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Faculty Profile Lights, Paint, and Action
Backstage, Céline Perron takes charge

Céline Perron photoWelcome to the world of Céline Perron. Officially a professor of dance at Keene State, she might be better described as the "Queen of Scene." Perron is the principal set and lighting designer of all the plays produced by Keene State Theater and staged in the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond, and of many of the dances choreographed at the College. On occasion, she directs plays and designs costumes. She also teaches scenic design, lighting design, scenic painting, and rendering techniques.

Perron deals in the minute and the oversized - she is equally at home building the miniature of a set or painting a 20-by-30-foot canvas backdrop. Her work is physical - connecting and placing lumber and cloth on a stage - and illusory - shaping space using the glow of lights.

She was always an "art kid," she says, describing her childhood in a French-Canadian family in Montreal. She got her first taste of teaching when, as a fourth grader, she was asked to leave her math class to teach a younger child to make crepe paper flowers. Right then, she says, a teacher told her she should be an art teacher.

The only careers she ever considered, says Perron, were art, theatre, and, for a time, translation. She started out studying art and theatre at Ottawa University, but, after meeting a visiting French set designer, switched her major to scenography at Concordia University in Montreal.

"It was like a light bulb went on in my head," Perron explains. "Scenography is the study of the visual aspect of the whole stage, really a combination of theatre and art." Perron was 21 when she discovered scenography; she's never looked back. Her next stop was the University of Massachusetts, where she earned her master's degree in fine arts in scenic design, with a minor in directing. From there, it was a short trip to Keene.

She arrived here in 1989 with "not many reading or writing skills in English," she says. She found her colleagues – especially Elisabeth Roos, associate professor of theatre and the College's expert in costume design – to be supportive and helpful, giving her ideas on how to pick up the language. Since starting at Keene State in 1989, Perron has worked on more than 30 productions as set or lighting designer. She has also directed two plays, Michel Tremblay's Marcel Pursued by the Hounds and an adaptation of Aesop's Fables.

Scenography is a mix of quiet creativity and collaborative construction, painting, noise, and mess. Perron's work creates the mood of a scene as much as the actors' words and actions – using cool and warm lights to express emotions, representing the theme of a play through the choice of set design, and creating ways for actors to move around the stage through the placement of set pieces.

"I really think the work I do as a designer is integrated with my work as a teacher," she explains. "I'm in charge of theatre design but I have creative spaces for students to be involved."

She remembers many of her students and their experiences. Marcel (2001), which she directed, stands out in particular. Perron selected four students to design the set, lighting, costumes, and sound. "What better workshop for a student than to really design," she explains. "Having students involved allows me to coach their progress but also lets them be part of the production." Several of her students, including Jeremy Robarge and Benjamin Swope, have won American College Theatre Festival Barbizon awards for their work in set and lighting design. She has taken students on trips to England and Quebec, and planned a trip to Greece that was postponed by the Iraq war.

"I think we give our students a strong work ethic and foundation," she says. "After that, it's up to them."

Her job as set designer begins when Perron reads the script and draws what she calls a designer's chart. "I dissect the script," she explains. "Who, where, time, objects, and physical and emotional details." This examination reveals patterns within the play, which Perron exploits creatively.

The second step involves research. To get a feel for the imagery that a set design requires, Perron hits the books to hunt out the "look" of a location or time period. She also begins "conceptual research," where she finds images that have the "right texture, mood, and colors – images that fit the moment or the whole play."

Once she has a sense of the look of the play, Perron sketches set designs or, depending on the show, builds scale models. When she and the director decide on the final set design, Perron drafts architectural plans. These are given to the technical director, Craig Lindsay, who is in charge of building the set. Perron and her students make the sculptures, backdrops, and paintings that give the stage its final appearance.

One of Perron's favorite plays is Tony Kushner's Angels in America, for which she designed the set and lighting when it was performed by KSC Theatre and directed by Ron Spangler in 1999. The play is a snapshot of dark issues and moods from 1980s America. After reading the script, which she described as "exquisite," she came up with the image of broken wings. Starting with a metal frame, she built several enormous wings that she covered with shredded plaster, which were hung from battens above the stage. "The wings represent the senses of decay and despair that the play deals with," she explains. To add intensity to one scene, Perron used a single beam of light, creating an appearance of dripping water. In another scene, full of conflict, she placed glass and metal furniture on stage and reflected a harsh, bright light off them. The effect on the audience, she said, was intended to be as jarring as the actors' dialogue.

For Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which was performed by KSC Theatre in 1994 (directed by Edith Notman), Perron increased the scale of the chairs and tables used by the actors to give a sense of people dwarfed by their environment. Much of the mood of the play, which deals with despair, delusion, and courage, depended on the colors of the sky – warm reds and yellows and threatening purples – in the background. Although the backdrop looks painted, the effect was actually created by using lights below and above a white canvas sheet called a cyclorama. To create each lighting effect – for example, thunderclouds pouring over the horizon – Perron used a filter called a gobo, which she then placed inside the appropriate light.

Dance performances depend more on lighting than on set design. "Dancing is the body in motion in space," says Perron. "Light and shadows help the choreographer highlight parts of the dance."

As much as she enjoys her work, Perron piles praise upon her colleagues – Elisabeth Roos, Ronald Spangler, Daniel Patterson, Craig Lindsay, Marcia Murdock, Peggy Rae Johnson, and William Seigh. "We talk a lot, we collaborate on plays, and we share ideas for curriculum," she says. When Keene State hosted the Kennedy Center's American Theatre Festival in 2002 and 2003, more than 40 people worked behind the scenes to ensure success.

Away from the College, Perron's moment of bliss was sketching architecture during a sabbatical in Italy in 1997. She traveled to Rome, Venice, and Florence, setting up her stool wherever she pleased. "When you draw," she says, describing her feelings of seeing Michelangelo's art for the first time, "you have that moment forever." On her return to Keene, she created 55 drawings and watercolors from her sketches. She did a solo show that year, then put together the "See Jane" exhibition to create a venue for KSC women faculty and staff artists. With two See Jane events under her belt, Perron is thinking about organizing a third.

Keene is home for Perron and her bilingual dogs, Molière and Gobo, and her cats, Visou and Daisy. Daisy has the distinction of having been the only animal to perform in the Redfern Arts Center, as Tat, the "pitiful cat," in a series of monologues called Talking With. Given the amount of time she spends with her animal companions, says Perron, "life is furry."

Although she is rushed off her feet most of the time, until quite recently Perron worried that she didn't have a hobby. Her sojourn into quilting ended after she volunteered to make a rolling library stand for her group's books. "They asked whether someone's husband could do carpentry," Perron recalls with a laugh, "and the feminist in me spoke up."

Now, she says, she realizes that her work is her hobby.

"Since I was 21 I've known this is what I want to do," she says. "I think it's fabulous that I can earn a living doing something that says who I really am." Her own description of herself echoes her hands-on approach to life: "She made things" is how she would like to be remembered.

Dave Orsman is senior writer for Keene State Today.