"Sherri," the new Lifetime Network sitcom starring Sherri Shepherd, premieres October 5 with production design by Ellen Waggett of Vibrant Design, LLC. An Emmy Award nominee for her work on "Stephen Colbert's Christmas Special" and the series "Whoopi," Waggett has extensive TV credits, including "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," "Real World: Brooklyn," "Damages" and "Hope & Faith."
Based on Shepherd's stand up comedy act, "Sherri" is the first sitcom from Lifetime's own production arm. Waggett has designed numerous sets, all grounded in the real world, for Shepherd's many-faceted character: a single mom who's a paralegal and comedien. The multi-camera show shoots live on Fridays in a new studio at New York City's Hotel Pennsylvania in front of an audience of about 200.
"Hotel Pennsylvania was a warren of old studio and support spaces which we tore out to create a new, large studio for 'Sherri,'" Waggett explains. "It's very difficult to pull off a sitcom in less than 12,000 square feet, and we have about 10,000. We're really right on top of each other. But we build swing sets within other swing sets and use tricks like walls that flip around and redressing sets to make it work."
Waggett's brief was to give "Sherri" "as natural a look as possible for a sitcom," she says. "It was a priority for Lifetime that Sherri live in a very believable New York. In terms of size and economic scale, the sets reflect what her character would really have."
Sherri lives in a modest, two-bedroom apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone with a "very lived in" look. "It's very designed but not 'decorated,'" she says. "The bulk of the apartment set is a living room/kitchen/hall combination that's clean, comfy and cozy with references to her stand up comedy act in fake posters of her club performances."
Waggett came up with an innovative solution to the odd physical limitations the studio has upstage. "The studio used to be the Hotel's Grand Ballroom. There is a balcony that surrounded the dance floor which we weren't allowed to remove when we altered the space, so our studio drops down to a 9'6" ceiling around the perimeter" she explains. "I had the unusual instinct to orient the stage so we took advantage of this handicap. I knew the audience would have a better experience if we could keep them under the high part of the studio, instead of sticking them under the balcony. I also realized we could maximize our limited space by using the low part as scenery. I knew that it would work to put the back of the sets under the balcony, so I devised a way to use the balcony as a ceiling and gain extra space under it. It took some convincing, but I finally got everyone to sign off on my odd approach."
She tucked the law office where Sherri works underneath the balcony, so viewers see the ceiling of the entry hallway back to the center of the office where the paralegals work. She conceived their area as an interior bullpen without windows so she didn't need space for a window drop.
Likewise, Waggett built Sherri's third-floor apartment terrace and fire escape under the balcony, "which justified having a ceiling outside. Her windows look onto a vista but the cove of vision you see is very small. The drop is only 9 feet tall, but we have no problems shooting off of it because it is so beautifully masked. We rigged it on a track to make it slide back & front to accommodate the lighting needs. It slides front so it can be backlit for night scenes, and tracks back to the studio wall for day scenes."
The swing sets she has designed so far range from clubs, restaurants and a karate studio to parts of Sherri's ex-husband's apartment and a pediatrician's office where her new love interest works. Waggett even crafted an "awesome" subway set with turnstiles, subway-tile walls and station signage. Swing sets are stored offsite for recurring use or to be reused when stripped and redressed.
Although Waggett doesn't have a mandate to apply 'green' production design principles to "Sherri," she infuses every show she works on today with a green ethic. "It's inherent in everything I do now," she notes. "My design aesthetic is sort of green anyway: I love old furniture, textiles and wallpaper. And they play very well into this show, which we're trying to make look very realistic.
"I reuse walls, windows and sets all the time. You can get a new look by painting part of a vinyl floor or edging it, so it's hard to justify replacing it. In fact, I've used the same floor for four swing sets in a row."
Waggett looks forward to creating more real world environments for "Sherri" as the show settles into its run. "I love working on sitcoms," she says. "I really enjoy the pace of them and the live audiences."
Sharon White is the set decorator for "Sherri" and Bill Berner the director of photography.
About Vibrant Design
Vibrant Design, LLC is an entertainment design firm providing a full range of set and lighting design services to broadcast and cable TV, live productions, corporate events and theater as well as architecture and interior design. For more information, www.vibrantdesign.tv.