Behind the Scenes: Scenic Art

This post is part of the Behind the Scenes series, an introduction to all the departments at Geva and how they help make our shows happen.

Geva’s Scenic Art department is made up of two people: Charge Artist Apollo Weaver and Assistant Scenic Charge Erin Wegleitner. They’re pretty easy to recognize, at least during the workday – they’re the ones whose clothes are covered in paint.

Scenic artists are responsible for the parts of our scenery that aren’t structural. That means a lot of painting – at least, usually it does. They also sculpt, create textures, put up wallpaper, and apply whatever finishing touches each set requires. Apollo describes his job as translating. He looks at the scenic designer’s drawings and figures out how to make them work onstage.

Paint elevation for Act 1 of Clybourne Park, designed by Skip Mercier

Paint elevation for Act 1 of Clybourne Park, designed by Skip Mercier

From the designer, Apollo receives paint elevations, which show what each surface (walls, floor, etc.) should look like. Based on that, he selects the colors and paint techniques that will achieve the right look on stage. Painting the walls of a set is different from painting the walls of a house, because the audience will be seeing them from 40 feet away – from that distance and under stage lighting, a solid-color wall looks flat and washed-out. So, to paint a wall that looks like a solid color, our scenic artists can’t just do one or two coats with a paint roller and be done with it. They add layers of different colors and textures that, from a distance, will blend together and look like one color. Their job is to “make the audience’s eye see what they think they’re supposed to see.”

To get the look right, Apollo mixes colors and creates samples – at least three versions for each surface – and sends them to the designer for approval. Once a paint treatment is chosen, he and Erin can start working on the scenery. Because everything goes through multiple layers and each one needs time to dry, they have to multi-task and do pieces of different projects throughout the day. This can be challenging, because space in the scene shop is often hard to come by. The space available changes from production to production, and from day to day, depending on the size of the set being built and how far along that process is.

candles shop20131021-074951.jpgDuring the build of The 39 Steps earlier this season, most of the scenic art department’s space was occupied by the hanging candles that framed the stage, each of which required three coats of paint to come out that vibrant red.

Projects that take up less space generally require more detail, like the oversized Florida postcard from Pump Boys and Dinettes. It started with a mathematical approach: a grid and some careful calculations, based on a regular-sized postcard, to make sure that each letter and object ended up in the right position:Florida postcardThe set of Informed Consent is unusual in that it’s not painted at all. It’s mostly made up of stacks of cardboard, all in its natural color. When the material first arrived at the scene shop, Apollo and Erin spent two weeks treating all 900 4’x8′ sheets with flame-retardant chemicals to make them safe to put on stage. (Scenery always needs to be flame-retarded, but usually that’s taken care of with an additive in the paint and doesn’t take any extra time.) Then, they used bandsaws to sculpt the edges of the cardboard into shapes evoking the rough walls of the Grand Canyon.

Part of the set for Informed Consent (designed by Michael Raiford) in the scene shop, before the edges were sculpted

Part of the set for Informed Consent (designed by Michael Raiford) in the scene shop, before the edges were sculpted

Tina Fabrique and Jessica Wortham on the set of Informed Consent (photo by Colin Huth)

Tina Fabrique and Jessica Wortham on the set of Informed Consent (photo by Colin Huth)

Now that Informed Consent is up and running, our scenic artists have moved on to The Odd Couple, a more traditional scenic design that will feature a custom-painted backdrop (so far, Apollo has completed a miniature version to make sure the 14 colors he’s mixed are right). Only a couple more weeks until it’s time to move the next production into the Mainstage!

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