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Set Designer Works Miracles of His Own

Cutaway two-story house with working water pump puts out the welcome mat for the audience.


There's plenty of fine acting in "The Miracle Worker," which moves this week from the Santa Paula Theater Center to the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. But much of the production's effectiveness comes from its set: a sturdy cutaway two-story house, with several distinct areas for the action to take place.

It's the work of Jeff Rack, who has been designing for the Santa Paula group and other local companies for the past decade.

"Audiences really have to participate in the theater," said Rack, "and what I try to do as a designer is help them make that leap into a different reality."

Rack's background is as an artist and sculptor--he still sculpts professionally. He moved to Santa Paula from Los Angeles and first "learned to pick up a circular saw and use it" in the '80s, when he went to work for a company called Task Research. There, he was involved in the fabrication of the DeLorean automobiles used in Universal Tours' "Back to the Future" ride, the train for Universal's "Earthquake" attraction in Florida, and a flying wing for Disney World's "Indiana Jones" stunt show.

When Task Research moved out of state, Rack was forced to decide whether to remain in Santa Paula or relocate with the company to Oklahoma. It wasn't just the Santa Paula lifestyle that influenced his decision: "It was time for me to make a commitment to my art," he said.

In addition to sculpting and sets, he also designs exhibitions on a freelance basis and curates for the Oil Museum in Santa Paula. Rack has also appeared in several local productions, but the acting career began by accident. When he first approached the Theater Center for work as a set designer, "I was supposed to meet someone at an audition, and he didn't show up. The director asked if I was there for the tryouts, and I wound up getting a small part," he said.

Eighteen months later, Rack did his first set design, for the group's children's production of "The Hobbit." His first "adult" show was "Company" in 1986. Even then, he was ambitious, running neon lights around the entire proscenium arch.

Since then, Rack has become well-known for the inventiveness of his designs, which may have climaxed with last year's Ojai Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Tempest." Rack's set, which wrapped around and outside the Dennison Park stage, included a large ship, a 13-foot, two-tiered, working waterfall and 10 tons of sand. "It's fun for the actors on stage to be working with real material like that," he said.

The "Miracle Worker" set especially shows off one effect, a working water pump. "I went to The Mill, which is one of Santa Paula's oldest businesses, and they furnished me with a pump, but it was so old that the only thing that was going to come out of it was rust. So I immersed a sump pump in about 12 inches of water in a barrel offstage, and ran a hose through the mouth of the prop," he said.

"Because I'm an actor, I'm very aware of having control of your own props, rather than by someone in the technical booth, so I installed an electrical switch at knee level on the pump--when the actress switches it on, it starts the sump pump and water comes out of the onstage pump."

Next up, said Rack, is a children's production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Ojai Art Center in June. "We'll have the Wicked Witch melting and everything," he said enthusiastically. "I'm really going to go for it on that one."


* WHAT: "The Miracle Worker."

* WHEN: May 17-June 3 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings, and 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoons.

* WHERE: Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley.

* HOW MUCH: $15 adults; $12 seniors (55 and older) and students; and $8 children 12 and younger. But wait: This Saturday only, children or students will be admitted free when accompanied by a paying adult. Additionally, senior tickets to the May 26 performance only will be $10. "Student rush" tickets will be available at the door 15 minutes before each 8 p.m. curtain for $6 and require a student ID for purchase.

* CALL: 581-9940 for reservations or information.

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