Set designer infuses plays with inspiration from life

Brian Johnson is in the business of selling a fantasy, creating stage sets for local theatre companies that tell a story and transport both characters and audience into a new world. “The best part of what I do is to help tell the stories with the things I create. We go to all kinds of different places throughout the seasons,” he said. “One show I may be building forests, the next it’s castles.”

Johnson is the full-time technical director for the Stockton Civic Theatre. He also builds sets for St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, Showbiz Theatre Company, University of the Pacific Opera and the Stockton Opera and Symphony. He estimates he’s designed sets for about 70 shows since starting in 2008.

Over the years Johnson has been nominated for 16 Elly Awards, an annual award show honoring outstanding achievements of community theaters and artists in the Sacramento area. He’s won four times.

Johnson’s current project is building sets for SCT’s production of The Addams Family, to include the family’s house and gravestones. It’s not his first foray into the spooky — one of his award-winning sets was for the theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd. He used the Broadway version — sets created by Tony Award Winner Eugene Lee — as inspiration.

“[Johnson is] very interested in the play itself, he’s very interested in the characters, he’s very interested in the time period,” said Jim Coleman, former artistic director of SCT. “He has a great artistic sense. All his sets tell the story.”

Coleman calls Johnson tireless. “To find somebody with his ability that’s willing to work for the small amount of money SCT is willing to pay… we’re very lucky to have him.”

Mary Poppins was another favorite. “We went all over the place. We went to the park … we went and flew kites,” Johnson said.

“Some directors come in with a clear picture of what they want … sometimes, though, I’ll have a lot of play room,” Johnson said. “The ones that seem to get the most response are when I don’t look at what others have done and I’m just making them up out of my head.”

Inspirations come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s a mood; sometimes it’s a previous production of a show. Once trees inspired Johnson to build an entire birch forest with tree canopies for A Little Night Music.

When SCT took on On Golden Pond, a drama centered on an aging couple, Johnson dedicated the set to his grandmother. She had recently died and he created the scene out of the window to resemble one of their many camping trips together.

Regardless of the task at hand, Johnson is up for the challenge. Previously a contractor (who stumbled into set design as a career after volunteering on a few sets), he took a pay cut to follow this creative path. “It’s more rewarding,” he said.

With small budgets — typically ranging $2,500-$5,000 for materials and volunteer labor — creating inspiring sets is no easy feat. Mary Poppins was among the most expensive; Johnson spent almost $6,000 in materials, plus an additional $7,000 to rent the rig that made the actors fly.

“I spent more actually than I should have, but if we were going to spend all of that money it was going to be that good,” he said.

Most of the time, blowing the budget isn’t an option.

“We’ve done a lot of repurposing,” Johnson said. “I’m able to reuse pieces and fool the audience to think they’ve never seen them before.”

For The Addams Family, Pugsley’s torture device was built completely from parts around Johnson’s shop and old stage pieces stored in a warehouse at the Stockton Port.

“There’s nothing on there that I haven’t used in a previous show,” he said.

The set building process is involved. Johnson starts each new show by presenting his ideas to the director. Together they collaborate to ensure that Johnson’s vision can accommodate the director’s vision.

“When [the director] approves the direction I am going, then I’ll often build a small white model,” he said. That white model is a toy version of the set he plans to build, and the director often uses it to visualize how the cast will move around set.

On the day of the last performance of a show, the crew celebrates with dinner and then heads back to the theatre to strike the set. The entire thing is dismantled in one night so Johnson can immediately start work on the next design.

For the more complicated sets, Johnson creates a grid on stage to mark where items such as windows and doors will go. That way he knows he’s putting pieces in the right place and the cast can use the grid for blocking their scenes.

With the help of two assistant technical directors and volunteers including cast members, the entire set goes up by tech night — the Saturday before the show opens. At St. Mary’s, Johnson’s crew is made up of students.

“Typically, I have six weeks between shows,” he said. “It’s a race usually. The more grand ideas we come up with, the more work it’s going to be.”

James Haffner is the artistic director for The Pacific Opera Theatre and the producing stage director for the Stockton Opera Association. He’s been working with Brian since 2015.

“Brian is extremely collaborative”, he said. “Brian has no ego. He’s just extremely passionate about the work that we have to do and he loves to talk a challenge out.”

“Brian is also extremely creative and resourceful. These days in the arts we’re always facing a financial crisis,” Haffner said. “We have to be extremely creative with how we manage our resources and Brian is good at that.”