Function and Fragility
Before the digital era, the relatively light weight of cloth provided a distinct functional advantage over other supports for large-scale scenic painting. Additionally, when folded or rolled, the stage cloths could be transported and stored.
Everyday use and handling can result, over time, in a material that is brittle and fragile. Cloths were often re-used or more recently discarded once the theatre production had finished. Some are still held in storerooms, too big to be unrolled and too fragile to display.
Changes in Production
During the period from the C14th until the C20th, the use of bleached linen added to the luminosity of painted cloths for the stage. Glue tempera enabled dense broad expanses of colour that glowed in candle light, lime light and gas light.
The C21st brought changes in the production process. Cotton duck, synthetic fabrics, and transparencies are now combined with acrylic paint for fabric and plastic.
What next? Increasingly, there is now also potential for using digital projection and LED technology to augment traditional approaches for making stage cloths.
Transforming the Space
Different approaches have also evolved in terms of using painted cloths to transform the performance space.
For example, the use of a drop scene (to conceal scene changes) was developed in the C18th, typically replacing two flats which drew to each side. This development paved the way for painted backcloths to became part of the scenic repertoire coupled with a growing move toward realism.
Other examples include Philip de Loutherbourg’s approach to breaking up the perspective of the stage by introducing element at angles and subtleties of lighting. Commissioned in 1771 by David Garrick to direct all aspects of the stage design including the lighting at Drury Lane, de Loutherbourg designed his Eidophusikon (‘image of nature’) as 5 scenes and 4 transparencies to be combined and lit from various directions to produce visual effects.
This evolution has continued apace with scenic artists using painted cloths in creative ways to achieve visual illusion and emotional impact.