Pops (of Color) for Poppins

by Erik D. Diaz

The backdrop for Mary Poppings in color mode. Old theatre tricks give Mary Poppins’ “Jolly Holiday” a big splash of color

Even though the stage version of Mary Poppins uses statues (instead of animated penguins) to bring a dreary London park into vibrant, colorful life in the song “Jolly Holiday,” I had no doubt that I needed to start that scene with a monochromatic look and then bring it magically into full color for a production of the musical at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. I eventually came to the conclusion that a translucent drop would be the best way to accomplish this—only done in reverse. The drop would have the black lining on the front face and all of the color on the back. This would allow me to start the scene in a black and white world, then instantly have that world filled in with vivid colors. 

The backdrop in black and white mode during performance. The most important part of making a translucent drop is making sure paint doesn’t bleed through the drop (ruining the original design) but still provides vibrant pops of color. This means it’s vital to have good starching to block bleed-through and super-saturated paint to provide the color when necessary. This would be doubly important for my reverse translucent drop, since we had to block any color at all to start with. To develop a workable process—and insure our seamless, 25-foot-by-36-foot-drop didn’t just turn into a very expensive mistake—scenic charge Heidi Larson and the technical director Chris Sheley painted two sample pieces to determine the number of layers of starch to apply and the technique and color layering of the paint. 

Using the starch formula outlined in Susan Crabtree and Peter Beudert’s book Scenic Art for the Theatre: History, Tools, and Techniques they determined that one coat of heavy starch on the front and two coats on the back would provide a sufficient barrier for the paint. Larson tried different painting techniques on each of the samples: brushes on one and sprayers on the other. The sprayer kept the paint floating on the starch, but it didn’t offer enough control or give the amount of color saturation needed. The brushes worked better, but there was a risk of too much saturation, causing the paint to bleed through the starch and appear on the other side of the drop. Larson determined that three to four coats of super-saturated paint, watered down to a ratio of approximately 15:1, provided the maximum color vibrancy without allowing bleed- through. 

Creative Image Slider: There is nothing to show!

The samples showed us the idea would work, but it also showed us that each part of the drop would need to be painted separately. Masking had to be applied all around the area being painted. Plus, due to the directional nature of paint treatment of the rendering I created, the painters also discovered the need for a grid made of twine over the entire surface, allowing them to uniformly follow the desired angle. 

A scenic artist at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center paints trees for the backdrop, with certain parts of the drop still masked off. ​Larson, Sheley and two scenic artists Terri Harrison and Lara Hincapie painted the starched and painted the drop—and then we had to deal with lighting. Our tests showed us the translucency would work when lit from behind using a bounce drop to direct the backlight, but when even weak light from the front was used it completely washed out the drop. To avoid this, Jonathan Spencer, our lighting designer, lit the scene with back and sidelight only, and we blocked the scene to keep actors six feet downstage of the drop to prevent any bounce from washing out the drop. Unfortunately, since the drop played downstage of the permanent three-story house unit, we couldn’t place a ground row of strip lights along the floor to light our bounce drop. To get around this our lighting designer put light booms on either side of the stage, and cyc lights hung on the batten above in order to get the even coverage needed to light the drop without a ground row. In the end, the drop was a success, amazing the audience through the collaborative effort by everyone at the Fine Arts Center.