Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Butler University and Theater and Education & Workforce Development and Indiana Repertory Theatre and Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

Stage designer helps theaters bring stories to life

March 23, 2009
With one hand, Rob Koharchik refills his tall coffee cup with liquid energy. With the other, he cradles rolled-up floor plans like a football. He quickly climbs several flights of dark concrete steps to reach a small stage, where a worker on a lift is filling a jury-rigged bucket with fake flower petals.

In less than a week, the "petals" will fall like snow from above the stage lights during the Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "Crime and Punishment."

Long before opening night, Koharchik has to sweat the small stuff. The professional set designer — and Butler University professor — spends months moving his ideas from sketch pad to stage.

Koharchik, 40, has designed sets for local theaters including IRT and the Civic, developing a national reputation along with a keen eye for detail and an uncanny ability to marry form with function.

He majored in theater at Ball State University, then got his master's from Boston University, where he studied set design. Now, Koharchik's job is to transport audiences through time and space, delivering them to the scene of the action and keeping them there until the curtain falls. It's not an easy task, but that doesn't mean it has to be complicated.

Koharchik turned IRT's Upperstage into 1860s Russia for "Crime and Punishment" earlier this year with little more than a table in one corner and cot in another. But the bed becomes both a door and a coffin, making the most of the intentionally sparse set.

The creative process starts when a theater chooses a play and hires Koharchik to help bring it to life. He begins by researching the time period to make sure his design will be historically accurate. Once he has ideas, he runs them by all the interested parties — from the show's director to the carpenters who will do the work. That feedback helps him figure out which ideas are worthwhile and which ones are best left on paper.

A rough sketch becomes detailed drawings as Koharchik factors things like the intended mood of the play and the size of the stage into his designs. Then comes the miniature model of the set, a three-dimensional representation of how the pieces will come together — all the way down to a 2-inch paper cutout of an actor. Theater-goers usually can see examples of such models on display in the IRT's upper lobby near the balcony entrance.

He is always thinking of new approaches, even when he gets an assignment for a play he has worked on before. In his book, nothing's impossible until the technicians say they can't do it, something he says rarely happens.

Once all the decision-makers sign off on the model, Koharchik hands off his designs to the technical director, who is responsible for bringing them to full scale. But his work isn't done. Koharchik stays involved, consulting with the construction crew and tending to the details. By opening night, he's ready for his next project.

Koharchik has been in the business 16 years, designing as many as 10 sets a year. For the last eight years, he also has maintained a full-time job teaching theater design at Butler.

He declined to disclose what he makes for the theater work, but set designers typically are paid anywhere from $200 to $2,000 per show, depending on the complexity of the set and the stature of the theater.

"We work under a budget, a single set design can cost anywhere from $2,000-$4,000, and it can be anywhere from $5,000-$12,000 for a multi-set play," he said. "No one in theater gets paid enough. But there's not a set designer out there that's going to say that they do it for the pay. If they did, they'd be lying. We do it for the love of the craft. I work on great shows with great people. I love to tell stories through the process."

Theater also is a family affair. His wife, Constance Macy, is an actress who understands his demanding schedule. His twin brother, Ryan, is a lighting designer who often works on the same productions.

Still, his 5-year-old son, Mike, hasn't been bitten by the theater bug just yet. So Koharchik stopped taking work home and sets limits on how many projects he takes on compared to how much time he spends with his family.

"I play a lot of Wii games now with my son," Koharchik said, laughing.

That commitment not withstanding, the Koharchiks are among the founding members of ShadowApe, an independent theater company created in 1998. After the success of their first production, "The Turning of the Screw," the group continued to perform together, usually bringing a show to stage for a summer run.

ShadowApe tries everything, from staged readings of poems or fairy tales, to adaptations of novels or other material.

"However you choose to tell a story-that's what we do," Koharchik said.
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