“My Fabulous Career” as a Scenic Designer

by Alden Cole on June 11, 2017 · 1 comment

NutcrackerIgloo#1WP1984/5: Truth to tell, my experiences as a scenic designer would hardly qualify as a career; instead it was delightfully avocational, a chance to explore some new creative territory, make some new friends. I was living in a sweet little apartment in
NutcrackerIgloo#2WPPortsmouth NH, working in Cape Neddick ME for Samuel Weiser Inc. as art director. In my off hours I was foot-loose and fancy free. So when the opportunity first came along in the early fall of 1984 through Betty Lundsted Weiser (there’s that Weiser connection again) to do some volunteer
NutcrackerIgloo#3WPwork as a scenic designer for the Portsmouth Ballet, a small regional company, I jumped at the chance. The challenge: designing & painting scenic drops for the
NutcrackerIgloo#4WPcompany’s upcoming production of a seasonal favorite – The Nutcracker. However, for this production the locale of the first scene was changed; from the house of the heroine Clara where the opening
NutcrackerIgloo#5WPChristmas party is usually held, to a scene portraying Santa’s Workshop instead. Rationale for this change? I’m totally clueless at this point. Regardless, I had a great time coming up with the six sketches of varying sizes seen at left and above,
NutcrackerIgloo#5VersoWPfor this imaginative change of scene, where I turned the workshop from a more traditional image into an igloo-like structure appropriate for the North Pole. The sketches reveal an illustrative interest in detail that I had forgotten about,
1984PalaceoSweets.7x13WPand which was fascinating to review when I resurrected these drawings from the files about a month ago, after not having perused them in over a decade. The fifth drawing down, the last
1984LandoSweets2-22x28WP in color, was the one selected for enlarging onto a scenic drop measuring approximately 12″ high x 30″ wide, one of the largest surfaces I ever worked on. The sixth drawing is a pencil sketch on the verso of the fifth – the final color version – indicating a much more detailed selection of toys displayed on shelves in the igloo, including a surprising
1984PalaceoSweets.7x12WPcollection of small elves doing various tasks for the season at hand. For the second act in the “Land – or the Palace – of the Sweets” I came up with the set of five drawings seen at left, based on the themes of lollypops and ice cream cones, the
1984PalaceoSweets4.14x30WPlast of which was developed into the actual drop for the production, same size as the igloo scenic. Memories of painting these pieces is exceptionally dim; however I do remember that I painted them in the gym of a local
1984PalaceoSweets5.17x30WPhigh school, working flat on the floor, which created interesting challenges of perspective while plotting out the design on such a large scale. Unfortunately, no photographs exist (to my knowledge) of the finished scenics to prove I even painted them; just vague memories of the process sparked by these sketches done in both watercolor and acrylic.

1985.CandyLandWPFor the Portsmouth Ballet’s 1985 production of The Nutcracker I again volunteered my services as scenic designer to Nana McCarthy, the company’s creative director. I first came up with the whimsical design at left, but then turned my energies to designing a much more
1985PalaceoSweetsWPcomplex, multi-layered concept inspired by a set design from one of my favorite Art Nouveau geniuses, Alphonse Mucha. For painting this scenic, Nana had secured the use of the University of NH’s theater department, which allowed me to work
1985Sketch&PhotoWPprofessionally: vertically, raising and lowering the canvas as needed through the traditional gap in the floor, made specifically for the purpose of painting drops. Compared to the year before working flat on the floor, painting this scenic was a dream; and with the help of Portsmouth friends Robert Boardman and Drew Chicester, the task flew by. Although I didn’t capture any photographs of the entire drop once finished and in place, I did capture a few photographs of young dancers in repose during breaks in rehearsal, standing in front of the central detail of the piece, revealing a recurring motif in my work – the citadel on the hill in the distance.

An anecdote: as a result of painting the last scenic – I discovered that paint can go ‘sour’ – a fact I hadn’t known before. Unknowingly I painted a fairly large section – the floor of the Palace of the Sweets – with a black paint that had gone quite sour. I had noticed the smell after opening the paint can, but naively thought the smell would dissipate upon exposure to air. It didn’t – at least not entirely; you could smell it onstage, but fortunately that rank odor didn’t drift out into the audience, so the production went on anyway – a performance that definitely stunk for the dancers on stage…

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nancy wysemen June 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

Happy birthday…I thought Aug….not strong on those sun signs. Impending joy in these rooms. UUummm. These look like natural color vs staging colors to work with light? Did you enjoy the shows? I am SO enjoying tagging along on your magic pencil adventures.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: