The sets for “The Addams Family” are less scenery than art.
Which is only appropriate. The 2010 musical was derived from the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, whose dark sense of humor made his shadowy black-and-white drawings a distinctive calling card. Addams didn’t draw like anyone else. Nobody else drew like Addams.
His cartoons inspired a 1960s TV series and a couple of movies in the ’90s. So when director Richard Carrothers, co-owner of the New Theatre Restaurant, began work on staging the 2010 Broadway musical, he turned to an experienced scenic artist, Charles Moore, to design the sets.
Carrothers said it wasn’t a hard decision. He had watched Moore apply his painterly and graphic skills to other designers’ scenery for 15 years in the New Theatre scene shop. What better show for Moore to make his debut as a scenic designer than one based on Addams’ cartoons?
“His art is extraordinarily strange,” Carrothers said of Moore. “It has a very macabre sense of humor. He’s got a whole series where he features dead chickens that have been plucked of all their feathers. He’s got a very Charles Addams sense of humor.”
Moore’s work isn’t easy to find. By his own admission, the lifelong resident of Lawrence doesn’t do enough to promote his career. He has no website where you can see his art. He has no YouTube channel where you can see his “nonsense machines” in action. He does maintain a Facebook page, where he posts images of some of his scenic work.
Tall and self-deprecating, Moore is prone to a deep, resonant laugh when he talks about his undernourished career drive.
“I’m unfocused,” he said with a smile. Later, in a follow-up conversation, he added: “I haven’t figured out how to generate ambition.”
Carrothers put it this way: “He’s the real deal. You don’t get to walk through life and meet many people like Charles. There’s no ‘me’ anywhere around him. I think he is just so passionate about the process that that’s just what he’s totally dedicated to.”
Moore’s work for “The Addams Family” is like something local audiences have rarely seen. The flats, backdrops and borders representing different parts of the Addams mansion and the woods in Central Park all have the look of intricate pen-and-ink drawings done in black and white. Colors on the set are provided by lighting designer Randy Winder.
Moore said the process began as you might expect: Sketches created with a fine-point marker on 11-by-17 paper that he then sent to Carrothers and production designer Jim Meisenheimer, who loaded them into a computer and began creating 3-D models.
Moore, 53, said he and his collaborators decided the original Addams drawings, many done in charcoal and ink washes, were too dark to use as a template for the show. So they looked at one of Addams’ contemporaries, the illustrator Edward Gorey, “who has an overlapping sensibility,” Moore said.
Gorey, in fact, designed the 1977 Broadway production of “Dracula,” which employed a similar pen-and-ink style. That became a source of inspiration for the “Addams Family” scenic design.
“It was a good theft,” Moore said as he glanced over the intricate cross-hatching and thick charcoal-like lines on the fabric surfaces of the New Theatre sets.
“We’ve taken some of his vocabulary,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone would mistake these for Edward Gorey drawings.”
The renderings were transferred to the scenic elements the audience sees using a grid pattern on the original drawings that were then extrapolated to the large fabric surfaces. In some cases the drawings were projected onto a surface and outlined in blue pencil.
The final set paintings, Moore said, were done by himself along with scenic artists Regina Weller, Amanda Burkhart, Richard Raney and Craig Palmer. Their work had to serve the overall visual style he had established while sustaining the intricate look of the original drawings.
“I had seen Charles work in our scene shop for years and years and he has an extraordinary visual sense,” Carrothers said. “He is unto himself. He is truly eccentric. If you look at the sets, all of them have little macabre jokes in them. In one, there’s an air grate at the floor with two fingers and a nose poking through like someone had been locked in the furnace.”
In the gallery of Addams “ancestors,” one of them has a wireless microphone attached to her forehead — just as actors in musicals are required to do.
Moore studied art at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Kansas. He’s also worked as a scenic artist for productions at the Lyric Opera. He created the nonrealistic sets for “The Penis Monologues,” the Heidi Van-Peregrine Honig collaboration that became the best-attended KC Fringe show at the Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage. Moore made the sets based on Honig’s designs with repurposed plastic foam.
His electrically powered nonsense machines include a “hopping machine,” a “rotating device,” a “Kirby electrojet” and a “skittering machine.” He makes them largely for his own amusement and that of his friends.
“When people say, ‘What is a hopping machine?,’ I find myself saying something stupid like, ‘It’s a machine that hops,’” Moore said.
He also has a couple “in process,” although he observed that “sometimes it’s hard to say whether I have a project or just a table full of junk.”
As noted, there is no public visual record of these creations.
“I think there may be an old VHS tape somewhere,” he said.
The Addams family sets were hard work but enjoyable to work on, Moore said.
“You get to have a little fun, but I’m hoping for some gorgeousness along the way,” he said. “As I’ve been working as a scenic artist, I’ve watched other designers work. So I’ve been paying attention. So whether they intended it or not, I’ve had some good teachers.… The nice thing about theater is you get to kind of piggyback on other people’s projects.”
He also had another advantage when designing “The Addams Family”: the tech crew at the New Theatre.
“There’s a fair amount of continuity in the New Theatre shop,” he said. “There’s a strong sense of knowing what people are capable of. ‘Can we really do this?’ is a question I don’t have to worry about very much.”
Unlike the Lyric Opera, which keeps its original sets and rents them out to other opera companies, the New Theatre rarely keeps a set in storage after a show closes.
Carrothers said exceptions were “Hairspray” and “Buddy” because he and New Theatre co-owner Dennis Hennessy knew they wanted to bring the shows back. But most sets, including “The Addams Family,” most likely will not be preserved.
“In the real world it’s more expensive to store them away or to try and tear them apart and reuse them than to just throw them away,” Carrothers said. “If somebody were to see the show and say, ‘I want that set,’ we would make them a real good offer.”
Ah, theater. It’s an impermanent art form. A show opens, runs and closes and then everyone moves on.
Moore, in an apparent expression of philosophical detachment, seemed resigned to the set’s probable fate.
“It may, in fact, become landfill,” Moore said.