• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

It is a certain kind of person that is dedicated to life in the theater these days. For one thing, it's a perpetually archaic art form that attracts less and less interest in this age of computer animation, reality TV, and Internet downloading. The actors have it hard enough, but they at least are rewarded with nightly adoration. For the people who construct and paint the sets, fabricate and carve the props, run the sound and lighting, create the costumes, sell the tickets, and help run the show from the wings, the sacrifices can be monumental. Money, for instance, cannot be important. In San Diego, nonunion laborers in theater (the majority) must make peace with the fact that they will never own a home, never have a savings account, never have enough money left over from their paycheck to go shopping at Fashion Valley. We all jump into it with the best of intentions, guided by the belief that there is a glory to live theater, that it's important, that it adds meaning and an element of reflection to our society. Most of my coworkers cling to that notion for months or years before walking away; a few hold on to it for a lifetime.

I am the assistant charge scenic artist at the Old Globe Theatre, which is a fancy way of saying I'm a painter. The following is my diary of the making of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

July 5: The announcement that Jack O'Brien would be mounting his new Broadway-bound extravaganza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at the Old Globe could not have come at a better time for California's flagship regional theater. Morale in the scene shops has hit an all-time low due to three straight years of no pay increases as a historic streak of SoCal hysteria rocketed San Diego's cost of living into the stratosphere. The recent exit of a half-dozen of the scene shop's most popular and talented employees hasn't exactly raised anybody's spirits either.

The discontent backstage is palpable. The opinion of many employees in the shops was that the Globe's administrative team is running the theater strictly as a revenue-driven business and not as the public charity that it (legally and spiritually) is. The set carpenters, who will face the brunt of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels hurricane, have already been working 60 hours a week, six days a week for six weeks. The new musical Lucky Duck, a major production in itself, is finally going into previews. Now the epic Scoundrels build will demand everyone's full attention.

The designer is David Rockwell, a well-known New York architect who, among other things, designed the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles and several of the high-end W hotels. The word around the shop is that designing scenery is more of a hobby than a vocation for him. (As it turns out, I will never meet Mr. Rockwell, a curious thing since I will personally wind up painting half of his set -- twice.)

The musical takes place on the French Riviera. The set incorporates a double revolving stage, with one revolving platform inside the other. Because the middle revolve is offset, the running crew will be able to make huge scenery appear to be floating right at the audience while other pieces whisk around it. It's a beautiful illusion. Add all of the drops and background pieces that will be flown in or slid onstage with knife and rail setups and it makes for some very complex and dynamic scene changes.

Four staggered portals, each at least 24 feet high and 40 feet wide, make the "wings" of the stage. They are each painted to resemble the ocean, horizon, and sky. The sky planes are the touchiest part of the paint job, because they consist of a gentle color fade from blue to green and back to blue. We call this effect an "hombre." It's accomplished by using "cup guns," which are essentially giant airbrushes. I've done this sort of paint job many times. It is very tricky to pull off on such a large scale; even the tiniest mistake can ruin an entire set piece. The hombre is unforgiving. Still, as I look over Rockwell's renderings I utter three words that I should know better than to say out loud in the beginning stages of a show: "Piece of cake!"

July 6: This is Jack O'Brien's next big show after winning his second consecutive Tony award for directing Henry IV. Scoundrels is not only the biggest production in Old Globe history, it's one of the biggest theatrical productions in the history of San Diego. It is the kind of show that artists in West Coast theater live for, because it gives us the opportunity to prove we are every bit as good as our counterparts in New York.

Scoundrels will be the highest-profile production we've done since O'Brien's Full Monty. That show had a budget in the millions of dollars (the average Globe show runs somewhere from $250,000 to $350,000). Scoundrels will dwarf that. The scenic budget for a typical Globe show averages around $45,000; the Globe's scenic budget alone for Scoundrels tops $750,000.

Months ago it was determined that the show was going to be too big for our scene shop to handle on its own, so a New York company, Showmotion, was hired to construct the majority of the motorized components and lighting rigs. Even then, the Globe shop was too tiny to house the gigantic set pieces we will have to build and paint. An 18,000-square-foot warehouse on Euclid Avenue and Market Street in Lemon Grove was secured to house the work. This meant that the entire scene shop had to be uprooted and moved eight miles down Highway 94 -- table saws, welders, lockers, refrigerators, soda machines, lumber, metal stock and all. This show was already a gigantic undertaking for master carpenter Rusty Jolgren and his crew even before they started building the set. It will also be a major inconvenience to the workers. The prospect of commuting to an industrial warehouse was not a happy one -- but most of us have decided to dig in for the long summer ahead. We will do it for Jack, for the show, for Broadway, and for those future job interviews.

July 8: Working at the offsite turns out to be even rougher than we anticipated. A big metal box with concrete floors, no air conditioning, and one little shack of a bathroom for twenty guys: It's a far cry from the paradise of Balboa Park, which for many on the staff is one of the reasons they've worked at the Old Globe for so long for so little. A lot of the Scoundrels set has to be fabricated from metal, so the grinding of steel adds to the relentless sawing and hammering, creating one big noise that swamps the entire cavernous space. Having a conversation, even with someone next to you, is nearly impossible. The summer heat is merciless, turning the place into an aircraft-hangar-sized sauna. It is simply awful. Nobody is looking forward to the months ahead.

July 9: The logistics of operating two scene shops eight miles away from each other is proving to be as difficult as you'd think it would be. Supplies have been delivered to the wrong site, work crews are shuffled back and forth between projects and locations, and nerves are frayed from inevitable holes in communication.

There are about 60 set changes in this play compared to 20 or 30 in a typical musical. Nearly every piece of scenery is mechanized and must either fly or move on- and offstage quietly and smoothly...and quickly. Add to that the 20,000-pound offset double-revolving stage and the logistics become truly daunting. As most of the behind-the-scenes automation is being built in New York by Showmotion, along with much of the scenery, there is an entire team in New York and an entire team in San Diego that have to work together but will never meet each other.

So much of this set has to be able to move on- and offstage that there isn't room for it all in the wings. The design team takes the pieces that won't fit the only way they can -- up. Many set pieces will be clipped to cables and hung from the grid during the scenes in which they aren't used. "Vertical space utilization" is how one of the stagehands describes it. When it's all finished, there will be between 35,000 and 40,000 pounds of scenery and lights hanging above the actors as they perform -- the equivalent of having a Greyhound bus full of passengers dangling by wires over the stage.

July 10: Today the plumbing at the warehouse failed, creating a sewage backup onto the shop floor. A plumber is called but never shows up. The stink is unreal. So now the work at the offsite is hot, loud -- and smelly. "This place just keeps getting better and better," one of the scenic artists says. It is survival by sarcasm.

Despite it all, the scenery is methodically getting done. This set is a fascinating lesson in engineering, one that demands much more work than one of our normal dumpster-bound projects. After the show closes here it has to travel; it must break down into sizable pieces that can be loaded onto trucks and shipped across the continental United States into the welcoming arms of Broadway's Imperial Theater.

From the painters' perspective there is almost twice the usual work because every element has to be back-painted (painting, coating, and fireproofing the backs of flats). There are two reasons for back-painting scenery: pride and safety. We want to impress those fancy-pants New York scenics who will be unloading the set and touching it up, but more importantly, New York safety codes require all the scenery to be flame-proofed, which is best done by putting additive into a dark paint and coating the back of everything.

July 16: Today I accidentally left my footprints on the nearly finished backdrop that I've spent the last week painting. It's a gigantic 40- by 20-foot blue-and-green hombre fade that happens to be the main show drop -- visible in almost every scene of the play. We often do our large painting projects on the floor of our rehearsal space, making walking back and forth across the drops unavoidable. We always try to be careful, but every now and then your concentration may slip, and you'll step in a puddle of paint and then step on the drop, leaving a visible print. This is what happened to me. If the drop is opaque then covering up the print is no problem. If the drop is "scrim" or transparent muslin that will be back-lighted, then it's a different story. It is very tricky to get rid of painting mistakes on a transparent drop -- especially if it's an airbrushed color fade. Very, very tricky.

July 20: For days, I haven't been able to get the drop off my mind; I even dream about it. I've made several late-night visits to the Globe off the clock to contemplate what to do. I am an artist; I want this drop to play in this show, and I want it to be perfect. Finally, I figured out how to fix the mistake by using some of the same techniques that art historians use to refurbish ancient paintings. The footprints are now undetectable with the naked eye. Hopefully, that will be good enough.

July 22: Frustration at the off-site is building. "Smitty," the technical coordinator from New York, visited today and set the entire production back by insisting that many of the flats needed more supports. Everything will have to be put on hold for two days so the carpenters can weld more metal onto pieces of the set that everyone thought were finished.

July 26: John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Rene Scott, Greg Jbara, Joanna Gleason, Sara Gettelfinger, and the rest of the cast arrive at the Old Globe. Rehearsals begin tomorrow. By all accounts this a very congenial cast -- a bonus because that is not always the case. Meanwhile, much of the set is nearly finished and waiting to be transferred to the Globe as soon as Lucky Duck closes. This means the carpenters' already huge work weeks will only get longer.

July 27: Dick Jarvis, the assistant designer, arrives from New York and looks over the work we've been doing for the first time. This is the first tangible contact we've had with the designer, and half the job is already done.

Though Dick does not notice my footprints in the hombre, he's not satisfied. He thinks the greens are a little too gray and the color fade is too choppy. He is very picky -- but he is right. It is decided the nearly finished drop, the one from which I'd worked so hard to erase my footprints, will be scrapped. We'll start over with a new piece of fabric. It's a do-over that will cost the Globe thousands of dollars in materials and labor and cost me my confidence. All I can think is, "Where the hell were you when I was painting the damn thing, Dick?" I try to internalize my frustration and just keep painting. Could be that I'm a chump. I try not to think about it.

August 11: We finally finished the main portals Monday -- then a bird got into the warehouse and shit all over them. Agh! My knee gave out yesterday: it's tendinitis caused by crawling across the floor stapling and unstapling, taping, painting, detailing, and touching up all the gigantic flats in this production. I feel as if this show has taken a contract out on me.

Meanwhile, the new show drop is delivered, but now that rehearsals have started we have no place to paint it. Mark Anderson, the charge scenic at SDSU, is kind enough to lend us their paint frame. The huge paint frame at SDSU's theater department is an awesome piece of equipment. The entire thing moves up and down with the push of a button, rising and lowering in a huge pit along the wall. No kneeling or working from scaffolding. Our new drop is stretched and hung on the frame by lunch of the first day. I figure this time it will be a piece of cake.

August 13: You're not going to believe this: We have already made a fatal mistake with the second show drop. It was decided we should flame- proof it before we start painting it, something we didn't do with the first drop. We almost immediately have problems with the starch primer coat reacting to the flameproofing. A scenic never knows how different paints and materials will react with each other -- the most seemingly benign paints can react like a science experiment gone haywire once they're layered over each other or on top of a material with which they aren't compatible. Doing a thorough sample is always wise -- something we did not do in the rush to get the new drop painted in time.

Spotty patches developed all over it. It looked like hell -- and even worse when lights were turned on behind it. Not a good sign. I could only hope to figure out a way to get the colors to lay-in smoothly. After brainstorming for a day I think I've solved the problem: The whole paint crew is going up to the campus first thing in the morning to brush a coat of clear sealer over the drop that will give it a uniform surface and -- hopefully -- block the oils and salt in the flameproofing.

August 19: Several semi trucks full of Scoundrels sets have arrived from New York -- mostly deck, lighting tresses, motors, counterweights, and winches. The loading dock is gridlocked by a battalion of monolithic black boxes with "Showmotion" stenciled on the sides. The equipment we pull out of those boxes is impressively constructed -- our respect for the Showmotion craftsmen and women mounts -- but, man, is the stuff big and heavy. Even with the rare luxury of a rented forklift the carpenters will work their most hellish week yet -- 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. for seven days straight. It is backbreaking labor for rock-bottom wages, but the mood is surprisingly jolly.

"Smitty" from New York quickly earns respect from the crew with his impressive knowledge in every aspect of live theater, from lighting instruments to painting techniques to the torque limits of different motors and cable systems. More importantly, it turns out he's a genuine and good-natured fellow, easy and fun to work with. Apparently, the Rockwell Group knew what it was doing when they hired him to oversee this show.

A few miles away, up at the SDSU theater building, things are not going so smoothly. To me, the second show drop still looks terrible. For a week I have been putting layer after fine layer of color on the drop -- a laborious process that takes all of my skills with a cup gun. After four layers of starch, sealer, and paint it looks perfect from 10 or 15 feet away, but up close it's painfully obvious that the flameproofing is still screwing with anything we put over it. In the right light, the whole mural looks like a stucco wall. Everyone tries to reassure me that it will be fine, but I know it's going to look terrible with show lights behind it. I'm sick of looking at the f#$*ing thing -- but I'm sure I'll have to paint it again. My stomach is in knots. I really want my work to hold up next to the New York work. It's a pride thing, and it's eating me up.

August 20: New drama today: Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell (the choreographer) have decided that they don't like the deck. It was painted in New York so the first glimpse they have of it is as it's being put together on the stage. They feel that the blue color is too light, and the stage lights will "bounce" off of it and wash out the actors. This throws scene shops into a tizzy on both coasts. The product used to seal the deck in New York is not available in California. Now the two shops must decide the best course of action. Should they send one of their leads out to oversee the project? Do we take the whole deck back to white and start over, or try to spatter a darker color over the whole thing to darken it? Then how do we seal it? And when can we do this? Time is already crunched with "tech week" coming up.

August 26: Jack O'Brien happens to join me for a moment while I'm putting glitter on a moon, part of a window piece that's supposed to be looking out on a peaceful harbor at night. (Yes, I am occasionally called upon to put sparkle in the moon.) I comment that, with all the glitter and gems we've been applying to the set it looks like one big piece of jewelry. "That's right," Jack nods, "because this play is about robbery."

Suddenly, everything I've been doing for the last two months makes sense.

August 28: The painters have a midnight to 6 a.m. call to darken the deck. No one complains; compared to what the carpenters have gone through all summer, one graveyard shift is nothing to bitch about.

September 3: The second show drop is backlit with Dick Jarvis in the house and it looks terrible. It will have to be redone for the third time. We do not have the time or the space, so the San Diego Opera shop is hired to do it.

In the meantime, four of the slider legs have "potato-chipped," or warped, beyond repair because they were made with cheap wood. They will also have to be repainted. The scramble is on to figure out where and when to set them up so I can redo them. Once they're finished, I will have personally painted half of this set twice.

September 7: First technical rehearsal on the stage today. It's always exciting to see the actors running around in the hallways. Having actors like John Lithgow, Gregory Jbara, and Joanna Gleason there makes everyone feel as if we're doing something important.

We have been having yet more problems with the portal legs. The bottom part of the legs is supposed to be the ocean and is covered with thousands and thousands of special glass beads designed to sparkle brightly in the light. Problem is: the beads keep getting brushed off by curtains, actors, and props scraping up against them. Last week one bead (each bead measures about an eighth of an inch) rolled into one of the tracks in the floor and completely stopped the whole show. One bead. It was thought that the gigantic, heavy scenery would simply crush the beads as it rolled over them -- but the beads are made from real glass. If a bead gets caught under a castor, sooner or later it will become a fulcrum point and bring the entire mechanism (and the entire performance) to a grinding stop. The entire deck must be meticulously inspected with flashlights before each performance to catch any and all stray beads.

The irony is, in the lights, the beads do nothing for the set that glossy paint wouldn't have done. I become convinced that, somewhere, there is a profound life lesson to be learned in those damn beads.

September 11: A dark mood today for obvious reasons. 9/11. As I cross the threshold into middle age, I've come to know a few solid truths. One of them is that everybody wants to feel that what they do is important. The firefighters in New York -- now that's an important job. Me, I come home at night from painting scenery, have a few glasses of wine, and try to convince myself, while I'm swaying and pissing in our tiny bathroom, that great things will one day emanate from this shanty of an apartment. It's hard when you're around people at the top of their field every day. Famous people. Rich people. Content and happy people. Today I watched Jack O'Brien direct John Lithgow in a scene involving a staircase, many dancers, and the taunting of the "Ruprecht" character. It was hilarious and invigorating. Total fun. And yet -- I know that, because the acting is so dynamic, the songs so catchy, the dancing so exciting -- not one single paying customer will sit in the audience and really notice the scenery. The truth is, even after all the hard work and stress, the rest of the world does not notice 90 percent of what I do for a living. I wonder where that leaves me in the grand scheme of things. Tapping out sad thoughts in this crap-shack apartment, that's where. On a day like today, I feel as if I should be doing more meaningful things with my life.

September 22: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens to mostly rave reviews and nearly every performance sold out. Jack O'Brien has added to his legendary career and will almost certainly earn his fifth Tony nomination for directing in as many years -- which has to be a record of some kind. The set is a pleasant surprise, a marvel in itself that works beautifully. The revolving stage within a revolving stage proves to be a huge asset to the Grand Riviera atmosphere of the show. Jerry Mitchell uses it to full effect with his choreography, and the scene changes are awesome, with big scenic elements moving fluidly in all directions on each cue. At last I can see the designer's vision and have to admit it's pretty cool. If I ever meet the guy I'll tell him so.

Backstage, this summer has been the show biz equivalent of a tour of duty, but the discontent that was so evident at the beginning has waned considerably -- in part because many of our coworkers who were irritated have walked. The question for those of us that are left is: was it worth it?

September 25: Saw the show today. It was a total blast. Pure, invigorating entertainment. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I watched The Blues Brothers. Every time I see a show that I worked on kick-ass like this one I get high, man. I want to jump up on that stage and dance around with the actors. All the aches and pains and bitching that were a part of putting that monster up there just disappear. So yeah, right now I feel it was all worth it.

October 1: Now that Scoundrels is up and running, I once again face the decision: Staying at the Old Globe or pursue a better-paying gig -- at, say, Kinko's or Starbucks. It's a fork in the road I've come to many times in my eight years at the Globe. My wife thinks we should move the hell out of San Diego ASAP, before our bank account implodes.

On the one hand, I agree with her, but on the other I'm so damned attached to the Globe, still so enamored of theater, that the idea of getting out doesn't sit well with me at all. I can't bear the thought of moving back to Colorado, where I'll probably wind up drywalling houses or working retail. It's a dilemma: You should love what you do for work, but if you can't pay your rent doing it...

I am a scenic artist at the Old Globe, one of our country's most esteemed regional playhouses. I create art on the grandest scale. I am proud of that. But sometimes pride can be a dirty rotten scoundrel. It can trick you into doing things that aren't necessarily in your best interest. Lately I've been noticing that both my forearms are constantly stiff and sore. It's a peculiar feeling that reminds me of a line in the Pink Floyd song "Comfortably Numb" that goes, "My hands felt just like two balloons." That's exactly how my hands feel. My doctor is sure that I have carpal tunnel syndrome in both of my wrists from years of wielding large brushes, air hoses, paint guns, trowels, and all the other tools of the trade. Last week when I was picking up my painkillers at the pharmacy it struck me: this art is hurting me.

Why am I still doing it? The answer lies in the places where people who dedicate their lives to the arts have to balance these days; somewhere between the scenery and the audience, this payday and next payday, hopes and dreams, narcissism and gallantry.

What can I say? That's show business.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader