Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates

backdrop sketch

Wouldn’t it be great if I always had a team of young helpers ready to fill in the blanks when I had a big illustration to do? While the crew set up the eight flats that we use as the backdrop for our Pageant Player pantomimes I set about sketching out some ideas.

Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates starts in a village in some unspecified country in South America. We’ve never featured South America in one of our productions before and as I’ve never visited the continent I’ve got the nearest thing that I know in mind; Pollenca, Majorca. I add Rio’s Sugar Loaf mountain in the background, although Pollenca has some pretty impressive limestone crags of its own.

sketch to scaleWhen they get the flats in place,  I realise that I need to go for more of a letterbox, wide-screen format, cutting out the ground altogether.

Robinson Crusoe backdrop designI usually concoct this year’s scene from the basis of last year’s but this time I decide we ought to make a fresh start.

While my team of young helpers put a coat of white emulsion over last year’s Snow Queen village, I make a more accurate drawing to grid up onto the 11×4 ft flats, which have three cross-members – easily visible beneath the canvas – which I adopt as as my grid.

The swatches are a reference for Ken for mixing the emulsion paint.

My proportion goes awry as I get to the right hand side mapping things out and the village church ends up looking more like Barnsley town hall. No bad thing.

The Chateau of the Beast

DESIGNING SCENERY can be a relaxingly imaginative form of drawing, especially if you can give yourself enough time to sketch out your ideas, as I can this morning as a couple young recruits to our dramatic society roller over the previous backdrop. Sketching out my ideas is a pleasing combination of the imaginative and the practical because, although I’m not obliged to be historically correct or architecturally sound, I am constrained by the size of the backdrop (six 11 x 4ft flats) and by the requirements of the script.

This first sketch, in brown ArtPen on light brown sugar paper (absorbent ‘craft paper’ used in schools) shows the backdrop in proportion to the rest of the stage. The tabs, or wings, are black drapes.

Beauty, the Beast . . . and the Pantomime Dame

I’m designing the chateau of the Beast for Beauty and the Beast but this is a pantomime version, not to be confused with the 1740 original by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve or with the Disney version. No, this is the panto version so the action is regularly interrupted by the Pantomime Dame swaggering on and engaging the audience in cheeky banter. What more could you ask from an evening’s entertainment? A few tickets are still available. And – you’re going to like this – there’s a slapstick hairdressing scene. But I think that I can understand why Villeneuve didn’t burden her magical morality tale with a scene in the salon.

So the chateau is a bit of a neglected, slightly spooky ancestral pile but, on the other hand, the Prince/Beast isn’t without a bob or two (note: bob = one shilling in old money). So those repetitive, gloomy arches aren’t quite what we need.

From Donjon to Chateau

How about this? Make the central arch larger, to add a focal point and a bit of drama, and, as this is a chateau not a donjon, a Versailles-style door, as if the Prince’s ancestors renovated their medieval castle keep in the 17th or 18th century.

The entrance to the chateau is seen first through rusty gates, centre stage, with the black side-curtains drawn to reveal only the middle third of the backdrop. Later this same backdrop has to serve as the banqueting hall inside the chateau, so, if you’re following me, this has to represent the exterior and interior of the chateau.

The structures at either end were intended to suggest towers when seen from the outside (only they’re not seen, because they’re hidden by the half-drawn side-curtains) and elephantine pillars of the great hall when seen as an interior but as the Beast’s magic mirror stands in the corner stage left (house right) we left them out of the final version.

From Sketch to Backdrop

While inconsistencies in a pen sketch add to the animation and character of a drawing, I can’t ever seem to translate that spontaneity to the full-size backdrop, drawn in black emulsion paint with a half-inch filbert brush. A good example is the fleur-de-lys shields on the pillars, a motif that I’ve taken from the gates that have been made, which also suggest the French connection. In my drawing I don’t want them to be precisely identical but when they’re painted and coloured on the backdrop it looks as if someone just got it wrong and failed to draw each to identical proportions.

Sketching out the ideas is definitely more relaxing than putting them into practice.