Set designs from 1983 - 1992
With two degrees in painting under my belt, who would hire me to sit around and paint? No one. So I jumped at the invitation to design and build for the theatre. I used the time to hone my sculpture and construction skills and to create "big 3-D paintings with watercolor lighting washes". This evolved into my story-telling through fine art.
If you graduate from art school with one or two degrees in painting, don’t expect to be paid to stand in your studio all day creating masterpieces. You have to find a job. Preferably in a related field.
My husband, daughter, dog, and I arrived in Providence in 1982 where my husband had accepted a faculty position at Brown University. The choice of Brown was linked to the closeness of RISD. As an artist, I saw Providence as a place of opportunities for people in the arts. And there are opportunities, but very little of them pay. This topic is an all too common discussion among the many of us who graduated from art school but never left town. Artists are a dime a dozen in Providence.
When my husband started teaching and our daughter went off to school, I was alone with the dog and even the dog got to go to Brown. One day I walked over to the Brown Theatre Department, introduced myself, and asked if there was any work to be had. They sized me up and wanted to know if I would volunteer to paint scenery. Being new in town and lonely, I agreed. The first show was Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”, a gorgeous musical with elaborate interiors, delicate lighting, and beautiful costumes. I thought of it as an apprenticeship for me in theatre arts. I was put to work painting faux brick walls, but quickly moved on to detail work. It must have become clear to them that I could draw and paint anything they threw at me, and build most of it. As a side note, let me tell you that before I attended to art school, I went for a degree in mathematics and science. Combine that with many sculpture classes, and I can quickly figure out dimensions, scale, and construction of large theater architecture. Eventually Brown paid me and used me in various capacities for eight years. I used those years at Brown to learn everything I could and hone new skills.
While free-lancing for Brown, I began to get job offers from other local theaters. Soon I was hiring out myself and two younger assistants for summer theatre. One day I got a call from a local photographer who was designing scenery for an old childhood friend of his in Philadelphia. It was a big job, “Beauty and the Beast” as a magic show. Lots of scenery changes, backdrops, special effects, and good money. I called one of my assistants, Madelyn, to ask if we should take the job and she agreed to the work. We began by painting most of the huge backdrops, designed by Dennis the photographer, in my studio in Providence. The on-site job in Philly was only to last ten days. Dennis had not seen his friend the magician for many years but seemed to have a plan. We knew neither man. Besides the salary, we were offered by Dennis room and board at the home of the magician and his wife.
Here I must emphasize that Dennis was not really a set designer. Being a photographer, he worked in a 2-D medium creating art seen from one view point. He brought his drawings for the backdrops and large bolts of fabric to my studio and left us to paint. My first step was to interpret and clean up his drawings. We needed to see where the 2-D backdrops would be installed in a 3-D theater set. And pack and travel because this big show was going to play in theatres up and down the East Coast. Designing a set from one view point, let’s say seen only from a center seat a few rows up from the orchestra, does not work unless you don’t care if people in other seats to the sides and above see the whole show. No one wants to crane their neck to see around a wall or tree. For a magic show, no one should mistakenly see the special effects which are intended to be hidden. But I was not the designer on this show, yet.
Madelyn and I painted the drops and transparent scrims, packed them up and sent them off to meet us in Philly. We set off in my Jeep to drive to Philadelphia and find the home of the magician where we were staying. We were told that the house was in a lovely suburb and the magician, now known as Lance, and wife would not be home when we arrived but a key was under the rug on the back screened porch. Dennis was to follow later in the day.
The drive was smooth that August morning and we easily located the home with a beautiful garden and tall shade trees. As I went to search for the key under the rug, Madelyn spotted three rabbits eating on the lawn in a fenced in area. She took off to see them. If I remember correctly, I was on my hands and knees when she let out her first scream. “Help me! I’ve killed a bunny!” She ran towards me with a limp rabbit in her arms. Two other rabbits had also keeled over. I told her to put the rabbit down and we backed off in shock, staring at the bodies on the lawn. From a distance we watched as the rabbits slowly revived and continued their grazing. It was only later that we were told that the rabbits were trained to go limp when approached so that they could be hidden in a top hat or up the magician’s sleeve. That began our weird job and bizarre week in the home of an eccentric magician.
As our week progressed, things got stranger still. Dennis arrived from Providence with the backdrops and a handful more of his odd designs. It became clear to us that he did not know the magician Lance as well as he thought; he had never seen the theater space we were using or taken measurements; and he had promised us things not on offer. Lance and his wife, who we rarely saw, closed themselves off in a far part of the house. Lance gave Madelyn and I a pretty, sunny bedroom to share even though he had not known that we were to stay with them. He and his wife were Ayurvedic vegans and he told us that he ate “three almonds a day, no more, no less.” We assumed that he must have eaten more than just almonds but nothing was in the refrigerator except plastic bags of what we assumed were a food source. By the second day, Lance did buy us several boxes of vanilla ice cream which he thought we would like. We appreciated the thought but a few more things like toast and cereal would have been nice. Dennis, Madelyn, and I found a 7-Eleven store on the way to the theater and stopped there every morning to scrounge for breakfast and lunch food.
We worked hard and fast, hoping to finish before schedule. The designs Dennis had drawn were, as expected, from one view point perspective and almost useless. Lance came by often and wanted us to stop work and watch him fold up in boxes or disappear behind curtains. All our backdrops had to have slits for Lance to slip through unseen. One morning Madelyn got upset and told Dennis that we would never get out of there if he didn’t let me redesign the scenery pieces to make them work. Dennis was a practical man and saw the truth in her words. So while they painted I sat quietly and redesigned crucial parts of “Beauty and The Beast” with hidden doors, optical illusions, and strategically placed mirrors. We turned it into a playground for this odd magician.
Time was running out after all our starts, stops, rebuilding, and Lance’s interruptions. Patience was running thin. Dennis was a very nice man but had become disillusioned with his old friend and promises gone wrong. One morning in 7-Eleven the ATM machine ate his card and did not give him money when he tried to buy our fast-food breakfast. In front of a packed store, this kind man yelled “It’s a fuckin’ scam! The whole thing!” We were ushered out and had to find a new place to grab our food the rest of the trip. That night I bought us all a lovely meal at an inn and the next morning we began work again with an urgent resolve to wrap the job up.
One evening when Lance and his wife were out and Dennis had gone to his room, Madelyn and I decided to explore the other rooms in the house. There were dolls positioned strangely and often erotically in every room and on the back staircase. One room was a nursery even though they had no children. But it was a nursery with adult-size big chairs, playpen, crib, big toys, and baby clothes that fit Lance and his wife. Some doors were locked and maybe it was best that we never knew what was in them.
The final day of our weird job, Madelyn and I were huddled by a payphone in the theater lobby trying to call my husband for support and cash. We thought we could quietly slip out to the Jeep, get our clothes and head home. Suddenly Lance and his wife arrived with a huge birthday cake for Lance and we had to go back into the theater, eat cake, and watch Lance perform his magic show. He thought we would enjoy seeing it all come together but we were tired and the cake unexciting. So one more night we stayed in their home.
The following morning we got up early and while Madelyn was in the shower, I quickly packed. Without warning Lance in only pajama bottoms strolled into our bedroom and sat on the bed with me. He thanked me for all our work and asked, “Is that your nightie?” I informed him that it was a sundress and told him to leave the room. It was definitely time to leave Philadelphia.
Months later we heard good reviews of the show as it travelled through the eastern states. When it came to New Bedford, Lance invited us to come to the show. We of course declined. We had moved on and never wanted to see that show again.
I realized, after that theatre job, it was time for me to refocus my attention on my life as a fine artist. Except for a few jobs that I needed to wrap up, promises I had made to directors, I never designed for the theatre again. I now go to my painting studio every morning. That is my career, my passion, my obsession.