Though Joe Stewart has been production designer at the SAG Awards 14 times, the Jan. 29 ceremony turns a new page for him, thanks to this year’s different mandate — plus 50,000 yards of chain.

Stewart’s goal: “We’re trying to be more immersive,” he tells Variety.
For him, this means bringing the stage environment into the audience.

Though many awards shows are held in proscenium theaters (e.g., the Oscars and Tonys), the SAG Awards clear out a large room at the Shrine Auditorium near downtown L.A., presenting Stewart with an empty space. So he is designing for the presenters onstage as well as for the guests in the audience, who are seated at rectangular tables.

Stewart works closely with collaborators including director Alan Carter (his fifth time at the SAG Awards); lighting designer Simon Miles; and Keith Greco, who does the table designs. “It’s amazing to ‘delete’ that room and then build it for SAG Awards,” Stewart enthuses.

A key element of the set are chain curtains, which are aluminum-colored and react to light. Onstage, the curtains will sometimes have front projections, and at others lighting patterns.

Within the chain is an LED lighting product like a neon tube, with the lights changing. “It’s like a little thunderstorm happening in the tube,” Stewart jokes. “These elements carry into the house, and fade and you go deeper into the house. And there are chandeliers made out of the same elements.”

He and Greco also worked on the tabletops.

“Part of the centerpiece on each table also has an LED product that will change color as the set changes color,” Stewart says, before laughingly assuring, “we’re going to control it. It’s not going to be crazy.”

Stewart started work on this during the summer, and has a concept meeting with the awards team to pitch ideas. This year, he had four concepts, then began developing two of them, with one winning out.

Despite the tech advances — “LED products have created a new day in design” — Stewart does some things the old-fashioned way, such as building a cardboard model of the set.

“It helps me see things three-dimensionally, and it helps the crew as well.”

Stewart is a partner in the Shaffner/Stewart design firm, which has extensive TV credits, including talk shows (Ellen DeGeneres), sitcoms (“Friends,” “Big Bang Theory”), specials (Garth Brooks, David Copperfield) and other kudocasts (American Music Awards, TV Academy Hall of Fame).

He is enthused about the SAG Awards for many reasons.  “First, it’s a wonderful group of people to work with and it’s a great creative environment.” He also says the event itself is fun, because the organization’s ensemble awards help set the tone. “All the performers show up and support their colleagues.”

Stewart’s design partner is John Shaffner, an old college chum who gives him frequent feedback on his designs. “It’s great because
I always get a fresh view and a strong critique. We have drawing tables that are next to each other.

We’re like Ferrante & Teicher,” he says referring to the pianist duo.