Talent Across the Board

By Lauren Leonard

The talents possessed by QVNA Board members are many and surprising. On the occasion of this issue, Lauren Leonard posed questions to two: Duncan Spencer, a professional set-builder for film and theatre and Ben Schindler, an improvisational comedian.

Duncan Spencer, QVNA Vice President, Set-builder

What’s your background?

I was born in Washington DC and went to high school in Massachusetts west of Boston. I Went to New York University for a year and then traveled around the world. In 1990, I visited a friend from Washington who had moved to Philadelphia for Temple University. I found I liked it and a year later applied to the University Pennsylvania from abroad. At Penn I studied archaeology. I worked for a few years in archaeology out west and in Australia while calling Philadelphia my home, but found it untenable and moved back.

How did you find your way to set construction?

I worked a construction in high school during the summers, while traveling abroad, and while in college. After college I filled the gaps between archaeology jobs with set construction for theatres and trade shows which morphed into film set construction beginning with the Terry Gilligan film 12 Monkeys (1995). In other words, a series of poor life decisions led me to set construction.

When you’re working on a film what specific tasks might you be doing?

In set construction we are a part of what is called the Art Department. The Art Department is headed by the Production Designer, who works with the Director to give the picture a “look.” Below the Production Designer is the Art Director who relays these instructions with words and drawings to the Construction Department. The Construction Department is made up of the Set Dressing, Special-effects and Property (aka Props) Departments. We all serve at the pleasure of the Production Designer. Our job is to make the design look as the designer wants it and at the same time interpreting it so that the structure works physically and functionally for camera, and so that it can be easily and quickly dismantled and rearranged as needed. We’re generally the first people on the job and the last ones to leave. We endeavor to stay a couple steps ahead of the camera department at all times. If you see the construction crew anywhere near filming, something hasn’t really gone so well!

Having built the world are you still able to suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy the movie magic?

Short answer is no. The more work that we do, usually the worse the film is. When the Director uses sets to try to create a whole reality out of his own mind it usually lacks the jagged edges which, as it turns out, are the details that make things real.

Do you have a favorite film he worked on?

Absolutely, Jesus’ Son, based on the book of the same name by Denis Johnson. It stars Billy Crudup,  Samantha Morton, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Will Patton, John Ventimiglia, Michael Shannon, and Jack Black. It had some of the hardest work with the longest hours but it’s the one I’m most proud to have been a part of.

Is there a designer whose work or style you admire? 

I love everything Cohen brothers. Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the like). I’m a total sucker for period pieces which includes Westerns, martial arts…everything period. I know this kind of contradicts the more set = worse movie theorem from a previous answer, but there it is.

Is there a world from a book or play that you’d most like to construct?

Egads that sounds like such a terribly large amount of work! If I could make somebody else do it I would a do Raymond Chandler Film Noir mystery set in the 1970’s with real looking actors, harsh focus, no smoke or fog. It would be something like a Dog Day Afternoon meets The Big Sleep. (You asked!)

Ben Schindler, QVNA Treasurer, Improvisational Comedian with The N Crowd (Philadelphia’s make-your-face-sore-with-laughter improv comedy institution)

You studied drama at Northwestern and then became a lawyer who excels at crunching numbers. I bet there’s a story that explains this…

Well, we all have goals in life, and mine (apparently) is to have as many degrees as possible that I don’t use in my career. So yes, I studied drama in college and went to law school at Temple, and yet neither performing nor lawyering pays the bills (my wife does that). I suppose the story is, life is more interesting when you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up.

How did you get into improv?

I am less into improv than improv is into me, ok! Improv needs to back off a bit. My wife is starting to question improv’s intentions.

Also, I really enjoyed improvising at the dinner table as a child, in high school, and in college, and while working in consulting for a big accounting firm, I went searching for meaning a creative outlet. I took a class with a creative genius named Jessica Snow, and was invited to audition for The N Crowd. The rest is ongoing and marginally awkward.

I hold a BA in Theatre from Temple and find improv to be the most intimidating of all theatre work. Does it intimidate you? Challenge you?

We all have our things, Lauren. Your thing seems to be preparation and precision. My thing is creating something hilarious yet fleeting, living the awesomeness of making people laugh, and never thinking about it again. Also, I don’t like being told what to say or do. You know, except by my wife. Otherwise, I am my own man. What was the question?

How has it influenced you?

Improv is the gift that keeps on giving. It makes me more open, funnier, more childish, more positive, and a better collaborator. For example, my wife said that she would like to have children, and I said “YES, AND I would like to collaborate with you on that.”  Now we have two kids. Boom! Improv!

Do you find yourself employing any improvisational techniques at home/work/in QVNA Board meetings?

This tends to be more sub-conscious than regular-conscious. I do think that I seek agreement, forward motion, and hilarity in these contexts, especially at home where my wife puts up with a lot of shenanigans.

On a scale of one to ten, how funny are you?

I’m a 7, 8 max, depending on the lighting. I mean, funny is subjective, right? Also, objectively, I am the least funny person in my improv troupe. It’s not even close. We are dealing with 10s and 11s with these performers.

On a scale of one to ten, how funny does your wife think you are?

I am either a 1 or a 10. There is no in-between. Also, if I had known you were going to ask about my wife, I wouldn’t have mentioned her in basically all my prior responses. I mean, she is awesome and the one who make is possible for me to perform, she is my guiding light and the best person I know on earth, but I am the one who gets up on the stage. Come on! I am starting to feel like this is all about her. Sheesh.

Where can we go to heckle see you perform? 

Yes yes yes!! Come see me and the N Crowd! So nice of you to ask. Get your tickets ahead of time because we sell out most weeks (for real)! Our group has been around for 11+ years and the word is getting out.

For more information about The N Crowd, and to purchase tickets, visit www.phillyncrowd.com

Image captions:

Duncan Spencer photographed with the basement set built for M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense.  Ben Schindler photographed in a theater.