Painters overcome challenges to create theater scenery
When a designer comes to Gabriel Barrera with new ideas for a play's scenery, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's scenic artist doesn't back down from the challenge.
"I never think, 'We can't do that.' I think, 'We can do that. We just have to figure out how,'" said Barrera, who is in his eighth season with OSF.
The painting crew that works in OSF's cavernous, factory-like production building in Talent does everything from creating faux brick walls to painting an orchard of blooming trees on muslin.
Barrera, who studied fine art at Pratt Institute in New York, got his start in scenery painting at Knott's Berry Farm in California, where his tasks included painting signs and Halloween mazes.
"I find scenic art to be more rewarding than fine art," he said. "It's more inclusive and collaborative. As a fine artist, you're more isolated and closed off. Through scenic art, you are collaborating with the designer and other staff members. You work together to be successful at whatever the goal is."
The process starts with the painting crew creating samples for each play's designer to make sure they're on the right track.
"We don't want to paint the scenery and be wrong in our interpretation, Barrera said.
Some designers want realism, while others go for an abstract or cartoon-like effect.
If a piece of scenery or a prop is supposed to look like wood, the painters can create dozens of different effects. They can replicate virtually any surface, from concrete to metal to tile.
Some of their biggest challenges come when they have to paint on plastic surfaces, such as PVC pipe or AstroTurf. It can be difficult to get paint to adhere to plastic.
Barrera said painted artificial turf football fields often flake off on players' uniforms.
"We're doing repertory theater. After a long run, you can notice that the paint is coming off the AstoTurf. Especially in theater, you don't want the paint coming off on the actors' clothes," he said. "It's not football. You don't want it to wear off."
Creating scenery for OSF's outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre can also pose problems.
"The Lizzie is the most challenging because of the heat, cold, rain and even hail. The elements really do wear on the set. You have to use products that will hold up well," Barrera said.
In OSF's intimate Thomas Theatre, painters have to remain aware that theater-goers will be close to the action, where they can notice any flaws.
"That's where attention to detail comes in," said assistant Daniel Perez, who is working at OSF through its Fellowships, Assistantships, Internships & Residencies program.
Perez — who got his artistic start through graffiti writing and hopes to become a graphic designer — researched images online as inspiration for a silver eagle motif he was painting on a motorcycle gas tank for the play "Vietgone." In the comedy, three young Vietnamese refugees go on a road trip through 1970s America.
The elaborate eagle design will go on top of a sleek, black paint job Perez gave the gas tank in OSF's room-size spray booth. Such professional-quality spray booths are normally used to custom-paint cars.
Once a play's run draws to a close, some scenic elements are kept in storage if the play and its component parts are moving on to another theater. But much of the scenery is dismantled.
Metal is sent to be scrapped, while some of the wood scenery heads to Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity's ReStore for resale by the nonprofit group.
Noting there is always another batch of plays coming through the pipeline, Barrera said, "We don't get too attached to the scenery."
At noon Saturday, March 26, Barrera will present "Wait, Is That Real?" in which he will discuss painting techniques used in this season's productions of "Twelfth Night," "The Yeomen of the Guard" and "The River Bride."
Tickets to the Festival Noon event in Carpenter Hall along Pioneer Street on OSF's downtown Ashland campus are $12 for adults and $8 for youths ages 6-17. See www.osfashland.org, call 800-219-8161 or visit the OSF box office, 15 S. Pioneer St., to purchase tickets.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or email@example.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.