By Janet Preus
Theaters have known for centuries about the versatility and convenience of using fabric. Act curtains, often elaborately decorated, conceal the stage until the play begins, and painted backdrops descend from the fly space, transporting the audience to another time and place. Painted flats (muslin stretched over frames) create the illusion of walls, doors, a forest—anything a director desires and a designer can dream up.
Although sets have traditionally been hand-painted, theaters are now discovering that fabric printing is a viable choice. Any theater—from professional to high school and community theaters—can benefit from the expertise of a print shop, and with fabric graphics accessible and affordable, the theater can have a set worthy of its designer’s imagination.
Adriane Heflin, technical director at The Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis, Minn., has used printed fabric at the Children’s Theatre and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Sometimes the nature of the artwork lends itself to a very photographic quality, she says, or budget and time constraints make large-scale printed media very useful and desirable.
Over 2,000 square feet of printed, 13-ounce matte vinyl created the winter scene for The Children’s Theatre Company’s recent production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The technical team took photos of a ¼-inch-scale color model of the set and sent printouts to the designer for pixilation and color approval. The fabric was then printed by Digigraphics, Minneapolis, and stretched on frames. “When you take something that small and blow it up to be 21 feet tall, you get some pixilation,” Heflin says. “We were able to get away with a little bit of grainy resolution and it worked just fine.”
The printing option saved the theater many hours of paint labor. “Even if we had enough money to hire the people, we didn’t have enough time and space,” Heflin says. “This was a great alternative.”
Any shop that prints on fabric should be able to work with theaters, particularly if it is able to print wide format for large units without seams. Turnaround time is critical, since theaters operate on tight deadlines. “On day ‘X’ the show opens, and the scenery’s gotta be there,” Helfin says.
Heflin says she expects to use fabric graphics more in the future. “I don’t think digital printing will ever replace scenic artists [who hand paint], but it certainly opens up new opportunities for us.”
It also presents a new market for savvy print shops.