Problem: How can a theater with a $6,500 materials budget build a naturalistic production of a play that transpires in four locales, circa 1937?

Solution: T. Andrew Aston, who designed Of Mice and Men for the Meadowbrook Theatre in Rochester, MI, says he always searches for a central metaphor for multiple set shows, sometimes by asking materials to tell the story. When director David Mowers said he wanted to emphasize the frustrated dreams of migrant workers who could never put down roots, Aston “looked for materials that would prohibit people from making contact with the earth.”

Shipping pallets, designed to keep products off the ground, are easy to find in industrial Detroit — and what's more, they're often discarded and available for the asking. Aston asked.

Technical director Brian Dambacher says the pallets were made of a variety of hardwoods, some seasoned for many years, others fairly new. Aston says those with “several years of weather exposure and a lot of texture and a lot of natural decaying color” were ideal for Steinbeck's tale, but Dambacher found it easier to take apart newer pallets. “Some of the older ones would just break as soon as we tried to take any of the slats off,” he says. The crew disassembled 40-50 pallets “just to be able to get enough good slats to reassemble the tormenters and architectural elements framing the set.” They used full pallets for most of the bunkhouse walls and riverbank.

The inconsistencies of the pre-made pallets made it necessary to fit together pieces that could vary by a quarter of an inch in width, height, or depth. “We ended up allowing a little bit of slop room, which we could make up by adding or removing a slat,” Dambacher says. Aston didn't worry about the irregularity. “If it's a bad size, we can get a design element from it,” he told the shop. “If it's broken, don't fix it. Aging and destruction and irregularity are a major part of this concept.”

Aston also asked the shop to save scrap from earlier builds. “You see it most in the river bank set. We used ‘rip offs’ for rushes along the river bank and trees,” he says, adding that he incorporated a water-filled pool here “to show the liquidness of their lives.”

Aston says Mowers wanted to emphasize a lack of privacy by placing the hayloft over the bunk house, which allowed the designer to cut costs further by creating one set for two scenes; he built a staircase to the loft out of bags of barley. He changed other scenes on a turntable, on hand from the previous Meadowbrook show, which revolved in the dark. “I didn't want the turntable to become a theatrical device,” Aston says. “I wanted the show to focus on the organic and naturalistic aspects of the script.”

By recycling industrial waste and discarded shop materials and taking advantage of equipment on hand, Aston was able to bring the show in for $47 under budget. He guesstimates the design that cost Meadow-brook $6,453 would have cost about $50,000 had he purchased all the materials. The most expensive items were $1,401 for the steel used for a framing structure and $350 for the pool.

If you've met a design or technical challenge and would like to share your solution, please write to this column at davi@comcast.net