In Retirement, Prop Designer Harvey Wilcox Returns to His Labor of Love

August 12, 2008 — After several decades as a Washington, D.C. lawyer, Harvey Wilcox returned to his college passion. For the eighth summer, Wilcox worked on pieces for the set design of the Heritage Theatre Festival at the University of Virginia.

The summer's final Heritage production, "The Light in the Piazza" — which closed Aug. 2 — featured one of Wilcox's sculptures, an almost 7-foot-tall torso of Apollo carved out of Styrofoam.

Wilcox, who moved to Charlottesville with his wife Leslie in 1995 after retiring from his position as a civilian lawyer for the Navy, is glad to have the opportunity to return to one of his college pastimes.

"Set design was one of the things that I really enjoyed, along with music and architecture, that were my escapes from the hard classes I took during college and law school," he said. "But ultimately, I had to make a career choice and put these things aside to move forward in my profession."

After retiring, Wilcox found in the U.Va. Drama department the opportunity to return to the love he had put aside for so many years.

"We began coming to the shows and quickly discovered that the entire department is a hidden gem in the University's midst," he said. "After a few years, I became acquainted with Tom Bloom, the set designer for HTF [and chairman of the drama department], and offered my help if they ever needed it – and well, it's been eight years now I've been doing this!"

Wilcox's work has been a major boon for Heritage, Bloom said.

"He's a veritable renaissance craftsperson who has fashioned for us some exquisite props," Bloom said. "Everybody enjoys Harvey's company because he's such a great people person; actors and technicians often are found engaged in wide-ranging conversations with him. Some past Heritage employees are known to have phoned Harvey seeking his artistic and technical advice on a particular project that they were working on."

Considering himself more of a technician than an artist, Wilcox takes on extra projects that the regular set designers might not have time to create. Bloom sends a detailed plan for the piece he wants Wilcox to make, and Wilcox starts his work.  On average, a piece is finished in 10 days.

The quality of the works is not compromised by the relatively short amount of time spent working on them, and Wilcox is keen to stress the importance of finding that perfect balance when working as a set designer. "These are museum-quality sculptures viewed from the third row and back, but if you get too close you can see the imperfections. But that's the thing: they're not for a museum," he said.

"Theater is great because you're always moving forward, creating this illusion that lasts for a week and then throwing it in the Dumpster. You have to learn to consider the level of detail versus pragmatism, a skill young technicians hone when working at HTF."

Throughout the years Wilcox has kept very few of his pieces as souvenirs of his work, enjoying the challenge of building something from scratch every time. That said, he has stored a few of his more interesting works in his home, such as a cartouche, a crest and a fully working harp.

"They are mostly just conversation pieces for whenever we have people over at home. I've also kept them in case they're ever needed for another show," Wilcox said.

"We've built some pretty marvelous things, such as an art-deco-style wall with billowing clouds, charging horses and cornucopias for the stateroom in 'Anything Goes,'", a previous Heritage show, he recalled. "I carved on that for almost three weeks, and it was fun and impressive, but like most things in set design, it only lasted three minutes on stage!"

While the Heritage performers benefit from the fruits of Wilcox's labors, he is very much an admirer of theirs. "Many of the performers have master's in fine arts in voice or the visual arts and they are joined by professional actors from the big city," Wilcox said. "It's a marvelous place with great quality shows, and a first-class summer theater. It should be full every night."

— By Jose Lopez-Sanchez