Set against a backdrop of whining power saws and pounding hammers, scenic artists create self-contained worlds in which the Colorado Shakespeare Festival performances come to life.
The painters wield brushes like magicians, transforming foam to stone, plain walls into gilded rooms, and new materials into antiques.
In the scene shop housed in CU-Boulder’s Theatre and Dance Department, stacks of lumber and metal, buckets of paint, brushes large and small, and an array of hand tools provide everything needed to create scenery and props for the summer plays.
Overseeing the painting projects is Jenn Melcher, who has been on the CU-Boulder staff since 2007. During the academic year, Melcher paints sets for the College of Music’s operas and also works as a stagehand for Macky Auditorium Concert Hall. This is her first season working for the Shakespeare festival.
“I like to be able to make my own decisions about paint colors, but to also be part of a team,” she said. “What I’m doing serves the play. Most people in the audience don’t realize how much work goes into painting scenery.”
The creative process starts with plans from a scenic designer. Then Melcher’s team of part-time and volunteer painters turns the sketches into three-dimensional reality. And a group of CU-Boulder theater students did a practicum for credit.
The sets need to enhance the style and tone of a play, create an appropriate mood and atmosphere, and provide clues to the time and place of the play.
Theatrical scenic painting employs techniques ranging from trompe l’oeil, or visual illusion, to faux finishes to landscape and figurative painting. Plastering, gilding and sculpting are also used.
Mariah Hermsmeyer, a senior studying studio art and environmental design, is a first-time volunteer for the Shakespeare festival. Her paint-splattered jeans provide a testimony of the many projects she has worked on this summer, which included carving “stone columns and helping paint a mural for The Merry Wives of Windsor, helping paint the sunset mural, boulders, stairs and the boat for The Tempest, and working on wood graining the floors and stairs for I Hate Hamlet.
“There’s a lot of playing around and experimenting with paints,” said Hermsmeyer, “to get just the right color or faux finish. What we do is creative problem solving.”
Melcher credits her team for jumping in and getting it all done.
“Everyone worked so hard and I could not have done it alone,” said Melcher. “The festival is very much a learning ground for students and the teaching part is really what keeps me coming back to this sort of thing.”
Founded in 1958, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is the second-oldest Shakespeare festival in the country and was named “one of the top three Shakespeare Festivals in the U.S.” by Time magazine.