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Attention to details helps turn Brentwood set into a fairytale land

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Brentwood Middle/High School art teacher Ben Miller does the art work for the school's spring musical each year. This year's show, 'Beauty and the Beast,' was the most challenging set Miller has worked on, he said.

Cardboard, piping and a creative vision helped to transform a broken wheelbarrow from Ben Miller's backyard into a working wood-chopping machine — at least on stage.

And paint, paper and months of planning and execution helped turn Brentwood High School's auditorium into a magical fairy-tale land, with French cottages and a castle.

The set built for this year's Brentwood Middle/High School musical, “Disney's Beauty and the Beast,” is the biggest and most detailed at the school in many years, leaders say. The show runs at 7 p.m. today, Thursday, through Saturday.

Miller has been the art director for the school's musical for six of the seven years that he has taught art there. He handles set and scenery design and construction and a large number of the props.

Since November, he has spent most of his free time researching, envisioning and then creating the elaborate art for this year's show.

“It haunts my every waking thought,” Miller said. “I've never worked harder on anything in my entire life.”

When students talk about what stands out at this year's spring musical, they mention Miller and the transformation of the auditorium this year.

“He's a true artist, in every sense of the word,” director Steve Leopold said. “He puts his heart and soul into everything. He's such a visionary.”

Miller first worked as an art director for Brentwood musicals in the late 1990s as a student at the school. He acted in theater productions and oversaw all of the painting of the sets, scenery and props during his junior and senior years.

During his senior year, he took four art classes a day. “It's kind of the only thing I was ever good at,” he said.

Since becoming a teacher at Brentwood Middle/High School and working again on the musicals, “every year, we just sort of seem to be doing a little bit more and doing it a little bit bigger,” Miller said.

The team that has worked on the shows for several years, including Leopold, assistant director Ginnie Schaap and Miller, has taken on larger challenges each year.

Schaap comes up with the initial design ideas. She and Miller work together to make sure that every design coordinates with Schaap's plans for the rest of the show, they said.

Research is key, such as the French cottages this year. But watching the movie or YouTube videos of the show is a no-no.

“I don't want anybody to influence my vision,” Schaap said. “I want the whole thing to be our team's vision, not a carbon copy of another high school's.”

Brentwood maintenance employee Earl Meiers constructs the sets. Then, Miller takes over to paint the main pieces. Other parts, such as “Belle's Village” this year, can be worked on by Miller independently, he said.

Functionality is important, as are details.

Painted-on bookshelves can't just have scribbled words. They have to include real book titles and meaningful words, such as shows Brentwood previously performed.

“It's the little things that make a difference,” Miller said. “That's what I pride myself in is the detailed work. I think for a small school, we pack a big bang into what we do.” High school juniors Jessica Nikolich and Paige Pulakowski, both 16, assisted Miller in painting and prepping the set and props this year as part of a graduation project.

They worked for hours to hang paper roofing for Belle's Village or paint messy primer onto the backdrop for the stage.

“We lost a lot of clothes,” Pulakowski said.

“Primer doesn't come out of clothes, we found out,” Nikolich said.

Neither Nikolich or Pulakowski have participated in theater before. “I have stage fright,” Nikolich said.

But the girls learned a lot about theater from working behind the scenes for numerous hours — 49 hours and 55 minutes, to be exact — during the last several months.

“It was really fun getting to see everyone and being a part of it,” Pulakowski said.

“(We) know what they're talking about now when they're saying things about theater,” Nikolich said.

They said they are excited, yet a bit nervous, to see their craft debut in front of the hundreds of people attending the show.

“We put so much hard work into it,” Pulakowski said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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