By Donna Hoke; photo by kc kratt

If you’ve attended a play at the Road Less Traveled or Irish Classical Theater in the past two years, you’ve seen Ron Schwartz’s work on stage. He wasn’t acting, but every time a performer sat in a chair, leaned against a wall, or picked up a vase and smashed it, Schwartz is the one who made it possible. Until this season, Schwartz was resident set designer at both theaters (he now holds that title only at Irish), but in a decade and a half of designing, he’s also worked with MusicalFare, Torn Space, Jewish Repertory Company, the Neglia Ballet, and Shakespeare in the Park.

Born, raised, and now living in West Seneca, Schwartz majored in theater design and production at the University at Buffalo. Degree in hand, he immediately went to work as an assistant technical director at the Pfeiffer Theater, and later held the same position at Studio Arena. Though he wasn’t hired to design sets specifically, when the need arose, so did opportunities. By the time Schwartz relocated to Virginia several years later, he had enough set-designing experience to land several assignments with the National Shakespeare Company and, ultimately, a full-time corporate position as Scenic Charge Artist at Line One Productions.

When Line One folded in 2006, Schwartz headed home. “I took a little sabbatical, lying in my hammock, and when things started to get boring, I made two phone calls,” he says. “One was to Studio Arena, and they put me right to work helping with paint and carpentry. The other call was to Irish Classical Theatre.” Though he’d only intended to pursue carpentry and painting, by 2008, Schwartz had garnered his first of three Artie nominations (for A Servant of Two Masters at ICTC) and full-time offers from both ICTC and Road Less Traveled [RLTP]. For two seasons, he designed ten shows a year between the two theaters, and still managed to design for Shakespeare in Delaware Park and freelance for two other companies.

“When it rains, it pours, and you’ve got to feed yourself so you take on what you can,” Schwartz reasons. “It was lucky that [Irish and RLTP] are next door; it made my life a little easier. If I had shows opening the same night, the buildup was incredibly hectic. I’d be at one, and get a text from the stage manager at the other saying ‘Help, we need you.’ “

If that sounds like lot more than design work, Schwartz is quick to point out that if a set designer wants consistent work in Buffalo, he must be well-rounded. “At ICTC, I am contracted not only to design the set, but to build it, paint it, and work it through production and opening,” he says. “I work with stage managers to make sure that scene changes go cleanly, and I maintain the sets after they open. With The Goat [at RLTP], I was constantly having to touch up the floor and walls.”

That said, The Goat is one of Schwartz’s favorite sets to date, because he felt a connection with the contemporary feel of it. In fact, some of the furniture and props were borrowed from Schwartz’s own home, which is just one way that he is able to stretch his designing budget dollar. Recycling is another.

“I like to think of myself as a green designer,” Schwartz says. “I’m always re-using. I check stock items before I start designing, furniture I always see if somebody has locally before purchasing, and there is a lot of rental and borrowing that goes on among companies.” Schwartz does include at least one new material in every set he designs, to keep things interesting and to further his learning process.

Ironically, Schwartz’s commitment to the process has diminished his ability to enjoy theater from a dramatic perspective. Last time he saw a touring show at Shea’s, he was too busy figuring out the lighting to follow the plot. Opening night always brings a sense of rewarding closure, and Schwartz can almost relax and enjoy the show—as long as an actor doesn’t get a tack stuck in his shoe and inadvertently start tearing up the floor. While the audience remains captive and clueless, Schwartz will be cringing in horror.

Donna Hoke is editor of Buffalo Spree Home.


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