When patrons arrive for an evening at the theatre, little do they know that a fairly nondescript red brick building a mere block away is a busy hive of creativity.
Housed at the intersection of 13th and Arapahoe streets in the Historic Tramway Building — now called the Robert & Judi Newman Center for Theatre Education — are the design studios, construction facilities and rehearsal halls of the DCPA Theatre Company. Its typical season of eight plays is hand crafted on two floors of the building.
Walking through the work areas can be a bit like watching Back to the Future…forward, backward, and present, which is the setting of the upcoming world premiere of Alexis Sheer’s Laughs in Spanish.
Set in a contemporary art gallery in Miami, it became the responsibility of the Paint Shop to transform the Singleton Theatre into a swanky space to rival any modern museum. The Theatre Company often hires visiting artists to conceive of the various elements of the show, so enter Brian Sidney Bembridge stage right to design the set for the play.
“A lot of times we will meet the designers because they will come through early in the process if they can,” said Lead Scenic Artist Melanie Rentschler, but in this instance “he sent us a rendering and said, ‘This is what I want.’”
“And then our job is to make it look as much like the picture as we can,” added Scenic Artist Kristin MacFarlane.
Cumulatively, this duo has worked at the DCPA Theatre Company for 30 years. Rentschler joined the DCPA 20 years ago when Charge Scenic Artist Jana Mitchell plucked her from the Music Theatre of Wichita. When Rentschler took on some summer work for Central City Opera, she needed an extra set of hands and a colleague said, “I have a sister…” so MacFarlane joined on a project-by-project basis until joining as a full-time Scenic Artist five years ago, completing the all-female team.
While both women graduated college with degrees in the field, Rentschler said there’s a certain amount of “on the job training.” Certain amount…as in “probably 90% of what I do.”
“I took my required Scenic Artist Paint class in college…but you know, part of being in college is you work on the shows,” Rentschler explained. “Working at Music Theatre of Wichita, I was just working with amazing, amazing people and learning from them…. You pick up different things and then you just have to apply them.”
For Laughs in Spanish, the team was responsible for painting a roughly 28’ x 15.5’ mural, which serves as the backdrop of the set. Bembridge provided the design and it was up to Rentschler and MacFarlane to execute. “This drop has a trick,” hinted MacFarlane, which required that the canvas be made of muslin and painted front and back. “We had to starch both sides while it was down [on the floor],” explained Rentschler. “When we were done, we slapped it up on the paint frame so we could project.”
“Yes. That old timey overhead projector!” MacFarlane laughed. “It’s airbrushed with acrylic and latex paint.”
Start to finish, the mural took about two and a half weeks to complete. “We usually starch our drops. It makes for a nice painting surface. It also allows us, if they get wrinkled, to spray them and it will reactivate the starch and tighten them up,” said Rentschler. Next up, they have to roll it onto something to transport it across the street and into the Singleton Theatre for the show, which runs January 27 through March 12.
Unlike many Theatre Company plays, Laughs in Spanish embraces bold colors. “I thought, ‘Ooh, I get to mix magenta.’ I never get to pull the magenta off the shelf,” MacFarlane commented.
One similarly vibrant production was staged by the Theatre Company soon after MacFarlane came on board. “I think I will always remember the Jackie & Me floor because it was very early in my over hiring and to be like, “Oh my gosh. This is what we do here?!?!? It was sort of like…”
“Woah!” they both finished.
While the opposite of colorful, Rentschler noted that the design for A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was among her favorites as it was all in black and white and they had to recreate great ads from the 40s. “That one was super fun.”
While starching muslin for backdrops may not be the top of the list of fun tasks, there are plenty of aspects of the job that provide great satisfaction. “I really love it when I’m working on a sample,” MacFarlane said, “because…a lot of times it’ll be like, ‘We’re going to make this brick wall. We’re going to sample it up and make sure the designer likes it.’
“Melanie was laughing at me when we were doing Much Ado About Nothing. She kept looking over at me and said, ‘What are you smirking about?’ I was doing some samples for this stone floor and I said, ‘It looks really good. I feel really good about myself right now.’”
“For me,” said Rentschler, “it’s almost not even about a certain project. It’s sometimes just that you get things done and you did it well and on time…the whole thing. I was really proud of Rattlesnake Kate. [The set featured] such a mix of foam and real wood that even the designer had no idea where the real wood stopped and the foam started.”
While it has become easier to dissemble a set at the end of the run, there are occasionally pieces that find their way into the shops as inspiration or a bit of décor. Perhaps the mural for Laughs in Spanish will return to the paint shop to grace a wall. But by that time, Rentschler and MacFarlane will be tackling the next three shows of the season and setting their considerable skills to new artistic challenges.
Laughs in Spanish
Jan 27-Mar 12, 2023 • Singleton Theatre