Art Meets Organization

by Randi Minetor
Scenic Artist Grace Brandt
Scenic Artist Grace Brandt

How Grace Brandt, one of NY’s top scenic artists, made it to the Met—and beyond

The Dmitri Tcherniakov scenic design for Prince Igor at the Metropolitan Opera called for the principals to walk through a field of poppies—not a painted backdrop, but a practical meadow dense with nodding flowers. The blooms were slated to cover every inch of the Met’s immense stage floor, grazing the singers’ knees as they crossed through them. “Twelve thousand five hundred poppies,” says Grace Brandt, scenic artist at the Met during the opera’s construction. “Each one was on a spring wire, so the performers could walk through them and not damage them.”  A lesser company might purchase plastic flowers for such a scene, but that wouldn’t do at the Met, where grand opera productions stay in the repertoire for decades. “The word was that if you bought plastic poppies, they would fall apart and break,” Brandt says. “Sets at the Met are built to store and be used again, so we needed poppies that would withstand that.”

Luckily, Brandt is not only one of the top scenic artists in New York, but she also has a gift for overseeing complex projects. “Most people know they’re working on a project with me because it’s organized down to tiny increments of progress,” she says. She coordinated an assembly line of staff members who fashioned each poppy by hand, attaching seedpods, fringe, and petals to wire of specific lengths depending on the height of the bloom in the complex ground plan. Boxes full of standing poppies were precisely placed on the wagons that formed the meadow.

Poppy Rehearsal at MET

This kind of activity may not come immediately to mind when we talk about scenic artistry, but this and many other unusual tasks fill Brandt’s calendar. These days she has left the Met and works close to her Westchester County home, painting sets bound for Broadway with Scenic Art Studios in Newburgh. With a slightly less frenetic schedule, she had the chance recently to reflect on a career that began on the streets of Manhattan and took her to some of the city’s most prestigious scenic studios.

The path to union membership

After graduating from the theatre program at the University at Buffalo in the early 1980s, Brandt saved enough money to move to New York City with a classmate in the fall of 1983. “We started walking downtown,” she says. “We went in every theatre and production office that was known in the city at the time. All I had to show them was my embarrassing portfolio from college.” 

With the blissful ignorance of the recent graduate, she strode into the lobby of the Public Theater and asked to see its famous artistic director, Joseph Papp. “The poor man walked through the lobby just then,” she says. “I showed him the few pieces in my portfolio. He was very gracious to me, but he didn’t offer me a job.” All of these visits to theatres yielded no job offers, but they provided one critically important piece of information: There is a union for scenic artists, and an exam for prospective members. “I had never heard about the United Scenic Artists union in school,” Brandt lamented. “I went to register for the exam, and I found out I’d just missed the annual scenic artist and scenic designer exams by a few days. So, I signed up for the apprentice exam.”

Fifty people took the all-day practical exam to win one of the four apprentice slots—and Brandt was chosen to enter the program. The three-year commitment placed apprentices in union shops, moving them to a new shop every two months: feature film studios, scenic shops, and top theatres. Brandt found herself painting alongside some of the most experienced and talented people in the business. “Titans of the industry were letting me come in and work with them—for half pay, but still,” she says. “I got to see how all of these people did it. I was learning, and I was keen to learn. Some artists were great illustrators, and others did incredible marbling and wood graining. They were just wonderful people.”

By the time her apprenticeship ended, Brandt had dozens of contacts, and she secured work quickly—now at union pay rates—at Nolan’s Studio, the top scenic shop in the late 1980s. She established a routine of working at Nolan’s and at Showtech (a shop in Connecticut that has since been renamed Showmotion) in the summer and fall, painting the big shows opening on Broadway each season: Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and a wide range of others. “Broadway was just turning to the mega-musical business, so I came in at just the right time,” she explains. “There was more than enough work.”

She remembers most fondly working on the mid-1990s Guys and Dolls tour, translating the Tony Walton design alongside scenic artist Richard Prouse. “He was so generous and positive about the work that everyone was empowered,” Brandt says. “Richard was a revelation, the best experience of my career at that point.“ She took his example to heart as her role moved more toward leadership, working to empower those on her crew as well. 

As a per diem scenic artist, she moved to studios that created scenery for feature films in the winter and summer. Brandt’s work appeared in films including Last Exit to Brooklyn, Shadows and Fog, Rooftops, Scenes From a Mall, and As Good As It Gets, among others. 

When her daughter, Emily, was born in the early 1990s, however, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was fresh in many parents’ minds, and Brandt became concerned that her nomadic work schedule would make it difficult for the child’s caregivers to find her in an emergency. It was time to take a stationary position in one shop. “There was a scene shop in Long Island City, Variety Scenic, where the charge artist was amazing,” Brandt says. “I went there and stayed for five years, until they were bought out by Showman Fabricators and moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn. By that time, I was the second (assistant charge artist), and I was ready for another move.”

Brandt had maintained her extensive list of contacts over the years, so she got in touch with the charge at Hudson Scenic, still one of the major players in the scenery industry. “She was interested in me,” she says. “There were very few experienced seconds with a background in drop painting, so I was unusual. The majority of scenic artists worked in movies.” She made the leap to Hudson—and within two years, when the charge artist left the company, Brandt took the helm at the largest scenic artist department on the east coast.

Wallpaper Stencils

“Do any favor you can.”

Hudson maintained a brisk pace that accelerated during Brandt’s time there. “We went from twelve scenics working per day to twenty-two,” she says. “We had at least two and sometimes six shows being painted at the same time.” As charge artist, Brandt worked closely with the other departments to plan the workflow. “I really liked that part of the job,” she says, “figuring out the process, our costs, how it would fit into the schedule. The work went from drafting to iron to wood to automation, so the scenic artists would get it last. We would have to do what we do very quickly, or we could finagle the schedule to slip in some painting in between the other departments.” Here Brandt saw one of her most deeply held beliefs about theatre reinforced again and again: “Any favor you can do for someone, do it. If it would really help the warehouse if we finished a day early, we’d push to finish a day early. Then when you need it, they will do a favor for you.”

Even with this spirit of collaboration and lending a helping hand, however, nine years finally ended with a bang. “It was just too stressful,” Brandt comments. “One day my head exploded, and I yelled at the owner.” Brandt moved on—but a scenic artist with this level of experience and ability doesn’t go just anywhere. “That’s when I went to the Metropolitan Opera,” Brandt says. “The charge knew my work. I called the day I left Hudson and he said, ‘Come in tomorrow.’ So, I went from this very stressful, profit-driven company…down the rabbit hole.”

Five floors of cinder block walls, hundreds of people at work—the atmosphere at one of the biggest non-profit arts organizations in New York was day and night from Hudson. Brandt soon discovered that even with her lifetime body of work, she had not seen it all. “The most impressive thing was being sent down to the stage to touch something up,” she says. “The first time I did that, they were changing over from the performance set the night before, to a production of Der Rosencavalier. There must have been a hundred stagehands there. The set had massive staircases, and I watched those guys move everything and stack it. Broadway is all automated and everything’s moved by machine, but the Met is all muscle. They change the stage two or three times a day, and they’re fast.”

Here Brandt had the opportunity to do some of her largest scale work, from the massive metal filigree for The Marriage of Figaro to detailed ground cloths for Rigoletto—not to mention those 12,500 poppies. As the Met struggled through its recently well publicized budget woes and cut back significantly on expenses, however, she headed for a venue closer to home. “Now that Emily’s grown up, I’ll just work where there’s work,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m happiest when I’m occupied. There’s a lot of thinking in scenic art; I’m really satisfied when I’m working.”

Rigoletto Floor Cloth

She’s certainly not slumming—at the time of this interview, her day involved painting backdrops for Santo Loquasto’s new designs for the Broadway revival of Hello Dolly, starring Bette Midler. What advice does she offer to new artists who may be pounding the pavement in the city, just as she did more than three decades ago? Provide the best possible execution of the designer’s vision. “There are some artists who are so creative and put their own paint style into everything, but to me, the best thing you can do is make it look like what the designer designed, and have conversations with them so it’s their vision,” Brandt says. “It’s not about your personal artistry—it’s about bringing out the designer’s own artistry. That’s how you keep getting work.”