Designing sets in professional theater has been a dream come true for architect Rob Lippert.
For the past four years, Lippert has been the resident scenic designer for both New Line Theatre and Stray Dog Theatre in St. Louis. New Line’s home is their own black box space at the Marcelle in Grand Center while Stray Dog’s venue the Tower Grove Abbey is in South City.
He currently has two shows running simultaneously — the musical “Celebration” at New Line, with final performances Thursday through Oct. 22, and the cult musical “The Rocky Horror Show,” which opened at Stray Dog Oct. 13 and continues Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct 29.
He embraces the challenges of the intimate spaces as well as enjoys the hands-on approach.
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“Every theater has limitations. I have never been afforded the luxury of a Broadway-sized venue with all of the bells and whistles and a monster budget to do whatever I wanted,” he said. “Being a designer at a small theater company means that you wear many hats.”
Lippert explained that large companies like the Rep and Muny have crews of carpenters and scenic artists to execute the designs.
“Their designers just have to provide detailed drawings and perhaps to a little bit of on-site finish work or dressing. I do not get that kind of staff. I, with the help of a handful of people, design, fabricate, install, paint and strike everything,” he said.
“However, one of the things that I have really enjoyed about working with these small companies is the tremendous amount of creative latitude I am allowed. For the most part, I can try anything that I like on a set. This is in stark contrast to architecture, where clients have very specific opinions on what they expect from their design. In that world, we often get very little creative latitude,” he said.
He also is one of two resident lighting designers at New Line, now in its 26th year, and is recently assumed production manager duties at Stray Dog, which started its 12th season.
“As production manager, my duties include maintenance and management of the facility, coordinating volunteers, some ticketing support, and being a supervisor in their after-school program, Arts In Mind,” he said.
As an art form, it varies greatly from production to production. You never get bored by it. And as a story-telling art, it is really a primal expression of human creativity.
In addition, he works at two schools.
“I continue to teach theater and direct the all-school play at Thomas Jefferson School and do some scenic and lighting design for Whitfield School,” he said.
Lippert, who grew up in Belleville, moved from Lebanon to O’Fallon in 2010, when he married Kathleen Dwyer.
His background in acting and directing at local community theaters has come in handy. He has designed more than 30 sets, working with Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon, Cathedral Players and Brass Rail Players in Belleville, Clinton County Showcase in Breese and Curtain’s Up in Edwardsville.
When he’s not working on a show, Lippert and his wife are usually seeing one. They attend 40-50 performances a year.
He was bitten by the theater bug at a young age, starting with the Passion Play produced by the Cathedral Players Guild in 1973. His dad was the executive director for 26 years, until 1999.
“Throughout high school at Althoff, I was involved in theater but was good at math and science. I made a conscious decision to not go into theater and go into engineering instead to earn a decent living. After a year in engineering school, I decided it wasn’t for me,” he said.
An art history class changed his direction.
“While trying to figure out what I wanted to be, the light went off that I could combine my love of design and creating interesting spaces with my math and science aptitude. So, I went to architecture school,” he said.
His architecture skills were invaluable when New Line moved into their new home, The Marcelle, last year, as he was selected to design it, and knew what was needed to give the troupe flexibility to stage four musicals a year.
The Kranzberg Arts Foundation partnered with them to establish a new home at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, which opened in September 2015.
“For New Line, until we moved into the Marcelle, everything had to be fabricated to go up a flight of stairs and fit through a single 3-foot door. At the Marcelle, I have to design very sparingly because we just do not have the floor space or height to be able to create large sets,” he said.
That means ingenuity and resourcefulness are key. For Stray Dog, the Tower Grove Abbey venue is very tall, but only 25-feet wide with no wing space or rigging system.
“So most of what I do there must be a very vertical unit set in some form. Also, actor access to the stage is quite limited at Stray Dog. To make an entrance upstage of the proscenium, all actors must enter through a single door stage right. Typically, I have to design the set to mask cross-over space upstage to allow the director to have entrances on both sides,” he said.
For Rocky Horror, director Justin Been wanted levels — a high location for Frank-N-Furter’s entrance, a mid-level for the lab, and a large projection screen.
“What I did was to layer 1950’s science fiction on to a decrepit old mansion. Frank’s technology was in the form of silvery art deco elements, contrasting with the aged wood and yellowed, cracked plaster of the old house. The projection screen then hung between two large, art deco pylons, not unlike an old 50’s drive-in theater,” he said.
He likes that both theater and architecture are collaborative arts.
“Unlike most other fine art, it is impossible to execute a theater project or an architecture project in a vacuum. There are so many other people involved. I think that it makes the solution much richer,” he said.
But the difference between theater and architecture is one of duration.
“When we build buildings, the expectation is longevity. In theater, there is a certain glory in the brevity of the art. You do a project for a fixed duration and a select number of people see it, and then it is over. It is always something new and different,” he said.
Lippert has quickly won acclaim. He has been nominated for seven St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, winning for his lighting design of “The Night of the Living Dead” at New Line in 2013.
In 2014, he was nominated for the musical “Bonnie and Clyde” set and lighting designs at New Line and the set of the play “And Then There Were None” at Stray Dog.
Last year, he received three of the five nominations for set design of a musical: “Dogfight” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” both at Stray Dog, and “Heathers” at New Line.
His company, U-Studios Inc., is located in Swansea, and their warehouse, an old dairy barn in the Ravenel subdivision, has become a scene shop. He uses a hayloft to store props.
He and his business partner Gary Karasek have been friends since the late 1980s. After a few years on staff at Washington University, he worked at Karasek Architects, where they did church work, including United Methodist Churches in Shiloh and O’Fallon, and Cornerstone Christian Church on Green Mount Road.
It closed in 2004, and when the economy bottomed out four years later, they joined forces. Their work has varied in commercial and some residential. They have dabbled in themed entertainment venues, including Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., and Alabama Adventure in Birmingham.
Lippert’s joy about theater pervades all his projects.
“As an art form, it varies greatly from production to production. You never get bored by it. And as a story-telling art, it is really a primal expression of human creativity,” he said.
So, what’s up next?
“We are currently in rehearsals for the all-school play at Thomas Jefferson — ‘Almost Maine,’ Nov. 10-11. Also, loading, focusing and programming lights for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Whitfield, on stage in a little over a week. Then a fairly simple set for ‘Buyer and Cellar’ at SDT, followed by a little bit of a break for the holidays,” he said.
Rob writes a blog about his design process at http://u-studios.net/author/rob.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: “Always do your best, no matter what you are doing.”
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: “My wife Kathleen. She is a true Renaissance person and a tireless woman.”
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: “Benjamin Franklin. I have always appreciated his frank wit.”
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: “Who has time to read a book?”
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: “I have loved sailing for years. I have not gotten to do much of it in the past five or six years, but just recently, the bug has bitten me again.”
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: “Stacks of organized chaos.”
Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: “I have always wanted to make beautiful things. I have tried many media over the years. Until recently, it was buildings. Right now it is theater. Who knows what I will explore next?”
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: “I strive for the best possible solution and stop at nothing to get to it.”
Q: What irritates you most?
A: “I have no patience for bad drivers.”
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: “When working, I have classical on. I love the newish RAFSTL. When I drive, I flip between Sirius XM Broadway, Seriously Sinatra, and the 40s channel.”
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: “I am creating something new and different every day...”
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: “I would build my own theater and do (support) the cool, funky work that you just cannot afford to do if you have to pay the bills. Then, I would travel and spend time in the sun.”