When I attend a theatre performance, I try to appreciate the amount of work that goes into putting on a show. While I can appreciate the actors, the set design, and the costumes, unless you have worked on a show, I don’t think that most people can truly understand the amount of planning and attention to detail that goes into these productions (myself included). In my quest to educate myself on the many facets of the theatre world, I reached out to Scenic Artist and University of Illinois Teaching Associate Professor Christina Rainwater to learn more about what it takes to create the incredible sets and backgrounds for our favorite shows.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your connection to Champaign-Urbana/ how did you end up here?
Christina Rainwater: I actually ended up in Champaign-Urbana for work. My husband and I are from Missouri originally, and I went to graduate school in North Carolina. My MFA is in Scenic Art; I knew I wanted to teach Scenic Painting, and when the position in the Department of Theatre opened up it was perfect. We arrived in Fall of 2008, and fifteen years of teaching, a kiddo, dog, and a cat later, my family and I love the area.
SP: What exactly does a Scenic Artist do?
Rainwater: A Scenic Artist is a very specific, specialized type of painter. Scenic Painting encompasses painting the backgrounds and settings for theatre, film, television, theme parks, etc. We can be asked to paint everything from full stage cloud drops, to detailed tile floors. Students study trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) painting, faux finishing, spray guns, the works. The short, joke answer is often that I paint (inexpensive) wood to look like (expensive) wood.
SP: Can you talk about your creative process when you are starting to work on a new production?
Rainwater: When we work on a production, there’s a whole team involved, and a good scenic artist, like all theatre artists, collaborates carefully with everyone. A director and designers for the production will create the concept for a show. If you compare it to creating a building, the Scenic Designer creates the overall design and look of the space, similar to an architect, creating draftings, models, and paint elevations. A Technical Director will figure out how to engineer and build the scenery and lead a team to build it. The Scenic Artist will take the paint elevations and put the final layer on the set. Unlike typical fine art, where it’s one artist one piece, a scenic artist is figuring out how to recreate someone else’s vision and leading a team to create that vision on a larger scale.
A good scenic artist has to think about how all the other areas will interact with the finished scenery. The paint will be under stage lighting, so how will their paint treatment read under different lighting? How will the performers interact with the finished pieces? A tap dancer can take the paint right off a soft floor treatment, and rough dirt textures are wrong for bare feet.
Sometimes scenic artists will read the play in advance, and that’s a good place to start looking for questions.
SP: What is most challenging about creating art in this type of environment?
Rainwater: Space, speed, and time are always our biggest challenges. The backdrops that fill the Krannert Center Stages are usually 25 feet by 40, floors similar, and all the walls in between. There isn’t truly a designated paint “space,” so we coordinate painting in the theatres or the working scene shop a week here, a week there. Some artists can spend weeks on a beautiful oil painting, but you have three days before it’s needed in order to shoot a scene. Nearly all our painting is done standing up with the scenery on the ground, which gives us the viewing perspective we need and helps us move faster.
SP: Do you have any funny or memorable stories about things going wrong or something unexpected happening?
Rainwater: I once knocked a full five-gallon bucket of black paint onto the floor. As the paint oozed and spread, I looked right at the two shocked acting sophomores working with me, and told them I dumped it over on purpose so they wouldn’t be so nervous. They laughed, and actually were a little more comfortable afterwards.
SP: What kinds of mediums do you prefer to work with?
Rainwater: When I paint for work, we use specifically made scenic paints. They’re a vinyl acrylic, come in pure colors, similar to artist colors, by the gallon, and dry to a flat finish. When I paint small scale, personally or for Scenic Design class, I use acrylic paints, pens, colored pencil, whatever’s handy.
SP: How does teaching at the university impact your own art-making?
Rainwater: Teaching at a university offers me many opportunities. I have a wide range of teachers and staff, in my own department and beyond, that I can ask questions and learn from, be inspired by. There are also tools and maker spaces I might not have access to outside the university. Many scenic artists freelance, and being here gives me the opportunity and support to go out and continue working professionally, but also raise my family.
SP: What do you find most challenging and rewarding about teaching (art/ theatre-wise)?
Rainwater: The most challenging part about teaching scenic art actually leads to what is most rewarding. Many students come in doubting their skills and abilities; some are from other backgrounds, and may have never painted before. Scenic Art is full of step-by-step tasks that lead to a lovely whole, and they’ve never thought of art that way. When they practice the techniques, they gain the confidence to create those steps, that process themselves, and at the end the can see the growth. That joy and pride is lovely to see, whether they’ve painted a 4’x5’ piece, or led a team of six to paint the setting for an entire show. When they tell me they’re not any good at painting/art, I tell them I’m no good at kickboxing. Because I’ve never ever done any kickboxing before.
SP: Do you have an all-time favorite production you’ve worked on?
Rainwater: I really enjoyed Illinois Theatre’s production of The Royale last spring. I was Scenic Design and Scenic Charge Artist (the title for the management role of scenic art) advisor for the production, and our Scenic Designer, Alyssa Thompson, reached out to collaborate with Nikko Washington, an artist from Chicago. The Scenic Charge, Will Sexton, worked with his team to scale a small painting up to a 15’x20’ backdrop, which is currently hanging at the Siebel Center for Design. And while having a piece of our shop’s work on display is wonderful and moving (giddy inducing in fact), I’m actually the most proud of the growth of those two students during the process. The problems solved; the fear and nerves overcome. I know that process and opportunity will carry with those two, and they’ll have an easier time later in their career because of it. I got to help with all that, and that is awesome. It’s what makes my work wonderful.
SP: What’s next for you?
Rainwater: I’m gearing up to teach a new group of students. I also have a collection of eleven historic film backdrops from the Backdrop Recovery Project. We’re in the beginning stages of learning how to conserve these pieces of history, cleaning, restoring, and stabilizing. It’s an entirely different type of work, and I’m excited to develop myself in this area and share it with students.