Taking the Fulbright to Egypt for 10 days
Chekov’s Three Sisters: Recreating Russian Birch Trees in the Desert
I was able to extend the reach of my Fulbright experience into Egypt when I invited Nic Mayer, the Technical Director from Wits Theatre to participate in the production process of the American University in Cairo’s production of Chekov’s Three Sisters designed by Bill Forrester. This would allow a South African theatre professional to experience a somewhat American theatre organization in a totally different country. AUC, while it has an American TD and several other Americans on their faculty, is distinctly non-American in the scene shop and costume shop and lighting area. The product is still the same, though, same as it is here at Wits: a show. Nic will take the knowledge and experience he has gained back to his students at Wits and disseminate it for years to come.
Dave Wlodarski, AUC’s Technical Director, forwarded me by email all of Bill’s paint elevations and Photoshop models of each act, including some of the early versions so I could understand the design team’s concept. Several days before our departure we began making tests with materials and experimenting with painting techniques for the birch trees and the wooden floors. The wallpapered walls, with spatter and ageing would happen once we landed in Cairo.
I photographed the results of our tests and sent them the design team by email. I also Skyped the American designer Bill Forrester and the AUC Technical Director Dave Wlodarski in order to discuss the techniques and establish a timeline consensus. My position was that of Charge Artist for the production.
Bill Forrester sent several images of birch tree forests so we could see how skinny and pole-like the trees were. We noticed, too, the bushy undergrowth which would also need to be reproduced.
|This is a Photoshopped model Bill Forrester did of his ideas for Act 4 of the Three Sisters.|
The environment for Three Sisters is usually surrounded by a birch tree forest. The designer sent several images of a birch tree forest such as the one above. We needed to examine what actually made the dark marks on the white bark, and how the peeling bark cast shadows. The set designer and lighting designer (Stancil Campbell) both wanted trees with texture so lighting could change to quality of light in the forest. I found several more images which helped explain how the bark works.
One of our experiments was to make samples of the trees before arriving in
. Using a cut-out trunk shape of thin plywood or masonite, we settled on a wrinkled newspaper method after experimenting with several other materials including cheesecloth, burlap or hessian, and lightweight muslin or calico. Cairo
|Peelng bark and dark "spatter and drag" on a real tree. Both photos are from this website|
|Another example of bark curls on a real birch tree.|
This picture shows the stronger horizontal patterns created by failed branches. This image is from here. It is picture #52.
The newspaper sample was the clear winner. The burlap was too soft and fuzzy, the cheesecloth was too limpid and flat, and the calico didn’t create sharp enough bark peelings. Below is our second newspaper birch tree sample, which everyone liked.
This is the second sample we did of the newspaper birch trees. There is black tule in between the trunks which will act as a projection surface for autumn leaves.
These images above show the process of pinching a pleat into the newspaper to become one of the horizontal bark elements then another layer of paint is put on to keep the pleats stiff and to blot out the headlines on the newsprint.
When we arrived we had 56, 7 meter tall birch trees to make. The AUC students helped quite a bit. They learned the process including using paint as the glue for the wrinkled newspaper, applying highlight and shadow, and spatter and drag.
Here’s most of the birch trees laid out in the AUC parking lot, with a few trees in the middle having had their first spatter and drag pass and a few knotholes enhanced. Several AUC students helped texture and paint the trees.
Here’s our samples, which the designer felt could go even darker.
This sample is done on a sheet of already many-times-painted Masonite. It includes several wood-grain styles. My favourite it the top left which shows the saw marks. And my next favourite is the heartwood on the bottom and second one up. We were thinking of pine floors, not having any particular direction in that area.
This curved wagon above is just a small portion of all of the wood-grained rolling units we did. The overall value is darker, and the wood color is slightly warmer. It has a blue spatter on top to aid in the cool-toned scenes.
This image shows one of the settings nearly completed. Although there is rehearsal furniture on it, you can see the darker tones in the wood floor. Notice, too, the ageing applied to the columns and cornice header. The striped wallpaper and stencil work on the upstage wall is all paint.
Below is one of Bill Forrester's paint elevations for the upstage wall. Basically, once we got to Cairo, Bill said make everything darker than the elevations. Pitiful pale prints were what I had to work with until I could get my hands on the originals, and subsequent research information encouraged Bill to take everything darker and richer.
|Bill Forrester's paint elevation for the Three Sisters Act 1 upstage wall.|
Above is the stencil pattern used on the upstage wall. We painted the green stripe first, then laid the stencil down and painted back the wall color. The entire wall was spattered in 3 colors, so the lighting designer could warm or cool the scene at will. One student in particular helped do the stencil on these walls. The reverse side of the upstage wall gets a dark aged wood clapboarding – all in paint.
This exterior dark wood above is missing its secondary highlight for the curved part of this unusual wooden siding. It almost looks like chinked logs in the research. Bill decided it was a shiplap of some sort. It is also missing its spatter and drag, and its silver blue color wash to tone down the highlights and grey-out whatever warm there is in the base.
|This detail of the exterior siding has its final paint: spatter and drag, secondary highlight, and blue wash.|
|One of the pictures from the English Russian Wooden House website we used for reference.|
This is a close-up of the cornice and pillars. AUC carpenters are famous for their attention to detail.
Above is a section of the wallpaper, largely done by Bill Forrester himself, for the bedrooms. We first painted the background stripes, the striped those with a contrasting softer stripe, then Bill applied the stencils ( a labor of love) and then we streaked a bit of watery Van Dyke Brown age on top. This photo is just before streaking the VDB.
This photo shows the wainscot getting scumbled in and aged.
This image below shows the scene shop complete with dust collectors for each power tool. Very nice.
|AUC's Scene Shop. Kamal, Abd'el Nabi and other wonderful technicians work there!|
And since there’s no final view of the finished set yet, this image below should let you know what the stage space is like; the seating is steeply raked, and the apron has a dedicated lighting pipe over it! How lucky.
|The Malak Gabr Arts Theatre at the American University in Cairo with some of the Three Sisters scenery on it.|