For Tim Wisgerhof, the process of designing a set starts with a gut feeling. When he reads a script for the first time, he tries to get to the story’s emotional core. “I write down my visceral response to the play,” says Wisgerhof, resident designer for the Des Moines Community Playhouse. He scribbles adjectives and any other stream-of-consciousness thoughts and feelings the play evokes, then “I mull that over and read the script again with the same process in mind,” he says. Only then does he “start forming pictures…of what could work for the Playhouse stage.”
While those pictures are still inchoate, Wisgerhof meets with the director, who, he emphasizes, “is the captain of the ship; I’m one of the first mates. All of us involved with the play are helping the director achieve (his or her) vision.”
After that initial meeting, Wisgerhof reads the script yet again, then starts putting some ideas on paper. “I’m a big sketcher,” he says. “I’ll sketch on paper, on napkins–really anything,” From there, the design slowly evolves in increasingly concrete ways, often going through several permutations and stages of fine-tuning, and ends with Wisgerhof teaching volunteers how to build the set. “Each show is its own puzzle to be solved,” he says. “The exciting thing about theater, and what makes it different from TV and movies, is that all the scenery changes happen within view of the audience. The scenery has to be choreographed; it has to have movement.”
Wisgerhof currently is working on creating the Art Deco-inspired set for “Moonlight and Magnolias,” which the Playhouse will present June 8-24. He also will perform in the show, which he says provides him with an even deeper perspective of how the scenery should serve the story.
Wisgerhof thrives on the collaborative part of the creative process. The blank canvas a solo artist faces every day “terrifies me,” he says. “What I love is working with other people and the organic (nature) of the process. The director can say one word (about the set or the play) and that can be the impetus for the design to go in an entirely different direction.”