Designer helps tell Curtain Call's stories by creating the scene

Peter Barbieri Jr. places his laptop on the tech table and settles back into his seat in the Kweskin Theatre in Stamford. There are three days to go before Curtain Call’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens, and Barbieri watches as final touches are made to the set.

“We are literally putting on a full-scale production every month. One show is in the hopper and another is always coming. So, when do I have time to design?,” he asks, laughing at his own question. “When my child and wife are asleep and it is 3 in the morning and I have some quiet time. That’s when I work.”

Since 2000, Barbieri has been the associate artistic director and resident scenic designer for Curtain Call, sometimes also acting or directing at the nonprofit theater company. But as he scrolls through images in his laptop, one sees his creative reach — working on sets in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He also has worked overseas and in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y.

One sees his attention to detail, as well. The layout of how things are positioned on a stage to the way a sign should be painted flows from Barbieri’s mind to his computer sketches and to the hands of the builders and scenic artists who carry out his vision. He conceptualizes backdrops, such as the pointed roofs of Belle’s village, or the dark walls and exposed pipes of a dingy bar for the musical “Memphis.”

An occupational hazard of a more than 30-year career in theater is shows tend to cycle. This will be Barbieri’s third “Beauty and the Beast.” As actors and directors endeavor to retell a familiar story with new energy and interpretations, Barbieri similarly approaches the set.

“I don’t like to paint the same picture twice. We basically make the picture that tells the story,” he says. “That is what a designer does. You are making the frame in which the story lives. You must follow certain parameters based on the story. But sometimes, you get to do outrageous things. When we did “Hello, Dolly!” here (in 2010), I came up with the idea that I wanted everything to be in white, to make it a little different from the way people normally do ‘Hello, Dolly!’”

With its clean background, the set directed even more attention to the colorful characters that populate the 1964 Tony award-winning musical, including the irrepressible lead, Dolly Levi. Then there was 2011’s “Titanic” Barbieri also directed. There was no way to represent the enormity of that ill-fated vessel on the Kweskin stage, so he brought it down to human scale — the decadence, the disbelief, the tragedy of more than 1,500 lives lost. With just a background wall of rivets and portholes, a bridge, a platform and a lifeboat, the space transformed into a mighty ship.

“I would always say to (the cast), if you can see the ship, they can see the ship,” Barbieri says.

As founding director and designer of Curtain Call’s outdoor Shakespeare on the Green series, he has a few favorite sets, including “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” in which shoji screens, backlit with a forest canopy, provided a bit of mystery.

Well before he was a technical director or set designer, Barbieri, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater, was a prop builder at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., in the early 1980s. But he was soon bit by the acting bug, and entered the National Shakespeare Conservatory for two years, then toured with the National Shakespeare Company. When he returned to New York, acting jobs were harder to find than technical posts. After a string of jobs throughout New York City, including Broadway credits, he started at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, N.Y., and then departed for Curtain Call.

Up until several years ago, he worked with the inmate population at Sing Sing through the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts as designer and director on several plays, including the courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” and the musical “West Side Story.” Since the birth of his son several years ago, and a recent move to Fairfield, Barbieri has not worked with the group as much as he would like, but the experience left an indelible mark on him.

“I was backstage with our stage manager watching the scene (in ‘Twelve Angry Men’) when they are arguing about the (verdict).” Barbieri says the man told him he hoped such deliberations had taken place at his trial, and that people had asked questions. “It was really impactful to these guys to do this.”

Barbieri believes his acting and directing credentials have helped him achieve greater nuances in his scenic design, as well as establish successful working collaborations with the creative and technical crews. It is a collaboration, he says, and each part helps to deliver the best story.

“I still get excited by seeing something that you sat at home and drew on a little piece of paper or a little sketch and then seeing what these artisans do with it,” he says. “It is great to see how it looks on a grand scale.”;

Twitter: @xtinahennessy