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Set designer David Gallo sits on the set of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' which opens Saturday in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. - Jamie Lusch

Grand design

Walking into the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the first time, David Gallo was troubled. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's gently thrusting indoor stage has no proscenium arch and no flies — the space above a stage used to store and "fly in" large "flats" and other scenery out of the view of audiences.

The Tony-winning Gallo is in town to design scenery for the OSF's revival of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which is being directed by Marion McClinton, a frequent Gallo collaborator known as the premier director of August Wilson plays. The Christopher Sergel adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel opens Saturday and run through July 3 at the Bowmer Theatre in Ashland.

Not only are there no flies in the Bowmer, there's precious little space for storing anything.

"I was like, 'Omigod. I can't believe what I've gotten myself into,' " Gallo says.

But OSF designers and technicians — and the theater itself — quickly turned him around.

"Now I totally get it," he says. "It works so well. They figure out a way to make it work."

Consider, for example, a cleverly designed porch swing that will fold up and be concealed above the stage for "Mockingbird" productions.

"On Broadway that would cost $17 million," says Gallo, only half joking.

Gallo works on Broadway and in theater, television and concerts. In 2006 he won a Tony Award for "The Drowsy Chaperone." He designed the Tony-winning "Memphis," the Jerry Seinfeld-directed "Colin Quinn: Long Story Short" and "Madagascar Live!" a touring children's production based on the DreamWorks film.

Gallo and McClinton met in 2001 to work on the Broadway premiere of "King Hedley II." They have designed and directed most of the plays of August Wilson on Broadway and other stages and collaborated most recently last year on Walter Mosley's "The Fall of Heaven."

Gallo's designs can be seen daily in more than a dozen cities around the world, including "Memphis" on Broadway, Blue Man Group in New York, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas, the national tour of "Yo Gabba Gabba Live," "Beauty and the Beast" in Rome, Madrid and Moscow, and other shows from Toronto to Berlin.

He designed the Kennedy Center's tribute production of Wilson's "Twentieth Century," as well as stages for the rock band Phish, the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus and the tours of Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. Some of his work is in the national archive at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Now he's seen the OSF up close, and he's impressed.

"It's very different from every place I've ever worked, but amazing," he says. "I don't think true repertory at this level exists anyplace else, although the National Theatre of Great Britain is somewhat similar."

In America, the repertory model, in which a more or less permanent company of actors presents plays in rotation, has become a usually nonprofit alternative to commercial Broadway plays in cities such as Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Ashland.

"You feel more a part of the whole experience," Gallo says. "At a lot of theaters, you do your show and split. Here you're doing your thing and they bring in the next show."

Gallo says he and McClinton share an emotional approach to the plays.

"Some directors take things more practically," he says. "His stuff comes from the heart. And the mind. But we allow our emotions to guide us."

He says the "Mockingbird" set, instead of featuring the traditional buildings and doors and windows, will be an essentially open space divided into two playing areas. A plank floor will serve as people's porches and the courtroom. A grassy area will be people's front yards.

He says from a design standpoint it's impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the physical space in which a play is being presented.

"It's everything," he says. "You have to embrace the entire thing."

And if he thought the Bowmer was a challenge, he's seen much, much worse.

"Don't even get me started on architects," he says. "They are the worst people in the world. It's this need to reinvent something. It's just stupid. We perfected the architecture of theaters hundreds of years ago. (Renowned architect) Phillip Johnson is the worst. They're disgusting. ... what should we do ... tear it freaking down?

"I've seen major regional theaters built from the ground up and absolutely stupid. Form follows function is the biggest lie ever told. It doesn't matter. They have to make it awesome. You can't believe they did this to those poor actors."

Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s and '80s, Gallo knew he wanted to design sets for theaters. When "Cats" opened on Broadway in 1981 his mother saved up some money and sent him to the show, where he sat in the cheapest seats in the back of the balcony.

"I couldn't see a thing," he says. "It was thrust so far under the balcony you couldn't see it."

He studied theater at State University of New York's Purchase College, which is known for its courses in the performing arts, but by his own admission had a rough time academically and didn't enjoy it much.

He designed for small theaters, off-off-Broadway, "all those things," had some early success and hasn't looked back — although he did design a recent community theater production for a pal.

He's no stranger to having stars in his New York studio, but he had his socks knocked off when Jerry Seinfeld dropped in. The comic had had some trouble finding a key to the men's room in Gallo's building.

"He walked in and went into a three-minute routine," Gallo says. "It was about, 'What's the deal with office buildings and restrooms? You mean people are trying to get in there?'"

"But he's not that guy. He's not the guy on that show. From the first he's like, 'Let me tell you, this is why that's not funny.' He's a serious guy. The trap people fall into is thinking people like that are clowns."

The man Gallo stood most in awe of was playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005. Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, 10-play series "The Pittsburgh Cycle" is the story of the African-American experience in the 20th century.

"He was the country's great poet," Gallo says. "A giant. He was trusting to a degree but had strong opinions, and he was almost always right. He had incredible wisdom."

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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