Creating an Online Community for Scenic Artists

Article by Lili Payne and Sara Herman

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

The spark of an idea: Sitting around the break room table at lunch one day, a group of scenic artists were grumbling about a product that wasn’t working the way they expected. Their discussion turned to how they don’t always have time to test products, especially in more commercial settings. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to search online, negating or at least minimizing the need for a test?

For instance, a scenic could know that a certain product ACTUALLY sticks to metal the way it says it does. “You could always look on the Scenic Artists Forum on Yahoo Groups,” one painter said.

“But there is no search engine there," said another. “We would have to look through every post individually in the hope of finding an answer. That would take longer to do than the project we have to paint!”

A third scenic exclaimed, “That’s what we need! A central place online that stores product info, reviews, painting techniques, but in a searchable way.”

The discussion volleyed back and forth about ideas of how scenics could share their knowledge with other scenics across the country, about a safe place to talk about safety practices (or how to encourage unsafe shops to be better), a source for local workshops and professional development, and maybe even—gasp!—bundled health care. An association! The dream was palpable in the room. They all went back to work, thinking, wouldn’t that be nice...

In the mid 2010s, my scenic artist colleagues and I lamented that the only living digital attribute catering to our craft was an ancient Yahoo email list. This AOL-era technology was our only connection to colleagues further afield who might hold the answers to our many on-the-job queries. Sure, there are a couple of great book resources out there for scenics, specifically Scenic Art for the Theatre by Crabtree and Beudert, and Surfaces by Judy Juracek. But you can only write so much in a book—and you can’t ask it questions.

Scenic painting is not a widely held nor widely documented career. Scenics work in cities where they are sometimes the only theatrical painters in town. Their only resources are former colleagues and the internet. Googling is often fruitless; very little information about the skills of a scenic artist are shared online, especially information about products and their nonstandard uses in scenic art. The lack of information available online is especially inconvenient when your project requires a time-sensitive answer to your question, as is often the case in theater. Contact made with companies directly about their products often result in quiet representatives who aren’t able to give any solid information regarding their product in a scenic environment. They have never tested their product in the circumstances we scenics hope to use them. But they’re not to blame. It’s us scenics who dropped the ball. It is easier than ever to connect people across distances. It’s easier than ever to disseminate information directly to the people who need it.

Online forums and groups (controlbooth.com), trade associations (Costume Designers Guild, Costume Society of America, Society for Properties Artisan Managers), and unions have existed for some time, catering to other technical theater professions. Scenic artists have skirted the fringes of these groups, but no organization (other than the USA union, which isn’t a viable option for scenics working outside of the largest metro areas) has existed solely to cater to the needs of scenic artists. So in late 2015, a few colleagues and I sought to change this.

We knew what we wanted in our work lives: A central hub for scenics to gather, a modern forum to share information and connect with each other, and quick access to a database of products and techniques that was heavy with photographic content. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is never more true when describing steps of a painting process.

To make sure our desires were on par with the majority of scenics across the country, we reached out via the Yahoo email list to gather responses and gauge interest in such a venture. I couldn’t have imagined the response! In over 800 members on this email list, we received about 20 responses to our survey, a 2.5 percent response rate. I could not have imagined so few scenics would be interested in what we wanted to make. Were we that off base? Perhaps our industry didn’t need this after all or perhaps we hadn’t made our vision clear or, more likely, perhaps scenics were so busy, they hadn’t had time to respond. Spurred on by personal convictions of its necessity, we charged forward nonetheless.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Our first order of business was to literally order the business. We formed ourselves as a 501(c)(3), an educational organization whose mission is to help scenics find opportunities for professional development, new product knowledge, and help with other industry challenges. We organized ourselves as a board with formal titles and duties. We named our new organization the Guild of Scenic Artists.

We outlined our goals clearly and started an Indiegogo fundraiser in late 2016, advertising on the sputtering Yahoo list and any Facebook groups of which we were members. Two months later, we had earned $3,500 in donations from scenic artists across the country. Our initial tepid response was warming with the acknowledgement that actual work was being done to realize the idea. We hadn’t reached our initial goal, but the sum raised was just enough to hire a web developer and begin creation of our soon-to-be hub, scenicguild.org.

The Guild of Scenic Artist’s website has four sections:

  • A proprietary scenics-only forum
  • A public wiki database devoted to all things scenic art
  • A blog regularly updated with articles pertinent to scenic painting and those who practice it
  • Boards for events and jobs

We wanted to cover all the bases: spaces for scenics to troubleshoot, network, learn, and stay in tune with trends around the country.

Our website went live nine days before USITT 2017, an event we were able to attend solely with a last-minute generous sponsorship from Rosco. We hurried to make some swag gifts (because that’s what you need at expos!), hand-painted our newly designed logo onto a canvas dropcloth for a little booth flair (we’re scenics—we make do with what we have!), and went to proselytize the newly-formed Guild to any scenics in attendance.

The response was extraordinary. We left the two-day expo with 120 people signed up, only eleven days after launch. Fast forward to now, four months after launch, and we have some 275 members and counting. We’ve posted 19 blog articles ranging from interviews with industry heavyweights to instructions on how to turn astroturf into a realistic lawn. We’ve posted nine jobs and six events to our boards. Our forum has 177 posts, and our wiki is ever-growing with entries. Our first email newsletter had a 58 percent open rate and 22 percent click rate, compared to non-profit industry averages of 21 and 3 percent. Those numbers speak volumes: Scenic artists are excited about engaging with the Guild.

The feedback we receive from members is often what Carrie Ballanger, Charge Scenic Artist at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, expressed in the first comment on our website: “Glad to see you up and running! Thanks for all the work. I’ve been a scenic for nearly 20 years now and there is STILL stuff I need help figuring out.”

We were right to risk our time and energy. Our personal experiences as scenics did represent those of the industry at large. The future of the Guild is bright.