“You don’t have to be delicate with that!” Donald Fox shouted at the students dismantling the miscellaneous wooden platform in the scene shop.
The new scenic designer for Hillsdale’s theater department, Fox has been reorganizing the workshop behind Markel Auditorium where scenery is constructed. The scene shop is filled with tools, piles of wood, and relics of shows gone by. Fox and his crew have been throwing out old and unneeded items, such as the large wooden platform that student employees dismantled and threw into a dumpster.
Fox is cleaning out the shop in preparation for the Tower Players’ upcoming production of “All’s Well that Ends Well,” which opens Oct. 11. It will be Fox’s first show at Hillsdale, but he’s no stranger to many aspects of theater production.
“I’ve done well over 200 shows,” he said. “Probably 300. That’s a conservative estimate.”
For more than 30 years, Fox has designed sets and lighting and worked as stage manager and technical director in both commercial and academic theater. He has also been a guest artist at colleges all over the country. He is originally from Texas, and in 2007, he received the Alamo Theatre Arts Council Globe Award for Excellence in Scenic Design. The following year, his designs on “Journey’s End” were named Best of Scenic Design by the San Antonio Express News.
Professor of Theater James Brandon said Fox’s experience set him apart as a candidate for the scenic-designer job.
“He has a lot of experience in the professional and academic world,” Brandon said. “We wanted someone who could not only conceive but also execute designs. That’s what we liked about Donald. It was nice to see someone who has that balance.”
Brandon said a new face in the small department is an exciting event.
“It has a great impact on what we do,” he said. “We look forward to that with Donald. It can be comfortable to have people you’re used to, but it’s exciting to have new blood.”
Fox said he heard about the job opportunity in a phone call from lighting designer Michael Beyer, with whom he’d worked at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. (Fox’s portfolio features photos of sets he designed with Beyer’s lighting.)
Beyer said he and Fox worked closely together on three shows simultaneously 10 years ago. Since then, the two have kept in touch.
“I knew that this was a job he could do, so we as a department had him in mind as an easy and quick transition on short notice,” Beyer said in an email. “He has good experience that he can give to our students and our department. I know he is a very talented designer and experienced builder, so I am excited for the things we’ll be able to accomplish on stage.”
Fox said he appreciates the college’s commitment to the Constitution, lack of federal funding, and willingness to talk about faith. He joked that he’s excited about the upcoming changes in weather.
“I’m looking forward to a mild winter,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get it, but I’m looking forward to it.”
His office is truly that of a thespian. It is filled with books on theater and sets, a copy of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a model set kit for a Shakespearean-style stage, and three production posters on the wall: “Cheapside,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Silence.”
Opening his portfolio Powerpoint on his computer, he commented on some of his favorite shows that he’s designed.
“‘The Travelling Lady,’ with the Scottish play, is in my top two,” he said, referring to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as any theater veteran would. “I worked with Horton Foote, the author. A very close friend of mine met her husband on that set. They’re still married. They have a kid.”
In fact, his portfolio ends with a quote from Foote.
“I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it,” the quote reads. “I look around and ask, what makes the difference? What is it? I’ve known people the world has thrown everything at — to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask questions.”
Fox began working on “All’s Well That Ends Well” over the summer. He said Shakespearean comedies offer special challenges for designers.
“Things have to move on and off quickly,” he said. “Scene changes can’t be long. That’s important with Shakespeare. You can’t mess up the rhythm and tempo.”
He said the set will consist of three levels, including the lower part of the pit, which will be used as a garden area. The play is set during the Algerian War in the 1950s, which Fox said the scenery will reflect.
While Fox praised the hardworking nature of his students, scene shop supervisor Austin Benson had similar comments on the designer.
“He has a very distinct gameplan,” Benson said. “We always know exactly what he’s doing. Donald strives really strongly for a clear line of communication and for a lot of openness and kindness in the shop. It’s a more open environment than it was in the past.”
Soon, Fox returned to dismantling the large wooden platform with his students, after making sure they wore earplugs and safety goggles.
“That goes in the dumpster,” Fox called to his employees as the destruction began. “You can break it down however you want!”