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The Arizona Theatre Company presents a delightful challenge to creative teams: With venues in Tucson and Phoenix, about 110 miles apart, each production coming through the Arizona Theatre Company needs to be planned, built, and executed as a touring production.  While there are many facets to approaching a production in this way, I will focus on one particular scenic challenge – Making dirt travel. August Wilson’s Fences and Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens each required backyard settings with a slightly different flavor.  Scenic designer Vicki Smith’s yard for Fences asked for a hyper-realistic execution.  Carey Wong’s design for Native Gardens, on the other hand, was a more stylized approach.

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Fences

.Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Fences was co-produced with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and Indiana Repertory Theatre. As such, the finished production would eventually travel beyond our theatres in Arizona, finding temporary homes in both Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

Fences, 2015, Arizona Theatre Company – Image by Tim Fuller

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When prepping 2016’s Fences technical director, Matt Saxton, and I analyzed the aesthetic needs for the production against the travel requirements, resources, and build time available to us.  Matt and I wanted to be able to travel the yard in as few pieces as possible, in order to reduce seams and touchup time onstage, but also be able to create compact components that would pack well into a 53’ trailer.  We began experimenting with varying types of carpeting as a “yard base”.

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Vicki Smith’s Floor Rendering

The challenge was finding a carpet which would satisfy our needs:

  1. Lay nicely over the topographic structure underneath
  2. Take the dirt and grass treatments well
  3. And withstand several runs, in multiple cities.

We sourced several local commercial carpet providers, online carpet sources, and even investigated automotive carpeting.  While the automotive carpeting contoured and took the treatment the best, it was not available in wide widths, which was cost prohibitive.  The standard commercial carpet had a backing that was too stiff to contour the topography appropriately.  Ultimately, we determined a low-nap indoor/outdoor carpet in a 12’ width satisfied our needs.

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Soil Samples

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I created full-scale samples based on Vicki’s deck rendering, notes from her drafting, and our preliminary phone calls.  There were areas of “packed” dirt, “loose” dirt, and some patchy dead and dying grass throughout.

Image by Brigitte Bechtel

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When sampling, I used varying ratios of elastomeric for flexibility, scenic paint, and texture additives (walnut shells, vermiculite, etc.) for the dirt base.  Using the as the mid-tone we worked lighter and darker areas as needed.  I added raffia matting for grassy patches and blended the edges in using the dirt texture.  After a series of photos and phone calls, Vicki and I zeroed in on the right looks for each yard component: “packed dirt”, “loose dirt”, and “grass”.  From here, it was simply a matter of following Vicki’s excellent map, and painting each portion of the yard in the correct place onstage.

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We took care to age the elements as naturally as possible—studying how the climate of the area might affect different materials through many seasons outside, and matching our colors to mimic those effects.

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Image by Brigitte Bechtel

We spent thorough time onstage once all scenic and prop elements were placed in the theatre, really “settling” these pieces into the yard to give the illusion of age.  This involved a lot of blending grass and dirt up onto the bottoms of scenic elements.

The Yard Process Sheet – Image by Brigitte Bechtel

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Materials:

Dirt:

Grass (Raffia) Toning:

Scenic Design: Vicki Smith

Charge Scenic Artist: Brigitte Bechtel

Scenic Artists:  Lydia Lopez, Liz Weibler, Andrea Pratt

For more on the Fences set, check out Lydia Lopez’s article.

To see Vicki’s set at the Minnesota Historical Society, check out Angelique Power’s article.


Native Gardens

An Arizona Theatre Company production; playing in Tucson and Phoenix only.

Native Gardens, 2018, Arizona Theatre Company – Image by Esser Design

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When discussing preliminary designs with Carey Wong for Native Gardens in the summer of 2018, I realized the yard solution we used for Fences could possibly apply.  After discussing the process with technical director Dominic DeRiso, and showing Carey some process photos from our Fences archive, Carey was quite interested to see this concept applied to his design.  I was able to find the same carpet we used in Fences, in a mid-tone which worked for the Native Gardens color palette.

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The Sample Process – Image by Brigitte Bechtel

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Because Carey’s dirt yard was more stylized than the Fences yard, we used less of the “packed” dimensional elastomeric dirt and texture additives.  More scenic paint spatters and washes were used in the process to tone the carpet according to Carey’s rendering.  There was no underlying topography to contend with in the level, tiered yard, so the carpet was able to float over the platforming and stage deck in 3 large pieces that could be rolled up and placed on a cart for travel.  Natural grass, plant, and tree leaves/limb dressings were added by the props team to help create the organic look to the Native Gardens dirt yard.

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The Fine Print:

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All scenic elements for these productions were treated with flame retardants to be in compliance for all venues.  We researched guidelines for all venues these productions would play in and treated them accordingly.

Image by Brigitte Bechtel

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Flexibility in materials was key throughout the process in order to avoid cracking or peeling due to travel, storage, and handling.  In addition, many of the materials we use at Arizona Theatre Company are chosen because they are local and readily available.  These may differ from brands locally available to your area that are just as good or better for the job.  Specialty items, such as the raffia used in Fences had to be shipped in, and thus, we had to consider lead time in our build schedule.

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Materials:

Dirt:

Grass:

  • Mostly properties set dressing: fake grasses and plants.
  • Minimal astroturf “patches”, using the astroturf grass of the manicured lawn design.
  • Some blending in certain areas, though not as extensive as in Fences.

Scenic Design: Carey Wong

Charge Scenic Artist:  Brigitte Bechtel

Assistant Charge Scenic Artist: Mallory Harwell

No matter the show, it is crucial to have a firm understanding of the needs of any paint treatment.  Careful planning and proper communication with the designers through sampling is key to addressing the potential challenges you might face.  It is always best to stay flexible throughout the process, and do not be afraid to get a little dirty.


Brigitte Bechtel

Originally from the South, Brigitte’s paintbrushes have taken her from Boston, MA to Tucson, AZ and beyond!  Her experiences have led her on scenic adventures with Cobalt Studios, Emerson College, Mystic Scenic Studios, and the Arizona Theatre Company, to name a few.  She holds an MFA in Production Design from Michigan State University and is a 2009 graduate of Cobalt Studios Scenic Artist Training Program.

To see more of Brigitte’s amazing work, follow her on Instagram, @amascenic, and be sure to check out her portfolio.

All photos courtesy of Brigitte Bechtel.

1 Comment
  1. George A Kruft 6 days ago

    Love it Brigitte. Thanks,

    George Kruft
    Lead Scenic / Key Painter
    IATSE 480 New Mexico

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