He has created a Depression Hooverville that could instantly be transformed into a Manhattan mansion. With such simple tools as lights and transparent panels, he produced a big city skyline. And with life-size cartoon figures, he doubled the size of a musical comedy cast and put audiences in the middle of a turn-of-the-century parade.

Gil Morales, resident scenic designer at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, “provides a visual point of view that synthesizes and complements any director’s vision,” Thomas F. Bradac, the Gem’s executive director, said.

Bradac credits Morales, who has been with the Gem the past three years, for giving the theater “a visual identity.”

“He’s an ‘actor’s designer,’ if there is such a thing,” said actress Beth Hansen, who recently played the title role in “Hello, Dolly!” on a Morales-designed set at Sebastian’s West dinner playhouse in San Clemente.


“Most designers’ sets end where the audiences’ line of vision ends,” Hansen said. “When I did ‘Bus Stop’ at the Gem, my character needed to exit into a stockroom. Would you believe it--Gil put rows of supplies on shelves backstage so I would feel like I was actually entering a stockroom, instead of just going backstage. The audience probably never even saw it, but Gil wanted to make sure that I did. Such concern for the actor’s job is rare.”

Morales said he relishes the appreciation of his work. “The satisfaction my work brings me--that’s all that’s really important,” he said. “I never do anything creative for money. That would spoil it somehow.”

Morales, who is “50ish” and lives in Fullerton, maintains a chaotic schedule. Two Morales-designed productions open tonight--"A Moon for the Misbegotten” at the Gem and “Leonardo the Florentine” at Sebastian’s. In the next few months, while continuing his resident duties at the Gem, he’ll also design the sets for the next two shows at Sebastian’s, the Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera’s production of “Annie” and an opera to be staged at Maldonado’s restaurant and nightclub in Pasadena.

It’s what Bradac termed “an extraordinary artistic impulse” that makes a Morales set so immediately recognizable.

“I’m not interested in depicting reality as reality--that’s not what the stage is about,” Morales said. “I like theatricality, the art of saying we’re real. I especially like working in small spaces because the audience’s involvement is so physical. They’re more than just observers--they’re participants.

“The set must provide a visual interpretation of what the director wants the play to say. When I’m working with small theater groups, my involvement is acknowledged as crucial to the production’s development and the ultimate interpretation. The set has to be more than just pretty. It has to say something that can be said in no other way except visually.”

Morales’ life in the theater unfolded as a show-biz cliche. Growing up in Los Angeles as the son of a theatrical booking agent, he developed a passion for scenic design at an early age. At the University of Chicago, however, he majored in Renaissance art because there was no theatrical design program. "(Theatrical design) wasn’t really considered an art in the United States then, perhaps because opera was so late in arriving here,” he said.

But Morales did find plenty of work, albeit volunteer, in campus productions. After graduating from college, he designed for the Blackstone theater in Chicago--and then Hollywood beckoned.


“I was so high-minded. I signed a three-year contract with Paramount--and hated every minute. For three years, I designed doors and windows. Just doors and windows! I thought, have I come to this? I designed all the doors and all the windows for a New York street set on Paramount’s back lot. Years later, I heard that set burned down.” Morales smiles at the memory. “And I was so glad!”

Now Gil Morales is “doing what he set out to do.” He designs 10 to 12 shows a year, and, he said, he’s pursuing his own “artistic impulse.”

“Designers today, they try to be so realistic on stage instead of daring to be theatrical. Design students are being taught how to paint walls, not create texture. There’s so little emotion in their work. Realism--that’s for TV and movies. They don’t seem to realize that the stage is a very special place.”