Paint It Black: A Day In The Life Of Set Work At BLT

Last Sunday, I stopped by to help out a bit with set construction for the upcoming Burien Little Theatre production of Frankenstein. As one of many volunteers who help make these things happen, I thought it would be interesting to describe a typical afternoon spent making the stage ready for a show. On the way, you might learn a little about what a theatre stage is, and how people keep it working, and looking like something it’s not.

The first thing to realize, though, is that there are no typical days. Every show has its unique requirements and challenges. Plus, work here long enough, and you’ll have done just about everything at least once.

Set construction for Frankenstein

The BLT stage during set construction for Frankenstein, Sept. 18, 2011

Image credit: All photos Craig Orsinger/Burien Little Theatre

[click on any image to see it full size]

One thing that I suspect most people don’t know about a theatre stage is that it’s a lot more than just a big, empty space with some curtains around it. BLT’s stage is full of the many things that help make a production possible. There are theatre lights in the ceiling. There’s audio and communications equipment in the wings. There are cables everywhere connecting all those devices. There are ropes and pulleys that lift and move various scenery and curtains. There are nooks and crannies where we store tools, props, costumes, and just about anything else we need to support and run a show.

But I Don’t Do Windows

The first task the production staff put me onto was moving one of the short curtains we use to hide some of those cables, lights, and pulleys that I mentioned earlier from the back of the stage to the front. Why? See the metal bar that goes across the top of the stage in the first photo? It’s a distraction, one of the many things we’d rather not have the audience looking at while a play is going on. The curtain wasn’t hiding anything when it was in back, so up front it went.

There’s no big trick to pulling a curtain down. You just go up and down a tall ladder repeatedly, and untie all the places it’s tied to a pole. Then gravity does the rest.

Stage construction for BLT production of Frankenstein

BLT stage with the teaser curtain in its new location, Sept. 18, 2011

Getting it back up is a bit trickier, but if you have a rope and a sandbag, which nearly every theatre does, this isn’t much of a brain teaser, either. The main thing was trying to remember how to tie a knot that could be undone next time we need to move the thing.

Here’s an “after” picture. No more metal bar.

Paint It Black, Mostly

One of the first things just about anyone involved in stage work will notice is what a theatre’s favorite color is. It’s black. Black paint doesn’t reflect light. It makes holes, shadows, and pockmarks difficult to see. Anything that’s visible from the audience, and isn’t supposed to be visible, is generally painted black.

Nathan Rodda applies paint to BLT's Frankenstein set, Sept. 18, 2011

Set Designer Nathan Rodda applies paint to BLT's Frankenstein set, Sept. 18, 2011

Note, for instance, the floor boards in that last picture. They’re painted black. So are the supplemental platforms on both sides of the stage. In a production like Frankenstein, which is a drama with some seriously dark overtones, Frankenstein set designer Nathan Rodda seems to be favoring dark tones in the set, which means we often start from a black base and go from there. Here’s Nathan doing just that on a portion of the set:

Pieces of fascia in front of the stage right platform of the Frankenstein set.

Pieces of fascia in front of the stage right platform of the Frankenstein set.

Nathan does all sorts of things like this, using seemingly simple painting tools to create illusions of depth or texture. This is something that’s well beyond my abilities, at least on this scale. I’m sometimes amazed, though, at how much stage painting resembles painting miniature models. Terms like “washes” and “weathering” tend to have much the same meaning, and generally speaking the illusion of accuracy is achieved at least partly by being inaccurate, particularly with paint tones and combinations.

Fortunately for the appearance of the set, I didn’t have to paint anything. I got to do something else, which was basically making more surfaces for them to paint black.

This picture illustrates pretty well. Another thing we don’t want an audience to be distracted by is what’s under the stage. To prevent that, some sort of fascia is generally attached to the platform. Using the cordless circular saw in the picture, I made pieces that more or less cover those holes. One of the great things about doing construction work for theatre is that looks aren’t all that important. The audience is far enough away that an inexact or slightly wavy cut isn’t going to offend anyone.

Most of it ends up black anyway.

Audio Difficulties

Among the many audio devices and cables that are in the backstage area is the audio monitor system, which is used to make the sounds on stage audible in the dressing rooms backstage. It’s a fairly simple thing, but, like just about every system backstage, it typically doesn’t go long between repairs. The people working with and around it are always in a hurry, and usually distracted by what they’re doing. For anything that isn’t embedded in its own closet somewhere, repairs are inevitable.

On this occasion, it turned out to be a that a loose speaker connection was preventing one of the speakers from working. Like most such repairs, finding it took a long time, and fixing it almost no time at all.

Gotta Go

After that, my time was just about up. Still, I got to climb up and down ladders and use power tools, with no particular need to make any of it perfect. I even did some repair work on the audio system. Which, all in all, is a pretty typical work day for someone like me at Burien Little Theatre.

What did you do with your Sunday afternoon?

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