Inside the Art Studio That Brings Broadway Shows to Life – Joe Forbes himself narrates this video that shows the scenic artists at work inside Scenic Art Studios. Forbes is one of Peter Feller’s “five heads” who started his own studio when Feller Scenery closed (the others being Nino Novellino with Costume Armour, Roger and Shelley Gray with Center Line Studios, and someone needs to help me remember the others).
[Mr. Unitt at the Lyceum Theatre said,] “There is a story told of a firm of which one of the members thought a chandelier would look well in the scene. So he went out and bought a fine crystal affair. At the dress rehearsal he noticed it was not lighted, and demanded the reason. He was told that the act took place in the afternoon, and the light was coming in the windows.
“He went to the back of the house where his partner asked the same question, and was told the same answer.
“‘Well, light it. Who in h–l’s goin’ to stop us?’
“The anecdote gives the note which dominates a large part of theatrical production to-day, ‘Who in h–l’s goin’ to stop us?’…
“In the evolution of the scenery of a play, the scene painter is or should have the manuscript to read. In the rush of affairs now he may see only one act, or perhaps only the scenario. In the meantime the stage manager has made a plot and works out the exits and entrances on exact lines. Then the stage manager, author and scene painter get together and consult. That, at least, is the way they must do to get the best results. The scene painter sees only the pictorial side and must be held to the practical necessities of the case. One of these is that the wall scenes must be folded that they can be put in the six feet of doors, for scenery must travel. Fireproofing is another great handicap. This is usually done by painting on fireproof cloth, of which the chemicals are pretty apt to affect the colors. Another difficulty is the harmonizing of real things with the artificial. The use of real antiques, real palms, real flowers and foliage does not produce as successful results as when purely artificial scenery and stage properties are depended on.”…
[Mr. Homer Emens said,] “He must have an instinctive knowledge of effects. A handsome thing may not look handsome behind the footlights. An expensive stuff may look cheap. It is a fact that painted properties look more real than do the real things…
On the edge of things, in one of those architectural monoliths described, Mr. Ernets Gros, the scene painter, was found. His office was interesting with a collection of stage models which could be identified as scenes on the Belasco stage. Here was a scene painter’s library filled with handsome volumes labelled “Greece,” “Rome”—every nation, ancient and modern—books of epochs, periods, archaeology, costumes were represented, as well as periodicals of the most luxurious types in paper, illustration and text. Truly an equipment…
“Modern developments have not helped us in the least,” said Mr. Gros. “Scene painting has in no way advanced. The whole matter lies with the manager. If he is a man with artistic perceptions we have one result. If he depends on his advertising, we have another…
“The first thing the scene painter does is to prepare his model. Then he gives the stage carpenter the measurements. When the frame is ready the painting proceeds. Dry colors only are used; no drop of oil goes into scene painting. Fire-proofing has added to our labors by its effect on the colors. When the scenery is ready comes the problem of lighting, which must be determined by experiment. The electric light is brutal. We try to control it by the use of different media, but in no way can we get at the softness and mystery of gas.”
Stage scenery and the men who paint it. M. G. Humphreys, il. Theatre 8: 203-4, v-vi, Aug 1908.
Our final production of the season at Triad Stage was a new piece called And So We Walked. Written and performed by DeLanna Studi, it recounts her journey to walk the Trail of Tears with her father and rediscover her Cherokee roots. The show itself is traveling around the country for the next few weeks before another full production at Portland Center Stage next spring.
The show takes place in both the real world and a theatrical dream world, and one of the props I built was an ancient burned box which held secrets. We determined the size and shape in various devising sessions and rehearsals, so I simply made another box out of nice materials to match a rehearsal version I had already made.
The carcass was constructed from half-inch poplar I bought at Home Depot (my planer was broke), with a piece of plywood for the bottom. The top wanted to be vaulted, so I ripped a number of slats from quarter-inch poplar, beveled the edges, and glued them together to make the vault shape.
Once the top was all glued together, I ran a belt sander over it to transform the faceted surface into a smooth curve.
The hardware was a mix of stuff from the hobby store and pieces I had in stock from other boxes I had built. A lot of this decorative brass box hardware comes straight from China, so you have to wait a few weeks or even months to get it shipped. Whenever I order some, I get several options and extras so that I slowly build up a stock to use on projects that have too tight of a deadline to wait for the shipping.
The box is described as “burnt”, so my next step was to burn it. I used a basic propane torch you can get at the hardware store. I charred the whole outside of the box, and allowed the flames to go to town on a few areas to really break up the surface.
Once it was cool, I removed all the charcoal with a wire brush. I sealed it with shellac to keep any charcoal remnants from staining the actress’ hands or white costume.
In the areas which burned away the most, I applied some grey crackle paint to simulate the charcoal I had just brushed away. The box is also described as having deep scratches, as if some mythical being had been trying to claw it open, so I added those with a grinder and Dremel.
The inside received a wet blend of various acrylics to give it a deep red aged appearance that suggested blood. I dry brushed a few other colors, including some metallics, over the outside to help accentuate the imperfections and texture.
During tech, the director really liked the way the scratches looked on the box and wanted some more. She asked for some Cherokee patterns to be engraved around the edges as if some primitive creature had carved them in by hand. Once I added those, the box was complete.
The following first appeared in an issue of Theatre magazine in 1908:
by Mary Gay Humphreys
That for the most part virtue must be its own reward is the scene painter’s ethics of his own profession. When, as it sometimes happens, the curtain goes up on an empty stage, and the audience breaks into involuntary applause over the beauty of the scene, such are his crumbs of comfort, and he takes them thankfully.
His own standards are much higher than he is able to realize. In this respect there seems to be but little difference between his attitude and that of the painter regularly accredited to the Fine Arts. But at no previous period is his discouragement greater than at this moment, when to the man in the orchestra scenic productions seem to have profited so greatly by modern inventions and scientific developments, as that, for example, of the electric light. Nor on no other man has later managerial conditions borne more hardly.
“There is no book that gives the history of scenic art. It would be too sad. It would tell only of disappointed hopes, of melancholy failures.”
This was said by Mr. Unitt in his interesting den at the Lyceum Theatre:
“Scene painting differs from the paintings known as among the Fine Arts only in degree. The principles are the same as in miniature painting. The only difference is you have forty feet of canvas. A portrait must resemble the subject more minutely than the scene resembles a situation, but that does not concern the principles involved. But, unhappily, to say that a picture represents scene painting is to make a disagreeable criticism.
“But it should be remembered that in painting, as the term goes, the artist does as he wishes; he consults no ends but his own. It is not so with the scene painter. His painting furnishes only the background, and this as a picture is likely to be thrown out of key because the other parts, of which he has no control, are not consistent with it. The lighting of the stage, for example, may not agree with the atmosphere the scene painter has given the scene. He also has to contend against costumes out of key, and as the living element of the picture is most prominent, the scene suffers.
“But nothing has tended to retard the development of scene painting as has the decay of the old stock companies. In those days the scene painter was part of the working staff of the theatre, and in daily intercourse with his principals. It took time, if you will remember, to produce such scenes as those in ‘The Amazons.’ This could be only accomplished by having a manager with artistic perceptions, and a staff that felt that pride and enthusiasm which must accompany good work.
“The method of production is now entirely different. The scene painter is not part of the theatrical staff. His is an employee of a firm. He is required to produce as rapidly as possible the scenery for perhaps twenty plays. The greater number of these will be failures, and others must be ready to take their place. This means a large plant and more rapid work. The scene painter cannot follow up his work; frequently he never sees it afterward. He has absolutely no opportunity for individuality, and naturally does not take the same interest as he did in that artistic atmosphere engendered when he was a member of the staff of a theatre.
“The conspicuous defect to-day in stage production is the lack of team work. The men who now control these matters are not distinguished for their keen artistic sense as was the manager in the old days. The commercial element, that has to be considered in view of the number of plays and possible failures, requires that the plays be put on as cheaply as possible. Suppose the scene painter attempts to carry his point and the play fails. He would probably have to listen to such comments as:
“‘Now, if you had put that girl on the fence and thrown a lot of color around her, the play would have gone far better. See?'”
Stage scenery and the men who paint it. M. G. Humphreys, il. Theatre 8: 203-4, v-vi, Aug 1908.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies