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In the Scene Shop

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Behind every actor, singer, and dancer at Juilliard there is—scenery. Unique, custom-made scenery built by the carpenters and painters in the scene shop, which occupies the two-story tall space next to the Peter Jay Sharp stage. More than 20 full-time employees and a number of overhires (intern program alumni and freelance set workers hired to work on a project basis) work closely with outside designers and directors throughout the school year to create scenery for every production that goes on at the School—about five different sets are being built at any given time. Currently the largest set in the works is for the Juilliard Opera production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, designed by Charlie Corcoran, which opens on April 25. 

Painters put finishing touches on the forest backdrop for Don Giovanni.

(Photo by Derek Stenborg)

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In the final scene of the opera—the scene in which Don Giovanni must pay for his many sins with his life—the backdrop’s fevered mélange of earth tones will convey Hell, where he will soon reside. His journey there is the culmination of a lifetime of profligacy. The drop’s journey from concept to stage is less tortured, but no less complicated.

The process of creating a set generally starts almost as soon as a director is chosen for a production. In this case, director Stephen Wadsworth tapped Corcoran, the associate designer for last year’s production of The Bartered Bride. To come up with a design concept, they searched around and ended up drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as a Restoration Hardware catalog and photos of Italian cities. Once the concept was established, Corcoran created a model, drawings, and paint elevations (models showing how the finished paint would look) for the set team. And then Derek Stenborg, the scene charge (or paint shop leader), created a paint sample, which was then approved by the designer. At that point in the process, the painters either begin to sketch out the backgrounds on canvas using a grid system, or, if they will be painting on wood, they wait until the carpenters are finished building the drop to begin painting on it. In this case, the city and forest scenes used in the first act were slated for canvas; Hell needed to be built before it could be painted.

Of course there are a zillion details to be dealt with at every step of the process. “There’s a whole conversation that’s almost psychic about what a color really is, and Derek needs to be able to reproduce that. Only a very experienced scenic artist knows how to translate that into reality,” Kent McKay, Production Department director, told "The Journal. In fact, the original pale palette evolved into earth tones and reds and oranges, which meant that everyone involved in the visual aspect of the production had to rethink their plans. “It’s a domino effect,” McKay said. “As soon as something as fundamental as the color of the walls changes, they all need to step back and see what that change means. Costumes, lights—someone standing in front of a gray wall is going to look very different than someone in front of copper.” 

In the meantime, though, the painting could begin. Hand-painted backgrounds that were once a norm in productions are not as common now—minimalist and computer-printed sets are trendy these days (they’re also cheaper). But in part due to timing, the scene shop happened to have the time and space to create them for Don Giovanni. “The stars aligned schedule-wise with this production. It happened that the dance and drama requirements for this time of year could be executed in a more timely fashion than we thought, so we could go to work on "Don Giovanni earlier than originally scheduled,” McKay said. 

The result? The crew—set builders and painters—had the luxury of being able to exercise more of their artistic training than usual. Sometimes, Stenborg said, it can seem like the most challenging part of the job is “knowing how far to put yourself as an artist into it. Sometimes you have to remove your emotional connection to being an artist,” for instance when there’s a time crunch and an outside company needs to be hired to print out a massive image that is simply glued onto wood to make a background. For example, in the 2005 production of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the drops was a highly detailed, brightly colored monster, “We wanted to paint that so bad,” he recalled. “But we didn’t have the time or the space to paint that because we had too many other things going on.” Sometimes, he added, 80 percent of the job of a scene painter is painting things black to prevent parts of the set from being visually intrusive.

Luckily, the Don Giovanni set required a lot more creativity. Starting in February, the seven painters coated pieces of luan wood (mahogany plywood) with 800 gallons of spackle. They then blended orange and red paint to portray Hell; sketched out and then painted a detailed city block; and, on canvas, created a black-and-white forest that will be lit from behind. The brushes, brush strokes, and movements associated with creating the images to cover the 8,000 square feet are massive. “You have to use your whole body to paint. What you’re doing is turning this hand motion of painting into—almost ballet,” Stenborg explained.

Apart from the 15 to 20 sets that the Juilliard’s scene shop creates each year, one thing that makes it unique is the fact that it even exists, according to J. B. Barricklo, Juilliard’s production manager. “Other conservatories have to have their scenery built by outside professional shops. Usually the only schools you find large scene shops in are very large liberal arts ones,” he said, because they also have departments that teach production work. 

While Juilliard doesn’t offer a production degree, interns are hired every year to learn and do much of the work. They are immersed in the sometimes rigorous lifestyle of a scene builder, occasionally required to charge a scene, and prepared for all of the things that can possibly go wrong on a set. And things do go wrong on a regular basis. Designers may be unhappy with what should have been a finished product (cueing the need to start over), pools of water almost always leak, and occasionally budget issues torpedo plans. But with an experienced production crew like Juilliard’s, planning and recovery for these things is simply part of the job. As for Don Giovanni, regardless of how the rest of the production plays out, it’s going to end in Hell. A stunning, hand-painted Hell.

 

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