Christine Peters has come a long way from making puppet theaters out of cardboard boxes as a kid in St. Louis, Mo.
The 33-year-old helped design sets for “The Book of Mormon,” the Broadway musical by the creators of “South Park” that took home nine Tony Awards earlier this month. Its honors included the prize for best musical and an award for scenic design of a musical.
“I knew it was something special when I read the script,” says Peters, standing under the lights of a Mesa stage, where she’s just installed her latest set, a whimsical assortment of backdrops and moving elements for the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”
“With a smaller show like this, you get to be much more hands on, much more involved,” says Peters.
She began work on the set from her New York City studio. After reading the script and researching things like old castles, she made rough pencil sketches. Peters then drafted the set in a computer program, creating paint elevations and a scale model for each piece. A crew then built the set to her specifications.
Far more than simple background scenery, Peters designed complex, moving pieces that can conceal actors or be turned or opened quickly. A single unit may appear as a village shop one moment and as a stepmother’s drawing room the next.
“When you can do something clever right before the audience’s eyes and make them feel they’re seeing something magical, that’s exciting to me. I enjoy shows with a little magic and a little whimsy,” Peters says.
She says working on the “Book of Mormon” was thrilling.
“I drew things I’d never drawn before, things I never imagined I would draw in my career. There’s a dead donkey and a dead cow in the show, and so it was really kind of strange to be drawing these animals and making notes like, ‘Body is dragged, skin flapping.’ ”
As a teen, Peters built sets for high-school plays. She later majored in set design, despite some initial concern from her parents.
“My freshman year of college, I’ll never forget the quote. They said, ‘Well, you can always teach,’ ” she recalls. “But I was able to get summer jobs in theater when school was out. I was able to work right away, and they realized it was going to work. They were pretty nervous again, though, when I moved to New York right out of college and they saw my first apartment.”
A freelance designer for the past decade, Peters has worked as chief designer on 20 to 30 shows and as part of a design team on large productions such as “Elf,” “Les Miserables,” “The Addams Family” and “Enron.” She’s a three-time AriZoni theater award winner.
“You definitely need some elbow grease to work in theater. It’s very long hours because you have such a short period of time to put a set up, and there’s no ladder that’s put in front of you. You have to pursue your own work, and you have to keep yourself up on the technology because there’s no company putting you in training to learn new things,” she says.
The Broadway Palm’s Gary Kimble says Peters has accomplished a great deal since the first time Prather Entertainment Group, the Broadway Palm’s parent company, hired her.
“She worked years ago for us, for the Prather companies, and she’s gone on to do big things. Especially in a field dominated by men, it’s just amazing what she’s accomplished.”
Peters won’t get to see what happens to Cinderella’s sparkly gold carriage or the castle’s grand ballroom staircase. The Prather companies keep some of their sets to re-use in later years, she says, but a lot of theaters throw sets away.
“It’s a little sad,” she says, “But you just get up and make a new one the next day. And you have a job.”
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