If this year were any other, Broadway-lovers would be buzzing now about the recently announced winners of the 2020 Tony Awards (postponed from June 7 to an undetermined date) and trying to score tickets to see them. Alas, even the Great White Way — despite its “the show must go on” mantra — is no match for the current pandemic. As much as audiences are looking forward to getting back in their seats, behind-the-scenes businesses have an even more essential need for productions to resume.
One such business is Scenic Art Studios (SAS), one of Broadway’s premier scene-painting studios, based in a 15,000 sq ft space in Newburgh, on the top floor of a converted 19th-century factory with views of the Hudson. When theater curtains rise, it’s SAS’ work that helps whisk audiences away into icy, tundra-like landscapes (Frozen), dusty Israeli desert outposts (The Band’s Visit), or small town Southern diners (Waitress). The studio’s projects include around 350 Broadway shows (Come From Away, Company), about 20 of which were being performed before the coronavirus shutdown.
Founded in 1994 by Joseph B. Forbes, who received a 2019 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. SAS paints backdrops, creates sculpture, and produces other stage art for theater, films, television, and specialty venues. Forbes lives in Putnam Valley with his wife, Debra Forbes, vice president/charge scenic artist at SAS and a Hudson Valley Women in Business honoree. He also teaches Scene Painting and Rendering at Purchase College and heads up the non-profit Studio and Forum of Scenic Arts.
In the heart of a typical Broadway season — September through March — Scenic Art Studios employs about 50 artists working in seven different locations. To create the backdrops for a large musical like Hello, Dolly!, says Forbes, it can take hundreds of hours, with about 25 artists working for two months. They are guided by a detailed blueprint — a full color elevation or rendering — provided by the show’s designer. “That’s where the collaboration starts,” he says. “We take what they’re asking for and give them options to achieve the look or feeling.”
Forbes found theater while in college. “It instantly felt like I had found a place where I fit in,” he says. “I knew I would never make a living as an actor, but I never really cared what I did as long as it was in the theatre.” It was his work on Guys and Dolls, with Tony Walton as the designer in the late ’90s, that really established him on Broadway.
One of his most memorable projects was To Kill a Mockingbird. “I grew up in the South and Harper Lee’s iconic novel captured the ugliness and beauty of a world that had not changed much when I was a child,” he says. “It’s always special when you have the opportunity to work on a production that has something to say and that has a heart.”
To create the backdrops for a large musical, it can take hundreds of hours, with about 25 artists working for two months, guided by a detailed blueprint.
In addition to setting up a scholarship fund for the theater department at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Forbes pays it forward by donating material to Unshattered, an organization that helps women in recovery from addiction, from which they handcraft a special Broadway Collection of handbags and accessories.
What does Forbes think is next for Broadway? “Right after the shut down,” he says, “a very smart friend of mine reminded me that the first thing the human species did after taming fire and moving out of the rain into caves was create theater. We are storytellers by nature,” he continues. “It’s part of our DNA. A crisis like COVID-19 creates ‘liminal’ moments in time, moments when we are moving from one reality to a new one. Think of the stories that are being written right now,” he adds. “Out of these dark times will come fresh and inspiring insights into the human condition, insights that will expand our understanding of ourselves, and aid us in finding some form of grace in this chaotic world.”
Adds Forbes, “We want to help tell those stories — but until the Governor lifts some restrictions, we cannot begin actual work. Going forward, clear guidelines for keeping everyone safe will need to be established for the industry,” he continues. “In my main drop painting studio, which is over 300 feet long, I can have three or four artists working without ever coming within 40 feet of each other.” What will be more challenging, he continues, is to safely paint scenery where the space is shared with other crafts and unions. “But with some creative scheduling, combined with good sanitation practices and PPE,” he says, “we should be able to minimize the risk and get back to work.”
Until then, Forbes says, he always has a smaller, desktop-sized painting project going; lately he’s been concentrating on landscapes and waterscapes. “People are devoting time to all of the projects that they always wanted to do but never had the time to,” he says. “You get creative.”