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Student crafts scenes of 'Drood'

East Ridge High School senior Joe Johnson has taken on the role of set designer for East Ridge High School's production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." The role means Johnson is responsible for designing and painting the entire set for the production.

The scene is set for East Ridge High School senior Joe Johnson to take the helm.

Johnson has taken on the role of set designer for East Ridge's fall musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

"It's the first time in my career where I've had a student with both the talent and the energy and commitment to do it," East Ridge theater director Amanda Hestwood said. "I love the fact that a student has survived it."

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" opens Nov. 4 on the Loft Stage.

'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Dickens died in the middle of writing the book.

The musical is about a London playhouse that is performing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a murder mystery. When the show reaches the part where it becomes unfinished, it is up to the audience to piece together the story.

"When you get to the point where the story can no longer be told as Dickens intended for it to be told, the audience picks it up from there," Hestwood said. "It's kind of a choose- your-own-adventure musical."

Hestwood said she chose "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" as this year's musical because it's fun and something different.

"It's a really fun mystery in the spirit of Dickens so it's a little 'Christmas Carol' and a little 'Oliver,'" she said. "It was kind of the last show that came out before all of the big spectacle musicals."

Setting the stage

Johnson took on the role of set designer back in March of last year after excelling in Hestwood's theater arts design class.

"She asked me to do it and I gladly accepted," he said.

Johnson, who intends to go into animation, said it was an opportunity to try something different.

"It is a great learning experience," he said. "I've never done something like this before."

Through an independent study both last year and this year Johnson has brought the world of Edwin Drood to life.

Johnson will also be on stage during the show.

The first step in designing a set was to study the script and production notes as well as study the time period, which in this case is Victorian London.

"You have a basic idea of what the scene should somewhat look like," Johnson said. "I love the ability and creativity to make it your own and have your voice in it."

Once Johnson had a basic idea of what things needed to be designed and created for the show, he began working through the entire set design process including: pencil sketches, color renderings, set building and scene painting.

"It's a perfect fit to elevate his skills and put them to use in a different way," Hestwood said.

Much of the construction was handled by East Ridge's traditional set designer George Juaire.

Johnson said the challenges he encountered were less about the art and more about "the theatrical art." From the lighting to the sightlines to where the curtains will be positioned, he has to work within the space and turn his drawings into a functional part of the play.

The biggest task Johnson has undertaken is painting the entire backdrop for the show: a 50- by 22-foot piece of canvas depicting a city scene on the streets of London.

In total, Johnson said he has spent hundreds of hours working on the set design for the show.

Hestwood said she has enjoyed watching Johnson step up to the plate and take the lead on the set design, but she said she has also enjoyed watching him collaborate with several other students on the painting.

"It's his vision," she said. "But at some point as director and set designer you have to hand your ideas over to others to make happen - it's not a one person thing."

Johnson said some of the students who have helped with the backdrop are: Katherine Spicuzza, Alex McKenzie, Jack Boyd and Mandy Durose.

Hestwood said she hopes Johnson's role as set designer won't be a one-time thing.

"He's gone so far beyond my expectations," she said. "I'm hopeful this will inspire more students to look at the tech side of theater."

Johnson said he is both excited and nervous for opening night.

"A few weeks ago I had a nightmare that the backdrop wasn't done, the costumes weren't finished and the actors didn't have all their lines memorized," he said, "and it was opening night."

East Ridge High School's production of the "Mystery of Edwin Drood" runs Nov. 4-5 and Nov. 10-12 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 6 and Nov. 13 at 3 p.m. on the Loft Stage.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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