During the summer at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, they open the large barn doors to their black box space , ‘The Castle’, roll out the blankets, turn up the grill, and perform some live theatre in a series known as the Summer Hot Dog Series. This year, the second of the two shows was Beat Bugs; a new musical based on the Netflix show of the same name, featuring music by the Beatles.
The plot involves ecologically-minded bugs attempting to save their home, the Strawberry Fields, from the stinkbug’s pollution. The creative team, consisting of Director/Managing Artistic Director Judge Luckey and Scenic Designer Megan Sara, focused on creating the onstage home of the bugs out of reclaimed human items that may be found in a backyard, such as a Starbucks coffee cup, a Coca-Cola bottle cap, and Popsicle sticks.
As a Scenic Artist, the idea of making things on an exceptionally large scale was very exciting!
The most unique set piece I made was the Lay’s potato chip ‘bed’ for the bugs.
The Children’s Theatre has a few exceptionally large bean bags that were purchased by accident laying around the theatre storage, and finding a use for them was the inspiration for the design. It was my idea as the Lead Scenic Artist to paint the chip bag wrapper like a drop, sew the edges, and then ‘stuff’ it with the bean bags. The project ended up being quite the collaboration between departments.
My initial instinct as a Scenic is to include every detail on a rendering that is given and to paint EVERYTHING. But in this case, the Director and Scenic Designer chose to simplify the chip bag by omitting the word ‘CLASSIC’ from the front of the bag and painting only two chips instead of a whole potato, as can be seen on some special edition bags. Nevertheless, I used a projector to get the logo and placement exactly right and then painted by hand any detail that I thought would help sell the illusion of realism. I used a variety of paint application techniques, all based on what I thought would most accurately replicate the computer-generated graphic look of the logo. I went back and forth between sprays with a pneumatic HPLV and an angled sash brush to get that soft fade when I needed juxtaposing to the crisp lines of the lettering.
As seen in the video, we treated the back and the front of the bag as two separate pieces of 9’0″ x 12’0″ muslin. To save time (and our costume shop’s machines), we decided to start with at least one edge sewn together. Our scene shop assistant, Shannon Chong, serged all the edges and stitched one side together, then laid the drop flat and stapled the muslin to the floor.
Because of the concern about the stiffness of the drop after being painted for sewing purposes, along with how it would be manhandled by children jumping on it every night, I chose to not starch the muslin but to size it by spraying with hot water to keep the fabric as flowy as possible. I taped a 2-inch border around the edges of the drop to leave room for sewing, and for our Props Master Chani Hubbell to follow when she created and stuffed the bag. To help maintain the flexibility of the fabric I used all Rosco Off-Broadway paint, thinned with water for flexibility and Rosco Clear Flat to reduce fading and rubbing off on costumes.
The hardest part about getting started with the paint treatment was understanding that I was painting something 2-dimensional that would eventually be 3-dimensional. Even though the shadows painted on the bag don’t make sense, I closely followed the reference photo, and I knew that they would fall into place and add to the realism of the bag, creating the illusion that it was crinkly once it was stuffed.
Along the way, there were many discussions about the amount of detail that should go into the bag. I painted some parts on the bottom of the bag that I thought might show, but the weight of the muslin made the final piece lay flat on the floor, even when it was full. It was also interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts about what a chip bag actually looks like from memory, without looking at a reference photo! During the early design phases, we picked a classic Lay’s chip bag because we wanted it to be simple and easy to recognize. Little did we know until we looked it up that the Lay’s Classic chip bag has a full potato and many chips on it! This sparked a fantastic conversation among the creative team and the administrative team about how much information needs to be presented to someone for them to see something realistically, and about how much attention humans pay to everyday items.
In the end, I feel that our project was highly successful. The painted shadows on the bag, combined with the natural crinkles from the sewn drop added a level of realism and using the bean bag helped make this a fairly straightforward approach. The final result was a whimsical bed that helped accent the world that our bugs live in. Have you worked on a similarly oversized project? If so, throw some pictures in the comments!
All process photos are courtesy of Cayla Ray-Perry.
Beat Bugs was created by Josh Wakely and Written by Sean Cercone & David Abbinanti
Cayla Ray-Perry is still new to the Scenic Art world. She graduated from Central Washington University with a BFA in Scenic Design and Production. Cayla has been working professionally as a Scenic Artist for five years and is going into her third year as a Set Design Teaching Artist. She is passionate about working with youth so that they have access to the Performing Arts, specifically through painting and teaching others to paint. She has been working as the Lead Scenic Artist at the Palo Alto Children’s theatre since January 2019.Tags: Childrens Theatre How-To's Props Rosco Off Broadway