Veteran designer Ben Boyer goes ‘Into the Woods’ at the VST

Ben Boyer works on the “Into the Woods” set at the Virginia Samford Theatre. (Photos/Daniel Bussey)

If you’ve seen a show at the Virginia Samford Theatre, you have certainly heard and seen Ben Boyer’s work. He’s been at the theater since 2002 and, for most of that time, has been technical director and production designer. He’s done design work for most of Birmingham’s other theaters, too.

The University of Alabama graduate, who counts “South Pacific,” “Cabaret,” “Les Miserables” and “Man of la Mancha” among his favorite productions, answered some questions about “Into the Woods,” which opens at the VST Feb. 1 and runs through Feb. 18. As if designing the set for Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale-inspired musical isn’t enough of a challenge, Boyer is making sustainability a top priority with the set.

Have you designed “Into the Woods” before?

I have not designed this show before and was not really familiar with it, so I really had a blank slate to work with as far as my vision. I know it is a popular show, so the big challenge is to bring something new to the table as far as my design goes.

Boyer with his dog, Sister, a fixture at the VST.

How does a design come together?

The design process starts off with me reading the script and coming up with a rough concept in my head. I will usually sketch out some small drawings of the different scenes or locations. I will then meet with the director and talk about their vision of the show and talk about what I see us being able to do. Once I know what they are looking for I go off and put my ideas on paper with some more detailed renderings and floor plans, sometimes even a model, which I did for this show. I will usually present these back to the director, and If we agree it is what we want then it is off the races and i start building it. I have been doing this so long most of the directors are happy to leave it up to me.

What are some particular challenges with “Into the Woods”?

Well, the challenges that we face are just across the board for everything we do. Time, labor and money are always things that we have to work around, particularly on the scenic side. People are always amazed when I tell them I generally only spend about $2,500 on the sets for our shows. I typically double my budget by recycling scenery. I never throw anything away. There are elements of the “Into the Woods” set that I have been using for almost 20 years.

 Can you talk about the sustainable aspect of “Into the Woods” and why you decided to do that?

 I initially had ideas to to use water bottles and cardboard boxes to make the set with. But ultimately that did not fit in with the director’s vision, and the labor was going to be too intense. Almost everything in the show is recycled or going to be recycled again and again.

Are you designing the sound for this show, too?

I am not designing the sound for this show, but I do oversee all technical aspects of the show. This show does have some very important sound cues that go a long way to bringing the Giant to life.

Can you talk about the new sound system being installed at the VST?

We are currently in the process of upgrading our old single-point speakers with new line arrays that will distribute the sound much more evenly across the audience. We will also be installing speakers to fill in for the balcony. The difference should be like night and day once it is done. Unfortunately, it will not be ready in time for “Into the Woods,” but we hope to have it installed directly after the show closes.

“Into the Woods,” at the Virginia Samford Theatre Feb. 1-18. Directed by Chelsea Reynolds with a cast that includes Kristen Campbell, Christopher Sams, Holly Dikeman, Hannah Kuykendall, Abbie Copus, Alex Pepke, Jan D. Hunter, Tawny Stephens, Leah Luker, Hannah Rice, Lydia Yates, Andrew Duxbury, Nate Blakley, Virginia Barr, Lucas Pepke, Blake West, Zach Tarwater and Goldie Hatch. Music director is Michael King, with choreography by Jared Max Wright and costumes designed by Marilyn Locke.

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