The great reveal: Tech Theatre students learn the art of set design

By Tom Allard, Visual Arts teacher

"First, I drew a rectangle ..." That's how the Middle School Technical Theatre students begin their briefing to their parents about their flat project. A flat is a theatrical wall and, like everything else in the theatre, it starts with a working design. For this project, Tech Theatre students draw, designate dimensions, measure, cut, join, fabricate, and base coat their own 2'x1' flat.

Smoothing the edges with tape using the "Dutchman" taping technique, they start with a neutral base coat to unify and put color foundation in play. Exploring earth tones, seasonal colors, and the beginnings of color theory, students learn stage painting techniques. First, dry-brushing, or graining, leads to planking, a facsimile of planked flooring or a porch including plank joints, nail heads, and knots.

A wet scumble is the brush application of two sympathetic colors simultaneously, taking care to derive the value of both colors without mushing into some third. A wet stipple uses sea sponges to dab and accent two sympathetic colors. Both are challenging, as they emphasize random, and our minds don't naturally go there — we're wired to find order in chaos.

Stamping affords the painter continuity, as the imprint is constant. Spatter, besides being a perennial student favorite, is the great equalizer, tying together colors and effects and cementing in the "random." As each technique dries, a strip of tape locks in a glimpse of the past as new techniques are applied over each preceding. The ceremonial pulling of the tape reveals each of the looks, and then the flats are sent home to become modern art — after students explain each step to their parents.