April 12 2018 11:45 AM

Picking the mid-Michigan theater fixture’s brain


    “I’ve always been a builder type,” Jeff Boerger said. “You know, a tool guy.”

    It makes sense Boerger would be involved in set design and construction.

    “When I was a little kid, I was always tinkering and taking things apart and trying to put them back together,” he said.

    For about 35 years, he has been connected to local theatre, as an actor and as the creator of sets. Boerger’s favorite role was Atticus Finch in Riverwalk Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2006. The 74-year old was recently seen as the rancher in their production of “White Buffalo.” “It was a lot of fun for me,” Boerger said. “I like cowboy stuff.”

    His first links to area theatre began with Len Kluge at the Ledges Playhouse. In their “Play it Again Sam,” Boerger played Bogie in his first acting role. “I acted on pretty much every stage in the area at one time or another,” he said. An internship with BoarsHead Theatre followed. That’s where he first got involved in creating sets.

    There have been times when Boerger acted on sets that he made. That includes playing a cop in “Bonny and Clyde” at Peppermint Creek Theatre Company in 2013, last year’s Lansing Community College production of “Eurydice” in the role of the father, and this year’s PCTC’s “I Now Pronounce” playing a minister. “Each time I swore I’d never do it again,” he said. “It will kill ya.”

    Chad Swan-Badgero, Peppermint Creek’s Artistic Director, said, “Working with Jeff is a director’s dream.” He praised Boeger’s skill to take a director’s vision and making it a believable reality on stage—and within a budget. “His set designs are unique and interesting,” Swan-Badgero said. “I love how attached Jeff gets to his sets in a very fatherly way, which shows how much of his heart he puts into the creation of a show.”

    Boerger said making sets was a good artistic outlet for his creativity. Most of his career was spent in creative advertising and graphic design. “I got burnt out on it 20 years ago and opened a woodworking business,” he said. It’s called Corbincraft Studios and it’s in a pole barn behind his Mason home.

    When his father was an executive with International Harvester, Boerger — who was born in California — moved around a lot. His high school years were spent in West Virginia and he went to a London boarding school for a year. His “Europe Adventure” included six months while a teen as a backhoe and bulldozer demonstrator for International Harvester in France. “I got lucky,” Boerger said, “and had some opportunities many people don’t get.”

    The art major attended Capital University and then Columbus College of Art and Design — both in Ohio. He married, moved to Phoenix, and then back to Columbus before settling in Michigan with his wife, Ann.

    “I never got into painting and living in a garret in New York,” Boerger said. Instead, he has also been a photographer, folk musician, male model in Detroit, and a traveling Abe Lincoln. “I played Abe in schools all over the country,” he said. That gig ended 12 years ago. “I had to stop when my hair turned grey. I didn’t want to dye it.”

    The sets Boerger is proudest of include Riverwalk’s “The Full Monty” in 2008 and “Bonnie and Clyde.” “Monty” featured a two-tiered steel mill with a backdrop he painted. Looking out a train window on the way to Chicago inspired it. “Clyde” had a makeshift car with a real, classic radiator and Styrofoam wheels and fiberglass fenders that Boerger fabricated.

    To create a set, after a director asks for his designing skills, he reads the script and decides to pick it up. “I’m pretty choosey right now,” Boerger said. “I’ve turned down people.”

    He will meet with the director and “attempt to come up with some common vision.”

    Boerger brings a box of blocks. “Like a little kid would use,” he said. Using those and saltshakers or whatever else is handy, the two will arrange the objects into a stage plan. From that, Boeger will build a model. “I make it ¾ inch to a foot,” he said. “I do it in my shop.” A floor plan is drawn up for the builders. Boerger “more often than not” helps with the construction.

    Michael Hays directed “Advise and Consent” at Riverwalk and “Stuff Happens” at PCTC using Boerger’s sets. “He always designs sets that truly serve the story of the play, rather than just look good to the eye,” Hays said. He also appreciated Boerger’s attention to actors’ safety and comfort, “Throw in the fact that he’s also a master carpenter, with a smattering of electrical and plumbing knowledge, and what more could you ask for?”