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Richard Prouse: Broadway Backdrops, Rhinebeck Broomsticksby Jay Blotcher

If community theatre in the Hudson Valley this summer seems to give off a high-gloss professional patina—rather than exuding its usual combination of genuine enthusiasm and spotty showmanship—you can thank scenic artist Richard W. Prouse. The three-decade veteran of New York theatre continues to create backdrops for top musicals—Guys and Dolls, Mary Poppins, Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast.

Of his career in New York, which began in the early 1980s, “I hit the ground running,” Prouse said. He quickly found work handling lights at the Playboy Club while doing backdrops for films ranging from Angel Heart to Heartburn, and it’s been steady work ever since. But this Rhinebeck-based, multi-hyphenated theatrical talent—costumer, scenic designer, set designer and actor—refuses to be hemmed in by his union card.

When he’s working on choice Broadway projects—he’s currently designing high-tech backdrops for Julie Taymor’s much-anticipated musical of Spiderman—Prouse, 54, is constantly reminded of the stringent rules of his career. For instance, if a carpenter working onstage should drop a hammer, it is verboten for Prouse to even pick it up and hand it back to him, according to union rules. For the Albuquerque-born Prouse, who began in regional theatre by doing a little bit of everything, the strict guidelines chafe.

“This is no longer my home,” he finds himself thinking when he’s backstage at Manhattan productions. “It’s not the same family at all.”

This explains why Prouse, who could easily be commanding top dollar for his work on the Great White Way would rather toil upriver, collaborating on productions for The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, Up In One Productions, and Golden Stone productions, theatre troupes that turn out crowd-pleasers for the love of the craft rather than to feed the bank accounts of a quorum of producers.

Thus, the summer of Richard Prouse will be spent creating backdrops for a Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck production of The Who’s Tommy, and set design for a staging of The Wizard of Oz at SUNY Ulster (formerly UCCC, in Stone Ridge)—a Golden Stone production in which the Wicked Witch of the West will be performed by none other than…Richard Prouse. .

“I can do whatever I want at a community theatre stage,” Prouse explained one June morning in his spacious personal studio. “It’s my home again.”

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Situated on the property of the Rhinebeck home he shares with award winning actor-director Donald Corren, the immense studio is a living museum. Backdrops from past triumphs hang next to work for current shows. Huge multi-tentacled plants—models of Audrey II for a Golden Stone production of Little Shop of Horrors—hang from the rafters. A female ghost, her face contorted in outrage and a huge string of pearls gracing her phantom neck, hovers nearby; she is Frumah Sarah, crafted by Prouse for a production of Fiddler on the Roof. A framed set of drawings for Guys and Dolls, accompanied by profuse thanks by cast members Nathan Lane and Faith Prince, hang on one wall. Posters for other shows, from the Bernadette Peters hit Annie Get Your Gun to the resounding flop Good Vibrations hang nearby. His professional credits are unimpeachable.

But this morning, Prouse is not fussing over any high-prestige, multi-million-dollar New York production. He is tending to the Mark Rothko-inspired backdrops for The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck’s Tommy, which are drying on the floor. Then he inspects a miniature for the multi-purpose set he has crafted for the production of Wizard at SUNY Ulster; the script for which, with the lines of the Wicked Witch clearly highlighted, sits nearby on his workbench.

Why Prouse had added actor to his resume is a matter of some dispute. The first time he was asked to don greasepaint was more than a decade ago. At the time he already had his hands full for a Center production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, designing, building and painting the set of a crumbling theatre that once thrived in the 1930s. The director’s bright fancy was that one of the ghosts of the former chorus girls be Prouse in drag. Reluctantly, he agreed.

“I was a nervous wreck,” he said of the experience. “It terrified me every second I was on stage.” However, others saw in the unpolished performer the evidence of greater talent—Prouse’s father had been a TV and film actor from the 50s through the 70s. And subsequent roles came his way, when he was usually working tech on local shows in Dutchess County. (“I‘m not a big fan of watching myself,” he insists.)

The leitmotiv of playing a woman was revived in May, when Prouse agreed, again with reluctance, to play Mrs. Forrest in the Center production of Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. (At the time he was focused on the production’s set design, and its Malibu Beach backdrop and 1962-era props.) The role of this sly battleaxe of a woman would be the biggest speaking role he has ever done. Prouse accepted the role, but laid down some ground rules.

“Okay,” he told director Lisa Lynds, “If I’m going to do this, I want to be a woman; I don't want to be a drag queen.” What Prouse ultimately channeled, to the delight of any theatergoer with a sense of cultural history, was an amalgam of every haughty, rock-ribbed diva of motion picture history, suggesting Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, a soupçon of Eve Arden and, befitting the Psycho Beach storyline, a menacing whiff of Vincent Price.

“All of my favorites just came out of me,” he said.

Prouse was designing the sets for the current Golden Stone Production of Wizard (he’d worked on the company’s three past hits Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Shop of Horrors, and Once Upon a Mattress) when the fates intervened again. The actor slated to play Elmira Gulch’s alter-ego dropped out of the project and the director, who had seen Prouse in Psycho Beach Party, insisted he come to auditions. He did . . . but then nobody else showed up and he got the role, by default. (Prouse wonders aloud if he was set up.) And now set designer Prouse must practice his best cackle and face a nightly coating of bile-green make-up.

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Back on Broadway, Taymor’s Spiderman offers Prouse a chance to work with cutting-edge technology. He’s engaged right now in creating images for a reverse-projection screen crafted in dense plastic. Yet he wonders aloud how long his talents will be in demand for an ever-evolving Broadway. Scenic design, he said, is “a dying art.” Large splashy backdrops are less often utilized as younger designers, he pointed out, utilize images they pull from the Internet.

“Shows are becoming harder in design and feel,” he said. “Less about flora and fauna and more about the hard metallic reality of today.”

Community and regional theatre, which still mount old-school crowd-pleasers, seem to be the last refuge for Prouse’s style of set design and backdrop painting. Prouse keeps an inventory of 25 backdrops he has painted and rents them out to regional theatres across the country whose modest budgets preclude creating their own scenery. (Visit www.selectbackdrops.com) The additional income, he said, will be welcome in an era soon to come, Prouse predicted, when Broadway scenic backdrops give way to giant gel screens controlled with the wave of a hand by a computer operator in the back of the theater.

“It’ll be a shame,” he said with a shrug, but added that budgetary considerations demand such innovations. “Why wouldn’t they go in that direction?”

“Would I be involved?” he asked himself, pausing briefly before answering his own question. “I doubt it.”


The Who’s Tommy is at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck June 26 through July 12. www.centerforperformingarts.org, 845.876.3080. The Wizard of Oz is at SUNY Ulster (UCCC) in Stone Ridge July 31 through August 16, www.goldenstoneproductions.org, 845.687.4758



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