Backdrop for American Ballet Theatre's Whipped Cream with set design by Mark Ryden
Backdrop for American Ballet Theatre's Whipped Cream with set design by Mark Ryden

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

The Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, the Outer Critics Circle Awards—what do they all have in common? They honor directors, writers, performers, and designers. In contrast, the Purchase College’s Broadway Technical Theatre History Project aims to honor 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.

Forbes began his prolific career as a professional scenic artist in 1979, working at Nolan’s Scenery Studio for iconic productions such as Cats, Annie, and A Chorus Line. His art has also been seen in films such as Ghostbusters, Crocodile Dundee, and The Money Pit. In 1994, Forbes founded Scenic Art Studios, which has painted over 300 Broadway productions, including current shows War Paint, Sunset Boulevard, and Hello, Dolly! which won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Forbes is a lecturer in Theatre Design/Technology at Purchase College and founded the Studio and Forum of Scenic Art in 2004 to continue the teaching methods of his mentor, Lester Polakov.

Live Design chatted with Forbes about his recent recognition and esteemed career.

Live Design: Tell us about receiving this year’s Backstage Legends and Masters Award.

Joseph Forbes: My first reaction was surprise, followed immediately by a little fear. When I was informed of the honor, I was told I would be speaking to an audience of my students, peers, and associates. I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, so I was a little nervous, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Really, it’s a tremendous honor. To even be associated with a group that includes Artie Siccardi, the production and technical supervisor on over 200 Broadway shows; Arnold Abramson, who owned Nolan Scenery Studios beginning in the early ‘60s and has over 600 Broadway shows to his credit; Fred Gallo, president of PRG Scenic Technologies, which excels in automation and set building both on and off Broadway; Gene O’Donovan, one of the world’s most renowned theatre technicians and co-founder of Aurora Productions; and Pete Feller Sr., who owned Feller Scenery where many of today’s industry leaders got their start, is very humbling. When I came onto the Broadway scene, these guys were the rock stars. 

LD: How did you first get involved in the industry? When did you decide to devote yourself to art? 

JF: Okay, true story: I was attending a small junior college in North Carolina, earning a degree in journalism. The director for the school’s play was also my English class teacher and offered extra credit to any class members who would be willing to usher at one of the performances. I was all about the extra credit, so I volunteered. The play was Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke. That evening, sitting in the back of the auditorium watching the actors onstage, it seemed like they were having a really good time, so I resolved to audition for the next play. I managed to get cast and have never looked back. I had discovered a passion for the theatre.

Though my acting career was very short-lived, my love of the theatre led me to study lighting design, then scenic design, and finally to arrive at scene painting. I had no formal training in painting until I started taking classes at Lester Polakov’s school, the Studio and Forum of Stage Design. I will never forget when I first interviewed with Lester. He wrote four words in my folder: “Knows nothing, needs everything.” Two years later, I had learned enough to pass the scenic artist’s exam and become a member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829. Lester’s program was so good that 20 years after he retired, Janet Stapelman and I were able to open the Studio and Forum of Scenic Art, a scene painting school that carries on Lester’s teaching to a new generation. Jane Snow, a legend in her own right, has now assumed a major role in the school. In addition, Scenic Art Studios’ regulars Irina Portnyagina, Richard Prouse, and Eric Schappach will be teaching forum specialty classes this year.

Backdrop for On The Twentieth Century with set design by David Rockwell

LD: How has Scenic Art Studios grown during the past 20 years?

JF: It’s been a wild ride. When I first started Scenic Art Studios, the core of the company was no more than three or four people. I had never really contemplated owning a shop, and if the company I was working for had not run aground, I never would have. I would not let my wife Deb, who is also a scenic artist, even get involved with the company because I felt like it was most likely going to crash and burn. I mean, I knew nothing about business. Now 25 years later, during the heart of the season, say September to March, we may have 50 scenic artists working in seven different locations. 

To cope with that kind of volume, I am fortunate to have a team of talented professionals who do the real heavy lifting of keeping the company on track, even when I am gone for extended periods. Two years ago, I was blessed to have received a new heart, after experiencing a slow decline due to a failing heart. For my three months of recovery, I was not allowed to work or even go into the office. During one of the busiest seasons we had ever experienced, Susan Jackson, Roberta Pinto, Laurie Schrader, and Donna Buser took over the management of the company. With the full support of not only the artists and staff of Scenic Art Studios, but the entire Broadway community as well, they provided that steady hand that kept the company functioning as if I had never left. It was a remarkable performance on everyone’s part, and I will forever be in their debt. 

And did I mention that we have had two buildings burn down over the course of those 25 years? Oh, and then there was the flood. Like I said, it’s been a wild ride.

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

LD: What innovations of yours have become industry standards? How so?

JF: There are techniques that have become industry standards over the years that were developed here at Scenic Art Studios. One of the most important is that unlike other scenery studios, the majority of our backdrops are painted with dye. This creates a backdrop that is very rich in color and very beautiful, yet remains soft and pliable. A drop painted with dyes avoids many of the problems suffered by painted backdrops on the road, where they are folded and put into hampers again and again and again, creating permanent creases where paint begins to flake. Sometimes a single artist’s technique can be so successful that it becomes the new standard.

Irina Portnyagina, who is one of Scenic Art Studios lead artists, has perfected a magnificent process for painting a translucent sky. The process does not involve any masking or careful buildup of layers. It is a one-shot watercolor technique that, by its very nature, is extremely alive and vibrant. It quite literally has become a signature of my studio. 

Another change that’s come through the industry during the course of my career—and that Scenic Art Studios has certainly been a part of—is the use of cut rollers. A scenic artist will take a standard foam roller and cut a pattern into it, allowing them to easily create a variety of effects without the use of stamps or other more laborious techniques. When I first started in the business, there was nothing like that. Now, no matter where you go in this country, you find stacks of roller covers cut with any number of patterns and textures. 

Double translucency for South Pacific with set design by Michael Yeargan

LD: What are the first things you do when you take on a painting job?

JF: The real beginning is the initial bid session where producers of a new production invite several shops to view the scenic design, usually in the form of a model, research photos, and draftings. Back at my office, I then go through these draftings plate by plate, pricing out the labor and materials for each unit. I also request pricing from the soft goods vendors, usually Rose Brand and iWeiss Theatrical Solutions. I may also be asked to bid any sculpting and coating required. Once my prices are in, I submit my bid either directly to the producers, or to one of the contractors with whom I partner. Scenic Art Studios is proud to provide paint services to many of the leading contractors in the industry, including ShowMotion, Inc. and Global Scenic Services, Inc. in Connecticut, Production Resource Group and Cigar Box Studios, Inc., in New York, and Gotham Studios in New Jersey.

It’s important to remember that a show is not always awarded to the lowest bidder. There are many other factors that enter into the decision such as designer preference, past performance, and existing relationships. If we are awarded the show, the single most important aspect of my job is assigning to each piece of scenery the artists I believe will most successfully bring the designer’s vision to fruition. If I get that selection right, the job inevitably flows smoothly and on budget. If I get it wrong, it is an endless source of frustration, not only for myself and the designer, but also for the artist struggling to deliver the finished product. And that’s a failure on my part. Every scenic artist, at every level, has strengths and weaknesses, and it is my job to identify those strengths and place that artist in a situation where they can thrive and succeed.

Backdrop painted with cut rollers for Grand Rapids Ballet's The Nutcracker with set design by Chris Van Alsburg and Eugene Lee

LD: Can you take us through a typical set construction, from beginning to end?

JF: Once a show has been awarded, the first thing that usually happens is the kickoff meeting, where the production’s designer and technical director sit down with the shop’s project manager and various department heads. The first order of business is to go through all the drawings to make sure they are accurate, and that what they represent matches what the shop has actually bid. Coming out of that meeting, we generate a basic production schedule. Once the show moves into production, it’s a matter of making sure each piece of scenery moves through its process smoothly and on budget. First, it goes to the metalworking or carpentry shop where its basic structure is made.

Once completed with all the trim and detail, the piece is turned over to the scenic artists. At this point, time becomes an issue. The elements have to be painted as quickly as possible to allow the electricians to wire and install any electrical components.

After all that is done, automation technicians can then marry it to whatever effect is required. It’s a tricky process often requiring complicated coordination that must be accomplished in a very compressed timeline.

Scrim painted with dye for the tour of 42nd Street with set design by Beowulf Borritt

LD: Does your input ever affect or change the set?

JF: Absolutely! Theatre is the ultimate collaborative endeavor. When designers first present their initial concepts, they often have serious questions about how to approach certain artistic problems and look to us, as scenic artists, for the answers. These conversations and resulting samples often lead the designer to new ideas and inspirations, and the design evolves and grows and improves. That’s the ultimate joy of working in the theatre. Each artist brings something to the table, and the finished production becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. 

LD: What project(s) are you particularly proud of?

JF: This is a really difficult question for me. Having painted over 300 Broadway shows and over 1,000 projects since opening Scenic Art Studios, it is difficult to pick a particular show and say I am more proud of this one than I am of any other. In general, I think I would say I’m most proud of the shows where the odds were stacked against us, where the difficulty factor was extremely high, there wasn’t enough time, and no one thought we could pull it off. This past winter, we were contracted to paint 88 drops in 56 days. That is an absolutely insane number of backdrops in an equally insane timeframe! That’s one and a half drops per day! Not only did we pull it off, we produced some of the most beautiful drops we have ever painted. 

Wall of giant figures for Kanye West's 2011 Coachella performance

Sometimes, it’s the big out of the ordinary project. For example, working with Production Resource Group in New Windsor, NY, we sculpted a 35'x60' wall of giant figures for Kanye West’s performance at the 2011 Coachella festival. The entire wall broke into 4'x6' interlocking pieces and could be assembled and disassembled extremely quickly. From start to finish, we were given less than three weeks to complete it. Another example is the giant tiger sculptures that sit atop Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which we created with another of our partner contractors, ShowMotion in New Milford, CT.

In terms of Broadway productions, I am always very proud of the shows that have lots of beautiful drops. It showcases what I think Scenic Art Studios does best. I firmly believe I employ some of the finest scenic artists in the world, and I can’t help but be very proud of any production that highlights their incredible talents.

LD: What is the best lesson you’ve learned from your experiences?

JF: It may sound trite, but I’ve learned that the show always makes it to the stage; indeed, the show must go on. No matter how far behind you think you are, no matter how much trouble you may be in at that moment, the show somehow always gets finished and out the door. I’ve also learned that, because this business can make you completely crazy, you have to develop the ability to relax and let go. I’ve made the joke for years that as soon as I walk out the door of the shop, I can’t remember where I work. You have to be able to forget it all at the end of the day. I almost never bring the job home, which is probably why my marriage is still intact.

Read more on the collaborative process and the rigors of scenic painting in Part Two!

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

TAGS: Theatre
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