In recent weeks, Profitt has been applying her
skills to the comic J.M. Barrie piece "What Every Woman Knows," which
opened last weekend at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, and the darkly
comic Harold Pinter play "The Birthday Party," which opened this
weekend at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.
In all, she has designed about 60 shows since
launching her career just six years ago. With a growing number of
producers and directors regarding her as a go-to person, she has
landed frequent assignments at such venues as Pacific Resident
Theatre, the Odyssey and the West Valley Playhouse.
Given her ties to small, nonprofit theaters, it
probably was inevitable that colleagues would start calling her Vickie
She thinks the real reason for the nickname,
however, has more to do with the fact that—given the long hours and
low pay that are standard at such theaters-she's her own nonprofit
"I'm 50 years old, and, a couple of years ago, my
parents bought me a truck because I couldn't afford one. Otherwise,
I'd be taking the bus.
"That's theater," she adds, philosophically. "You
ask yourself, 'What is this all about?' And then you go and do it
again. Because I've gotta. I just have to. This is my art form.
This is how I create."
Profitt sits at the dining table in the dingy house
she has designed for "The Birthday Party" at the Matrix. In front of
her sits her model for the set, built at quarter-inch scale. It comes
complete with plastic figurines (bought from a hobby-train store)
seated at a tiny table.
As she explains the design's stylistic elements,
she offers a primer in the sorts of visual cues that a
designer—working closely with the director—builds into a set.
Pinter's 1958 play is set at a seaside
boardinghouse, where two just-arrived lodgers arrange to throw a
birthday party for a fellow boarder. The guest of honor insists it's
not his birthday, and becomes increasingly terrified as the raucous
singing, dancing and drinking turn menacing. The new arrivals have
come to fetch him, but why?
Profitt points out that the floor, which tilts
gradually upward from the front of the stage to the rear, offers a
subtle hint that "there's something a little off—that all is not well
The walls—burlap stretched over wood frames—can
appear solid or gauzy, depending on how they are lighted. Here again,
"the structure that these people have around them is not that solid,"
On the sides, the walls extend all the way down to
the lip of the stage, like outstretched arms. This is meant to make
viewers feel a little uncomfortable—a little trapped—just like the
frightened birthday boy. "You're in there with them," Profitt says.
In this or any other design, Profitt says her main
objectives are to make the director's vision a reality and to create
"an environment for the actors to play in—that's safe and that makes
them feel like they're in the play, that takes them to that time and
place that they need to be."
During construction and painting, Profitt often
works alongside the crew, tweaking or playing with elements of the
design as she goes along. Drawn to art since girlhood, she regards the
sets as sculptures that need her hands.
She draws upon a different sort of creativity to
keep within construction budgets that range from as little as $1,000
to the $12,000 being spent for "The Birthday Party." "I stick to
budget," she says. "I know the limitations that these theaters are
This sometimes requires creative reuse of wall
sections, flooring or architectural details from previous productions.
Some theaters keep a stockpile of such items, and Profitt maintains
her own by holding on to discarded doors, windows and other accents.
Other times, the world provides. She feared, for
instance, that the pillars she wanted to incorporate into her
fairy-tale design for Pacific Resident Theatre's "The Swan" would
prove too costly. But then she happened upon a garage sale, and there
stood her columns, at bargain prices. To further decorate the set, she
fashioned trees from branches that in a fortuitous bit of timing were
being trimmed by street crews across the street from the Venice
Profitt spends at least a couple of hundred hours
working on a typical set, earning $500 to $1,500 for the design, plus
an hourly wage if she's helping with construction.
Workdays sometimes stretch around the clock. "You
have no life," she says. "I've lost a lot of friends. My house is a
disaster. My truck is filthy."
She hopes to graduate one day to larger theaters,
larger budgets and larger paychecks. But meanwhile, she says, she
feels compensated in other ways. Her simple explanation: "All my life,
I searched for something that took in all of my talents."
Profitt studied art at Cypress College and
specialized in painting at UCLA, which, she dryly notes, left her
"qualified to do absolutely nothing." Because she was good with her
hands, however, she found work painting, applying faux finishes and
doing carpentry in people's homes. She also stripped down a carousel
for restoration and spent several months renovating a yacht.
All of this proved to be useful preparation for the
theater, where she began to concentrate her efforts after a
breakthrough with the play "Names" in 1995.
Profitt had built or painted just a handful of sets
and had designed just one when she was hired to build the set for that
drama about the New York theater community at the time of the
blacklist. The original designer had abruptly departed, leaving just a
preliminary sketch. Profitt reworked and, ultimately, redesigned the
set while she built it.
Her work ended up winning a design award when the
L.A. Weekly handed out its annual theater prizes. Since then, she has
never stopped to study set design in any formal way. "I've been
learning by doing," she says. "This is on-the-job training."
Her resume is now jammed with designs for Pacific
Resident Theatre (including "Golden Boy," "The Quick-Change Room,"
"Indiscretions" and "The Swan"), the Odyssey ("The Dresser" and "The
Gigli Concert") and the West Valley Playhouse ("Room Service" and "The
Ail-Night Strut"). She also has worked with the Will Geer Theatricum
Botanicum, Playwrights Arena and the Falcon.
In 2000, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle gave
her a career achievement award—just one of a growing list of prizes
she has received.
Joe Stern, Matrix producing artistic director,
attributes Profitt's success to her being "very forthright, very
collaborative, very willing, very open." What's more, he says, "she's
just tireless. She's never satisfied; she keeps working."
Still to come this fall are designs for George
Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" at Actors Co-op, opening Oct.
26, and the world premiere of "Columbo" co-creator William Link's
"Murder Plot" at the West Valley Playhouse, opening Nov. 2.
The work is ephemeral—seen for a month or so, then
torn down. But that doesn't make Profitt blue.
"What's important for me is the process of doing
it," she says, "not the final thing. The end product is just a
byproduct of that work."