CORONAVIRUS

Scenic designer in Iowa City looks for light in the darkness

Benjamin Stuben Farrar's work is on hold as theater doors remain closed

Actor Mia Fryvecind Gimenez is surrounded by holiday glitter and kitsch in Stuben Farrar's design for the 2018 world pre
Actor Mia Fryvecind Gimenez is surrounded by holiday glitter and kitsch in Stuben Farrar’s design for the 2018 world premiere of “Rotten Eggnog” on the Riverside Theatre stage in Iowa City. (S. Benjamin Farrar)
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Benjamin Stuben Farrar of Iowa City is a storyteller without a story to tell at the moment.

The first story is as dramatic and layered as his bold scenic and lighting designs for area stages: “Benjamin Stuben Farrar” is not his actual name.

He was born Stewart Benjamin Farrar 41 years ago in Kentucky. He didn’t want to go through life as “Stewie,” so he went by “Benjamin,” until he got to college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He ran into so many other Bens, that his buddies decided to combine his names into “Stuben.”

That name followed him to grad school at the University of Iowa in 2002, where he earned an MFA in theater design. But when he moved to New York City in 2006 to pursue his career, he didn’t like hearing “Stuben” shouted across the theater.

“It sounded too much like ‘stupid,’ ” he said, “so I reverted back to Benjamin.”

But nicknames have a way of sticking. When he and his wife moved back to Iowa City in 2015 to raise their daughter, he switched to “Stuben” again, since that’s how people knew him there.

Professionally, he uses “S. Benjamin Farrar” and on Facebook, he goes by “Benjamin Stuben Farrar” so friends from his various circles can find him. Even though most people now call him “Stuben,” he still introduces himself as “Benjamin.”

“To this day, I have 12 different names,” he said with a laugh. “Only the bill collectors know me as ‘Stewart.’”

Changing realms

Like his name, his artistry knows no bounds.

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He has planted apple trees on Riverside Theatre’s indoor stage in Iowa City; a child’s outdoor playground on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage; and dramatic spaces for Noche Flamenca’s dancers in New York City venues and on tour.

These days, however, his theatrical world has gone dark.

His recent designs for “The Humans,” “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Kinky Boots” at Theatre Cedar Rapids and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Riverside Theatre have been canceled or postponed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He has “The Winter’s Tale” in the works for Riverside Theatre’s free Shakespeare in the Park slated for June, but time will tell if that changes, too.

“Within the course of two weeks, five productions were canceled or moved indefinitely,” he said.

Looking ahead, he’s not sure what shows he’ll have time to design for the upcoming seasons. He’s used to juggling three or four productions at a time, but he said that could become really difficult if the shows fall on top of each other at the various venues.

As with so many artists right now, his world keeps changing.

He and his wife, Jody Caldwell, an editor and graduate of the UI Writers’ Workshop, are both freelancers, leaving them with no income during this pandemic. So Farrar has been wading through red tape and delays to secure unemployment compensation and the government stimulus check, for which he’s still waiting. One bright spot was receiving a $1,000 Iowa Arts & Culture Emergency Relief Fund grant given to 156 Iowa creatives who have lost income from canceled projects.

With his regular revenue streams drying up, he’s been considering other ways to earn money through teaching theater or creating and selling more of his digital and film photography — an outgrowth of his fascination for the way lighting can sculpt a scene on stage.

“I love doing nature (photography). I love doing details,” he said. “I love photographing people, too, especially on stage — I love photographing my own shows. It’s just a lot of fun.

“For me, nature’s so interesting, especially living where we do in North America, there’s vast changes from one time of year to another. I just love looking at that on a very small scale, and how light happens to fall on that particular surface — how that surface changes color,” he said.

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“Right now the redbuds are out. The magnolias came out two weeks ago and then they started to fall. It changes the landscape dramatically, especially based on whether it’s a morning light or afternoon light or evening light, whether it’s cloudy, whether the sun’s peeking through clouds and highlighting a few individual leaves. I find that super fascinating.

“That’s how I can look at the same boring tree at different times of year, at different times of day, and find something interesting to photograph.”

Lighting design

While his scenic designs create an immediate visual impact and help tell the story swirling around the actors, Farrar was a lighting designer before he became a scenic designer.

It wasn’t love at first sight. He took a light design course in college, but didn’t “get” it.

“It’s really difficult to wrap your head around it,” he said.

His aha moment came when he was running lights for an operetta in college.

“I just had these little faders in front of me so I could raise certain lights up and down. And the music was happening in front of me and I thought, ‘I control this whole little universe. I can make things completely disappear. I can sculpt things from the side, I can make things feel totally different — just like music can — just based on how it’s lit.’ And then I finally started to understand how the lighting hooked things together,” he said.

From there, his interest in lighting soared.

“I absolutely love lighting,” he said. “I think it’s probably given me more joy than anything else, just because I can go for a walk someplace and just the way the lighting changes as the clouds come in or out, or as the time of year changes and the angle of the sun changes, I really enjoy seeing that — and that’s what got me into photography.”

Scenic design

While his design work is a collaborative process with the director and other production team members, the ideas begin flowing as soon as he starts reading a script. With the flamenco dance company in New York, he might start working on a show two years in advance. With Theatre Cedar Rapids, the lead time is generally six months to look at the season overall, and four months to “get things going” on a particular show, he said. The lead time is about two months for Riverside Theatre shows, which have shorter rehearsal periods.

He begins thinking about the theater spaces, the text that the audience never sees, the show’s technical demands, and the scale in relation to the human body. He still likes to do some of his design work by hand, but computers and the 3D printer he has in his basement workshop have made the process much quicker for creating the drawings and scale models for each show.

He also enjoys the variety and challenge of moving between the small space inside Riverside Theatre and the large space inside Theatre Cedar Rapids, as well as the theaters at Grinnell College and Cornell College in Mount Vernon, as well as the theaters in New York and the touring venues that have housed his designs.

Ultimately, the goal of scenic design “is always about the storytelling,” he said.

“There’s a version of a show that exists in a script, if there is a script. Assuming it has a script, there is a scaffolding for that show in the script, and then there’s a version of the show in the director’s head, and then there’s a version of the show that’s performed in my head as I read the script. So there’s all these different versions.”

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If the show is a musical, the choreographer brings in another idea, and the musical score adds another element. Sometimes Farrar knows the music very well, but other times, he doesn’t.

“Hopefully, I can integrate that well if I listen to the music while working on the show — not usually when I’m reading the script, but while I’m drafting the show. I’ll listen to the music to get a sense of how the show wants to move.

“Integrating all these different versions of the show — the text, what’s in my head, what’s in the director’s head, what’s in the choreographer’s head, the role the music plays — and then you synthesize all those elements, and then you find out how the show wants to move in the space it has. And how a show moves is one of the most important things to me. ...

“You get a sense that the show becomes this conscious element that wants a certain thing, and will reveal those things over time.”

And time is something he has right now.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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