Q&A: Joseph Forbes, President Of Scenic Art Studios, Part Two

The Phantom Of The Opera tour with set design by Paul Brown
The Phantom Of The Opera tour with set design by Paul Brown

Purchase College’s Broadway Technical Theatre History Project honors behind-the-scenes individuals and technical personnel who have played significant roles in the realization of Broadway productions, from technical supervisors to theatre technicians. The sixth annual Backstage Legends And Masters Award was presented to Joseph B. Forbes, president of industry-renowned Scenic Art Studios, Inc. on April 24 in New York.

Live Design chatted with Forbes about his recent recognition and esteemed career. Read Part One of the Q&A here.

Live Design: Is scenic painter a rigorous role? How so? What skills are needed?

Joseph Forbes: A scenic artist must be a jack-of-all-trades. He or she must be a little bit sculptor, a little bit architect, a little bit art historian, and a lot of pure painter. It helps if you are also a little bit of a mad scientist, able to create and invent new tools and techniques to solve problems. Scenic artists should have a thorough working knowledge of the history of architectural and decorative styles. You should not only be able to draw a relatively accurate Corinthian capital, but know the difference between a Corinthian, an Ionic, and a Doric capital.

House tabs for The Phantom Of The Opera tour with set design by Paul Brown

A scenic artist must have strong working knowledge of the human form, good drawing and color matching skills, and the ability to mimic another artist’s style. A working knowledge of the history of art is an incredibly valuable tool. Recently, one of my lead artists, Richard Prouse, was asked to paint a drapery in the Cubist style for the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s production of The Open Door. We were given just a pencil sketch of a conventional piece of drapery, and tasked with executing it as Cubist. In this case, as in so many others, Richard’s working knowledge of a specific artistic style was imperative.

You also need to be able to communicate, not only with designers to understand their requirements, but also with carpenters, electricians, and automation technicians all of whom are trying to accomplish their goals at the same time as you. It’s essential you be able to work in a group. The ability to listen and understand the problems of other people in other departments helps everyone get their work done in a smooth and timely fashion. 

Scene painting can also be a physically demanding job. There is a fair amount of time spent climbing ladders, troweling heavy textures and finishes, and unfortunately, a lot of time spent on your hands and knees. A single injury can significantly limit your ability to work. I had been in the business only a few years and was painting the original Broadway production of Cats for Nolan’s Scenery Studios when I took a fall off a ladder and blew out my knee. For a number of years thereafter—even after surgery and a lengthy recovery—I remained limited in the tasks I could perform. Many scenic artists suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome in their wrists and hands that requires corrective surgery, as well as having back and shoulder problems. 

LD: What are the basic materials you most often use?

JF: When I first came into the industry, all those many years ago, the business of being a scenic artist was dangerous. The materials we used were often hazardous, and many scenic artists experienced serious health issues later in their lives—in part, because they had spent their careers mishandling some truly dangerous materials. The dyes that were being used then were aniline dyes, containing heavy metals and other cancer-causing agents, which were extremely dangerous to handle. To be honest, back in the day, there wasn't enough attention paid to safety or the proper handling of hazardous materials. We just didn’t know any better. I can remember testing color by mixing dry pigments in the palm of my hand! Today the industry is much more conscious of the health and safety of the scenic artists, and most all the products from 30 years ago are no longer used. 

The products we use today tend to be water-based, and the dyes we work with are synthetic and though still hazardous in powdered form, don't contain the kind of carcinogenic compounds used in the past. Once they are in solution, they are relatively safe to handle. Instead of powdered pigments, we also use a lot of acrylic paints that are specially formulated for use in the theatre. We also use a fair amount of latex paints, as well as water-based polyurethane sealers. The line of paint products from the Rosco Laboratories are the industry standard. The union, United Scenic Artists Local 829, now employs a full-time industrial hygienist to ensure scene shops remain conscientious in their efforts to provide scenic artists a safe working environment.

Backdrop for Hello, Dolly! with set design by Santo Loquasto

LD: Who do you collaborate with on a daily basis? 

JF: When there are active projects on the floor, I am communicating with project managers and scenic artists multiple times a day. A theatrical set in production is constantly evolving. Often the most carefully mapped out schedule has to be scrapped before it’s even distributed. Actually, that’s the norm. So a good part of your day is spent revising plans of action! 

LD: Describe your relationship with the typical set designer.

JF: At its best, the relationship with the set designer is very close and very collaborative. I am lucky enough to have spent my career working with the finest designers in the world. These designers are my heroes. I’m so completely blown away by their creativity, I can’t help but get excited, and I want do everything in my power to not only help them realize their concept, but also use my knowledge and experience to push their vision to an even higher level. When that relationship is working, when there is a free flow of ideas and solutions between us, it’s magic and the main reason I love my job. It’s the same relationship I have with my artists when we are working together to solve a problem. 

Checking translucency for A Bronx Tale with set design by Beowulf Boritt

I don’t mean to drift off on a tangent, but answering this question about collaboration speaks to the very essence of why I love the theatre.  When I sit down with a construction contractor with whom I have agreed to attempt the impossible—that is, to create something which, in its current form violates one of the laws of physics—it’s a high for me. Sitting down to discuss the creation of something totally original, something that perhaps has never been done before, and by the end of the meeting committing our companies to take it on together, for me, it just doesn’t get any better than that. 

Of course, as with everything else in life, you don’t always get it right. In those cases, you have to learn to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and keep moving forward. 

LD: Describe working with lighting or projection designers; how do their inputs affect your work?

JF: Collaborating with the lighting designer is crucial to our work succeeding on stage. For example, unless a translucent drop is lit properly from behind, it will not play. Painted backdrops must be lit with even more care because while backdrops look best when lit from the front, actors look best when lit from a variety of angles, many of them from the side. And sidelight is anathema to a backdrop, exposing its wrinkles and flaws. Lighting both actors and backdrops properly is a challenge for lighting designers, and the success of our artwork on the stage depends on their expertise. 

On the Twentieth Century backdrop with set design by David Rockwell

In addition, the lighting designer has the ability to alter the hue of the backdrops and the scenery just by using different colored gels (gels are squares of colored cellophane that fit over lighting fixtures to change the color of the light they produce). For example, once the scenery arrives on the stage, the designer or director may decide a piece needs to be a little more blue or a little less green. In many of these instances, it’s the lighting designer who solves the problem.

Many times the drop itself is electrified using fiber optic points or LEDs, the rigging of which has to be carefully thought out. First, you have to make sure the base fabric for the drop is substantial enough to support the weight of the fiber optics. Velour and canvas fabrics are sturdy enough to hold their weight without showing a pucker, and heavy enough to provide the fibers with good anchor points. Then there's the whole process of getting the fiber-optic points correctly placed. Usually, there’s a full-scale template indicating the exact fiber-optic placement, in which case we paint the drop first, then lay the full-scale template over it so the fiber optic installation company can place LEDs in the proper positions.

Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker with set design by Julian Crouch

We recently finished a backdrop for the Joffrey Ballet's new production of The Nutcracker, which included a translucent sky as well as translucent windows in the buildings of the Chicago World’s Fair. Naturally, the producers wanted the drop backlit. However, at the end of the show, there was a grand finale moment when the buildings themselves were to be outlined in fiber optic points. Because there were far too many points to successfully attach them directly to the muslin—the weight would have created endless puckers and distortions on the face of the drop—we decided (after many tests) to hang a clear RP screen behind the backdrop from the same pipe. The problem was solved by moving the fiber-optic points onto the clear RP. 

There have been many times where a painted backdrop of ours has also served as a projection surface which introduces its own set of problems. In painting such a drop, we have to be very aware of keeping the values close together so the projected image is not distorted. We are often asked by the projection designer to paint the drop with a product called Screen Goo, a paint that has reflective particles suspended in it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well on fabric such as muslin. After much testing, we found a few products that work very well for drop projection, and we continue to test new products as they come on the market.

National tour of The King And I with set design by Michael Yeargan

LD: What are some of the most common challenges that arise during set painting? Do the production processes or requirements of sets for theatre versus television and film differ?

JF: That’s a great question. Each of those genres—theatre, film, and television—has their own esthetic, requiring a different approach for the scenery to be successful. For example, when painting a set for the theatre, you have to mentally make an adjustment that says the nearest audience member is viewing the set from at least 30' away. Therefore, everything must be painted very broadly so the details are visible from that far away. That’s why a designer coming to look at a set that’s going into a theatre will often stand back a ways to help him see it from the audience's perspective. 

Film, on the other hand, needs to be much more “real.” Faux finishes, such as wood grains and marble, must be absolutely convincing from inches away. Film scenery can never give away the fact that it is scenery. For example, let’s say the shooting crew travels to Washington and films the actors approaching the gates to the White House. The next scene is in the Oval Office. The audience has to absolutely believe that it’s the real Oval Office and not a set on a soundstage.

In-progress backdrop for Honeymoon In Vegas with design by Anna Louizos

When it comes to television, again a different set of rules apply. I can remember early in my career, I was painting soap operas at the old NBC Studios out in Brooklyn, and we would actually use colored masking tape to simulate moldings such as baseboards or chair rails. That was because a TV camera’s depth of field in those days was so shallow that when the actor's face was in focus, the walls behind were very blurry. Those days are long gone. With the advent of HDTV, the standards and finishes for television are much like film, requiring the scenic artist to create something extremely believable from only inches away.

For more, read the July 2017 issue of Live Design.

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