100 Dallas Creatives: No. 2 Rodney Dobbs, Man Behind the Scenes

Rodney Dobbs on his set for Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope
Rodney Dobbs on his set for Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope

Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. It's been said that nobody leaves a theater humming the scenery. But if you've ever seen a show designed by Dallas scenic artist Rodney Dobbs, you might leave singing its praises.

Dobbs' sets often help tell the story of a play, without distracting from the actors, or creating obstacles for the action. He's a master of stretching a small budget into impressive visuals, as he did recently with Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton's new play, Mississippi Goddamn, at the South Dallas Cultural Center. For that, he created a 1960s-era suburban home with a working kitchen (or so it seemed) and period-perfect furnishings.

Dobbs, co-founder of the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, designed his first show, the musical Shenandoah, for the old Dallas Repertory Theatre at NorthPark Mall in 1978. He's been sketching, building, painting and decorating sets ever since for more than 250 plays and musicals in theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth and cities around and in between.

With a degree in commercial art from Arkansas State, and experience with carpentry from summers working at his father's construction business, Dobbs moved to Dallas in 1977 for a job in the art department at Zale Corporation. A co-worker talked him into helping build sets at Dallas Rep. By 1980, at age 26, he was running "the Pocket" with theater business partner Joe Dickinson. The little playhouse on Mockingbird Lane is still filling seats nearly every night of the year with comedies and melodramas, with audiences invited to toss popcorn at the stage and hiss and boo the villains.

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We nailed down Dobbs for an email interview as he was finishing the scenery for Jubilee Theatre's next production, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, opening April 3. He has a dozen more shows lined up to design this year on local stages.

Theater scenery has to balance design and function against the budget allowed. What's the smallest budget you've had to work with? And the largest? I tend to be a very practical designer. It doesn't matter how impressive the set looks, if it doesn't work for the action in the play. In the early years of the Pocket, we had a $200 budget for set materials and sometimes I didn't spend it all. But I remember a production in 1988 of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for the [now-defunct] Dallas Alliance Theatre that basically had no budget. I scrounged and borrowed and begged and got the set put in and it was a successful show. I was motivated to do the show because it was directed by my dear friend, Bruce Coleman, and had Cindee Mayfield, my wife, in the cast.

I have done lots of big set musicals for Garland Summer Musicals and Uptown Players, but the biggest single set show I have done was August: Osage County for WaterTower Theatre. The set was a giant cut-away three-story farmhouse. The top piece of the roof had to be removable so they could operate their lighting catwalk. I'm not sure what the budget was, but I was told that it went substantially over-budget. I am still designing there.

Also see: Elaine Liner's review of August: Osage County at WaterTower Theatre

Do you have a favorite show you've designed? And what is the best scenery you've ever seen by another designer? The Madwoman of Chaillot at Pocket Sandwich Theatre back in the early 1990s is my favorite among my set designs. The first act was in a Paris street café and the second act was in the cluttered basement of an old building. When the lights came up for the second act, the set transformed with opening flats, flying walls and sliding platforms, all operated by the cast and tech crew offstage. It was quite a feat in the limited space of the Pocket. The set change got applause every night.

And sets by other designers ... I love to see shows designed by my Dallas designer friends (and competition) Bruce Coleman, Randel Wright and Claire Floyd DeVries. I'm always looking for ideas I can "borrow."

What do you wish theatergoers -- or critics, directors and actors -- would understand better about scenery? Theater scenery is not real. It is usually built with a budget and a timetable and rarely, in my experience, comes up to the vision that the designer had for it. Also, actors, quit slamming doors so hard, and throwing your body weight against a wall made of thin plywood!

The Pocket Sandwich Theatre just goes on and on as other theater companies fold. What is the secret of its success? Joe Dickinson [who died in 2010] always said, "I want people to leave our theater feeling better than when they arrived." So we have typically left the heavy stuff for the other venues and concentrated on lighter entertainment-oriented plays. The popcorn-throwing melodramas are a huge and ongoing success and our Ebenezer Scrooge is a yearly guaranteed sell-out. Fairly consistent box office, coupled with the fact that the Pocket, now in its 35th year, still has no full-time employees, keeps the theater plugging along. No big changes planned there, but we are always looking at ways to improve and keep our product consistent and appealing to our audience.

What are you working on next? Two musicals: West Side Story for Garland Summer Musicals and Catch Me If You Can for Uptown Players. Two shows this year for Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and six more shows for the Pocket. Yes, I keep busy.

Is there a show you dream of designing? What and where? I don't care what the show is as long as I could design it for the Dallas Theater Center. Not looking for that to happen anytime soon.

You spend a lot of time with power tools and hammers. Any scars? Of course, there have been injuries. Mostly cuts and bumps and minor falls. I can say that none have ever put me in the hospital or required stitches, knock on wood. I do have a saying, "It's not a finished set until I've bled on it." And that is often true.

If someone wrote the movie of your life, what would be the title? The Accidental Set Designer. I never really planned to do this, especially as the thing that takes up most of my time. I just like doing it and people keep hiring me.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray 20. Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words 19. Filmmaker and Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner 18. Gallerist Jordan Roth, the Art Scene Cheerleader 17. Artful Advocate Vicki Meek 16. Ballet Queen Katie Puder 15. Carlos Alejandro Guajardo-Molina, the Book Guy 14. Janeil Engelstad, an Artist with Purpose 13. Will Power, Playwright and Mentor 12. Gallerists Gina & Dustin Orlando, Boundary Pushers 11. Moody Fuqua, Music Community Organizer 10. Joshua Peugh, Choreographer to Watch 9. Allison Davidson, Advocate for Art Accessibility 8. Ben Fountain, Man of Letters 7. Fashion Maven Julie McCullough 6. Contemporary Curator and Artist Danielle Avram Morgan 5. Irreverent Art World Organizer Kevin Ruben Jacobs 4. Dwell with Dignity's Lisa Robison 3. Artists/Curators Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett


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