Posted on Jan 23, 2006

Once upon a time, when Charles Steckler was a kid from Queens, he knocked on the backstage door of a Broadway theater and asked to see the set for “My Fair Lady.” 

The curious teen got a behind-the-scenes tour and saw the famous musical from the wings of the Mark Hellinger Theatre. “Was I inoculated that day? Maybe. It was so beautiful,” muses Steckler.

More than 40 years later, Steckler excites and impresses others with his stage designs. During his 35 years at Union College , the theater professor, visual artist, photographer and world traveler has created sets for more than 100 productions.

“His designs are visual masterpieces that lead the actors and audience into unforgettable worlds of the imagination,” asserts Barry Smith, theater professor emeritus and director of 40 plays at Union from 1971 to 1999. 

“He could easily be on Broadway,” English and drama professor emeritus Sam Ullman writes in the online edition of Union's alumni magazine.

And those are just a few of the testimonials. “Eclectic” and “eccentric” is how Doris Lo, class of '07, describes Steckler. “When you meet Charles, you feel like you've known him forever,” says Ari Gottlieb, a 1999 grad.

“Charles has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world,” says Rachel Seligman, director of the Mandeville Gallery in the college's Nott Memorial.

Through March 12, Union College is honoring Steckler with a retrospective in the Nott that recaptures moments from his theater design career with more than 60 photographs plus props, puppets, masks, drawings and scale models. 

There's a black wooden bathtub, one of Steckler's props for “Marat/Sade,” directed by Smith in 1998, and in a glass case, a sketch for the tub scribbled on a piece of yellow legal paper.

One of the most highly detailed objects is a scale model for the set of Moliere's “Tartuffe ” in 2004. Not much bigger than a shoebox, it's Steckler's vision of a 17 th-century French kitchen, with a tiny wooden table, doll-sized pots and pans and a costumed figure.

Another remnant from “Tartuffe” is a lifesized prop, a butcher's block heaped with sausages that Steckler and his student crew made from old pantyhose.

The stunning color photographs of different productions, most of them taken by Steckler, have both dreamlike and realistic qualities, as if one was peering through a keyhole at the actors frozen on stage but feeling the excitement, the warm glow of the stage lights.

For curator Seligman, mounting an exhibit about theatrical designs that no longer exist, was a challenge and probably a rarity in the art world.

“To try to capture something so ephemeral – it's not possible,” she says. “So you get a sense of the fun of it, and they're beautiful.”

Seligman encourages visitors to see the props, photos and models as art objects in their own right.

Two weeks before the show's opening earlier this month, when the campus was barren of students, the energetic Steckler was on the second floor of the Theater Arts building, working in a large, airy space that serves as classroom, theater design studio and his personal studio.

There's a drafting table tucked into one corner, a big wooden work table in the center of the room and shelves neatly stacked with boxes and bins. Because he's a handson kind of guy, Steckler doesn't use a computer for theater design.

“I sort of resist these things. I draw incessantly,” he says. The big plastic bins are filled with tiny found objects, raw materials for the complex, boxlike sculptures or dioramas that are his personal artworks. “I've turned my whole studio into a junk drawer,” he jokes.

It's difficult for Steckler to separate his role as theater designer from his life as a visual artist. And he doesn't want to be limited to either of them. “For most of my artistic life, I have been baffled by these streams. What they all have to say to each other, I don't know.”

He has taught printmaking at Union and studied painting, photography and printing at workshops and residencies around the country and in Italy. Last year, he was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.

“One of my art heroes is Picasso. He speaks to me. He could paint. He could draw. He also designed stage sets and costumes,” he says.

In the past five years, Steckler's witty dioramas have been in two Mohawk Hudson Regional exhibits and four shows at Cyclics Corp. in Schenectady. His photographs have won first prize three times at the Photography Regional.

In 2004, Steckler and his wife, artist Ginger Ertz, showed their work together at Emma Willard School in Troy. The 60-year-old Steckler is also the father of musician Matt Steckler, founder of Dead Cat Bounce, an award-winning jazz sextet.

The elder Steckler fell in love with the theater decades ago, when he was a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York City. At Queens College , City University of New York, he was a studio art major who hung out with the theater crowd and dabbled in theater design.

Never letting go of his other art interests, Steckler went on to Yale University, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in theater design. 

Unlike the solitary life of an artist, “theater provides sense of belonging,” he says, but theater designer is also a demanding and somewhat anonymous role, a practical job that requires managing a product as well as time, labor and money. 

Union is on a trimester schedule, and, each session, Steckler and theater director William Finlay or another faculty member from the department of theater and dance, work with students to mount a production with six to eight performances. 

Union's theater design program is small – so Steckler works with all kinds of students, from actors and English majors to aspiring engineers and physicists. The director-designer relationship is always a collaboration, Steckler says.

“You don't want the audience to leave saying ‘Wow. What a set,' “he says. “You want them to say ‘That experience moved me, provoked me, made me think, made me feel.' What you want to achieve in set design is a seamless world. [The acting, directing and set] merge and become one experience.”

From the design studio, Steckler descends a short flight of stairs to the 150-seat Yulman Theater. Props and posters from dozens of productions are arranged on the black stage floor. A squishy-looking yellowish mound about 2 feet in diameter, made of spray-on foam insulation, was a big pudding in “The Servant of Two Masters” in 1995 and a giant brain in “The Big Bang” in 2000. 
“It's fun to brainstorm. How are we going to make a thing?” he says. 

For “The Tempest,” directed by Smith in 1993, Steckler filled the theater with tons of white sand. When Smith wanted an Eastern-Buddhist atmosphere for “Oedipus” in 1990, Steckler fashioned a temple-like set dominated by a two-story Buddha with golden coils of hair made from hundreds of stale bagels.

Looking at the posters from past productions, Steckler fondly recalls when the first floor of the Nott Memorial was the campus theater. From 1971 when he arrived at Union until the Yulman opened in 1995, Steckler created sets in the unusual 16-sided building.

“Technically, the Yulman is better, but it's less intimate. The Nott has a magic geometry,” he says. As they visit the exhibit, many viewers probably won't remember when the Nott was a theater. But Steckler is enjoying the connection. “For me, it's like a return,” he says.