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Designing Woman

Theatre Prof Publishes Book Featuring 34 Years of Wilmington College Set Designs

Lois Hock recalls the painstaking detail required in creating the set in College-Community Summer Theatre’s 1980 production of Tobacco Road.

“It’s the most naturalist set I’ve ever done,” she said. “We literally tore down old buildings, saved the wood and built the set. We shoveled dirt all over the stage and used a cobweb machine to spin webs.”

Throw in a 20-foot tall tree and an actual corncrib, and no doubt Tobacco Road author Erskine Caldwell would have recognized it as the setting for his novel on the Depression-era Georgia sharecroppers. Tobacco Road, a favorite of Hock’s, is one of 85 shows featured in her book Scenic and Lighting Designs by Lois A. Hock, Professor of Theatre, 1977 to 2011 at Wilmington College.

The coffee table picture book spans her 34 years at the College in which she has been WC Theatre’s primary set and lighting designer, as well as a faculty member. It also includes the showed she designed in 10 years working on the summer theatre staff.

The book features some models and sketches, as well as photographic images. Hock said the book was the natural follow-up to a major project she completed during her faculty sabbatical in 2008 in which she sorted through literally thousands of slides and photographs of shows, identified them and organized the images for the College Archives. As a result, the College’s Web site features photo galleries of theatre seasons from 1975 through the present. She focused on the scene designs for her book. Copies are available in Watson Library’s Archives and for general circulation.

Another favorite show is Rain, a 1987 production Hugh G. Heiland directed. “It had to be raining outside the entire show so we ran a garden hose from the basement to PVC pipes with holes, which made the sound of water on a tin roof,” she said. She also is “fond” of a more recent production, Urinetown in 2008, due to its “urban-industrial look.”

The book not only offers a personal memoir for Hock and her family, and designs for the theatre archives, but also provides easily accessible examples for students studying set design. “The Intro to Theatre class has to pick a play, research it and bring in pictures for discussion,” she said. “And my scene design students are required to bring in a set design and analyze it in front of the class.”

Hock said the scene and prop design for each show is unique and is determined based upon resources available and creative minds involved with the show’s production. “People think we buy the sets and assemble them,” she said. “Trust me, we start from scratch!” It’s the same with the props.

“We’ve spent days sometimes tracking down props,” she added. “I’ve gone store-to-store with a camera phone texting Wynn (director Wynn Alexander) to see if this particular item I found is what he had in mind.” Hock designed the set for the winter 2011 production, Spinning into Butter, partly based upon a photo of the College’s nine-decade-old, brick gateway off Fife Avenue leading to what used to be known as Whittier Place Drive. “After the show, the brick was rolled up and is in storage,” she said. “When we save things, other theatre companies sometimes ask if we have specific set parts we’re willing to share.”

Rolled up bricks aside, the 34-year evolution of sets also illustrates how foams, plastics and glue-on materials have become popular in contemporary design.

The book chronicles Hock’s ongoing career at a college for which theatre continues to be a point of pride.
Leafing through the book transported Hock back to fall 1977 when she arrived at WC after completing two master of fine arts degrees in design at Illinois State University. Her first shows constituted a double bill of Moliere comedies, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, director by Hugh G. Heiland, and Precious Damsels by David Doering ’75. “I remember we seated the audience on stage,” she reminisced. “I was the new kid on the block then.”