O'Fallon set designer turns old truck into star of the show for 'Hands on a Hardbody'

News-DemocratJune 8, 2014 

A testament to Rob Lippert's "Let's put on a show!" attitude sits on stage at New Line Theatre in St. Louis.

It's a red Nissan truck. The real deal (mostly).

It's the centerpiece of the Broadway musical "Hands on a Hardbody," the story of 10 people who hope to win the truck at a Texas dealership by being the one who keeps his hands on the truck the longest. The show runs through June 21.

Rob, 49, of O'Fallon, is the set designer for New Line, as well as Stray Dog, another small St. Louis theater. He also is one of two lighting designers for New Line.

It's a "sideline" occupation he took up last fall, but has been doing off and on gratis for community theaters in the metro-east for decades.

"Out of high school, I wanted to do this so bad!" he said, shaking his head. "... Then, I decided I wanted to eat. It took me 30 years to come back around to this. I would do this for a living, if I could make a living."

Rob's full-time job is as an architect. His partner in the architectural firm since 1999 has been his childhood friend, Gary Karasek, who sometimes lends his artistic hand doing detail painting on sets. Their business, U-Studios, is housed in a yellow barnlike building off Old Collinsville Road in O'Fallon.

One of their specialties is designing outdoor venues -- they are currently in talks to help create a theme park in Africa -- and, closer to home, created a grotto at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows and are designing a new front entrance to the Shrine Apartments.

Rob has done set, as well as light design in St. Louis for professional productions of "Rent," "Cabaret" and "Love, Valor, Compassion," among others. He won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Outstanding Lighting Design in March for the eerie atmosphere he created for "Night of the Living Dead" at New Line.

Creative curtain rises

He remembers in the late 1970s and early '80s doing the lights for the Cathedal Players in Belleville, a theatrical group he was involved in until 2004.

"Sometimes all I had was four flood lights and a dimmer switch," he said with a chuckle. He inherited some of the set work from his father, Bob Lippert. One of the larger pieces Rob created was the entire front of a Victorian home for "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Working in the theater appeals to him on a collaborative level.

"The thing that makes doing scene design unique in the arts is that we're telling a story. We're part of a team that tells the story. We all have a common goal. And the way we tell in the theater is through immersion in the story. When we design, we have to make (the audience) forget they are in a dark theater and they are wherever the story is taking place.

"And we only have to put on stage pieces that make people suspend disbelief and believe what is there is really there. It becomes a magical space. That's what makes my job so interesting."

Walls can be paper thin, but if done right, look like old stone. Wood beams overhead look distressed and ancient, while actually made of Styrofoam. A translucent scrim can hide an orchestra yet still advertise a car dealership in Texas.

"And weaving light and scenery together allows you to paint with light," said Rob. "You can get people to believe they are in the middle of an air raid." Direct flickering light coming out of the shell of a television set and onto a frightened young girl sitting in front of it in the dark and the audience believes she's watching something they can't see.

Problem solver

But there are challenges that must be overcome.

Like how to get a 16-foot truck onto a 20-foot stage. And let theatergoers walk right by it as they find their seats.

"He is wildly creative," New Line's artistic director and founder, Scott Miller, said of Rob. When he put the word out last year that he was looking for a new lighting designer, Rob sent Scott a resume and images of his community theater work. He was hired.

"I thought his lighting work was cool, but I also saw a truck he built for 'Grapes of Wrath'" at the Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon, said Scott.

"When I asked Rob if he could make us a truck, his answer was, 'Yes, we can do this.'"

Rob only momentarily considered creating a truck out of Styrofoam. "In the front of the script, it says you should really do this with a real truck. The truck is a character in the show and my feeling was that if it wasn't a real truck, it would distract from the storytelling."

So, last September Rob found a beige 1998 Nissan truck in High Ridge, Mo., bought it for $2,250 and drove it back to U-Studios, where there is a large workshop. It had just enough space for the truck to be disassembled, some of the guts removed and repainted.

Why all the work?

"Any other theater and we might be able to just drain a truck of all its fluids and roll it in onto the stage," said Rob. But New Line rents the theater in the old Christian Brothers College High School on the grounds of Washington University for its performances. It's on the second floor.

So, the truck had to be taken apart in small enough pieces to haul it up stairs and through double doors with stanchions in the middle.

Enlisting the help of a loyal team of workers, including his wife, Kathleen Dwyer, U-Studios office manager Sharon Russell to help paint the scrim, and friends Patrick Donnigan and Melanie Kozak, the work got done. Lary Wojcik loaned his truck and trailer to haul the big pieces to St. Louis.

"I want to make sure people know I don't make this magically myself," he said of his set design work. "I coordinate and I have a handful of people who work with me."

They spent several weeks beginning in April figuring out how to break it down into about 15 pieces that could be put back together on stage on a portable wood frame. They used marine paint to give it an inexpensive glossy red color, and kept as much of the interior intact as they could.

"We knew people had to walk across the front of the (floor-level) stage to get to their seats," Rob said. So, they would naturally peek inside. Rob wanted them to see a console, seats, gear shift and steering wheel. He even replaced the gray carpeting.

But, a lot was missing to lighten the load, from the engine to the innards of the doors.

On with the show

On a warm Saturday afternoon, less than three weeks before opening night, Brian Scheppler, cast members Marshall Jennings, Rey Arceno, Todd Schaefer and Alison Helmer (guiding), maneuvered the biggest pieces -- the bed and the cab -- up two floors along a switch-back metal exterior stairway to a narrow door at the side of the theater. Already on stage were smaller pieces, from the windshield and door frames to the tires.

By the end of the day, the 20-foot stage had its centerpiece.

"The fun part is going to be people wondering how the truck got here," said Todd Schaefer, who plays JD Drew in the show.

Director Scott Miller said it doesn't need a spotlight to draw attention to Rob's ingenuity.

"He did extraordinary work. It's so much fun to stand back and watch people after the show wander down and look at the truck."

For his part, Rob says the joy of having it finished, as well as building a platform for the orchestra, a Floyd King Nissan "billboard" scrim and frame to go in front of the musicians and faux outdoor parking lot stanchions and lights, is temporary.

"After the show is over we have to take the truck apart and get it out of here!"

It will be stored for rental use by other theater groups around the country.

"We've already had two requests," said Scott.

"Hands on a Hardbody"

What: Musical about 10 people trying to win a new truck. Contains adult content.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday through June 21

Where: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road, just east of Big Bend, St. Louis

Tickets: $15 for adults; $10 for students/seniors on Thursdays; and $20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays. To charge tickets by phone, call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the Metrotix website. Discounts are available.

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