Why the role of scenic artist is so important in theater.



The Scenic Artist

One of the most indelible memories from my decades of seeing live theater doesn’t involve an actor delivering a stunning soliloquy or a singer belting a jaw-dropping song.

As the lights came up for the musical “Violet” at the Barksdale more than 15 years ago, a striking representation of the titular character’s terribly scarred face could be seen painted across the entire stage, creating a literal foundation for the powerful theatrical experience to come.

That image was rendered by a scenic artist -- specifically, the late John Story. In general, the scenic artist is one of the lesser-known behind-the-scenes talents involved in putting on a top-notch production. Anna Johnson, artistic director of Cadence Theatre Company, will be staging “Violet” next season and has always found the role of scenic artist one of the most important.

“When we choose a production team, we are most selective about two people: the scenic artist and the carpenter,” she says. “Most of our shows are produced in such a small space, so we can’t get away with just screwing a flimsy set together and throwing some paint on it.”

After founding Cadence, Johnson trusted Richmond artist Lara Koplin for her first production, “Fool for Love,” in 2010. Johnson was certainly familiar with her work: The two have been friends since they were 10.

While Johnson was exploring a theatrical career, Koplin was developing a long résumé as a decorative painter for scores of residential and commercial clients, including Carytown stalwarts World of Mirth, Plan 9 Records and Bygones. She was both scenic designer and set dresser (i.e., theatrical interior designer) for the latest Cadence production, “4000 Miles.”

“I approach the set as another character which made this show really interesting,” Koplin says. “The character of Vera is in her 90s and has lived in her apartment for decades. The set mirrors Vera so there is stuff around she’s collected since the 1960s. They are all little clues to who the character is.”

Koplin says she enjoys her stage work because it’s so different than what she does with individuals or companies. “I have to familiarize myself with my clients to reflect their tastes,” she says. “Most of them want something that is pretty or just looks perfect. But directors are trying to reflect their characters with much more intensity.”

One of her favorite projects was Cadence’s “Sight Unseen.” The show involved two extremely different settings: a warm, English country kitchen and a stark contemporary art gallery, she says. “The colors and designs we chose were key to projecting the intensity of that contrast.”

While her residential work has its own rewards, Koplin concedes: “Twenty-five years of painting dining rooms can get a little dull. In the theater, I’m part of creating a magical thing that’s living. And also ephemeral: After the show closes, it all goes away.”

Running: Two long runners, Firehouse Theatre’s “Maple and Vine” and Swift Creek Mill’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” close up shop next weekend, as does Cadence’s “4000 Miles.”

On deck: Chamberlayne Actors Theatre opens “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell,” the popular comedy that offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the movie “Gone With the Wind” came together. Preview: It involves a lot of peanuts.

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