Drooling on the Pillow

Monday, April 04, 2005

Scene Painting 101 

Years ago I was doing Finch in "How to Succeed . . ." at a dinner theatre in Raleigh. The run had come to an end and a new show, a comedy, was getting ready to open. This was one of those places where the play was done in the round and the food was set up in the center. Once dinner was done the food and tables were cleared away and the set descended from above on a large elevator. It made for some interesting set design decisions, but in four or five years of working this theatre and other similar ones, I discovered there really wasn’t anything you couldn’t do in them.

They were putting in the new set, painting and setting lights and I was just sitting in the house, watching. What held my interest was the director, a kind of alarming guy in his late thirties. Heavy set, crude, loud. He smoked with incredible aggression, as if he only barely held himself back from eating them, a pack at a time. He barked his directions to the crew and the cast and stomped around the set like a berserker. You’d think a lot of things while watching him put a show up: drill sergeant, meter reader, foreman. You really didn’t think theatrical director.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. That’s crap. That looks like crap. You think that looks like brick? That doesn’t even look like linoleum. Crap.”

He was objecting to the efforts of a scene painter to simulate a brick exterior wall. The kid lifted his hands to indicate this was as good as he could do.

The guy put his hands on his hips and snarled. “Is there any one of you that can paint a brick fucking wall?”

After a long pause I said, “I can.”

He loped over to me and said “What do you need?”

“A gallon of red, a gallon of white, two pints of black, a pint of brown, a gallon of Elmer’s and some big sponges.”

He turned to the carpenter and said “Get it.”

While the carpenter was gone and I was changing clothes I wondered, not for the first time, why I had opened my mouth. I had seen this done in a scene shop in St. Louis, but I’d never actually done it myself. Oh, well, I was going back to New York the next morning. If I screwed up I’d be in for an ass chewing, but I’d never have to see the guy again.

It’s not that hard. First you paint the whole wall white. Then you dry-brush it with black. Then you dump the glue in the red paint, cut the sponge to the size of the brick you want, dab it in the paint, make the brick on the wall, leaving the white in between as mortar. The thickened paint leaves a very good simulation of brick with as much as a half inch of texture. You let that dry and then spatter paint it with the black and brown. It worked out beautifully.

He came over after I was done.

“Now that’s a brick fucking wall,” he said and stomped off to run light cues.

The next time I saw him was months later. He was casting a season of repertory for a new LORT theatre in Lake Placid. He watched my audition, made some gruff compliments and stared at me for a moment.

“You’re the guy with the bricks.”

“That’s right.”

He looked at my resume a few moments and then said “You’re in.”

Cliff was the Artistic Director of the theatre. Soul of a poet, body of a middle linebacker. A warmer, sweeter, more generous guy I’ve never met. I had a great couple of years in Lake Placid and worked fairly steadily for the next ten years. I’ve figured out that at least eight out of ten jobs I got in those ten years were from people I met in Lake Placid or people that I met through people I met in Lake Placid.

All because I knew a little scene painting.
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