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When she makes a scene, they applaud

Nobody has ever admonished Jane Hickinbotham not to make a scene. Because that’s what she does. For a living.

The scene shop manager for the Oregon Center for the Arts has worked at Southern Oregon University for 14 years. She is involved in set building for SOU theater productions, maintains all the tools in the scene and prop shops, and acquires the build materials for each performance.

“My official title is staff technical manager,” she said. “But I also support the staff, teach skills to students and, as the building manager, take care of any maintenance issues.”

Hickinbotham came to SOU by way of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“What brought me to the Rogue Valley was getting a job on the stage operations crew at OSF. I am originally from Wisconsin and went to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I graduated in 1986 with a BFA in technical theater.”

That study provided her a well-rounded experience in all aspects of theater craft, from carpentry and prop making to lighting, sound, costumes and backstage crew work.

Her multifaceted journey to her present position, besides the OSF gig, included six years as technical director at Ashland High School, pattern maker and seamstress at Ashland’s Pacific Domes, stage carpenter for Portland Center Stage, props artisan at Greater Miami Opera, carpenter at Glimmerglass Opera, teaching assistant at Buttercup Preschool, and work as an all-around handywoman.

Her interest in stage work came early.

“I had the luck of having four English teachers who all were involved in the drama department,” she said. “Working my way up the ranks during high school, I gained so much knowledge from those terrific teachers.”

Part of what she has learned — how to remain calm in a moment of chaos — she passes on to today’s students. “I think students appreciate learning this so they can take it with them when they are out there in real-life situations.”

Like most aspects of the theater business, Hickinbotham’s work requires and benefits from collaboration.

“It starts with a story and a director’s vision,” she said. “Then other elements such as scenery, lighting, costumes and sound come together to form the finished product. It’s totally collaborative.”

Sometimes work in the scene shop requires heavy lifting, climbing, and a strong back. Hickinbotham stays in shape by doing a lot of gardening and riding her bike to work.

Her job requires her to be a master of many trades.

“I can work with wood, metal, foam. I can sew, sculpt and make something out of just about anything. I can scenic paint. And I would say I am an accomplished carpenter.”

There’s one project she is particularly proud of. Many years ago, the university did a production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” One of the main characters is a plant purchased from a Chinese flower shop during an eclipse that grows from tiny to huge during the course of the play. The plant, named Audrey II, thrives by feeding on (spoiler alert) human blood.

Hickinbotham collaborated with the students in creating the plant and its various iterations in size.

“It turned out beautifully,” she said. “It started with the students figuring out its inner working and how it would move mechanically. When it came time to build and dress the plant, people in the costume shop, prop shop and scene shop all had a hand in it. It was a huge success with audiences.”

It was on that project that Hickinbotham helped students learn how to solve problems. Three different plants had to be constructed to represent different stages of growth by Audrey II. With Hickinbotham’s guidance, students had to figure out how to render the inner workings, and exterior features such as the cowls and tentacles.

It was during times like these that Hickinbotham came away with some of the best lessons she learned on the job.

“I learned you have to be kind to one another,” she said. “You have to be a good listener, a collaborator, and have a sense of humor. And I learned to look for the best in everyone.”

Things have been different during the pandemic. Without live performances, she’s had time to organize the shop and make improvements in the building. She does that in a curtailed work schedule, Tuesday through Thursday.

“Of course, not having students in the building makes for some pretty lonely days,” she said. “But we’re offering a few hybrid classes, and that helps make it feel like we are a community, here in the theater and on campus.”

In addition, the department decided that good equipment would enhance the quality of fall term events produced online. Hickinbotham is involved in putting together lighting packages, green screens, microphones, headsets, ethernet cords and adapters as technical support for those productions.

“The experience of using that kind of equipment will help students be better prepared for theater in the future that may be offered virtually,” she said.

A set isn’t always a static scene. There often are many aspects and moving parts. The typical set consists of walls and levels, but there is much more that helps bring the scene to life.

“Wing and drop scenery can involve several backdrops that fly in and out to create different looks for a play or musical,” she said. “Plus, furniture and set dressing can change a couple walls and platforms into a Victorian sitting room or a 1960s lounge.”

The fact that her creations last only a short time doesn’t bother her in the least.

“There will always be more stories to tell and more environments to create,” she said.

For Hickinbotham, doing more of that on a live stage again can’t come soon enough.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Jane Hickinbotham