The Story of The Otello Set Heroes

The Otello sets were spectacular, grand, imaginative, palatial, creating an exotic, ancient world for the telling of this tragic story. With the projected storms and castle halls and Moorish patterns, you were transported to an imaginary place. In fact, four places in four acts. The waterfront, the plaza, the great hall, and the bed chamber. 

If you were told that this was built by two people, you could not believe it, but it is true. I will tell you how it all happened.

Jean-Francois Revon, in consultation with the Stage Director, Candace Evans, and Erie Mills, our Artistic Director, decided generally what settings were needed and what structures and projections could create these environments. Jean-Francoise then designed the set pieces, specifying size, shape, texture, colors, and locations. 

First constructed was the four-stepped forum, 54 feet wide and 16 feet front to back, with a ramp and platform approach from the back and steps on each side, able to support 2,000 lbs per each 4’x8’ section, each section on wheels for ease of transport and assembly, all lockable together into an assembly area of “stone” steps, twenty-nine major sections in all.

When I joined the construction team, this work was already done, by Bob Bachtel and Rich Sutherlin. Jean-Francois gave them two dimensional drawings, with no specification of structural forms or materials. Bob Bachtel envisioned how to build them and specified that they be wheeled. Then he and Rich put them together, day by day, bringing in the construction materials from Home Depot each morning and building all day until 4:00 in the afternoon, pausing only for a few relaxed moments at lunch. They did this in about a month, late October and early November.

The bed head board was 12 feet tall in two great pieces, with an arched tapestry insert, itself 8 feet by 10 feet. The rolling bed folded in half on rollers, but was mounted on 6 solid feet when in place, and slopped toward the front of the stage. It was modified twice to change height and increase structural strength.

Having fulfilled my one week apprenticeship of sweeping floors, collecting used screws,  and cutting 2’x4’s, Bob assigned me to layout and draw in detail, scaled exactly to the specified design, the Moorish arch and columns, which is flown down from the stage loft in the Second Act. I am sure that this was Bob’s joke on me to demonstrate my limitations, but in two days I had the eight sheets of plywood lain edge to edge 16 feet tall and 16 feet wide, with the two columns, crenelated battlement, arched door, and high decorative stone shelves, complete with the perspective slant which made everything on the right a few inches smaller than on the left, all laid out and ready for cutting and bracing. Bob flickered a smile of appreciation, his maximum cudo, and he and Rich and I soon had the structure built. Bob then added the foam columns and shelves and crenelations to give the impression of feet of thickness to something that could be only 6 inches thick in order to fit up in the loft at the Bankhead theater. 

Next were the 10 columns, most 14 feet tall with bases and column heads bringing them to over 16 feet, unable to be raised vertical in the Nob Hill assembly area. The column heads were massive “stone” lintels with decorative shelves and moldings, actually complexly shaped wood boxes built on wood skeletons that emerged from Bob Bachtel’s imagination. The columns, with moldinged feet and caps, were actually built of cardboard sonotubes. When painted, these were convincing weathered ancient marble columns, but much lighter.

Bob and Rich built five wood framed, foam-molded rocks, strong enough to support Otello.

Bob built three stone firepits with electric fans to flicker Bonnie’s gause flames and warm the chorus.

He and Rich built three huge flown “masking walls”, 8 feet by 10 feet, to hide back-stage activities from the audience. And a low 50-foot-long masking wall for behind the forum deck.

The detail on the great arch and the bed head was computer printed on sheets of cloth that Jean-Francois would stretch and glue to the large flat pieces saving the set painter artist days of work. Whenever Jean-Francois was there, all hands supported him, and Bob and Rich stood ready to make dimensional, structural, and decorative changes to suit Jean-Francois’ requirements. 

Of course, all of these structures had to be base painted and then artist painted. Bonnie Schmidt and her crew of Bev Benson, Erlinda Dearborn, and Patty Canning did this, with artists hired for the detail. Bonnie and Bev also saw to all of the props and furniture and banners and table accessories and fire logs and princely tables and chairs and swords and knives. Costumes were coordinated by Emily Paulson, our Production Manager, supported by Loran Watkins. Wigs, hats, lanterns. An endless list of crucial necessities.

Now ready for the stage, the large flats, the arch, and the biggest columns all needed to be cabled for support or lofting above the stage. The cable and fittings are carefully chosen and assembled for assured safety, such that nothing will be dropped from the loft. This is a speciality of Bob and Rich.

When all structures were complete and decorated to Jean-Francois’ satisfaction, all the large scenery pieces and the forum-deck had to be disassembled for transport and Load In. Bob honored me with the title of load master, which meant that I had to make the lists and cargo maps for the truck to get all the pieces to the Bankhead in the right order for lofting and assembly. Without Bob’s foresight in sizing for the truck and rollering the largest pieces, this job would have been impossible. 

Bonnie contacted many excellent workers who became the loading team and worked Saturday and Sunday before Tech Week to accomplish the Load In. Bob and Rich, of course, did the reassembly and the lofting (flying), with Jean-Francois’ stage expertise. As best I can remember the following people exhausted themselves carrying the sets and all the other props and pieces and costumes and sound and lighting and videoing equipment from Nob Hill and the Bothwell to the Bankhead.

  • Beverly Benson
  • George Dankiewics
  • Erlinda Dearborn
  • Vaughn Draggoo 
  • T J Gilmartin
  • Greg Gorel
  • Zell Helstrom
  • Kaelo Maloney
  • Tony Holt
  • Kenny Love
  • Dennis O’Brien
  • Emily Paulson, Production Manager
  • Ashley Pearson, Assistant Stage Manager
  • Natalie Peck
  • Russell Peck
  • Keith Sawyer
  • Bonnie Schmidt, Principal Support for the Production Manager
  • Jim Schmidt
  • Jim Shirley
  • Steve Shirley

A similar and much more intense effort was involved in the Load Out immediately after the last performance and all the ovations. I am told that we set a record. In spite of the enormous and complex set, the Load Out was completed in four truck loads in just over 4 hours.

Always in the mix was Production Manager Emily Paulson, seeing that all the jobs had workers, and the workers had food and water, and that whatever needed to be done was planned and getting done, and encouraging the workers when they got tired.

While not volunteers, the Bankhead staff were very helpful and a pleasure to work with.

The two Herculean heroes of this story are, of course, Bob Bachtel and Rich Sutherlin. I have tried to describe their major accomplishments, but it is harder to account and appreciate the hundred things that they did both to make the sets magnificent and to make everyone else’s involvement with the sets as safe and efficient as possible. Bob did a vast amount of the work with his own hands, with his surgical assistant Rich always there, there on the last Load Out night until the last item was in the truck and the Bankhead was clean as a whistle. The Set was a high mark accomplishment for Otello. And Otello is now the benchmark for our Opera.

If you want to be involved with volunteering, please check out our volunteer page to get in touch with us.