Rancho Santa Fe woman excels at stage design

Stage set designer Jana Leibo
Stage set designer Jana Leibo of Rancho Santa Fe places a replica parrot in a cage for the upcoming play, “The Artificial Jungle”, at the Point Loma Playhouse.

(Michael J. Williams)

Jana Leibo has crafted dozens of stage sets for plays, mostly for the Village Church Community Theater in her hometown of Rancho Santa Fe.

Recently, director Robert Salerno and his wife, actress Dori Salois, reached out to Leibo for props they could use in their upcoming Point Loma Playhouse production.

They walked away with more than stage decor.

“They not only got props, they got me and Twyla,” said Leibo, referring to colleague Twyla Arant, a producer and director at the Village Church. “This is such an amazing collaboration and it will come through in the show.

“The Artificial Jungle” is scheduled to open at the Point Loma venue March 25 and conclude April 10.

Information on the play, cast, crew, show times and tickets is available at

Written by Charles Ludlam, “The Artificial Jungle” takes place in a pet shop in New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1970s. The play is described as a comedic parody of film noir pieces such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.”

Designing the set is an inspiring and challenging vehicle for Leibo to exercise her creativity because of the many quirky features required by the script.

“The show requires talking parrots, tropical fish, snakes, boas, rats, tubifex worms and lots of jungle flora, not to mention piranhas,” Leibo said in a Playhouse news release. “This show taps into all my experience as a prop master, set dresser and scenic designer.”

In an interview at the Playhouse’s home within the 111-year-old Point Loma Assembly building, Leibo enthusiastically displayed and discussed items she brought there in her pickup.

They included a sculpture of a slab of meat to be fed to the piranhas, a toy rat, sculpted rocks, model fish to be massaged into piranhas and a vividly colored replica of a parrot.

“When I saw that parrot, I knew I had to do the show,” quipped director Salerno as he worked on set preparations with set and lighting designer Jay Maloney.

Joking aside, Salerno said he was exposed to Ludlam’s groundbreaking works in New York City in the 1970s.

“I’ve always loved him and thought he was brilliant,” Salerno said.

He had planned to do “The Artificial Jungle” several years ago, but the project was abandoned when his collaborator on the play — San Diego theater great Priscilla Allen —became ill and died.

“This year I thought we needed some comedy to counteract all the tragedy that’s around us all the time,” Salerno said. “So I dusted it off and they offered me to do it here. ... It’s going to be very cool.”

“The Artificial Jungle”.
Jay Maloney, left, and Jana Leibo prepare a stage prop for Point Loma Playhouse’s upcoming production of “The Artificial Jungle”.
(Michael J. Williams)

For Leibo, working on “The Artificial Jungle” design in conjunction with the Playhouse is a point of departure from her North County orbit.

She came to Rancho Santa Fe from Texas about 20 years ago when her husband took a job with Qualcomm.

Leibo said she got into creating sets when her daughter wanted to be in theater.

“I’m not good at sitting still,” Leibo said. “I quickly found myself, ‘Like how can I help out? I can make some decorations.’”

A director invited her to work with him and she’s been doing it ever since.

“I had been a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I had no formal background at all. But I loved the challenge of ‘Can we do this?’ I’m not really happy unless I’m being creative. I’ve got to keep my hands moving.”

In stage design, Leibo exercises skills she uses in her part-time job as a flooring design specialist at Home Depot in Encinitas.

“I’m creating sets in people’s homes,” she said. “What is the vibe they want to have in their home? It’s the same thing I do here on set. What’s the vibe the director wants to create? How do you want it to feel?”

In creating a set, Leibo and her colleagues start with a piece of graph paper, notate where the walls will be located and diagram the placement of objects required by the script. Then she gets to work on locating those objects or creating them herself.

“If you need a large piece of meat with a bone, I’m going to create that for you,” she said. “And once you get the walls built, we have to think about everything (such as) door knobs and whether that door knob needs to have a keyhole. It gets down to that kind of detail. ...

“Also, I have to take into account this (play) is happening in 1975. So I want to have it period appropriate. I don’t want to have ‘80s bold colors in a ‘75 set.”

Community theaters often share props with each other to cut costs and, Leibo said, she scours thrift stores for items that can be obtained inexpensively.

“Thrift stores are my favorite places. I’m familiar with several of them and I kind of know what I’m going to find where,” she said, adding that St. Peter’s Thrift Shop in Del Mar is one of her go-to spots.

As she worked on the Playhouse set, Leibo grabbed an electric saw and several boards, took them outside and cut them to the desired length of a feature on the set.

In addition to being handy with a tool box, Leibo does fashion modeling, she said.

“My friends make fun of me. They say, ‘You could actually build the runway and walk down it.”