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Paint by Numbers

Senior Elizabeth Roth views the finished backdrop for April's performance of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Students from all across campus had the opportunity to help the Ohio Northern University Department of Theatre Arts prepare for this week's spring musical The Drowsy Chaperone by participating in a three-day “drop” painting workshop held earlier this semester.

A drop, also referred to as an “oleo,” is theatre lingo for an enormous stage curtain — 1,100 square feet, to be exact — that is painted to serve as scenery in live theatre performance. The name is derived from backdrop, but not all drops are used in the background. In vaudevillian times, it functioned as a decorative separation between the audience and the stage. They were typically elaborately painted to match the theatre’s decor and often contained advertisements for local businesses.

Hand-painted drops, like the one created over three days in January, are increasingly rare in productions due to the time, effort and specialized skills required to make them a reality. But they make for great workshops when you’ve got enough eager students to lend a hand and a brush.

“It’s not typically something you’re going to find at a lot of undergraduate universities, at least not this size,” said Brian Phillips, BA ’97, technical director of the theatre arts department. “It’s a pretty big endeavor, and it takes a very specific skillset for people to be able to teach the course.”

The department brought in help to assist with the workshop. Jill Davis, BFA ’94, is a professor of scene design at Case Western Reserve University, and Brian Ruggaber designed the set for The Drowsy Chaperone, including the original design for the drop.

The drop was completed in only three days thanks to the approximately 350 hours of labor students put into it. Making the workshop available to the entire student body, not just theatre arts majors, gave all students with an interest in art a unique opportunity to see an increasingly rare art form.

Helen Heinig, a freshman communication studies major from Rensselaer, Ind., stopped by the workshop simply for mere enjoyment. “Growing up, I was part of a children’s theatre program back home. I really enjoyed acting, but when I was too old I just helped out in doing set design and different things. It was really fun, so I thought I would come and see what ONU was doing with their theatre program because I’m still kind of interested in it.”

The workshop also provided an opportunity for students to add to their résumés and make them stand out against others.

“Backdrops aren’t as common anymore; this is a really great experience, especially for someone like me in scenic art,” says Jordan Kimes, a senior theatre design and studio arts double major from Ada, Ohio. “There are not a lot of scenic artists that actually work on a hand-painted backdrop anymore. Even people who are not in scenic art can take a lot away from this by putting it in their portfolios and on their résumés.”

Freshman marketing major Miranda Buschur contributed to this story.

Watch a time-lapse video of the drop-painting process.