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Creating a Set That's in Character
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar section, September 23, 2001)
Designer Victoria Profitt thinks like an actor when she designs for small stages: 'This is my art form.'

By Daryl H. Miller

As one of the busiest set designers in Los Angeles' small-theater scene, Victoria Profitt has developed some highly specialized skills.

She is able, for instance, to divine the precise combination of flexible plastic tubing and fake foliage that will make Jack's magical beanstalk spring to life for a children's play.

Hyper-aware of the need to pinch pennies so that she won't bust a small theater's limited budget, she knows to hunt for a taxidermy shop that will rent her a moose head—which she needs for a '30s comedy—for far less than the local prop-rental houses would charge.

And, after spending so much time with actors, she has learned how to slip into character to better understand what sort of environment a play's protagonists would inhabit. "Would the character have that piece of furniture? Would they use that color? It's fun," she says. "You're going shopping for your character."

"Would the character have that piece of furniture?  Would they use that color?  It's fun.  You're going shopping for your character." - Victoria Profitt, set designer

In recent weeks, Profitt has been applying her skills to the comic J.M. Barrie piece "What Every Woman Knows," which opened last weekend at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, and the darkly comic Harold Pinter play "The Birthday Party," which opened this weekend at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.

In all, she has designed about 60 shows since launching her career just six years ago. With a growing number of producers and directors regarding her as a go-to person, she has landed frequent assignments at such venues as Pacific Resident Theatre, the Odyssey and the West Valley Playhouse.

Given her ties to small, nonprofit theaters, it probably was inevitable that colleagues would start calling her Vickie Non-Profitt.

She thinks the real reason for the nickname, however, has more to do with the fact that—given the long hours and low pay that are standard at such theaters-she's her own nonprofit entity.

"I'm 50 years old, and, a couple of years ago, my parents bought me a truck because I couldn't afford one. Otherwise, I'd be taking the bus.

"That's theater," she adds, philosophically. "You ask yourself, 'What is this all about?' And then you go and do it again. Because I've gotta. I just have to. This is my art form. This is how I create."

Profitt sits at the dining table in the dingy house she has designed for "The Birthday Party" at the Matrix. In front of her sits her model for the set, built at quarter-inch scale. It comes complete with plastic figurines (bought from a hobby-train store) seated at a tiny table.

As she explains the design's stylistic elements, she offers a primer in the sorts of visual cues that a designer—working closely with the director—builds into a set.

Pinter's 1958 play is set at a seaside boardinghouse, where two just-arrived lodgers arrange to throw a birthday party for a fellow boarder. The guest of honor insists it's not his birthday, and becomes increasingly terrified as the raucous singing, dancing and drinking turn menacing. The new arrivals have come to fetch him, but why?

Profitt points out that the floor, which tilts gradually upward from the front of the stage to the rear, offers a subtle hint that "there's something a little off—that all is not well here."

The walls—burlap stretched over wood frames—can appear solid or gauzy, depending on how they are lighted. Here again, "the structure that these people have around them is not that solid," Profitt says.

On the sides, the walls extend all the way down to the lip of the stage, like outstretched arms. This is meant to make viewers feel a little uncomfortable—a little trapped—just like the frightened birthday boy. "You're in there with them," Profitt says.

In this or any other design, Profitt says her main objectives are to make the director's vision a reality and to create "an environment for the actors to play in—that's safe and that makes them feel like they're in the play, that takes them to that time and place that they need to be."

During construction and painting, Profitt often works alongside the crew, tweaking or playing with elements of the design as she goes along. Drawn to art since girlhood, she regards the sets as sculptures that need her hands.

She draws upon a different sort of creativity to keep within construction budgets that range from as little as $1,000 to the $12,000 being spent for "The Birthday Party." "I stick to budget," she says. "I know the limitations that these theaters are under."

This sometimes requires creative reuse of wall sections, flooring or architectural details from previous productions. Some theaters keep a stockpile of such items, and Profitt maintains her own by holding on to discarded doors, windows and other accents.

Other times, the world provides. She feared, for instance, that the pillars she wanted to incorporate into her fairy-tale design for Pacific Resident Theatre's "The Swan" would prove too costly. But then she happened upon a garage sale, and there stood her columns, at bargain prices. To further decorate the set, she fashioned trees from branches that in a fortuitous bit of timing were being trimmed by street crews across the street from the Venice theater.

Profitt spends at least a couple of hundred hours working on a typical set, earning $500 to $1,500 for the design, plus an hourly wage if she's helping with construction.

Workdays sometimes stretch around the clock. "You have no life," she says. "I've lost a lot of friends. My house is a disaster. My truck is filthy."

She hopes to graduate one day to larger theaters, larger budgets and larger paychecks. But meanwhile, she says, she feels compensated in other ways. Her simple explanation: "All my life, I searched for something that took in all of my talents."

Profitt studied art at Cypress College and specialized in painting at UCLA, which, she dryly notes, left her "qualified to do absolutely nothing." Because she was good with her hands, however, she found work painting, applying faux finishes and doing carpentry in people's homes. She also stripped down a carousel for restoration and spent several months renovating a yacht.

All of this proved to be useful preparation for the theater, where she began to concentrate her efforts after a breakthrough with the play "Names" in 1995.

Profitt had built or painted just a handful of sets and had designed just one when she was hired to build the set for that drama about the New York theater community at the time of the blacklist. The original designer had abruptly departed, leaving just a preliminary sketch. Profitt reworked and, ultimately, redesigned the set while she built it.

Her work ended up winning a design award when the L.A. Weekly handed out its annual theater prizes. Since then, she has never stopped to study set design in any formal way. "I've been learning by doing," she says. "This is on-the-job training."

Her resume is now jammed with designs for Pacific Resident Theatre (including "Golden Boy," "The Quick-Change Room," "Indiscretions" and "The Swan"), the Odyssey ("The Dresser" and "The Gigli Concert") and the West Valley Playhouse ("Room Service" and "The Ail-Night Strut"). She also has worked with the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, Playwrights Arena and the Falcon.

In 2000, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle gave her a career achievement award—just one of a growing list of prizes she has received.

Joe Stern, Matrix producing artistic director, attributes Profitt's success to her being "very forthright, very collaborative, very willing, very open." What's more, he says, "she's just tireless. She's never satisfied; she keeps working."

Still to come this fall are designs for George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" at Actors Co-op, opening Oct. 26, and the world premiere of "Columbo" co-creator William Link's "Murder Plot" at the West Valley Playhouse, opening Nov. 2.

The work is ephemeral—seen for a month or so, then torn down. But that doesn't make Profitt blue.

"What's important for me is the process of doing it," she says, "not the final thing. The end product is just a byproduct of that work."

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