Behind the Backdrop

An important part of a theatre production is the set that it takes place on. It is what helps to create the whole picture for the audience to be immersed into the story. Without that set, a theatrical production would just be a bunch of people talking loudly to a room full of other people.  An integral part of the set is the backdrop that is painted for each show.  It could be anything from a simple set with sponge painted walls to a more intricate backdrop that makes you feel like you’ve been shrunk down with Alice and are now in Wonderland.  It is a part of theatre that helps to make it all the more magical.  

During the summer the playhouse puts on a children’s theatre show.  I have had the privilege to be involved in creating each magical set since the program started 17 years ago.  I’ve helped with many of sets and their painting but some of my favorites to work on have been the children’s theatre ones.  Only in the past 6 years have I really gotten let my painting skills really show and be the sole one painting the backdrop.  For those who have ever seen a playhouse children’s theatre show and wondered what all goes into painting the set then today’s your lucky day. I’m going to give you an inside look at my process of painting the most recent children’s theatre backdrop. To do this, I’m going to break down the process I go through when creating most of my backdrops for children’s theatre.

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To start every design for a set, I first talk with the director of the show to find out more about it.  To come up with a design that fits, I have to know what the show is about, where it takes place, if there are multiple places that are visited, what style the director would like to be used, etc. From my talk with the director of our most recent children’s theatre production, Alice In Wonderland, I knew that he wanted it to have more of a coloring book, sketched feel and that the show would take place all over Wonderland. So with this knowledge I knew the backdrop would need to be a more generic setting that would make you feel like you have shrunk down with Alice and were walking through Wonderland with her.

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Once I have found out all the information I need about the show, I next go to the Internet for inspiration to help come up with what the set it going to look like. For Alice In Wonderland, I took a lot of inspiration from the original illustrations that were in the book and also some from the two Disney movies.



After I have found my inspiration, I have to start sketching out my ideas to come up with what the design will look like.  Usually I make some sketches of different parts then I bring them all together on a larger scale.  For Alice In Wonderland I wanted to make the audience feel like they were right there in Wonderland with Alice, so I decided to paint a lot of oversized flowers, mushrooms, and trees.  To find what style I wanted them to resemble, I looked at all the backgrounds of the different Alice inspiration photos I compiled to create the final look I was going for.

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The last step in creating an amazing backdrop for a show is to paint it.  One of the keys to painting a great set is to paint from back to front.  If you want to create a forest you will want to paint your main color, say blue, then you’ll want to paint the trees that are the furthest to closest. This is much easier to do than trying to paint by numbers. Now for Alice In Wonderland, I did something I don’t usually do, I actually sketched out the flowers, mushrooms, and trees.  Once I had outlined the section of the set I wanted to work on, I then watered down my paint and used a sponge to apply it so that I could give everything a watercolor look.  Then I went back and painted the black lines again to created the “sketched” look we were going for.  Making the backdrop look like it came straight out of the storybook.


     Once I have finished one of my backdrops I love to take a step back to see what it looks like all together and to see what I have achieved.  I also enjoy when the children in the show come in after it has been finished and their reactions and how excited they are to perform on the set I just helped to create. 

I hope you enjoyed a little inside look into how I create all of the backdrops that help transport an audience to Wonderland, Neverland, or Oz. So now, the next time you go to a show, you’ll be able to look at the backdrop and know some of what went into creating it.

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