Wright State University looks a little like Philadelphia in November, thanks to Pam Knauert Lavarnway.
The transformation of the Festival Playhouse in the Creative Arts Center into the City of Brotherly Love is for “Sister Act,” a musical comedy based on the hit movie of the same name.
Produced by Wright State Theatre, “Sister Act” opened on Nov. 4 and runs through Nov. 20. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Creative Arts Center box office between noon and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“The overall suggestion is of an urban environment in the late 1970s,” said Lavarnway, professor of theatre design and technology and set designer for the production. “It’s the story of a church that’s not doing well, and through this wayward person who’s taken in by the convent, she rejuvenates the choir and the church.”
“Every show has its projects that are fun to work on,” she added. “There’s the church. And we’re recreating brick, and there’s graffiti. ‘Sister Act’ takes place in a gritty neighborhood.”
Lavarnway teaches and is hands-on, joining her students in turning the stage into Philadelphia. She has designed and painted scenery on more than 70 productions over the last 31 years at Wright State.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “You get a rhythm for a process on a show, starting in the initial stages, speeds up, then the nitty gritty of painting the set and leading up to the opening. It’s that whole rhythm that gets into your bones as someone who does theater.
“The thing that drew me to set design and keeps me loving it is that every six weeks or so you create a new world for the story and the characters. That means I get to research a place I’ve never been. I’ve done fantasy sets that don’t exist anywhere, then I get to do a police station in Philadelphia. Not only that, I get to travel in time.”
Lavarnway shared an insight into a design career that could’ve been. “As a kid, I thought I wanted to become an architect. In fourth or fifth grade I’d be bored in class, so I drew plans of houses,” she recalled.
But then she thought about dealing with corporate clients or homebuilders and all the necessary things to make such places workable or livable, and the life of an architect “was not that appealing.”
She shifted the focus of her love of design.
“In theatre, I could design places for make-believe people and for telling stories,” she said. “There’s this journey that these characters are on and I get to tell it by designing the set the characters are on.”
Lavarnway’s journey began in her native upstate New York, then at Boston University. “I was always into art and painting and drawing, then I found out about set design,” she said.
After earning her undergraduate degree in fine arts, she worked professionally in theatre for a few years, then returned to Boston University for her master’s degree and back to being a scenic artist.
“I was painting and working in a professional scene shop eight to 10 hours a day, and it didn’t feel like it was completely fulfilling. Then I became interested in teaching,” she said. “I had some really great teachers who were inspiring, and I really liked the university environment. The thing with freelance designing is that there’s a constant turnover of who you work with. In a university theatre department, you have colleagues you get to develop relationships with and work with over a period of years.”
She landed a job at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she met a theatre staff member. A few years later, in 1991, the two of them were working on a set late one night and she told him about a job opening she saw at Wright State. What grabbed her attention was “the ad mentioned it had a huge new scene shop.” He said, as Lavarnway recalled, it sounded like a good program and she should apply.
She did, knowing precious little about Dayton. But on her visit, she said, “I really liked the people and the quality of the work they were doing.” She got the job.
That fellow theatre staff member joined her at Wright State a year later — and became her husband, John, the prop master of the Wright State Theatre Program.
Wright State’s theatre design and technology program was very strong before Lavarnway arrived and has always had high expectations and high standards, she said.
“There’s a history of doing high-quality shows and training at a high level. We have a record of successful grads,” she said. “The students who get through and graduate usually have a really good work ethic, then they get the skills and succeed when they leave here.”
“Sister Act” is the final show for which Lavarnway will be a set designer as a Wright State faculty member. She is retiring at the end of the semester. She is focusing not on that but on what she and her students are doing — designing a place “that really resonates and gives the audience a special experience. Hopefully, that’s what we do at Wright State.”