Set design as part artistry, part geometry

From sketching to painting, Kat Conley creates a 3-D landscape for director's vision.

"When good projects come along, I don't want to turn them down," Conley says, though she does hope to work a "lull'' into the coming season.

Her five-year plan, she says, includes trying to get more sleep.

Conley, 35, is a California girl, born and raised in Davis. She came of age as a coloratura soprano, playing the tragic ingenue Julie Jordan in a high school production of "Carousel" and, earlier, living the hard-knock life of an orphan in a professional staging of "Annie." She's also a cellist.

She went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for costume design only to come out creating sets. It's there she met husband Tim, general director for Georgia Shakespeare. They share a Westside duplex, a workaholic lifestyle and cats named Porter, Stout and Swill. (Swill had a staggering gait as a kitten, hence the name.)

"Our hobby is our life and our life is our hobby," Conley says. She is self-effacing, opinionated and somewhat shy. But her blue-green eyes fire up when she talks about theater as a profession, an art form and her world.

"Kat is such a complete theater artist," says Rosemary Newcott, director of Theatre for Young Audiences at the Alliance. "She loves the form and, it is obvious, every step of the process. It's very unique to find a designer . . . who understands, appreciates and also respects a child's perception."

Conley first picked up a paintbrush to do scenic art when she was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon. She actually has two full-time jobs: freelance set designer, working out of her basement studio; and, for 40 hours a week, the charge scenic artist on staff at the Alliance.

In the latter role it's her job to get every stick of scenery, every flat, rock, drop and bench painted (see accompanying story for dictionary of terms). She turned the towering church walls of the Catholic school drama "Doubt" into brick, for example, and can use paint to make wood look like almost anything. It's about tricking the eye, she says.

Both jobs require a good sense of design, form, function, line and balance. Set design is all about collaboration, working as part of the five-person team —- the costume, sound and light designers, and the director, who captains the ship —- to create the world of the play. You have to have a good sense of painting and sculpture, Conley says, and be able to sell the design visually and artistically to the director and in technical ways to the shop folks who are going to build it. Geometry is a must.

Conley's process starts with the script. She tries to read it twice before her first meeting with the director. "It's a lot of talk at the beginning," she says, "a lot of me sitting in a coffee shop sketching, asking myself questions, doing research, forming ideas in my head."

Then she starts more detailed, specific sketching, using an eighth-inch scale and keeping in mind script requirements and the dimensions of the theater. She sketches, refines, talks to the director again, talks to the lighting designer, refines some more, and then puts it on paper for good. She creates to scale a series of layered draftings that will go to the shop and become the map for turning the ideas into a three-dimensional landscape.

"There are a lot of designs that come out at 4 o'clock in the morning," she says of her process, which can take as little as two weeks or as long as seven months.

One of her proudest achievements is the double-wide trailer she did for Actor's Express' "Killer Joe" in 2004. The bloody, family slugfest by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts needed to be as seedy and realistic as possible. When it attracted ants, Conley knew she'd done the job.

Georgia Shakespeare's Richard Garner recalls working with Conley last fall on "Richard III" and the opening image he had in mind of 30 black umbrellas moving en masse, then revealing the power-crazed king-to-be behind them.

"She liked how umbrellas represented the people under them," he says. "It was her idea that a skeleton of an umbrella be raised into the air for each body that was killed at Richard's hands. In the end, the sky was littered with these skeletons. So one OK idea from me translated into a much more powerful and iconic idea from her. You give her a sow's ear and she makes a silk purse."

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