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How Scenery Is Made

( Originally Published 1916 )

QUITE as individual as the way in which a scenic artist works is the manner in which he receives his commission. One producer may provide no more than an order such as that said to have been given by Granville Barker to Robert Jones during preparation of the American production of " A Man Who Married a Dumb Wife," for " a door, two windows, and a room; " another may virtually act out the entire play for him, as Belasco is said to have frequently done for his painter, Ernest F. Gros.

The fact is that the more an artist knows about a play, the more likely he is to provide a fitting complement of scenes; but it is a fact often lost sight of in the preparatory hurry and bustle so common in American theatricals. How-ever, there is now a certain class of native producers, typified by Belasco and his customary six or seven months of preparation—his minute study of the vegetation, sand, dust, gravel, and so forth of the plains, with which to fill in the foreground of " The Girl of the Golden West "—who re-hearse a play till it is ready, and put their workers under no undue restrictions as to information and time.

Ernest Albert, an artist of distinction, whose work has been familiar these many years on the American stage, is one who is usually in a position where he may insist on examining the full script of a play before touching his pencil, to determine, for instance, whether a window must be practical or not, to be looked or jumped through. More often the artist sees merely a scenario, or hears merely an inflexible scheme of arrangement and even of color, that the manager has devised himself, or that the author has designated in a crude sketch with angles to represent walls, perhaps, open spaces for windows and doors, and small semi-circles for chairs and tables. The ideas are somewhat vague; but they are ideas, and that is what the artist is after.


It is surprising that an author's conception of his own scene generally is so indefinite. Whereas the dramatists of two or three centuries gone were at pains to indicate locale in the body of their texts, as, for a random illustration, Shakespeare, in the opening speech of Act III of " Much Ado About Nothing has Hero say :

" Whisper her ear, and tell her I and Ursula
Walk in the orchard; "

the modern playwright is prone to leave such matters to a program and an ingenious but puzzled painter. The ingenuity of this painter is probably to blame for the carelessness of the playwright.

This is excepting those authors like Augustus Thomas, and particularly Haddon Chambers, who seems t0 do his writing of an act in the actual scene he has chosen for it. In " Passers-By " Chambers duplicated his old apartment at 14 Waverton Street, London, and, in his dramatization of " Tante," he reproduced for the last act the best room of " The Compleat Angler " at Marlow, a place where he had frequently put his pen to paper during progress of the work. In any event, true it is that, with scenery to express its own message, drama has become less " literary " and more economical in the use of words.

There is, too, another class of writers wh0 have hazy conceptions of adjoining rooms offstage, and consequently bewilder the artist as to his backings. A by no means unusual instance came to hand within the past two or three years, in a melodrama where the author provided a cleverly contrived cabin of a yacht. Further room at back of the scene, was shut off into a compartment by sliding panels; and a variety of entrances through companionways, hatches, port holes, and what-not was provided; but the bow and stern were so indicated that the scene, like the mining tunnel described in Mark Twain's " Roughing It," must have hung over the side on a trestle. This same play had another setting, an interior in a city house, with a sequence of scenes on either side that would have required some two blocks for accommodation.

Knowing the adjoining places offstage aids the artist much. Particular care of Cyril Harcourt, in this regard, helped Mrs. O'Kane Conwell, who designed the bedroom setting of the second act of the American production of " A Pair of Silk Stockings," Winthrop Ames, 1915, to indicate the character of offstage places by symbols painted on the doors. The bathroom door has milady at her ablutions in a dainty tub; the boudoir was marked by a maid with puff and powder-box; the wardrobe by bandboxes, bonnets, and slippers, and the hall door showed milady complete for admiring inspection.


Having received, or frequently extracted, his instructions, the artist uses them as clues in seeking out his material. For this purpose, a library in his studio affords a veritable storehouse of matter in histories of architectural and decorative periods, volumes of art and handicraft criticism, personal first-hand sketches, and scrapbooks, the whole constantly augmented by further collection. Here may be found full suggestions for scenes of any clime, character, or age of the world. Thus this monumental labor has been done, for the most part, once and for all. Still, with an elaborate " morgue " of this kind at his disposal, from which he could resurrect a wealth of detail at short notice, Ernest Albert spent six months studying out chiefly archaeological phases of the scenes for "Beni-bar." Incidentally, at the end of the time he remarked that he knew the exact height of every arch and gateway in Jerusalem.


Guided largely by this c0nglomerate mass, the artist makes his sketch of the given setting, in water colors, on a flat surface, and submits it to the producer for criticism. In showing it, he has to remind those concerned that built-out perspectives, lighting, texture, and movement are lacking; that it merely is a general impression of the first three, and that it is offered mainly for accuracy of arrangement. Sketches like this may be made many times before satisfaction is expressed.

The model, which follows, is a miniature setting, complete in every detail as far as appearance is concerned, constructed of cardboard, wood, cloth, clay, and plaster as required, and painted usually in water colors, but sometimes drawn in pastel. In scale, it is a half inch to the foot or three centimeters to the meter, and conforms, as far as possible, to the theater in which it is to be presented. In Europe, " house " artists usually have scale models of their theaters in their ateliers, or printed plans of their stages with the various openings and sections indicated in detail. Criticism may direct certain parts to be more within view of the audience or may condemn the whole. Even this model is subject to much change.


But, when the model has been approved, the painter draws up a careful plan from which the carpenter, at his shop, constructs to full scale—which ordinarily means 14 to 18 feet in height to varying width to 40 feet--the pieces, which are later to be delivered to the artist's studio for painting. Drops are provided merely with battens of necessary length, although these battens, when subjected to heavy strain, are made double, and scarfed and spliced together; but supporting frames have to be made for flats, and canvas stretched over them.

Joinery for flats is not elaborate, though light and substantial. Frames usually are made of seasoned white pine, mortised and tenoned, and clout-nailed together with corner blocks and " keystones." Each usually has two stiles, or vertical side pieces; two toggle-irons, or pairs of rods strained together by reverse threads, with nuts; two braces, and top and bottom rails. Doors and arches have flat, iron sills to keep them firmly in shape. All frames are provided with cleats, lash-lines, and so forth; and for ready identification, each is stenciled with abbreviated title of play, number of act, and of scene if the play is so divided, in which it is to be used.

Pieces in the round, like tree trunks, are usually made of hollow cylinders of light lath, or frames covered with wire netting, over which canvas is stretched and twisted. The tall green hedges which inclosed the garden in the American production of " Prunella," made by Winthrop Ames, were constructed of frames covered with wire, and spotted green velvet over that.

Flat pieces are designed to fold in book condition, with the painted surfaces inward, in case they have to stand out in the weather. Tarpaulins are depended on to protect odd pieces. Also, full provision must be made for the ready transportation of the full scene, from one place to another.

This last-named fact seems to give little concern to producers abroad; but it must be constantly borne in mind in America, where the longer part of the life of any successful play is " on the road." When " Sumurün the Reinhardt production which Winthrop Ames brought to America, was set up in New York, the scenery was found to be much more substantial than most critics in front imagined. A staircase in particular, following the Reinhardt policy, which generally aims for an impression of solidity in scenes, was an amazingly heavy affair, and required much labor to be moved. And when this " wordless play with music," by Freidrich Freska, was taken to another city, it could not be transported in the usual manner, but required a railroad car such as is ordinarily used for automobiles, open at one end. The American carpenter makes all his pieces of a size that will go through a car door that measures five feet nine inches.

It must be confessed that this arbitrary restriction is a severe handicap at times, for folds and joinings are not easy to conceal, even with combined efforts of a number of craftsmen. But certain it is that everything on a stage that goes up must, in a sort of ridiculous conformation to New-ton's law of gravitation, come down. So the carpenter plans and plans for simple construction.

One of the greatest aids to a carpenter in elaborate settings, is what is known as the " pin hinge," a pair of sort of modified staples, each driven in one of the two edges to be brought together, and held in place by a short, bent wire, slipped through both. Whole flights of stairs are made in this way, and may be taken apart with little trouble.

One kind of scenery called " aniline dye stuff," requiring no preliminary carpenter work at all, has made its appearance of recent years, notably in smaller vaudeville theaters. As its name implies, it is colored with aniline dyes. It has no frames, but is tacked over the regular scenery used by the house. An entire set may be carried in a single trunk.


While the carpenter is making his pieces, boys at the painter's studio are enlarging the painted detail of the model by means of squares, on large sheets of manila paper. No shading is put in, shadows and masses of color being merely outlined for proportions. These lines are then perforated throughout at intervals of about an inch. At which point the work must await the carpenter.

Delivery of the completed frames is the signal for men in the studi0 to prime the canvas by applying a solution of gelatinous material and usually whiting, which affords colors a substantial, creamy white ground. When this is dry, the manila-paper patterns are held against a given piece in desired positions, and the perforations gone over with a little cloth " pounce " bag filled with pulverized charcoal. This leaves the design in dotted lines on the canvas.

Straight lines, such as moldings, may be marked with a stretched string, chalked, and then snapped smartly against the surface. Sometimes the artist prefers to sketch the scene himself without all this preliminary care; so he stands before his canvas with a piece of charcoal on a long stick that reaches every part, and so indicates the various portions of the picture for the brush.

The first coat, which is merely a light filling in of the indicated masses of color, is usually entrusted to helpers. It would be absurd t0 tax the painter with moldings which he has already drawn in the model, and stenciling, of which there is not a little.

Pigments used are known as " distemper " colors. They are mixed with water—usually about a pound to a pint, although some colors require more water than others. Broader portions of the second coat are generally brushed in by the more experienced assistants; but the finishing touches are left to the artist himself.


Scenery is ordinarily hung at full length in the studio, by the English method, while a movable bridge, supporting the worker and his materials, is moved up and down beside it. The Lee Lash Studios, of New York, are 70 feet in the clear for the hanging of large drops. Sometimes, particularly in smaller studios, drops are raised or lowered as required by a winch through a slit in the floor; while a third fashion, common to France and Italy, and likely to be adopted temporarily anywhere, is to put the piece flat on the floor, and paint it with long-handled brushes, by walking over its surface.

This method was employed to color what was probably the largest canvas ever made for a stage, the cyclorama for the quondam New Theater, New York, which measured 117 by 200 feet, and was painted by a veritable host of men at the Twelfth Regiment Armory in the same city. It was designed for permanent use in the theater, to be raised and lowered just in front of the back wall, to give any effect of sky desired.


A large studio frequently employs as many as twenty men, whose salaries range from $10 to $100 or more, de-pending upon the capacities in which they serve—and there are artists, assistants, " liners," paint boys, and general helpers. Of course, the full staff is maintained only during the " rush " season, which, in America, runs from about May to January of each year, and then frequently keeps the men working in double shifts, day and night. Going at such tension, about five large sets may be evolved in something over a week. Longer time must be taken with more elaborate subject matter, interiors, which require a deal of architectural detail, taking ordinarily about two weeks each, and an exterior, which is general in character, about one week.


Fireproofing, which is applied to scenery from the back after painting is completed, has a chemical effect harmful to colors, much as a pencil or charcoal drawing is affected by fixatif. Recent experiments to do the fireproofing before applying the paint, which is made fireproof in itself, promise to overcome the difficulty.

In addition to bearing this matter in mind, the painter must anticipate changes which necessarily take place when the setting is transferred from his studio to the stage. In the first place, lighting always grays down the values, just as reproduction does an illustrator's work, so colors like yellow must be made more positive to counteract. Yet, strong blues must be avoided, for they become blackish, while vivid greens become coarse. All this is corrected, as far as possible, for a spectator's viewpoint that is some distance away—about a diagonal and a half of the scene, which is said to be the scientific position for viewing any picture.

It can be no easy matter in painting, to carry in mind the same general tone which must pervade all parts of the set. The setting, as pointed out by Homer F. Emens, the American artist, may at times run to forty pieces; and none of these may rightly be out of key.

Then all joinings must be concealed as far as possible, particularly those of real pieces with the painted perspective. Josef Urban, the Viennese artist, was severely criticised concerning a setting for " Twelfth Night," in which Phyllis Neilson-Terry appeared at the Liberty Theater, New York, in 1914, for the obvious juxtaposition of a genuine box tree and a painted arbor which was supposed to branch from the same trunk.

Josef Urban, however, is truly a great artist of the theater. He was at first an interior decorator and all-around artist like our own Jules Guerin. He decorated and furnished the Abdin Palace for the Khedive of Egypt; won an international prize for designing a bridge across the Neva at Petrograd, and designed the rooms for Austrian art at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.


When Ernest Albert told me, in an interview in 1913, that an artist's function does not cease until scenery is all in place, lighting arrangements—where an unexpected orange light on violet may give everything the appearance of a dirty brown—are complete, and groupings are fixed, he repeated a plausible argument for that modern movement which would have the painter attend to all of these save the last. Some, Gordon Craig first among the number, would have him do that, too, although I am becoming convinced that Craig's real purpose is, to use his own words, " to have a man who knows the ropes but no longer handles them." Certainly, at this point in a production, where all minds concerned are in active collaboration to produce a desired harmonious effect, it seems only right that the painter should have a voice about his special art.

Truly the scene painter has little but financial encouragement to lavish genius upon a stage setting. Ernest Albert devoted some of the best that was in him to the mounting of " Herod," and the production went promptly to the store-house as another failure; the beautiful colorings of Urban in Sheldon's " The Garden of Paradise " enjoyed but a transitory public view, although the work brought him to prominence as never before.

The credit given the artist generally appears with that meted out to wig and boot makers in the program; and with this public acknowledgment of his services he must be content. In many cases, however, this is where his credit belongs, for what August Wilhelm Schlegel said in his " Lectures " in 1808, remains true : " Most scene painters owe their success to the spectator's ignorance of the art of design."

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