Steckler has brought world-class design to Union

Capping 46-year career with set design for Moliere comedy
A scene from "The Learned Ladies," with set design by Charles Steckler.
A scene from "The Learned Ladies," with set design by Charles Steckler.

The professor’s paint-splattered sneakers reveal only part of his day job.

Charles Steckler has taught everything from art to theater to puppetry at Union College. But what he’s really known for is set design.

Steckler’s final design for Union premiered on Wednesday with “The Learned Ladies,” a comedy by Moliere about academic pretension and female education.

For the production, Steckler created an intricate stage with rococo inspired molding, glass chandeliers, baroque foliage motifs dipped in gold and books strewn throughout the stage. It’s ornamental in a way that resembles the time period, without trying to be historically accurate.

The same French vanilla, lavender and pistachio colors found on the stage floor speckle his sneakers.

“I think this set is really indicative of Charles’ career because set designers have certain strengths . . . and his is painting. He painted the entire stage floor,” said William Finlay, the chair of the theater department. The two have worked together over 23 years and Finlay said Steckler’s work is the reason he decided to start teaching at Union in the first place.

“I was looking through his portfolio and I just couldn’t believe that someone of his caliber would be working at a small liberal arts college,” Finlay said.

Over his 46 years of teaching at the college, Steckler has designed over 100 sets.

Some, like his design for “Cabaret,” pulled audiences directly into the production, with audience members sitting in the seedy Kit Kat Klub, with finger food and drinks. Or like his design for “J.B,” which turned the theatre into a circus, complete with an enormous tent, a sawdust-covered floor and a circus wagon.     

But for all the boldness found in his set designs, Steckler is a humble artist and professor.

“A lot of my classmates from Yale are working out in the field and, when we talk about our mutual experiences, I came off with a happier lifestyle than they did,” Steckler said, “When they ask me what I’m doing, I say ‘I’m having a ball! I’m having a great time here.’”

He came to Union shortly after graduating from Yale’s set design masters program and although he didn’t think he would teach in the long term, Steckler said he loved the students and fell into the pace of the college.

A pace that hasn’t slowed.

In the past few decades, the notion that set design belongs in the background of the production has dissolved and Steckler’s work has only solidified that idea. Every semester, Steckler joins with the director, the costume designer and the lighting designer to plan the stage.

“A play, especially an older play, can be interpreted in infinite ways. So the work of the design team is the work of interpreting the play script and creating a new image,” Steckler said. Even though there are some productions he’s designed for on multiple occasions, each time the world looks completely different.

Take last year’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Steckler worked with director Finlay to blend Shakespeare’s tragedy with the 2015 film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“That was really hard but we did come up with something that was really different. It was Shakespeare but it wasn’t Shakespeare. It was ‘Fury Road,’ but it wasn’t ‘Fury Road,’ ” Steckler said.

As Steckler talks about his sets, his mind dips momentarily back into the worlds he designed over the years. Although there aren’t any specific plays or sets he can pick out as his favorite, he favors certain moments from productions; moments of artistic breakthroughs when he’s found the perfect way to capture a scene.  

However, striking (disassembling) the set has never been included in his list of favorite moments. For many years, Steckler took the set down himself. Now, he doesn’t even come to strike day.

“In the early part of my career I would sort of mourn the death of my work,” Steckler said, in a pseudo-dramatic voice, “A painter makes a painting with the intention that it’s going to be around for quite a while. But a [set] designer understands that . . . his or her work will cease to exist. Maybe that’s the point. All that we make is intended to disappear, it’s built into the very concept of the thing we’re making,” Steckler said.

So he’s come to think about the strike day as the endpoint of one piece and the beginning of another.

“Life is creation and destruction,” Steckler said. When The Gazette spoke with Steckler, he was on the fence about going to the striking for “The Learned Ladies,” although he was interested in capturing a time-lapse video of its carefully crafted orchestration.

With the striking of his time at Union, Steckler will be creating more of his own artwork. In between semesters and on weekends, Steckler has always worked on his dioramas, drawings and collage work. He’s exhibited at the Butzel Gallery, the Arts Center in Troy and all across the Greater Capital Region.

“I’ve been yearning to do that full time,” Steckler said. That and spend more time with his wife, artist Ginger Ertz, and the rest of his family.

As his illustrious career indicates, there are many on Union’s campus who have gleaned not only theater and design know-how, but inspiration.

“When you perform on one of his sets, you truly step into a magical world. Charles is always positive, easy to work with, supportive, and genuinely wants his students to succeed,” said Abigail Lehner, a junior at Union, who plays Armande in “The Learned Ladies.”

Similarly, Finlay praised Steckler, not only for his work but for his influence.

“I am without a doubt the artist I have become because I have lived in and been fortunate enough to have played in the imagination of this truly great designer,” Finlay said

To catch “The Learned Ladies”, head to Union’s Yulman Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday or at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

A previous version of this article misidentified the director of “The Learned Ladies.” Patricia Culbert is the director.

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