Scrim Solutions

by Lisa Mulcahy
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Robert Mark Morgan used painted scrim for walls for a production of The Glass Menagerie at Cleveland Play House.
Robert Mark Morgan used painted scrim for walls for a production of The Glass Menagerie at Cleveland Play House.
Simple tips and tricks for creating striking SFX

A scrim has more potential for versatile usage than any other drop you’ll ever work with (and can give you lots of visual punch at a low-cost to boot). But it’s a tricky beast, too, which requires care in handling and setup. We brought in top scenic designers to learn their strategies for working with scrim most successfully, and got their instructions for some amazing scrim set-ups you can put together.

Mark Fitzgibbons combines black scrim with an effects projector and gobos to create a snowy night.
Mark Fitzgibbons combines black scrim with an effects projector and gobos to create a snowy night.

Working With Scrim

Any thin, woven material with a screen-like texture can work as scrim, but a sharkstooth scrim is the most used type and translates well in tight spots, which is important. “Scrim is a magical cloth, but it can be tough to work with in small spaces,” says Tom Burch, director of design at the University of Chicago and scenic designer for productions at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Spoleto and the Edinburgh Fringe.

A scrim works because it both reflects light and allows it pass through, displaying what is behind it (or not), depending on how the fabric is lit. A scrim will appear opaque if it is lit from the sides and everything upstage of it is unlit, but remove light from the scrim and light what’s upstage, and suddenly the scrim is transparent. Varying the amount of light in either location will change how opaque or transparent a scrim is, which can lead to dreamlike effects or sudden reveals, if the lighting is changed quickly.

Because it’s a woven material “Scrim is not a cheap material,” says Robert Mark Morgan, professor of scenic design at Washington University in St. Louis who has designed shows for the American Conservatory Theatre and Magic Theatre in San Francisco and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “Only two places in the country do the weaving, so you need to keep that in mind when it comes to your budget. I like to use scrim as a softener—you can hang, say, a painted drop, and light it to get a nice night effects. The scrim can really tone down a drop.” Muslin can be a good, affordable choice of material when you’re looking for true translucency—make sure to choose loose weave for best results.

Tom Burch used scrim on a production of Uncle Vanya and the audience watched the play through the boxes of lace scrim.
Tom Burch used scrim on a production of Uncle Vanya and the audience watched the play through the boxes of lace scrim.

Utilizing Scrim In Production

Color changes to scrim need to be handled carefully. “Painting scrim is a real challenge, in terms of coverage,” says Mark Fitzgibbons, who has done scenic design for Broadway at the Cort, Lunt-Fontanne and St. James theatres. “Unless you use opaque paint and fill in all the holes in the weave, you’ll see through the scrim. Dragging a brush across scrim is problematic, too—even if you’ve mixed your paint well, it can be maddening! What I’ve discovered, though, is if I do end up painting, I use a foam brush—foam has a way of seeping paint into places on scrim, and you can get a better result.” Applique can be another option. “On a University of Chicago production of The Rose Tattoo, I stenciled a wall pattern on scrim,” offers Burch. “It’s the same principle as painting, but you have more control so it can look a lot better.” If you choose to applique, prepare to do light tests throughout your process—you may lose the color of your design, and should adjust accordingly.

Scrim’s inherent lightweight property also means you need to think about where you’re placing it, in terms of the elements your show is using. “If you’re going to use scrim in conjunction with a wind effect, get drapery weight fabric,” says Morgan.

Scrim is notoriously hard to cut—it tends to fall apart. The solution? “Sub scrim with twill tape,” suggests Morgan. “It comes in a variety of widths—one-and-a-half inch, three-quarter inch, and one-half inch. I used it to simulate Spanish moss in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire—it created a wonderful level of mystery. I colored it by dipping the tape in paint, and it crinkled and twisted very nicely.”

Inspiration from the Designers

Tom Burch used scrim on a production of Uncle Vanya in an incredibly tight space: a small storefront theatre that occupied the second floor of a building with the grid at 9 feet. The space also featured “permanent beams you kind of just had to learn to design around.” The director wanted to use this “weird” space to create a world in which the actors were onstage in their own specific areas, and the audience would peek into their worlds throughout the play. Burch explains “I got the idea to use lace as my scrim, and covered ‘boxes’ with the lace for the individual scene spaces. The lace-scrimmed boxes acted as windows for the audiences. We hinged the boxes in such a way that their walls could pivot, and the overall space would start to feel smaller and smaller as the play went on. With scrim, of course, it’s really all about lighting the space you have smartly. I placed troughs at each box, so we could light each scene space individually. The lights were on the audience’s side, illuminating each scene through the lace scrim. It was easy and quite effective.”

Robert Mark Morgan used scrim and some hardware for a very easy star effect.  “I create a starry night merely by hanging hex nuts on black thread behind a scrim. If you hang the thread in different lengths from the side on a pipe, the hardware twinkles beautifully, and you can adjust your lighting to customize the effect however you like. Takes almost no time, too!”

Mark Fitzgibbons is also a fan of black scrim, using it to create a snowy night. “All it entails is projecting, through an effects machine, a loop of snow falling,” Fitzgibbons explains. “As the image is seen on the scrim, it bleeds onto an upstage drop. This solves any painting issues, because you cannot paint out what you paint on. When I did this effect once, we also projected captions, positioning the caption projection on a light pipe higher to compensate for the template. The caption was projected first, then the snow—it really helped establish the time and place of the material.”