We would like to thank our friends over at Big Image Theatre Network (B.I.T.N.) and John Bloom for letting us repost this article and interview he did with our member, Brigitte Bechtel.
This article was originally posted on March 5, 2018.
The set of Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Man of La Mancha” is a study in scenic detail. When you wander around, it’s impossible to turn your head without finding layers of detail. Charge Scenic Artist Brigitte Bechtel and her team have created a rich, textured environment of stone and brick and mosaic for performers to strut and fret their hour upon the stage.
B.I.T.N. had the chance to spend some time with Brigitte in the shop at ATC to ask her about some of the techniques she, and her team used to bring it to life.
“Man of La Mancha” Photo curtesy of William Bloodgood.
Did you have a roll in how this was designed?
“In the case of MoLM, I was not involved in the design of the scenery,” she began, “scenic designer, William Bloodgood, had conversations with the other members of the creative team. I took the information from Bill’s final designs and created sample scenic treatments- stone, brick, plaster, etc., for Bill and director David Bennett’s approval.
Time was a huge factor in a lot of the treatment decisions for MoLM. The build was more truncated than is typical, so Bill and Brigitte had to figure out the best look utilizing the available resources. Bill was very gracious in understanding the timeline, and was very collaborative in that process while he was there during the designer shop visit.
“MoLM had the added challenge of making sure our flamenco dancers and musicians had what they needed to do their jobs as well. I was more involved in conversations with our director, choreographer, dancers and sound designer than is typical due to the concept of this production
Several of our samples were created for the dancers to try out and make sure they could do all the movements they needed with success. Our designers and dancers both had a lot of feedback on the floor, and I created probably about 12 versions of the floor before we got the right mix for everyone’s needs. It was a really interesting challenge for my department!”
For our visit Brigitte had saved some of the samples from Man Of La Mancha, early iterations of what ultimately appeared on the stage. As a novice, I’d say they had a “stucco” look to them, a three dimensional textural technique. I asked Brigitte to share with the audience some of the techniques, products and processes used to achieve the final look for the show.
“We have here the very first sample that was created for the production. Painted on MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). The original idea was a tiled floor, and the designer wanted “aged and rough”. Because of the Flamenco Dancers we had the added challenge, which is exciting for me because I had never worked with a Flamenco Dancer, didn’t really know much about it. I just knew that it had to be durable because of the stomping. So we came up with this “goop” mixture to do the tile and it was very durable.”
(There is a purported video of Brigitte and her second Mallory hitting it with a hammer).”
Oh, wait, here it is:
I pointed out another sample near the first.
“So this is very close to what the floor ended up being. We ended up with a strictly paint treatment. It’s the same MDF, but instead of the first sample using a goop texture, we sent a sample of this floor to the dancers which they approved.”
Interesting, I would think that it would be the opposite, that having a rougher surface would be better, more of a grip …
“Yeah, but they wanted a more even surface for dancing, so that’s how we arrived at this. For us it’s a little bit of a science experiment. We experimented with different types of sealers and shines on the floor to make sure we had the look the designer wanted and what the dancers needed.”
“The idea behind the walls was a kind of plastered, brick basement feel to the place. So this went through testing different types of goop mixtures, to see if we wanted to stencil the bricks or if we wanted to paint the bricks and do a goop mixture only for the plaster.
The wall treatment was essentially Henry Brand Roofing Caulk (elastomeric) and joint compound. We do a lot of Elastomeric and joint compound mixtures like variations, different ratios together. We use the Elastomeric for it’s flexibility, again, because we are always thinking that the show is going on the road to Phoenix and it’s going to be taken apart and loaded. So it’s good to have that flexibility because you don’t want your texture to chip off, especially in Phoenix, where we just don’t have the time to re-goop things.
The original plaster look was a very knife-drawn, faux finish style. But that didn’t quite pick up the light the way we wanted it to. We ran in to a bit of a time crunch and labor -wise we didn’t have enough hands to get this look done over the entire set. So when our Scenic Designer was here he was very gracious in working with us, adjusting his vision for the show, and we ended up with this texture, which is what you actually saw on the set.”
And the stucco like texture?
“This is the same goop mixture as the other, except I added some planer sawdust to it. We literally grabbed handfuls of goop, (wearing very heavy gloves!), and experimented with mixing it into the Elastomeric by hand, (with gloves), to get the right consistency we wanted and smeared it into the mixture by hand. YES! sometimes hands are the best tools in the shop. I used Behr house paint for the wall and floor bases, and Rosco Off-Broadway scenic paints for the aging/toning. Our sealers were Sculptural Arts Coatings Plastic Varnish Flat and Minwax Polycrylic, satin finish.
We tint it using the universal tinting colors or Rosco Paints. We turned around the painting of the walls in about a week. That’s a little tight for our general time table, so we had to get some extra hands in here. It was a good, solid week of getting the texture and the paint right. Finally, we had to stamp the brick pattern so instead of gooping the brick we made a brick stamp …”
“The Designer had a very specific size of brick that they wanted, a little bit smaller than your standard construction brick that we see in the U.S. So we got the size and mapped it out and made this stamp.”
What sorts of tools do you use in your planning stages of design (such as models/dioramas, 3D rendering, sketches, etc.) to help you visualize the stage layout?
“Hand drafting, CAD programs, model pieces or photos of a model, all of this–depending on what tool is best to communicate.”
Where do you turn to for research and inspiration when doing this preparatory work?
“My own experiences built over my career is my first source, of course. The longer you work the more comfortable you are in the planning stages of things and the better estimates you make on labor and material cost. My network of dear Scenic Artist friends is a great ‘sounding board’ for an objective view on a challenge, or if I have seen that he or she has done a similar project recently. We Scenic Artists pick each other’s brains constantly.”
“For visual research, the Surfaces series of books by Judy Juracek is great because it is something most designers know of and have access to. You can feel better that you and the designer are looking at the same book, rather than depending on a random internet search.”
It looks from your website like you’re a painter. After the bulk of the design work is done, how hands-on are you with the creation/installation of the actual set?
“I am not as “hands on” anymore as I would like to be, but that is the life of a Charge Artist. My goal is to always have my crew on deck working. No one should be waiting on me to make a plan–the plan should already be in place. I spend a lot of time consulting designers, purchasing, coordinating with other departments, budgeting, scheduling etc. The business and management side of scenic art! If you can’t stand doing those things–do not be a Charge! Find a nice place to paint, and just paint!”
From a young, (very young) age, John Bloom has been addicted to the arts. As a wee lad, John was making super 8 movies, creating monsters and spaceships with his friends and had the dream of being the next Ray Harryhausen. As he grew, he switched to acting, eventually receiving a BA in Theatre from Allentown College, (Now DeSales University).
After a stint in the acting and corporate world, John returned to his first love as the head of sales of a major Theatrical Company in Queens NY. It was there he was introduced to Big Image Systems, and helped to introduce digital printing to Broadway and beyond. You can contact him here.
BITN is a new online magazine, (yeah, alright, a blog), created in partnership with Big Image Systems, the world’s premier Digital Printer for the theatre marketplace.
Brigitte Bechtel is originally from the south, where she made her way up to the Boston area and worked primarily as a Charge Scenic Artist. She has also worked at places such as Cobalt Studios, The Cape Playhouse, Emerson College, Mystic Scenic Studios, and Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding. She has her MFA in Production Design with an emphasis in Scenic and Costume Design from Michigan State University.