Backstage with scenic artist Leah Blackwood | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Backstage with scenic artist Leah Blackwood

“We don't open up a catalog and order something, we create it.”

click to enlarge Leah Blackwood - JARED WICKERHAM
Jared Wickerham
Leah Blackwood

Who: Leah Blackwood, Greenfield 

Title: Scenic Artist

Where: Seasonal full-time at City Theatre; additional freelance 

Recent work: The Revolutionists and Pipeline, City Theatre; Grey Gardens, Front Porch Theatricals; Rules of Seconds and HIR, barebones productions

What do you do?

I take drawings from the designer and make them into scenery. Carpenters build pieces — walls, floorboards, doors, furnishings. Then I use paint and other materials to make them look like something other than what they are.

How do you do that? 

I do a lot research, and I pay a lot of attention. If there's a scene set in a garden, I look up what kind of plants would grow in the location and season where it takes place. If there's gravel on the ground or a sidewalk or a street, I'll go outside and find that somewhere and look at how it's put together — the distress level, where there are stains. How is it affected by the life on it?

What got you interested in this? 

As a teen, I worked at a maritime museum, building sets and stripping decks of boats, and helping my father who was a carpenter haul boards around and lug shingles up on roofs. Then I went to school for graphic arts and had a teacher show a slideshow working on a film set. I thought, “That's what I can do. That’s where I can see myself.” Not because it's “Oh, working on a movie, that's so fun!” But because it was active work, more physical than graphic arts where you're sitting and doing clean little things on a board.

How did you get started in theater? 

When I got out of school, this teacher was working at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and I asked her if there was any work. She said, “Come on over.”

click to enlarge Leah Blackwood - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Leah Blackwood

Did you study further?

At the Public at that time, there wasn't one person in charge of painting, they would rotate three or four people. If you ask four different painters how to do something, you get four different answers. I was able to learn the business from a lot of points of view.

How far in advance do you begin a production? 

Typical time is about three weeks.

What doesn't the audience know? 

How much work goes into it. We don't open up a catalog and order something, we create it. They walk in and see a house or kitchen and a floor that looks like it's tiles that were laid down, but those tiles were hand painted, one by one.

Is there a story behind the environments that you create? 

Absolutely. Otherwise everything would look new, and if it looked new, it wouldn't look real. I put a lot of thought into elements like, where a floor would be worn down or dirty from walking, walls duller by light switches from hands touching them, if people are living marginally, where would water drip or paint peel. In the backstory, everything that would have happened comes into my mind.

What's your favorite part? 

When you really get down toward the end of it and most of it is done. It's always really busy onstage, all the carpenters are there and everybody's hustling around, the lighting is being set, and there's sound people writing cues and everyone is busy doing things. When all those people finally go away and I'm alone doing the finishing touches, the tiny details. That's my favorite element to be in. Everyone is gone and I'm in this quiet space, I can turn on some music, and concentrate on those small human parts that give it life. That's the most rewarding.

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