streets are projected both center and side stage. The manuscripts of Jane Austen fade in and out.
“Austen is one of the greatest writers of her period, and I use her actual writing to communicate that she is telling the story,” said Ragey. “It’s the integration of movies and theater.”
“Snow, stars, special lighting and sound effects and tons and tons of magic make this happen,” said Ragey.
It may be magic, but it is no sleight of hand. The eight-month to year-long process of set design and construction is complex, detailed and precise. It entails teamwork and more than a dozen steps, including consultations with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley.
Ragey’s pre-design research began with reading the script and Austen’s 1813 novel. Next, he drew preliminary thumbnail and rough sketches.
Once the set concept was established, Ragey drew digital pictures and made a 3-D paper white model built to scale and, later, full-color, detailed mini-architectural models.
He used a CAD (computer-aided design) program to make set blueprints. Construction at the TheatreWorks scene shop in Newark typically takes five to eight weeks, plus two weeks to “load-in” the prebuilt sets at the theater.
Ragey has designed sets for 65 TheatreWorks productions, beginning with the 1985 – 1986 season. However, Pride and Prejudice is his last collaboration with Kelley, who is in his 50th and final season with the professional, nonprofit theater company he has guided since its founding.
“I was stunned when I went back and reviewed them all,” said Ragey, who grew up in Florida and has lived in Sunnyvale since 1987.
Over his career, Ragey has designed sets for 450 total shows, including for shows on the original Love Boat and other Princess Cruises ships.
A full-time professor of art and design at Foothill College in Los Altos from 1987 to 2016, he was the design production manager for about 120 Foothill Music Theatre productions.
“I’ve had a wonderful 50-year career in the theater since I was 18 years old, having been lucky enough to work with some of the best regional professional theaters, directors and actors in the country,” said Ragey.
“TheatreWorks with Robert Kelley has been the highpoint of my career. I wouldn’t change a thing.”