Theatre scenic artist

 8 February 2011

Scenic artists are responsible for painting sets, scenery backdrops and large props, bringing colour to a theatre production. Leila Kalbassi is the Design Assistant/Scenic Artist for the Dundee Repertory Theatre.

Despite advances in theatre technology, brushes and a basic spray gun remain tools of choice for a scenic artist.
Despite advances in theatre technology, brushes and a basic spray gun remain tools of choice for a scenic artist.

Founded in 1939, ‘The Rep’ occupies a purpose-built theatre in the cultural quarter of Dundee. The theatre is home to Dundee Rep Ensemble, Scotland's only full-time resident actors' company, as well as The Scottish Dance Theatre and a Creative Learning Programme.

Creating the set

The Rep employs a freelance set designer who works closely with the director and sometimes the writer to sort out the larger concepts behind the play. Once the set has been designed, Kalbassi will be given the technical drawings and model box (a scale model of the set) and she will begin to research materials.

“This afternoon, I've got to go out and look at laminate flooring,” she says, as their next production set will include a large wooden parquet floor. “I have to figure out whether it's cheaper to buy it by the slab, or for the boys in the workshop to actually make it.”

All of the work takes place in the scenic workshop and paint shop. “We have a master carpenter, one or two assistant carpenters, and just me painting and moulding it. If it is a Christmas show and there is a lot to do, I will bring in a freelancer to work with me. It very much depends on the scale of the show.”

Becoming a scenic artist

“I started out not really aiming to do theatre. I wanted to go through the film route, but I hadn't done the right A levels. So I did a foundation course in Audio Visual Design, and then I went onto do a three-year degree in Film where I specialised in Design.” Kalbassi then headed to Bristol Vic Theatre, where she completed a postgraduate in Stage Design.

“It's hard work, but it is incredibly good fun. I would rather work in theatre than anything else.”

She freelanced extensively before landing a job at Dundee Rep. “I worked freelance straight out of theatre school. I was doing a lot of stuff with theatre and education, local drama clubs and a regional opera company - I made myself more versatile.”

Building a good reputation and making contacts are important. “I wasn't just designing, I was doing the scenic art as well. It was quite hands-on, which kind of assured me more of getting work.”

Working in theatre, you need to be able to get along with a wide array of people. “We have a week where all the set, sound and the lights come together, and then the actors come on stage. That week can be incredibly tense and it's about keeping your cool and actually working with all those personalities.”

Skills for a scenic artist

In terms of technology, the scenic workshop and paint shop remain quite traditional. “We have lots of fancy power tools and saws, but I still use brushes and a basic spray gun.” A good scenic artist needs to know traditional basic skills, which Kalbassi feels are being neglected by many scenic design courses.

Even with an amazing set design, it is essential for a scenic artist to understand how it will be constructed. “If you don't know, for example, what measurements certain products come in you're really making it difficult for the workshop and company producing the theatre.”

Choosing a career in theatre

“I worked freelance straight out of theatre school. I was doing a lot of stuff with theatre and education, local drama clubs and a regional opera company - I made myself more versatile.”

“There is a lot of glamour associated with working in the theatre, but it is low paid, and a very under-financed industry.”

Kalbassi works five days a week, “but I do a lot of work with the Education Department, which means that I'm invariably doing a bit extra on Sunday. 40 hours is your basic, but up to 80 is quite normal in a week.”

“It's hard work, but it is incredibly good fun. I would rather work in theatre than anything else.”


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