The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

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A corner of the ‘Nivarna’ drop for Lady Thị Kính being worked on, on the floor.

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Photos by Anvi Hoàng 

‘A master of all trades’ is one way to describe scenic artists like Mark Smith, Director of Scenic Painting and Properties, and the Assistant, Gwen Law, at IU Opera Theater. The paint shop where they work is like a giant warehouse full of colors and textures, intensified by the fact that each object they have created for the stage is very much alive with its own story.

In preparation for the premieres of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính on February 7, 8, 14, 15 of 2014, the floor has begun to fill up with enormous pieces of fabric to be made into drops, walls are being finished, platforms painted, among other things. There is an eclectic atmosphere there everywhere you turn.

Mark Smith takes time to talk about the creation of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính set now that different structures built in the wood shop are transferred to him to get their finished look.

All the work in the paint and props shop is huge beyond my imagination and I find it difficult to begin with a specific question. Could you start by talking about your job?

I am in charged of the finished look of the scenery including dressing the stage, furniture, etc. It is a huge variety of things involved. The properties can include anything that you can think of and many things that you could never imagine. So it is exciting but could also be challenging. We are taking common everyday materials such as wood, foam creating textures to make it look like something made out of stone, for example.

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is from a different culture. What is so new about it to you?

First of all, it is a great story. In terms of scenery, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is outside the Western hemisphere and we get a whole different culture. It is using a different style in architecture. So we have new materials like bamboo to work with, a different style of props and furniture, and everything else. We have to carve three statues of Buddha and we learned that the three have different looks. So it is fascinating, the subtlety involved that the Westerners would not be aware of.

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Bamboo fences.

What is the material of the Buddha statues?

It is probably Styrofoam. Again, from everyday material we buy at the store, we glue Styrofoam into a big chunk then we use the saw or electric chain saw to carve it.

I saw a lot of the bamboo in the shop that you are going to use for something?

We have never used bamboo at this scale. It is interesting that the bamboo in the shop is still expanding like a living thing with the temperature changes, it pops once in a while. Ordinarily we would use materials we get from the store such as PVC piping. Part of the bamboo we use is from here in Bloomington. A woman who is working here in the shop, her mom’s backyard is full of bamboo that she planted years ago and they are growing wild. She has wanted to get rid of some of it. We talked to her about purchasing some of the bamboo right out of her yard. We will experience with it, painting it with something to seal it so it retains its greenness and doesn’t dry out. We will not be using real bamboo leaves because they will dry out and turn brown. So we will be using silk bamboo leaves. The stalk would be the real thing and the top will be artificial.

In terms of building, is the creation of a Vietnamese wall different than a wall you have built before? 

The basic structure is the same as theater carpentry is. The final treatment is a little different.

How about the temple gate out there? 

Architecturally, there is more curve, but in general, everything has an East Asian feel to it because it does not have such a heavy feel to it as a European-based opera house.

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Mark Smith at work.

How much artistic freedom do you have in dressing the stage?

I don’t have a whole lot in how it looks. The designer comes up with the look for it. I have the freedom in how to get there. Every show you need to use a little of the knowledge you gain in the past but you also experiment with other things. So, there are different ways of painting things to achieve a certain finished look.

What is considered a successful set?

As far as the design, success is if it helps with the story and music, the visual picture should all be supportive of the story and music when it is on stage. It also helps the audience feel more of the connection to the characters and the story as it is going on.

Are there products on stage that you look at later on and say “I like it” or “Oh, I don’t like it that much anymore”?

Sometimes we pull an old set out of the storage, something that I painted five or ten years ago and think, “It’s OK but… it could have been better.” Like any artist, you change and hopefully you’d do better with experience.

What is stressful about building the set? Also, what is the verb to use to talk about the set: you paint, build, or create the set?

There is so much more to it than just building and painting, so you can use ‘creating’ because there is a lot of variety. This is also one of the most stressful things, not just the show but the job in general. We have so many projects going on in the shop at once so a lot of it is time management. We’ve got a large space out there but we have to make sure there is space and time to complete one project and have space and time to get another one started.

Another thing to talk about is not only do we have the scenery constructed by the carpentry shop but also all the drops, the pieces of fabric that are hanging. We have a lot of back drops for the show. Some of them are stylized landscapes: the spring drop, the autumn drop, and the finale drop for the very end. Those are very bright colors. We also have a whole set of drops that have a lot of texture to them – the wallpaper-type of textures. Those will take up a lot of floor space so I have to make sure that I finish up the stone walls out there in a certain time to start working on those. All those drops are sewn here and both Gwen and I are doing the sewing. Not only do we sew drops but curtains as well. That is another skill useful in the job. We are like a Jack of all trades. We know a little bit of everything and this is what I like about the job. If I don’t know how to do something, I can go to the library or online learning a little bit about it. In general, a lot of experimenting.

So the challenge and the variety are fun. Occasionally you get the same old thing, but most of the time I work on different scenery.

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Some props and drop for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, in the paint shop.

What does it take to become a good scenic artist?

To know a little bit of everything. To have an enthusiastic attitude because it could get frustrating. A large part of the job is problem solving. You may be presented with a problem. There are books to help with that but not every problem presented will have an immediate solution so you have to think back about past experiences and what you saw other people do, products that you have seen in the store. You bring all your past experience to find a solution for your present problem.

Is it correct to say that the most artistic part of the job is when you paint when you use your imagination with colors and sizes and shapes?

I think all parts of the job is artistic in some way. Sometimes I say theater is a lie because it is tricking you. What you see up there is not really what it is. We take all sorts of materials to make it look like it is, whether it is a drop of a sky or a piece of furniture. We try to find solutions to uncommon problems. So, everything is artistic in that way. In another word, there is an artistic challenge built into the materials of all the objects.


To find out more about stories of those objects, I talked to Gwen Law, Scenic Painting and Properties Assistant. One of the first thing I learned from Gwen is the clever way she describes general ‘objects’ so a layperson like me can remember easily.

Gwen Law: I want to describe props (or properties) like this: you have a house and all the walls. They are the set. Everything else you have in the house is props. So it includes all of your furnishing, bedding, curtains, things you hang in the wall, your dishes and utensils, books, bookshelves – all of those are props.

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Gwen Law — Photo courtesy of Law.

What specifically is your part of the job in the paint and props shop?

I do most of the props. What that means is that I get a list from the stage director, Vince Liotta, of all the things he wants to have in the show that he wants his characters to use. A lot of them is part of the story. Some of them are stage business. So I imagine there will be something that we’ll come up with for the market scene. Some items would be things that the designer put in as well. Some of them are the Buddha statues for the temple and the bamboo trees. There will be some furniture such as benches, chairs, and bed. So those are the director list and the designer list.

Another thing we do here in the paint shop that I work a lot on is anything with three-dimensional surfaces. They first go through the carpenter shop and then come in here with raw wood. We do a lot of the build up from that. Another thing that I do is I stitch all the drops which I call soft goods. There is a series of drops that are coming in.

Did you receive the list from the designer and the director yet?

From the designer, yes. A lot of the time it is in with all the drawings. I don’t have the list from Vince yet. When we get closer to the show, the director narrows in on a lot of the activities that he is going to have the actors do. And that is when he starts to focus on working on that list. I could somehow remind them as well. So my job really gets busy leading up to rehearsal and throughout rehearsal. So I will get something on the list that says, “a spoon and a bowl.” And as they do that scene, I’ll get a note: they want to throw the bowl across the room, for example. I have to make sure that the thing I provide for them will function that way in rehearsal and last through all the performances and have the finish that they need them to have. So a lot of things are coming back and forth. Sometimes I get a note that they need a blanket. Then I find out that it needs to be twice the size of the normal blanket because they want somebody to hide underneath it. So it starts to get particular as they work through the scenes.

It is fun but sounds busy and stressful?

It is. It takes some experience to be able to react that fast and start reviewing, like, “OK, so they are going to do this kind of thing,” or “I am going to give them two of these for rehearsal so that they have some options as they discover it.” Then I need to make sure I follow up on that, ask the right questions so that we give them the thing closest to what they are going to end up with.

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The finished look of a part of the stone wall.

What is on the lists for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính that you are most excited about?

I am supper excited about the Buddhas that I get to sculpt. On the design, it looks like they will be around three feet tall. And I am excited to find out about what the different hand positions that need to be. Or whether there are any particular Vietnamese gestures that have to be there. I think they will be fun to finish. We know we want to carve them out of foam and we are thinking ahead about how we are going to sculpture them, what kind of finishes we want to put on them.

Also, we are going to have a unique drop that has rag texture on it. So I start thinking about different materials that we are taking apart to try. And that is fun.

As a large part of the job is problem solving, how do you like it?

I’d like to consider myself like this: I am not an expert in anything because I can’t be. In order to have the range of knowledge to deal with knowing how to sew, knowing how to build, knowing how to shop – to do everything really well – I can’t focus on doing just one thing. In doing so, we develop an ability to solve problems really creatively because we have a wide knowledge base instead of a narrow, focused one. It is really exciting when you get a rendering and start thinking about the puzzle of how you are going to go about realizing that, what kind of materials you are looking at using, how you will put those materials together, what kind of finishes you are going to have on them, how will that be handled. You could ask all kinds of questions and start figuring out that puzzle.

It is also very exciting to be working with students. That is the thing I think I like the most about the job. They are so enthusiastic. It is great to watch them come in really green and new, and leave so seasoned and so ready to go out there. It feels so good to be able to help get them to that stage.


Mark Smith’s bio. Mark was always involved in theater in high school and started working at summer jobs at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to enjoy his summer jobs more than his classes. He ended up with a BA in Studio Art, concentration in sculpture, and an MFA in Set Design. Mark has been a staff at Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theater for ten years and is Director of Scenic Painting and Properties for two and a half years. 

Gwen Law’s Bio. Gwen is a second generation artist from Minneapolis, MN. In addition to rigorous exposure to all things art, she studied theater at the Perpich Center for the Arts and have a BS in theater arts from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She now lives in Bloomington, Indiana and is currently making props for the Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theatre. In her free time she keeps busy making art, costumes and staging events. She is the Head of Bout Production for the Bleeding Heartland Rollergirls and a Convention head for Connie’s Space Lounge at Convergence. She thrives on solving problems with good design — whether making a delightful theater prop, painting the roses red, or staging a wedding. It is her mission to make all the things!

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

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