Meet the Team: ATC Charge Scenic Artist Brigitte Bechtel
Republished with permission from Big Image Theatre Network (BITN).
This article shouldn’t be happening, nope, not at all …
I first met Brigitte Bechtel when the shop at Arizona Theatre Company contacted me to produce a digitally printed “Show Curtain” for their stellar production Man Of La Mancha.
The print, a photorealistic profile of Franco, was technically perfect, printed on cotton muslin, and delivered on time.
Although the print was exactly what was wanted, it was Brigitte and her team that transformed it into what was needed. It was the scenic treatment in the shop – the hand-crafted stains, the rips and tears, the graffiti, carefully applied after it was delivered – that transformed the print into something that told a deeper story, instantly helping to set the mood of the show.
It was a great example of how scenic art and digital printing could work together, and I thought maybe it was time to bury the hatchet. When I reached out to Brigitte, she was completely open to meeting in the ATC Scene Shop to provide some amazing insight into the nuts and bolts of scenic art and a little of her own journey.
The first thing I noticed about Brigitte – in fact the entire ATC organization – was that they come prepared. Brigitte had done her homework on the questions and her answers were concise.
Our first question was a bit of a no-brainer: Start with the definition of a Charge Scenic Artist.
“The charge scenic artist is the manager of the paint department,” she began. “So I’m responsible for making sure the painted treatments of the designs are completed on time, on budget. I work with our production manager to stay in the budget, and with our scenic designers to make certain I’m relaying their vision correctly. They provide me with the drawings, and we then create samples and give them back for the designers to approve. I also manage the schedule, make sure we have enough hands to help us get done on time within the budget.”
Boom. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper. How did she first get interested in it? How did she ultimately become a Scenic Artist? What was her background? Brigitte continued. “I’ve always been interested in art and the theatre. When I was young, I had no idea what jobs existed backstage. I did community theatre where I acted, and I went to see colleges thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll do something in the arts.’ While I was there I toured the theatre department.”
As she told me, the 15-minute tour turned into an hour and a half. “The theatre director started asking me what it was I was interested in, and I said, ‘Art and Theatre, but I’m not really sure. I want to paint, be a fine artist.’ He looked at me and said I should be a scenic artist, and I remember replying, ‘What’s that?’ And he showed me all about what Scenic Art is. I saw it all and thought, ‘This is pretty interesting, pretty cool.’”
And what is it about scenic art that appealed to her? “I think I just really like that quick turnaround of things. I like that you have to sometimes create things that look very old, things that look like they’ve been there for centuries. And you may have to create these things in the space of two days. Plus the different products we use, the tools and techniques you learn from the different people you meet and work with.”
It’s a never-ending process for a scenic artist. New ways of doing things – new styles and new ways of achieving the right look. “Yes!” Brigitte said, enthusiastically. “That’s one of the best things about scenic art. You never stop learning; you’re never quite done cooking, so long as you are open to it.”
All the new innovations – new and established companies are constantly working with the industry to reformulate existing products. “You might find a certain paint product that worked well for a certain goop mixture doesn’t work quite as well because the company changed their formula,” she explains. “But that’s exciting because you need to use your knowledge as a base to hunt for a substitute. I’m finding these days that companies are offering safer products, more green alternatives, which is really the way theatre – and scenic art – is going.”
GOING, GOING … GREEN!
This is something I really wanted to discuss. The printer I work for prides itself in its “green” practices: using specially formulated water-based inks, printing on biodegradable textiles, even offsetting carbon footprints associated with shipping product.
Scenic art is a chemically-dependent industry. And what happens after the job is done – the proper disposal of what’s left over – is part of the scenic art equation. It’s one that Brigitte and the shop at ATC take seriously. “As a charge scenic artist, you need to be very mindful of where you are in the country. You need to know and understand the federal regulations, then on down to the state and local levels to make certain you’re abiding by the laws of your area. So for instance here [in Tucson]: of course hazardous things and oil-based things go to the actual hazardous waste disposal sites. Then there are other base materials that can be mixed with sawdust and allowed to dry out completely so it can then it can go out as solid waste.”
SCENIC ART AS PART OF THE PROCESS
Being on the ATC set of Man of La Mancha was like stepping back in time. The set, a basement saloon, was packed with scenic detail, a vision realized; and as a former actor it was like slipping on an old beloved coat. Seeing that amazing work up front, we wanted to know: How involved did Brigitte get with the director? With the designers? Was she working with them on a daily basis or given an assignment and told to come back in a week?
“It really depends on the production,” Brigitte said. “Probably the most involvement I have with the scenic designer is at the beginning of the process. This is called ‘the bid.’ So the designer submits the drawings and a description or research images of what they want the set to look like. I will take all of that information and go back to Jen [the production manager] and say, ‘This is how much I think this is going to cost.’ Either we’re in the budget – cool, great, we’re good to go – or actually we’re two times over budget. Then we need to go back to the drawing board and make adjustments of things to get us back into the budget.”
Obviously Brigitte had accumulated a great deal of knowledge in her position and life as an artist. Keeping on the idea of bidding, I was curious: Were there techniques that you know will work for certain things? Do you look at scenic designs and run through these lists when putting the bid together?
“Absolutely! The more you do it, the more you learn, the more experience you can apply, and the quicker you can throw a bid together,” she explained. “We can look at the overall set designs and break it down. We can say ‘Okay bricks: That’s this process; this much coverage is going to take this much time, this much labor,’ so with the accumulated knowledge you can throw a bid together pretty quickly. It took me a lot longer to throw a bid together when I was starting out.”
TWEAKS AND TINY PAINT SHOPS
After the bid and the budget is hammered out, the next step is for the technical director and carpenters to take over to physically build the set elements. Brigitte and her crew then get to work to transform wood and steel into the finished set. But even after the last brush stroke and stamp, after the initial load-in, Brigitte said, the work continues.
“I come back around a lot with the scenic designer, the director, at the end of the process, when we load the set into the theatre. I have a lot of conversations about what things look like under light, or once the actors come onto the set.”
She uses the Man Of La Mancha set as example. “On La Mancha, an area of the stairs was slightly darker than some of the flooring around it. And it was actually tripping up the actors. They were seeing it as an extra step even though it was all on the same level, so we needed to go back and blend it.”
So this tweaking is a part of the overall process? “That’s part of the scenic art process nearly always,” she tells me. “As an experienced scenic, you expect to do that. You have to do little touch ups, things need to blend, things get banged up in transit.”
One of the amazing things about ATC is that they perform in two venues: in Tucson as well as Phoenix. And they truck the set between the two theatres for each production. I wanted to ask what, if any, special considerations did Brigitte and her crew take in account when applying scenic treatments that need to stand up to the trip? Were they building with stronger materials or using stronger scenic techniques and finishes?
Brigitte nodded. “Oh yes, that’s part of the ATC process. What falls on my plate is to make sure the finishes are durable enough. I like to look at every production we do as a mini-tour. I try to pack the touch-up kits accordingly, in our paint road box, which is a sort of scenic art ‘Crash Cart.’ It has the touch-up colors, brushes, and other tools we need to make the production look stellar for our Phoenix audience.”
My last question is always a classic. B.I.T.N. exists to be a place where production professionals and would-be professionals alike can drop by and get some insight and knowledge. We ask everyone we interview a version of this one:
I asked her; as a professional scenic artist, what kind of advice would she give to someone who is interested in getting into this, into Scenic Art? Aside from the set of skills that one needs, are there “secrets”? Something that you can say, “Here’s something you should know that they may not teach you, something that can only come with experience?”
“Start learning as many different techniques as you can. Depending on the situation, you might need to approach the project from any number of angles. There are 1,000 ways to create faux bricks – and they are all correct! Being open to learning always is a great quality for a scenic artist. Our industry is always evolving, so you need to stay open to those innovations. Scenic artists today need to also try to bolster their tech skills; I have been working on learning more about the various computer drafting programs and the program that operates our CNC machine so I can better communicate with our TDs. When I need to, say, create a custom stencil, I can now do the file prep work for our CNC operator, which makes things run more efficiently.”
“Learning how to work over printed goods is a very real part of our work now, as printing technology has become affordable enough and good enough that I am seeing more printed drops come through our shop to be augmented by the scenic art team. (Exactly like what we did for Man of La Mancha!)
“I think the best resource you can find out there is just other people in the field. Seek out scenic artists. Nearly every scenic I have met has been very helpful in bringing along a young scenic and wonderful about sharing their knowledge, so you need to stay open, remain willing to learn.
“There are also great resources out there. Like the Guild Of Scenic Artists that has started up. It’s a specifically scenic art resource. It started last year and it’s a terrific online nationwide community. And books. The Susan Crabtree/Peter Beudert book Scenic Art For the Theatre: History, Tools and Techniques is a great, basic book for any college level scenic artists out there.”
So don’t be afraid to ask?
“That’s number 1. Yeah, be open, keep your eyes and ears open. Be a little sponge and soak up everything around you.”
To visit Brigitte’s site and learn more about her and her immense talent click HERE.
To Learn more about GoSA, the Guild of Scenic Artists click HERE.