Debra Forbes prefers not to be seen or heard, and just lets the work happen. In her case, the work is applying paint and texture to create magnificent 200’ x 80’ hand-painted backdrops for Broadway shows.
Her childhood artistic instincts were honed by decorating cakes at her father’s bakery in Philadelphia. A love for theater then developed in high school. While at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Forbes attended a workshop run by scenic artist Joseph Forbes. She was hooked — and not just on the art: Joe later became her husband.
After graduating from college with a degree in scenic design, Debra Forbes worked at Studio and Forum of Stage Design in New York City — run by notable designer Lester Polakov — in exchange for classes that were taught by Broadway designers.
What is your advice to a starving artist?
“Draw, draw, draw, and paint, paint, paint. Look for a school that fits you. And don’t be afraid to do different things, because what we do is not normal!”
When her and Joseph’s children, Emma and Colin, started school, Forbes went to work for her husband’s venture, Scenic Art Studios in Newburgh. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding: “It’s never the same thing every day. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and I work with some of the most wonderful people.”
Not that mistakes don’t happen. Once, a 15’ wall was placed upside down and painted. It wasn’t noticed until 4 p.m., on the day the scene was to be delivered. But by 9:30 p.m., the wall was repainted and ready to go. How? “I’m the queen of hairdryers,” Forbes says with a laugh. “You have to be that chameleon who’s willing to change direction. You can’t get mad — you don’t have time for that — you go on to Plan B.”