Written by Catherine Szabo
Illustrator turned set designer says he was “mostly fearless” when he started building theatre sets. As he continues to travel a three-city circuit with his sets, he is not only taking design out of the box, but literally out of a crate as well.
One block east of McKnight Boulevard in Calgary and half a block south of the Best Western Port O’Call Hotel, the landscape becomes dotted with anonymous warehouses in nondescript colours. In the middle of one of these warehouse blocks, larger-than-life tiki statues stand guard to a locked entrance. The exotic decorations are the only indication that something other than office work and storage goes on inside. If the door is ajar, Rom Fantini — and possibly some of his crew — is somewhere inside, creating another stage set for Jubilations Dinner Theatre.
It feels appropriate to creep into the workshop. From the doorway to the moment that the winding hall opens into a 25-foot-high ceiling, there are discarded signs and other bits of old stage sets leaning up against the walls. It’s easy, too, to keep creeping inward — between the deafening buzz of power tools and an eclectic mix of music from an ever-present iPod, it’s nearly impossible to call out ‘Hello’ from the front entrance and be heard.
In the shop’s interior, someone is whistling along with the iPod — Rom Fantini. Over six feet tall with dark eyes, a greying fringe of hair and prickly stubble, he seems comfortable in ripped jeans and a paint-splattered sweater or sleeveless shirt. It’s not uncommon to see his reading glasses or safety goggles pushed up on the top of his head, forgotten for the moment.
The 4,100-square-foot workshop is an improvement from where Fantini built his first sets in 1993: the parking lot of the original Winnipeg theatre and his backyard. The designer before him had built the sets right in the theatre.
A change in the management of the parent company, WOW! Hospitality, in the early ’90s saw the hasty departure of the original designer in Winnipeg, Fantini said, and while he had helped with painting a sign or knocking together a few boards, he wasn’t serious about the theatre industry.
“[The artistic director] Randy Apostle called and said, “We’ve got all this stuff, can you put it together?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not? When do I have to do this?’ And he said, ‘We open on Friday,’” Fantini remembered with a laugh. “So it’s Tuesday, I haven’t even seen this crap, so I said, ‘Oh, all right, here I come.’ It was just insane.
“We made it to opening, and I’ve been doing them ever since.”
After working as a graphic artist and illustrator in the advertising industry for most of his life, Fantini fell into theatre by mistake. Seventeen years later, as the head set designer for Jubilations Dinner Theatre, he estimates he has built more than 75 sets — but he only has three weeks to build each set before shipping it out to the first of three theatres on Jubilations’ circuit. His gruff manner and a strict “no entrance” policy during the theatre changeover means that not many people, including Jubilations employees, are privy to the feverish take-down-set-up-paint-the-walls exercise that happens five times a year in each of the three theatres across two provinces. Before he enters the theatre, the actors rehearse with tape marks on the floor, indicating placement of various set items. By the time Fantini leaves, there’s a whole new world to play in.
The dismantled pieces that make up each set, along with all necessary tools, are packed into a semi-trailer in Calgary and sent to Winnipeg, where the truck will arrive on closing night. There, the crew takes down the old set, puts up the new one and paints the walls of the theatre to match. They continue to Edmonton: take-down-set-up-paint-the-walls, before finishing the circuit in Calgary. Each theatre “changeover” lasts four days.
The Calgary theatre, located on the corner of Bow Trail and 37th Street S.W., is very quiet during changeover — no guests, no servers wandering around. It’s almost as if Fantini’s work is secret. As one of the box office personnel, I don’t remember when I became aware of Fantini and his crew; possibly during Buddy Holly’s Birthday Bash in summer 2008. There is a slight disconnect between office staff and theatre staff, so being able to shadow the crew — who are only in the theatre five weeks a year — for a photo essay during Pirates of the North Saskatchewan, in February 2009, gave me a privileged glimpse into the work literally going on behind the scenes.
When the sound technician dims the house lights to put up the show, the audience is transported into Fantini’s world, where a three-act musical comedy is accompanied by a four-course meal. Jubilations Dinner Theatre runs five shows per year, and the shows follow a circuit: the actors start in Winnipeg, move to Edmonton and then close in Calgary over roughly nine months. While some shows are completely original, most are spoofs of well-known shows, including Friends, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI.
“[His sets] look like they can’t be moved. Or that they shouldn’t be moved, that they belong in a museum,” said Cory Hicks, former stage manager for Jubilations Calgary.
Nothing is perfect, however, including the top part of a fake oak tree in Pirates of the North Saskatchewan that met an unfortunate end at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in February 2009 in the Calgary theatre. The crew realized Calgary’s lighting grid is lower than the grids in the other cities, and no amount of wedging would get that tree in its spot without a little help from a saw.
“You’ve got to have all this stuff that will be able to be taken apart and put through a five-by-seven door,” Fantini said. “And it’s not an easy skill. You have to figure it out. I was lucky, because when I started I had no idea what I was getting into and I was mostly fearless. And because we were such small potatoes at that point, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. I grew with the company, so all the ways we do things now, as far as the set end of it goes, I developed.”
His job description is still typical of a smaller company, said Robyn Ayles, the technical program co-ordinator and production manager in the department of theatre, speech and music performance at Mount Royal University.
“He’s doing way more than just being a designer,” Ayles said. “It’s not really the norm.”
There are three major differences that she pointed out: most set designers are only responsible for the design since a carpentry shop usually builds it, most set designers have a bachelors or masters degree in fine arts, and it’s rare to find a set designer as a full-time employee of one company; most set design work is freelanced.
With a $5,000 budget per show, he is responsible for the purchasing of materials and tools, building and design, communication, shipping of sets and heading a regular three-person crew comprised of Jaimie Cooney, Brad Friese and Karen Turnbull.
Though Friese, an Edmonton native, was the shop assistant when the workshop was in Edmonton, it is now Cooney who drives down from Sylvan Lake to work with Fantini in Calgary. Turnbull, who calls Winnipeg home, doesn’t see the new set until it is being unpacked in Winnipeg for the first show.
The weird configuration of Fantini’s office at the front of the shop — an L-shape with a couple extra nooks and crannies — allows for plenty of wall space to display testament to the fact that he’s an illustrator by trade, not a tradesman.
“You have to figure it out,” Fantini said about the carpentry, welding, painting and building he does. “And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The CSI show that ran in 2009 was his first hydraulics set, and he has built a couple more with hydraulics and rotating walls since. Some sets are more elaborate than others, but since shows over Christmas run for a longer period of time, Fantini has five weeks instead of three weeks to build.
“That’s where we get into big problems, because we get overambitious,” he said. “For instance, for Law & Order: Canadian Files, we were sitting around in Calgary during set change and talking about the Mountie show and decided we needed a musical ride. We were just going to get these stick horses that [the actors] were going to ride around the audience, but I said, ‘I gotta make a musical ride.’
“It was so silly — for five weeks, I built this revolve for this musical ride, and it only appeared for the last number…. And it was great. At first I was trying to make [the horses] go up and down like a carousel, and I actually got it working, but I realized it was going to break, so after that they just went around and I made the horses rock.
“For me, it was great….all that effort for three minutes of show.”
It’s impossible to know what works and what doesn’t until Winnipeg’s opening night, Fantini said.
“You can’t know until you judge the audience’s reaction,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Aw fuck, I just spent five weeks on that and they missed it completely.’ And it does happen.”
Still, his mantra is, “How hard can it be?” Cooney said. “If there is something that we come across that we can’t figure out, his attitude is always, ‘How hard can it be?’ and we just dive in, which is really good.”
When things don’t go quite as planned, “then it’s ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time,’” Cooney continued with a laugh. “It’s never fun to go back and start over again, but if it’s what has to be done, then it has to be done.”
Things are also changed on the fly in the theatre during changeover. The workshop has a mock stage, and in theory, all three theatres have a 30 x 16 foot main stage; the main backstage measures 23 x 9 feet. There are tiny discrepancies, however, that cause problems every now and then.
“I hate it when people say, ‘Uh-oh,’” Fantini said, referring to an incident in Edmonton over the summer. It was the first time he’d built a revolving stage since the theatre changed locations within West Edmonton Mall, and he forgot about the support beam that runs along the ceiling. As a result, he had to trim down the Good Vibrations – Summer of ’68 set, giving it room to rotate without getting stuck.
Like the Law & Order set, part of the Good Vibrations set — a bookstore, with hundreds of books visible on the shelves — was visible for only about 10 minutes of the play. During the first song, Wouldn’t It Be Nice by the Beach Boys, the set revolved to reveal a summer beach house, and the bookstore was never seen again. While the bookstore set was necessary to the script, the elaborateness of the scene gives weight to Fantini’s talent.
“That’s a hard question to answer, what makes a great designer,” Ayles said. “It’s like saying, ‘Do all painters paint the same?’ A really good designer changes the way they design every show…. If you recognize a designer as soon as you walk in, then I don’t think they’re a great designer.
“I think a great design serves the play and not itself. I don’t think people should be talking about the design over and above the script. It can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t speak to the play, then it’s not valid.”
The artistic director may tell Fantini that he wants a hotel lobby built for a particular show, but everything else is left to Fantini’s imagination and how he interprets the script.
“The quality of what he’s able to produce in the amount of time that is required — he’s just really good at what he does,” Cooney said. “The mural work was above and beyond anything I’d seen before.”
The creative gene runs in his family, Fantini said, noting his younger sister also works in the design industry, colouring comics for a living. If there is such a thing, the artistic gene probably comes from his mother, he continued, though he said his father, an Italian farm labourer and PoW during the Second World War, was an artisan, making Italian tiles in his later years.
His parents met in Europe, and Fantini was born in his mother’s home country, in
Cheltenham, England, moving to Canada when he was six. He has no trace of an English accent, though his roots betray him occasionally when he talks about going to “grammar school — do people still call it that these days? Elementary school,” in Winnipeg.
“I always had a talent for drawing when I was a kid,” Fantini said. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, so I used to tell him that I was going to be Mountie, which really pissed him off, because the constabulary [in Italy] at the time was pretty corrupt. So we had a few words about that usually.
“I decided to go into advertising because it seemed like an easy way out — something I could already do, how hard could it be? It was pretty hard, but a really interesting thing to do for a living.”
The high school program he enrolled in at Technical Vocational High School in Winnipeg allowed him to complete both his matriculation requirements as well as take an extra course in advertising. After graduating in 1967, however, he decided to skip university, “largely because I was sick of going to school and I wanted to buy a car.”
He started working at Motor Coach Industries, but left when the company decided to add a night shift to his department, which he wasn’t interested in.
“I dug out my folio from school, went out and started talking to agencies,” Fantini said. “Actually, the second place I went to was Eaton’s, and it just so happened they’d gotten rid of, or an artist had left, just a couple of days before I walked in. The art director at the time liked my name — I found out later — so they hired me. Obviously my stuff must have showed that I could do the job, but that’s what he told me later on.”
Rom is short for Romolo, he explained, the modern version of Romuelus, who, according to the legend, is one of the twins who founded Rome. “I guess I was probably almost 50 years [old] before people actually started to get it. Because I’d say ‘Rom,’ and they’d say ‘Tom,’ or ‘Rob.’ Then I started to say, ‘Rom. As in CD.’ And everyone would get it. Technology finally caught up.”
He has kept up with technology as well, and now uses Adobe Illustrator to create his set designs, yet some of the images on his walls still attest to his raw talent. One wall in his office is devoted to some of his hand-drawn Eaton’s advertisements, as well as the work he commissioned as a freelancer in Vancouver and Winnipeg. It’s the closest he gets to traditional set modelling — Ayles keeps various scale models in her office that students have built as potential sets, but Fantini has nothing of the sort. His designs go to the artistic director as photos and Illustrator files, whereas Ayles said it’s more common to work in SketchUp or Vectorworks.
A stint in Winnipeg designing lottery tickets may have also helped Fantini’s concept of space.
“You have to have all this stuff on the ticket — and the ticket is this big,” he said, holding his hands a couple of inches apart. “It was kind of fun, I really enjoyed it. Especially the ones I did for overseas. I did some for Cypress, which was just amazing, because not only did they have to have all [the game information] but they had to be in Turkish, English and Greek on top of [everything else]. What a challenge that was.”
Fantini thrives on challenge, Cooney said, because they are constantly in a high-stress environment and yet he’s able to make it fun.
“He has a very low tolerance for stupidity, and he raises the bar all the time so you’re constantly striving to do better work,” she said. “As a person he’s very ‘No bullshit,’ straightforward, and yet has this incredible sense of humour. We’ll work ridiculously long hours because it’s enjoyable.”
By ridiculously long hours, she means they’ll work until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., returning at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. the next morning to keep working. There isn’t much talking, just the iPod playing or the sound technician running cues from his booth, but over coffee, a discussion about remaining tasks can tangent into any number of discussions.
“We have to get along, otherwise it would be really nasty,” Cooney said. “There were nights when we’d been working for 26 to 28 hours, and at that point everyone’s just zombies, and it’s really hard not to be grouchy and unhappy if someone’s wasting time and not pulling their weight.” Conflict is usually resolved with sleep, she added, saying there had been few, if any times they had had to sit down to fix an issue.
In an email, Fantini’s girlfriend, Katrina Chaytor, listed “Rom’s top 10 creative things that make him ‘tick’.” Playing on Facebook — including subjecting his Facebook friends, “most whom are the Jubilations theatre bunch, to his sarcastic wit and unique take on life,” — merited listing twice, as did mucking around with Adobe Photoshop — he “can spend endless happy solitary hours manipulating paint buckets and dodge tools to update his Facebook picture.”
His “creative ranting” was number four, speaking to the tight ship he runs when working on a set in the theatre. “[It’s] watching the Jubilations theatre bunch scramble for cover if they get in his way during set changeover,” Chaytor wrote. “On Facebook they can ignore him, in the theatre they cannot.”
Although the Calgary changeover is less stressful than the Winnipeg changeover — this is the third time putting up the show, not the first — Fantini is still very focused; his mandate is to have the set ready by Wednesday for the start of cast rehearsal. His focus and no-nonsense approach is intimidating, deterring anyone from attempting to detract from what little time he has to do his job.
“I think the first time I met Rom, he came off very gruff,” said Hicks, who, as stage manager, is there for part of changeover. “He was busy — naturally — so I didn’t want to bother him too much, but I remember him having a great sense of humour.”
“I remember seeing a [photo] when they were done the car [for Greased],” Hicks continued. “Everyone was in the car, the whole crew. Rom, however, was on top of the car, and it looked like he’d been hit by the car. And everyone was laughing. As gruff as he can be, you can tell he really loves his job, and he takes good care of his crew, does the best that he can to give people something beautiful to look at.”
When Fantini retires, he said he hopes it’ll be Cooney who will be calling the shots, as she has already begun to shoulder some of the responsibility. Fantini allowed her to build and design the set for Strut & Jive in 2009, with Friese’s help.
“They built the whole thing by themselves. I built a sign or something, because I’m sitting here, and after a week, I’ve got to do something,” Fantini said.
Though he played soccer while living in Edmonton, an injury and the addition of the Calgary theatre in 2001 means Fantini’s life revolves around his workshop. Now divorced, Fantini wouldn’t have gotten into the theatre business at all if his second wife wasn’t related to [artistic director] Randy Apostle, Fantini said.
“I’m in Moose Jaw [in the 1970s], and I meet Randy Apostle — he was this fat little kid who was mostly hiding under the back stairs, because we were having a big party,” he said. “It’s funny, because you meet someone — I was in my 20s and he was probably 10 or 11 — and the next thing you know [by the 1990s], my whole life revolves around Randy Apostle.”
To avoid temptation of being sucked back into the theatre when he retires, Fantini, 63, said he plans to move to Newfoundland, where Chaytor owns land.
With his skill set, he’d like to build their new house in Newfoundland, adding to his distractions.
“Even where I live in Calgary, and Jaimie with the shop, I’d know she’s there and I’d know stuff is going on, and I’d want to be driving there all the time to see what’s going on, and putting my two cents worth in.
“[Newfoundland] would be enough of a change that I probably won’t miss this as much as I would,” he said. “If I were to live in Calgary, for instance, and I didn’t have access to the shop anymore, and this shop was still going, it would be a problem for me. It would be a huge problem.”