Last Saturday evening was opening night for the Arden Theatre Company’s holiday production, The Boxcar Children. Geared to families and to kids over 6, it’s a tale of four orphans who set out to make it on their own as a family during the Depression era.
The story’s eye-catching set, depicting a wilderness, captures the young audience’s attention, especially when Act II opens with a big surprise.
That’s when the audience first sees a large red boxcar on the stage. As they wander through the wilderness, the four children accidentally stumble upon this abandoned boxcar and resourcefully make it their home. It also took resourcefulness to create this boxcar, which looks remarkably real and appears onstage as if by magic.
Behind the scenes, Glenn Perlman is the "magician" who helps make it happen. As technical director for the Arden Theatre, Perlman, of the Whitman area, is responsible for building and installing the scenery for all Arden productions.
And the red boxcar, 23 feet long and 10 feet high, was one of his most unusual challenges.
"It’s one of the largest pieces of moving scenery we’ve ever had in this space," says Perlman, 31. "And it was built from scratch."
Like all the Arden scenery, this was built in the scene shop across the street from the theater itself, at 40 N. Second St. The scene shop is quite a small space — "a glorified garage," says Perlman — so the boxcar was built in pieces. Then it was assembled and painted right on the stage of the theater.
Perlman and his staff built and painted the boxcar from scale drawings provided by set designer Lewis Folden. They also created the other elements of the set, and these, too, had their own challenges.
For instance, to create the wooded setting needed for the play, Perlman used 1,500 square feet of rough-cut poplar. The poplar was cut into pieces to create the set.
"It was a lot of wood!" says the technical director, who had the lumber trucked in from a mill in Plumsteadville. "We wanted the stage to look like a forest."
Taking a break from the last-minute work of getting the set ready, Perlman sits in the F. Otto Haas Theater, one of Arden’s two theater spaces. On the stage itself, his staff puts the finishing touches on the set. Although this is high-pressure time — right before the previews — Perlman seems calm and low-key. But he keeps an eye on the stage as he talks about his work.
Creating a set is a collaborative effort. Perlman oversees the master electrician, props master, scenic carpenter and apprentices. And he works closely with the set designer, who starts by designing a set and then building a model.
"Then I have to figure out how it’s all going to be built," says Perlman, who’s in charge of everything from getting bids for the materials to assembling and painting the set.
Getting a set ready for the first rehearsal is a drama of its own, with suspenseful moments and unexpected plot twists. For The Boxcar Children, Perlman had just one week for the "load-in," the process of transporting the set from the scene shop to the stage where the rush begins to assemble and paint the set.
He and the staff worked 10 hours at a stretch to get everything ready on time. Then came the drama of "tech week," when all the technical details were worked out and the actors were onstage for the first time. Before this, they used a rehearsal hall, where only a taped plan of the set was on the floor.
During tech week for any production, Perlman has a starring role. "On the first day, I introduce the actors to the set," he says. "And it’s wonderful for them, because this is when they get a real feel for the actual set."
But it’s also when glitches can occur. The actors might bump into the unfamiliar props or fumble when they have to climb stairs or open a door, requiring Perlman to make last-minute adjustments.
But by the time of previews, his work is over. "Once the audiences start coming, the set is completed," he says. "We’ve got to stop at some point and let the actors take over. That’s the real goal."
Perlman has always been most comfortable behind the scenes.
"I never had any interest in performing," says the technical director, who got his show-biz start as a fourth-grader who proudly worked the lights for school assemblies.
Growing up in Cheltenham, Perlman was a member of the stage crew in junior and senior high, staying after school and working on weekends, too. In his senior year at Cheltenham High, he was awarded a service scholarship because of his stage crew work and was also voted most talented student.
At New York University’s School of the Arts, the seasoned stagehand majored in set design and then transferred to Allentown College (now DeSales University) to major in technical theater.
After graduation, Perlman launched his career by working for Pennsylvania Stage Company, a regional theater, and then for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. But he missed his hometown, and eagerly moved back when he landed the position of technical director at the Arden in l998.
He’s been busy meeting difficult challenges ever since. One of the most unusual was the set for The Baker’s Wife. The award-winning play took place in the town square of a French village. The striking set included houses with balconies and terra-cotta rooftops, which Perlman created by building shingles from Styrofoam. It also featured a large open bakery, an outdoor caf� and a cobblestone street.
The effort won a Barrymore award for best set design in 2001. That same year, another Arden production, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, was also nominated for best set design.
Of course, working long hours to build complicated sets doesn’t leave much time for relaxing at home. But Perlman and his girlfriend, Alison Roberts, love South Philly. "It’s got such a great neighborhood feel," says Perlman. "We wouldn’t want to be in any other part of the city."
But the Arden is really the second home for both of them; while Perlman works on the sets, Roberts is costume supervisor for the Arden. Even their dog Speck gets into the act. "He comes to work with us every day," says Perlman.
Perlman, who is separated, has two daughters who live with their mother in Bensalem. But Abby, 7, and Maddie, 4, come to the theater with their father every chance they get.
"They’ll test each set by running around on the stage," says Perlman. Not only did they enjoy seeing the boxcar take shape, they even tried to help their father build it. But their favorite activity is striking the set — the theater ritual that occurs when a play ends its run and the set is taken down.
With opening night approaching, Perlman finally starts to wind down and enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes when a set is completed and ready for performances.
He doesn’t need applause. But looking at a completed set, knowing all the effort that went into it, brings its own rewards.
"When I walk to the back of the house and look at a set that looks just like the model, then I know I’ve done my part," he says. "The Arden is all about bringing a great story to the audience. And my role is to help create a set that allows the story to unfold." spr
The Arden Theatre Company presents The Boxcar Children, recommended for ages 6 and over, through Jan. 12. Tickets range from $12 to $32. To order, call the Arden box office at 215-922-1122 or online at www.ardentheatre.org.