With news of US Theater Designer and Production Coordinator Eugene Warner’s departure after over a decade of set design, The Vanguard convened him and two similarly celebrated fixtures of the US Arts program, US Arts Department Head Laura Tangusso and US Woodworking Teacher Paul Ruhlmann, who is also retiring (see “Woodworking legend retires after 43 years”), to reflect on their time together at the school.
Have you ever collaborated on a project?
Mr. Ruhlmann: In general, mental collaboration about what we want to do as teachers and things that go across disciplines. And bouncing ideas off of each other. Mr. Warner’s and my woodworking are very, very different. He’s sort of a wizard as far as putting something together really, really quick. My kind of woodworking is very slow and meticulous and carefully thought out. When you have to make a [theater] set, you just have to put it together on the fly, and it stays up for a short amount of time, and then it just comes all apart. I’ve always admired how fast he’s able to put together these immense sets.
Mr. Warner: With half-inch tolerances, as opposed to the kind of work that you do! I’ve consulted Mr. Ruhlmann many times on tools and techniques because I’m a set designer, a lighting designer, and pretty good at technical theater, but he’s very knowledgeable [about tools and techniques]. I’ve relied on that over the years for consultation.
What kind of student does best in your little corner of the art world?
Ms. Tangusso: That’s an interesting question because all three of us [work with] mediums that are about building.
Mr. Ruhlmann: I think it requires a certain amount of bravery: taking on this challenge and always sort of feeling like, do I take the risk of trying to make something that I’ve never made before? And opening yourself up to the potential for failure, that’s a real cornerstone in all the arts. Doing a theater piece or doing a painting or doing a woodworking piece, it’s like you’re going off in a different direction, and you have to take these artistic risks.
Mr. Warner: I agree. If a student just makes the effort, if a student tries, that’s really wonderful. I think what happens when students get around the age of high school [is that] they tend to pull back, and taking risks is very, very difficult. So that’s always a joy when you see somebody extend themselves. And for me it’s a collaborative art. It’s always wonderful to see students come together and then share that moment when the audience arrives. And we all look at each other and say, “Hey, we made this happen,” and sit down and go through the ritual of performing.
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on or helped a student with?
Mr. Warner: It seems like you’re always absorbed in the ongoing project. It consumes your life. During COVID, I was able to get out and do a lot more sketching and drawing outdoors, which I love and which I’ll be pursuing in retirement [beginning this summer]. And that informs the work that happens on the stage. In fact, in “Dream,” it directly is connected: so we’re outdoors, in our setting, and then I created painted stage scenery images of nature to self-consciously mix into “real” nature. They’re intended to heighten the sense of fantasy, fun, romance, and theatrical trickery for the world of the faeries and the confused lovers who enter their woods. They’re also a way to imply a sense of the “woods” location in the script on the landscaped grounds where we’re shooting.
Mr. Ruhlmann: I like some of the group projects and the bench projects. We have one outside the shop and a couple in the school. When I first started teaching, students made these little safety devices, called push sticks, so that you could push a board safely through the table saw. And I had a student [John Toupin ’81] come back pre-COVID, and [Head of School Jen] Price was bringing this past student through the school, and he lives on the West Coast. He came in the shop and noticed his push stick that he had made almost 40 years ago. He was like, “You’re still using that?” and it’s like, “Yeah, for 40 years, we’ve still been using it.” So I said, “Listen, this is too precious for you to just leave it here.” I gave it back to him, and he was so, so happy. It was amazing that a student remembered this little tiny project that he made as a ninth grader or a tenth grader.
Mr. Warner: It is something because mine gets all chewed up hitting the blade and everything!
What is something most people don’t know about the other two people here?
Mr. Ruhlmann: I just am so impressed with how creative [Mr. Warner] is in making a set out of almost just 2-by-4s and thin paneling, painting it, and just making something alive, so quickly. That’s a real art, and I think that’s a real skill.
Mr. Warner: And I always envy the work of the fine artists and the sculptors. You have students making violins and canoes, incredible projects. We are so temporal in the theater, of course. Oh, Ms. Tangusso makes some very fine art. I’ve seen some of her work and it’s really, really lovely sculptures.
Ms. Tangusso: Thank you. I think about some of the personal things that often students don’t know about teachers. For instance, Mr. Ruhlmann, when each of his sons were born, planted trees on his property that are these massive trees now. I’ve been to his house, and I see those trees and just think how cool that is that he did that. And Mr. Warner is a grandfather, how many times now? Five! Very devoted and looking forward to more time with his grandchildren. So I’m always touched by those things because it’s not often teachers talk about family with students.
Mr. Ruhlmann: One thing I have to say about Ms. Tangusso is that, number one, she is a lover of cats. And number two, being the head of the art department is like herding cats. We’re all so different, and we all like to go off in our own direction, and [she tries] to pull us back in and stay focused.
Ms. Tangusso: My cats are easier to herd.
Mr. Ruhlmann and Ms. Tangusso—what does Mr. Warner mean to the school, and what will be missed about him?
Ms. Tangusso: Well, I’ll miss his humor, for sure. So important in the environment we work in. I’ve just always been so wowed by what he has done for the place. I’m an art person, but I’m not a stage designer, and I know it’s a lot. It’s not just building things. He does an incredible amount of work using digital tools, writing, designing, and laying it out—then comes the building part. Then there’s the lighting. All of that is so critical to the play.
Mr. Ruhlmann: I see Mr. Warner as just a very humble and self-effacing artist. He’s certainly not one to take credit for things, but he makes the magic happen. And he brings out the best of his stage crew, and they just make just wonderful, wonderful stuff. Wonderful scenery. And they bring the performances alive, the work that he and his students do together.