Richard W. Prouse is drawing a backdrop, a charcoal pencil at the end of his drawing stick in his left hand, the designer’s original paint elevation (a.k.a. design plan for the drop) in his right. An expert at his craft, he sketches freehand the outline of a city street for an upcoming production of Shining City. No snapping of grids, just a pencil and a canvas. But after 25 years, his boss, Joseph Forbes, owner and president of Scenic Art Studios, knows to trust him.
“I hire geniuses,” Forbes says of the artists he employs at one of the foremost scenic paint shops for Broadway shows. Scenic Art Studios specializes in painting the built scenery (flats, moveable pieces) and backdrops that brighten the Great White Way. “We take a designer’s drawings and concepts and turn them into reality,” explains Forbes.
Broadway is known for its combination of splash and flash—glittering lights, dazzling colors. And in no other show are the colors more necessarily vivid than in Guys and Dolls’ world of gambling and gangsters, based on Damon Runyon’s stories.
Tony Walton’s scenic design won the Tony Award for the 1992 revival of the show, but his vision came to life with the help of Joseph Forbes and the paint artists of his Scenic Art Studio. “[Guys and Dolls] was the show that established me on Broadway,” says Forbes. “It was the one that everyone went, ‘Oh, OK. This guy is a player and he can do it.’”
Forbes first discovered his love for theatre through an extra credit assignment for his college English class: volunteer ushering for the school production of Look Homeward Angel. Immediately hooked, he began studying scenic design at the University of North Carolina. “[My teacher] would put a backdrop down on the stage floor and we would all gather around between classes and sit there just awestruck while this man painted,” he says. “I think that’s where I got the love of backdrops from.”
But it would be a few years before Forbes realized his love for paint and color exceeded his love of design. Forbes began designing sets for Off-Off-Broadway productions and—as is the case with lower budget theatre—painted all of his own shows. “It was going to be ten years before I got a Broadway show to design and people were offering me ten times as much money to paint because I was good at it,” he says.
After six years of on-the-job training as a painter at Nolan’s Scenery Studios—the shop behind such shows as The Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, and Funny Girl—and cultivating an expertise in his craft, Forbes struck out on his own and founded Scenic Art Studios. Twenty-five years later, his studio is one of two leading enterprises in the world of Broadway paint. “Between Hudson Scenic Studio and myself, that’s 90 percent of the shows on Broadway in terms of paint,” says Forbes. This year alone, he’s worked on show such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hello, Dolly!, The Lion King Rafiki tour, Time and the Conways, The Band’s Visit, as well as the upcoming Escape to Margaritaville, Disney’s Frozen, Once On This Island, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Musical, and Mean Girls.
With approximately 50 artists across six locations in two states, Forbes’ company paints the built scenery and backdrops of about 50 shows per year and has painted for over 1,000 productions since opening its doors in Newburgh, New York.
“To some degree, I cornered a market that nobody wanted,” Forbes concedes. Much of the profitable business of Broadway sets now lies in automation; painting backdrops takes up swaths of space most shops would rather dedicate to building machines. But Forbes and his team dedicate themselves to the niche craft.
Forbes’ operation emphasizes artistry and quality and often uses more expensive or difficult technique in order to deliver an unparalleled finished product. “Unlike other studios, we almost exclusively start from white velour [and] we have become known for the fact that we paint our backdrops with dye,” which Forbes explains “leaves the fabric soft and supple and the colors are extremely rich and luminous.”
But his painting exceeds brushstrokes and custom dyes. “The first step is to do a layout and a drawing,” based on the elevations and sketches from the designer. Then, Forbes’ team creates samples “across the whole show to sample every finish, every surface—the concrete steps, the woodwork for doorways, all of that stuff.” The average Broadway musical requires 20 to 25 finished samples. “Certainly for Frozen we had that many.”
Even with more intimate unit sets, for shows like Avenue Q, Forbes and company invest hours and hours in detail outside of paint alone. “We take our hatchets and our hammers and our chains and—anything that is wood—we distress it, round off corners, heat things up, age it, get it to look a little beat up and destroyed,” he says. “Then we’ll make a thick texture and do 50 years of paint build-up or concrete finish or asphalt or whatever texture it needs to be. Now you’ve textured the whole piece, we [apply] base coat, finish paint, detail paint, age, and walk out the door.”
Forbes’ artists are veterans and use a myriad of techniques—rolling, brushing, spraying, sponging, ragging, and more—to realize the vision of the designer. But Scenic Art Studios is also known for its work with translucent backdrops—in which the light shines through the paint to dramatic and stunning effect—and, in particular, double-translucent backdrops. It’s old-school magic that has become Forbes specialty. (“It’s what make us special,” he says.)
Scenic Art Studios keeps intense records on every single drop and set piece for every production painted. “Who was the artist that painted it, what materials we used, who was the soft goods vendor, were there any changes along the way, things that are unique to that piece,” Forbes explains. “We try and create as complete a history as we can because you never know when one is going to come back.” If there’s a replacement or repair needed, Forbes knows the recipe.
Looking out across his warehouse, as Prouse and fellow charge scenic artist Irina Portnyagina paint Shining City’s cerulean sky and burnt rust city square building, Forbes sighs: “I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world. I get to work with the most brilliant designers on the planet and I’m surrounded by some of the most brilliant artists every day. In the morning the sun streams through these windows and I come in and it’s hitting the backdrops. You’re just like, ‘Oh my God this is good.’ I’m addicted to it.”