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Making a Forest

Cassandra Phillips • Answer Box • May 1, 2013

Left to right: Claire Dana, Jim Schumcher and Cassandra Phillips glue tulle to the mylar stencil cut-outs.

Left to right: Claire Dana, Jim Schumcher and Cassandra Phillips glue tulle to the mylar stencil cut-outs.

The scene shop at Indiana Repertory Theatre had to solve a problem of trees for a production of The Gospel According to James

One of the most exciting parts of being a scenic artist is the adventure of thinking critically, so you can make things creatively. When a project comes my way that presents some potential problems, my heart revs. I see it as an adventure, not a setback.

In 2012 I was working as the assistant Charge Scenic Artist under charge scenic artist Claire Dana for the Indiana Repertory Theatre. A show was fast approaching by the name of The Gospel According to James, by Charles Smith. The play is a historical fiction about the last lynchings to take place in Indiana and explores the nature of memory in regard to our collective history.

The setting of this work was elegantly designed by Linda Buchanan and featured 10 black textiline—plastic scrim—panels, each 25 feet high and painted with two different but overlapping stencils of trees. The layering of the panels would create a beautifully spooky forest with varying levels of translucency for the actors to wander through as they relived the haunting events of that evening. But the number of panels would also create a huge headache for us as we tried to make them.

We not only needed to use our limited sceneshop space as efficiently as possible, we also needed a stencil material that would be durable enough to last through painting the 10 panels and be light for its size. Additionally, the stencils would have many unconnected portions, formed by the solid negative spaces between the branches or from where tree branches overlapped. We would need to come up with a way to keep the stencil together so that it held its shape, and kept the negative spaces correctly oriented. The team put our heads together and came up with creative solutions to each question, resulting in a fun and effective system.

Dana suggested the use of mylar as a stencil material. It is durable and waterproof, but also can be drawn on as simply as paper and easily cut. It was also translucent, which would make transferring the design easy. First, scenic artist Jim Schumcher and I laid out craft paper and freehand drew the trees. Each stencil had two trees on it. Once the trees were perfect, we outlined them in permanent marker. Next we rolled out mylar over the drawings and traced the trees onto the mylar. Then we cut the trees out of the mylar, which resulted in many small sections of mylar to form the negative space. We taped these sections to their corresponding shapes on the drawing paper to keep them in their place until the next step—connecting all the pieces together. To do that we rolled yards of tulle over the mylar. The tulle, when glued firmly to the mylar, held the stencil together.

Jim Schumcher and Cassandra Phillips line up a stencil on the black textiline.

Jim Schumcher and Cassandra Phillips line up a stencil on the black textiline.

Now that we had made the 25-foot-tall stencils we had to divide them into three 8-foot sections to make them more manageable. The tops and bottoms of each section were given an overlapping section and guidelines to ensure they would line up perfectly each time. We framed each stencil on their sides with a piece of 1×1, to help the artists maneuver them into place when it came time to paint. To dry the stencils we added loops made out of wire hangers to the ends of the wooden frame handles and hung them up.

Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Jacob Rollinson in IRT's The Gospel According to James.

Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Jacob Rollinson in IRT’s The Gospel According to James.

Time to paint. First, we laid out the textiline panels, two at a time. Then we laid out the stencils in their three sequential parts, one complete stencil on each panel. We applied the paint using a garden sprayer. The paint passed through the tulle without leaving a mark, and the mylar was easy to clean if needed. We hung the sections up to dry along the wall. When they were dry we laid them down again, laid the other stencil on top, and painted them again. And 10 panels later, we had a fantastic forest waiting to be hung. The textiline panels allowed for some eerie lighting effects and a striking stage presence. Maximum trees in minimal space.

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