Maker of worlds
Marty Gilbert’s lifetime of creating magical environments
For the past several weeks, Marty Gilbert has been reviewing his professional life, and if he has any regrets, they’re not apparent.
He’s been doing this mostly in the garage at his east Chico home. There, piled on a work table and crammed into various cubbyholes, are dozens of photographs, artistic renderings and mechanical diagrams illustrating his 44 years as a theater professor, director and, especially, scene designer, the last 25 of them at Chico State University.
In a few days he and an assistant will mount these images in the hallway at the Humanities Center Gallery, in Trinity Hall at the university, in a retrospective titled A Life of Theatre. Right now Gilbert’s organizing the material, a daunting task given the sheer number of sets he’s designed (more than 100) and many plays he’s directed.
Gilbert, who’s a youthful looking 68, is a sprightly man with wavy white hair and glorious untrimmed eyebrows that look like small birds taking flight. He’s clearly excited by this project, pulling out renderings to show me while expatiating on the evolution of his craft and waxing nostalgic about the many creative people he’s worked with over the years.
Digging under a layer of renderings, he finds a copy of American Theatre magazine from 2001. “A friend told me about this,” he says, opening to an interview with Andre De Shields, the Tony Award-winning stage and movie actor who starred as the title character in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. “This is something that made me feel good,” he says.
In the interview, De Shields, asked how he became an actor, reminisces back 35 years, to the mid-1960s, when he was a student at tiny Wilmington College, a Quaker school in Ohio. Gilbert was there too, fresh out of graduate school in his home state of Arkansas and just starting his teaching career. It all began, De Shields says, when “one of my early mentors, Marty Gilbert, gave me the opportunity to realize my dream …” and play Walter Lee in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun.
Thus a star was born, and thus a teacher is confirmed in the work he does. As his good friend Gail Holbrook, a costume designer who’s worked alongside him for 25 years, says, Gilbert has former students throughout the country who are working and making good money and who remember him as a caring, supportive and knowledgeable teacher.
Wilmington College was also good for another important event in Marty Gilbert’s life. It was there he met and married his wife, Mercedes Frontera Gilbert, who was then a young Puerto Rican student whose specialty was children’s theater. Since then they’ve been partners in love and work, helping each other rear three children, all now adults, and sharing their appreciation for the stage.
For the first 20 years, they moved a few times: four years (1963-67) in Wilmington, then two years (1967-69) at the School of the Ozarks, in Missouri, followed by a decade (1969-79) at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces, where Gilbert designed sets on several productions directed by noted playwright Mark Medoff, author of Children of a Lesser God and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, among many others.
In 1979 they came to Chico State University, where both taught in the Theater Department. Mercedes, whom everyone calls Midge, specialized in children’s theater and over the years mounted dozens of charming productions, as well as directing many plays for adult audiences. Marty also did his fair share of directing, and he taught several classes each semester and chaired the department for five and one-half years, but otherwise his work focused on scene design.
Just about everyone who’s seen a theater or opera production at the university during the past 25 years—and that’s tens of thousands of people—has seen Marty Gilbert’s work. The list of productions alone is staggering, dozens of plays and operas beginning with the world premiere of the opera based on local poet George Keithley’s epic The Donner Party in 1979 all the way up to this week’s production of Everyman: Dance of Death, with script by English professor Ernst Schoen-René.
These days Gilbert is working half-time until he fully retires at the end of next school year. (Midge retired six or seven years ago, he tells me.) Working less has given him more time that he’s used to do professional-development work at conferences and elsewhere, teaching others what he’s learned about 3-D modeling and, especially, the Lightwave computer program for scene design. Mastering that program “was really the breakthrough for me,” he explains.
That’s evident in the exhibit, particularly if one peruses it chronologically, beginning with Gilbert’s earliest work, from 1959-69, and moving through to the present.
His scene renderings were done entirely by hand at first, using ink and watercolor. He’s had no training as an artist, and it shows in these early works, though the quality of his set designs is certainly evident.
By the time he moved to Chico he was using pastels as well as watercolor washes to fill in his pen-and-ink drawings. He was becoming proficient with watercolor—see the rendering for the 1984 spring musical Guys and Dolls, for example, or The Three Cuckolds, from 1987—but it was time consuming, and pastels were faster.
Looking at the designs from the 1980s and ‘90s is a walk down memory lane for followers of Chico State theater. Directors’ names leap out like markers on a trail: Ted Wendt, Donna Breed ("Donna was wonderful to work with,” Gilbert says), John Orlock, Gwen Curatilo, Terry Allen, Sue Pate (who’s directing Everyman), Mercedes Gilbert, Pat Kopp, Ying Yeh, Bill Johnson, Joel Rogers and Randy Wonzong, who’s directing his last production this year, the spring musical Man of La Mancha.
And it’s fun to remember the productions: Breed’s Comedy of Errors (1983) and innovative Dreamlife (1985); Wonzong’s South Pacific (1985), My Fair Lady (1987), Mystery of William Drood (1988) and Sunday in the Park with George (1997); Curatilo’s Carmen and La Bohème; Wendt’s Camelot (1985).
Gilbert began using computers to design the mechanics of his sets in 1988, and one can see the improvement in perspective. Notice in particular the mechanical rendering for the barber chair in Sweeney Todd that made victims disappear by sliding them down a chute below the stage.
By 1999 he’d mastered computer programs, particularly Lightwave, so thoroughly that he was able to design everything electronically, including entire lighting designs. The renderings from this period are stunning, achieving photograph-quality realization and a rich use of color and perspective. They vividly suggest the essence of Gilbert’s art: creating whole worlds in which magical stories can be told.
Gilbert was “cutting edge” in using computers for set design, Holbrook says, so much so that early on he was often invited to other schools to show their instructors how to do it.
“My ideal was always to create an image that was as close to possible to the final set,” he says. “Now, with computers and 3-D modeling, I can do it.”
It’s a collaborative process, he emphasizes. It begins with meetings with the director, the costumer and, perhaps, the lighting designer to brainstorm ideas. Then he usually comes back with several thumbnail sketches, from which the best are chosen. The collaboration continues throughout, concluding with the actual building of the sets.
In his artist’s statement for the exhibit, Gilbert has special thanks for the hundreds of students “who built, painted, crewed, dressed and acted in the productions.”
Holbrook, who has been close friends with the Gilberts since she and they arrived in Chico within a month of each other, describes him as one of the most supportive and amiable people she’s ever worked with.
“The years when he was chair were my favorite years to work for the department,” she says. “He was more of an artist than an administrator, but we needed him then, and he stepped in and did it, and he was so supportive of everyone.”
She remembers how, early on, the members of the design staff made up some T-shirts for their students. On the front they read: “We make the magic!”
That’s what Marty Gilbert has been doing in Chico for the past 25 years.
And after retirement? "I have no idea," he replies. "I’ve been doing this for a long time."