Meredith Ries, a set designer in her final year at the Yale School of Drama, is writing about her design process for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater, opening this month. Join her now as she and her team create a massive, richly detailed backdrop.
The painted backdrop, or “drop,” is one of the oldest scenic conventions in the book, dating all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. Its heyday was the late 18th and early 19th century: in evermore spectacular productions, huge, beautifully painted scenes came in and out, taking us from hillsides to palaces to dungeons and so on.
Then, eventually, the painted drop went out of fashion. I have my own theories about why contemporary viewers find raw materials more bewitching, but suffice to say that most scenery nowadays utilizes architecture and large blank drops that can be lit or projected on. Fine.
Hamlet doesn’t have a solid painted drop, but it does have a painted scrim. Scrim is a type of fabric that has all these little holes in it, like a web; it's transparent when things behind it are lit and opaque when light hits the front of it. I chose this material because the set is all about translucency and porousness (see my earlier posts about the stud-wall architecture and clear floor), and because theoretically it allows us to go from indoor to outdoor scenes with just a lighting cue.
Staying away from the 19th century convention of doing something super pictoral, I used a wallpaper pattern and drastically increased the scale, fading it at the edges. This would ground the set without getting too illustrative, and the fade at the edges suggests that the house goes on forever in all directions.
The final size of this thing is 32 feet by 42 feet, so painting it has been a pretty serious undertaking, as you'll see. (Click to enlarge any of the photos below.)
First, they taped an area the size of the drop out in paper on the floor. They printed out my pattern on another huge sheet of paper and used a "pounce wheel" — essentially a bunch of pins attached to a wheel — to trace it in tiny holes. Then they laid that sheet on top of the paper on the floor and covered it in charcoal, which passed through the holes onto the paper below. Finally, they removed the perforated paper and traced over the charcoal lines.
After the pattern was drawn out, they stapled down the scrim, based it, and started painting in the pattern. (Incidentally, scenic artists work on the floor, so they use long bamboo poles to hold their markers, charcoal, and paintbrushes. This allows them more control without straining their backs.)
Then — and this is kind of the scariest part — they sprayed a fine mist of black paint over the whole thing, making it darker at the edges. The contraptions they used are basically modified insecticide sprayers: metal canisters you wear on your back, Ghostbusters style. They produce a fine, even mist. Of course, if you go too far, you can’t go back.
Once all of that was completed, the thing was pulled off the floor, folded up, taken to the theater and immediately hung up so that it wouldn't wrinkle. Here’s the real killer: we can't change it anymore. Luckily, this thing is extraordinarily beautiful, so I’m not worried.
Meredith B. Ries has worked in New York City primarily as a props master. Her props credits include The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (both at the Public Theater / Shakespeare in the Park), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the Public Theater), An Oresteia (Classic Stage Company), Orpheus X, Chair (Theater for a New Audience), and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) (assistant props, Lincoln Center Theater). She has also worked with Second Stage Theater, Elevator Repair Service, and Target Margin Theater. Her portfolio can be found here.
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