Behind the scenes, where there is neither stage light nor crowd, lives the unsung heroes of theater: the crew. Crew member Richard Morris Jr. uses his expertise and talent to bring worlds to life as the resident scenic designer and technical director at the Weathervane Playhouse.
Richard fell in love with the world of theater at a young age, about 40 years ago, through the Summer Youth Employment Program in Cleveland.
“You could get a job cleaning up yards in the summer to make some money, or you could be employed by the theater, put on a show,” Richard says. “A friend of mine talked me into going down and being a part of it, and I had no idea it would lead to this.”
Although he started on stage, Richard quickly found his desire to work behind the scenes and in the workshop.
“We were running around in the theater and being kids, and I remember the designer saying, ‘All that energy you guys are spending running around on stage, you might as well come down to the shop and help us build scenery,’” Richard says. “I found that I liked it better in the shop than on stage.”
Designing a show takes both technical knowhow and an eye for creativity. In the shop, Richard builds everything you would find on stage, such as props, staircases and any set piece that relates to the show. Now a seasoned designer, Richard looks back at his experience of being both an actor and a member of the crew and is thankful that he had the opportunity to have both perspectives.
“The best technicians have been on stage,” he says. “They have been in front of the lights, and behind them. Being on stage gives your perspective because you’ve been there before. You know how much space they need and what they are working with.”
Richard’s journey continued as he was introduced to the Karamu House in Cleveland, the oldest African-American theater in the United States. Upon entering the theater, Morris was taken aback by the overwhelming amount of passion that flowed through the halls.
“I don’t know what it was, but I wanted to be a part of it,” he says.
Years later, Richard returned to Karamu House where he became the technical designer and worked for nearly 20 years. He transitioned to his current role at the Weathervane in 2016.
Over the course of his career, Richard has had the opportunity to design more than 175 different shows. He has received the National Award for Outstanding Achievements in Scenic Design at the National Black Theatre Festival and an Actors Guild Award for his scenic work in Riff Raff and Treemonisha.
His greatest achievement, however, was the success of a former mentee.
“I had one kid who now works at the Apollo Theater [in Harlem], and he started backstage at the Karamu,” Richard explains. “He calls me and tells me, ‘You know I never would have gotten into this, thank you for introducing me to this because it gave me an option to not be on the streets doing nothing.’ It gave me some sort of high for him giving me that much praise. It touched me more than anything else.”
With a decorated past, Richard is now preparing his application to join the United Scenic Artists Union and designing a set for an upcoming original musical about the creators of Superman.
“I keep telling people I want to get a Tony before I’m at least 70,” Richard says. “If I get it, I’ll send a party bus to the (Weathervane) parking lot!”
You can see Richard’s latest set in the Weathervane’s upcoming production of And Then There Were None, which runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 3. For more information, visit weathervaneplayhouse.com or call 330-836-2626.
Matthew Hogan is a PR professional and community theater actor. Full disclosure: He has previously performed with the Weathervane and was most recently seen in Into the Woods.