We all start somewhere. We’re going to hear from the people who kept at it, and wound up somewhere unexpected and awesome. In this month’s interview, we’re hearing some of that wisdom from Robert O. Moody.
In addition to being recognized for his skills as one of the first, and best, teachers of Scenic Art from his long career at Brandeis University, Bob Moody has worked for more than 50 years in theatre, television, and opera. He continues to work as a teacher offering “Master” Workshops with places like PCPA, or with Cobalt Studios, offering workshops on Landscape Painting where he met one of the Guild’s Founding Members, Sarah Herman, who was able to sit down with him this past April.
Sara Herman: How did you get into Scenic Art?
Bob Moody: My high school art teacher, who was very good, told me about an opening for an apprenticeship at a summer stock theater, the Muny Opera, in St. Louis. I went and applied with a German Charge Scenic Artist, Kurt Baron. And he hired me and that’s how I started.
SH: And did you go on to college for theatre after that?
Bob: No, I never went into college for theatre. I went and focused on painting at the University of Washington, St. Louis. So I had some drawing courses, some design courses and then of course some very good painting courses.
SH: Is there any advice that a professor or mentor taught you that has stuck with you through out your career?
Bob: Well a few of them, made, I think, a very strong impression on me. And they were very professional artists. They weren’t hobbyists. And I was blessed and fortunate to have a few of those. Not all of them were that strong. I never had a bad one. But a few of them stand out as stellar art educators, very inspiring mentors in my life.
SH: Did they help you get into the theatre field after college?
Bob: No, they had nothing to do with theatre or scene painting or anything like that. This was an art school and a top-notch one in it’s day. So Muny is were I got my start. I didn’t have a yearning to go into theatre necessarily at all. It was more a practical basis. I wanted a job where I could earn some money and learn about painting. And that’s all it really was. In those days, I and my family, who I contributed some support to when I was a kid, needed it. So there was a very practical side to my decision. I’m just blessed that I got with the right people and the right job to begin with. I also worked at Kroger, a retail grocery store, and I was offered a full scholarship in Business Administration if I wanted to take it; and I would have come back as a assistant store manager of a grocery store. The district manager had made me that offer, which was very kind. He was shocked when I turned it down because I told him I was interested in art and all that. I would probably have retired a lot earlier if I’d taken it, I know I made the right choice, because that job would never had been as interesting to me, period, as much as the jobs I had in the theatre related industry.
SH: So you followed your passion?
Bob: Definitely. And I‘m sure a few people back then thought I was crazy, but that’s what I did.
SH: So you stuck with it and went from job to job in St. Louis?
Bob: I did a lot of painting on Masonic drops, which at the time, the opportunity was rare. You didn’t have Masonic paint studios all over the country. There were only a couple. I was lucky to be in St. Louis where one of the finest ones still existed. And I had a chance to get an incredible education, painting for the finest rendering of these Masonic drops. Of which many are around the country that I painted. And what an opportunity. They installed them in different Scottish Right Temples, all over. And Susan Crabtree was with me, looking at a group of 32 that were installed in the Scottish Right Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. And the house managers were nice enough to lower those drops for Susan and I to view. I did those, really, when I was a kid.
SH: And those were done with dry pigments?
Bob: Yes, absolutely. And when I started at the Muny, that was also dry pigment and horse hide glue. That time was before these prepared paints, like Luminal or Rosco was with their Iddings and other paint business. So I learned first from dry colors, which in my view, still today, is the best, if you can get them.
SH: Why is that?
Bob: The color is just purer and richer. You can still get a number of them shipped from Germany. There’s more of a ritual in terms of the preparation of them, but if you learn how to do that, it doesn’t take that much extra effort to set up a line and test your paint every day. But that’s where I used the color theory in a practical way, what I had learned at University. I really did learn a good feel and sense of color through that.
SH: When did you get your first managing or charge position?
Bob: Well, now you got me. I was Chargeman at the St. Louis Muny Opera, the later 11 years of my almost 30 year period there. And I was Chargeman first for a wonderful designer who had his education at Yale. He was one of Don Oenslage’s last students at Yale. This was just “pre Ming”, Ming Cho Lee. He was a wonderful designer, still today he is designing some. He wanted me to be Charge. And before that, he and I occasionally worked together on the paint frame and bridges backstage at the Muny. So we worked together quite a bit before he offered me the Chargeman job.
SH: How was the transition between being the colleague Scenic to being the Charge?
Bob: When you’re painting scenery yourself, you primarily have to monitor yourself. When you are in charge you have to learn, and develop the ability to choose people on your crew that work well together and distribute the work fairly and evenly across the group. And that takes time, it was a great education for me. I think one of the best things I ever did was to be a Charge, because I learned a lot. A lot more than there is to learn when you are the scenic artist only. I developed a good feel for it.
SH: Do you have any tips for anyone who is charging for the first time?
Bob: My advice is to learn how to appreciate the strongest talent to the least strong talent on the crew because there’s something there for everybody. I don’t think it’s wise to favor the so called ‘best artists’ on the crew and ignore those who aren’t. Because if you find the person with the least experience or the least natural talent and you get to know them and observe them, you’ll know where to put them. So not only can they contribute more, but they will learn from the people you put them with. I learned that young when I was a charge. I think it’s very important.
SH: Yeah, I think it’s helpful to put the strongest person with maybe the less-experienced person. They learn from each other.
Bob: Precisely, and I know I was blessed by being put with some incredible artists and that caused me, and inspired me, to stretch and learn. You can’t just take a shot in the arm and learn from that. You have to work with somebody, listen to somebody, observe somebody, who has a lot more experience than you.
SH: So after you charged for a while, you were offered the job at Brandeis. Had you taught anywhere before that?
Bob: Oh yes, I taught in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre. I was there for almost 6 seasons and before that I worked for ABC television it the State Lake Building in the Loop in Chicago. I had done some work on the West Coast for ABC. I had worked on some conventions. My first experience with teaching was with the Goodman. It’s good that I had a lot of experience behind me, because I had been one of the very few teaching scene painting in the country at that time. I kind of had to reinvent the wheel. I had to come up with these courses and there wasn’t a catalogue you could look into and say this is the course. I also added a course that I think is very important: figure drawing. It helped to benefit lighting designers, costume designers and set designers.
SH: So up to that point, most scenic painters learn on the job and had no schooling in scenic painting?
Bob: Most of them. There was a gentlemen, Arnie S Gillette, at the University of Iowa, I believe. He taught scene painting for some years, but there was very little scene painting taught. I went out there as a guest and met him and talked to him about it. He was surprised about how fast I was and how passionate I was about that. He was very supportive. He taught before I did, but I don’t think there were many others, if any, teaching scene painting.
SH: That’s an amazing gift really, I mean, how many students have you taught?
Bob: A lot of them. Graduates and undergraduates. I think some of the best I produced were the graduates, simply because they had supportive courses before they met me. In other words, enhanced drawing, understanding designing, and they came with more to the table than an undergraduate. That’s not putting down undergraduates at all. It’s just they [graduates] are further along the line in growth and they have more experiences and they bring that to the table when you are teaching them.
SH: What do you like about teaching?
Bob: I like seeing the growth in a student and their growth of self esteem when they learn more. For me, that’s exciting. I’ve never gotten tired of that. It’s never become old news. I very much enjoy seeing a student learn and occasionally a bell goes off and suddenly they know something that day that they didn’t know the day before. It shows in their work. Scene painting is a hands on business. There are some computer courses, but scene painting and drawing is still a hands on course.
SH: Is there something you’ve learned from your students over the years?
Bob: Many things. It isn’t a one way street. I learn a lot from students, in fact, it sounds like between a cliche and a little bit of a joke. I don’t mean it to be! A lot of times, I’m the best student in the class because I appreciate learning a lot, and I appreciate young talent when I see it. I’m really a close observer.