Setting Himself Apart
Bill Schmiel’s set designs come to life at Raue Center.
Bill Schmiel, 68, loves creating, and for more than 50 years, his creations have largely been sets for theatrical productions throughout the United States.
Currently, the Lakewood resident brings his half-century of experience to Raue Center For The Arts where he designs and paints sets.
Schmiel makes it clear that theater is a team sport — a collaboration among the director and designers of lighting, sound and costuming. His set design must work efficiently and safely for the actors while creating the numerous settings in the story. Sometimes, modifications must be made in the original design because of money or time constraints. “The designer learns to adapt,” he emphasized.
“What I love about Bill,” said director Regina Belt Daniels, “is he listens.
Influenced at a Young Age
Schmiel’s home life inspired his love for designing and building from a young age. When he was in kindergarten and first grade, he tagged along and watched his father build the family home over several Michigan summers. Although he was just a tyke, he helped carry wood and tools for his dad, and watched as a building emerged from a drawing on a piece of paper.
School also fostered his love for art. In the 1950s at his one-and-a-half-room grade school in Warren, Mich., his teacher saw his promise and always selected his artwork to go up on the wall. At the teacher’s request, he loved painting on rolls of white paper, spread on the floor, perhaps creating a map of the Congo for geography class. Little did Schmiel know that this early experience would translate into painting theater backdrops where “you lay the work on the floor so the paint won’t run.”
TV had a big impact on Schmiel, too. He remembers watching ’50s sitcom “The Honeymooners” as a child. While he had no understanding of theater at the time, he was fascinated by the idea that someone had created the environment of that little Brooklyn apartment where the show takes place. To this day, his mind still can draw a picture of that set.
Schmiel’s love of building, innate artistic talent and curiosity were early indicators of the flow his life would follow.
Falling in Love with Theater
Schmiel’s high school English teacher and mentor, Richard Wirth, was also in charge of the theater’s stage crew. Schmiel joined the theater group to paint scenery. Soon, his mentor asked him to design the sets. Wirth introduced Schmiel and fellow students to professional theater by taking them on field trips to downtown Detroit’s Fisher Theatre. Before the performances, the group would dine and discuss the play they were about to see.
Schmiel remembers enjoying “Gypsy” on one of the trips to the Fisher and being enthralled by the scenery. “To this day, when I stand on stage or sit in the audience, I separate the scenery from the background — a little bit of dust, a little bit of light … it’s all magic,” he recalled.
Trying His Hand at Acting
After high school graduation, Schmiel attended North Central College in Naperville where he earned theater and art degrees. Fortuitously, his speech teacher, “Doc” Shanower, was the theatrical director and he believed Schmiel needed to do more than build and paint scenery — he needed to act in a play. So, Schmiel was cast in the opening scene pantomime in “Carousel” and in “Macbeth” as Banquo.
When he looks back on his performances, he laughs, saying, “I may have had some promise, but not much.” The “Macbeth” experience proved constructive in another way, however. He met his future wife, Karen, who played Lady Macbeth.
Exciting Career in Theater
Following graduation from North Central, Schmiel took a teaching position in Lombard at Glenbard East High School, a school with a well-recognized theater program. He was hired to be the technical director for plays and to teach theater. He worked on six shows a year and loved offering a stagecraft class to the students who helped build the scenery.
After three years, he took a leave of absence to attend graduate school. He earned a Master of Fine Arts from Goodman School of Drama, Chicago (now The Theatre School at DePaul University), and simultaneously, his United Scenic Artists union card. Soon, he and Karen, who were married in 1969 and living in the Chicago area, moved to St. Louis where, for five summers, he worked as assistant designer/scenic artist for The Muny, a 13,000-seat outdoor venue — the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States — which at the time produced 10 musicals in 10 weeks with “never a dark night.” Today, it’s about seven musicals in seven weeks.
Schmiel’s connections at The Muny provided other opportunities for him in the St. Louis area at Kansas City Starlight Theatre and Insight Theatre Company, and for a number of years, he operated his own design firm. He took on all types of projects from graphic design to designing restaurant interiors.
During this time, he won a St. Louis Emmy for a 15-minute short commercial, and his set for “A Raisin in the Sun” for The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis was chosen by playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s husband for inclusion in her prestigious archives.
For his last 13 years before retirement, Schmiel was design director for the corporate office of Six Flags Inc. He oversaw the execution of projects for Six Flags parks around the world — projects from creating a new roller coaster in Atlanta to polishing up an antique amusement park ride in Montreal.
In 2013, he and his wife were drawn to the McHenry County area to be near their church and family members.
The Raue Gig
Schmiel credits Dawn Gerth, owner of Le Petit Marché across from Raue Center, for his opportunity to design the set for “Barefoot.” It is there where his exhibit of drawings caught the eye of Raue Center’s Executive Director Richard Kuranda and Director of Production Michael Vandercook.
Kuranda was “blown away by the intrinsic talent and clear voice” the drawings revealed. So, when Kuranda and Vandercook perused the 2013-2014 season roster, they invited Schmiel to be set designer for “Barefoot in the Park.”
The crew of creatives is clearly a compatible fit. “It was clear that Bill is a great talent who knows how to elaborate on the written word,” Kuranda said.
Added Schmiel: “The Raue has a fantastic group of hardworking, artistic people — I think I’ve found a home.”
Labors of Love
Schmiel’s love of building now translates into his volunteer work. Every October, he travels to West Virginia as part of the Appalachian Service Project where he teams with other volunteers to repair houses so that they are “warmer, safer and dryer.”
In his spare time, Schmiel rehabs the house he and his wife bought in Lakewood.
“I will continue doing design as long as my body allows,” he said. “It’s a very physical job — up on ladders, on hands and knees, walking, painting. But, ‘designer’ is the word that defines me.”
Bill Schmiel is the classic theater lifer who brims with stories about the thing he loves. For example, he once witnessed iconic comedienne and multiple Tony Award winner Carol Channing, perform the main number in “Hello, Dolly!” at outdoor theater Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., at the request of her fans. Meanwhile, backstage, Channing’s husband fumed because he feared that her costume, which he owned, would be destroyed by a sudden rainstorm.
And Schmiel tells about horror film actor Vincent Price, who played the devil in a production of “Damn Yankees” at The Muny. Price, a St. Louis native, would be involved in a poker game with stagehands, hear his cue, walk out, deliver his lines and return to the game. Every night, Price turned in an impeccable performance while engaging in a perpetual card game.