Getting to Know: James Allen

Elizabeth Ramos, Maureen Silliman, and William Parry in Native Gardens (2020). The brick effect on the houses was achieved completely with paint!

James Allen is the Scenic Charge Artist at Gulfshore Playhouse.

Q: What age did you discover you were interested in theatre? Was there a particular event or experience that revealed your interest?

I have always been a bit of a performer, from putting on little shows for my family to telling stories with my dinosaur toys as a kid. The joy of doing something that other people get to marvel st has always been one of my favorite experiences. My real love of theatre got started when I was in the 10th grade of High School, where I was in the school play and then my friends told me that our local community theatre was holding auditions for Beauty and the Beast, Jr. I prepared for the audition, had my mom drive me there, and then spent 15 minutes in the car being too scared to go in. My mom had to forcibly remove me from the car to make me go in and audition. I ended up getting a part in the ensemble and from there I fell in love with the theatre. For the next few years of high school I was always working in theatre, whether it was in the school drama department or my community theatre. It didn’t take me long to realize that acting wasn’t where I needed to be, even if I did enjoy it. I worked on a production of Dearly Beloved (by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten) as a stage technician and found that the behind the scenes world was where I truly belonged. After that every production I worked on I had a hand in the technical crew, from construction, stage management to scene painting.

Q: What was it about scenic painting specifically that caught your eye? Did you know early on you wanted to paint sets or is it something you realized once you were already working?

Before I was ever involved in theatre I was an artist. Art is a part of who I am, it is intrinsic to my very being. So the idea of painting sets wasn’t what drew me to the theatre but it was something every director I’ve ever had put to its full use. Once people found out I was a good artist I would immediately be asked to come in on weekends to help paint sets, and after I had become a mainstay at my community theatre I would help to paint sets I wasn’t even working on. When it came time for me to go to school I had to ask myself, as all students do, what I wanted to do with my life. From this question I discovered that while I can always have my art, I couldn’t live a life without regrets if I didn’t pursue theatre as a career. When I was touring schools one of the biggest things that drew my interest was the set design, as that was my initial dream career. So when I toured my alma mater and saw their production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) with massive Victorian wallpaper walls, marble flooring, and intricate trim I knew that I had to go there.

Q: Can you talk a little about what the role of a Scenic Charge Artist is?

A Scenic Charge Artist is the liaison between the Scenic Designer and the paint shop, as well as the manager of the paint shop. My role is to discuss with the designer what they want everything to look like, from rough earth to the smoothest marble, and create it on the scenery built by the scene shop. My job is also to budget each show, from the amount of time each paint treatment will take to the amount of money we can spend on each element, in a concise and clear way that can be shown to our Production Manager and directors so they can be assured everything will be perfect once an audience is in the room with the set. I also create paint paperwork for every treatment in a production so if necessary, someone else could step in and take over.

Q: What does a typical day on the job look like?

This is a multipart question, that will require a multipart answer. There isn’t a “typical” day on the job as often we are doing different things depending on where we are in the build process. So I will lay out the process in four stages.

First is the preliminary paperwork stage. After receiving the design renderings, I jump into preliminary discussions with the designer about the treatments they are wanting, like if the stone should have a 3-D texture or what grain the wood should be. Next, I map out the square footage of the entire set so I can measure how much paint will be needed. I also create a budget to determine the cost as well as a “Labor Budget” to figure out how long each step of painting will take to successfully execute. With the scene shop, we determine what order the set pieces will arrive in the paint shop.  During this time I also am in discussion with the scene shop to figure out the order the set pieces will arrive in the paint shop so we can make sure the pieces needing the longest treatments will arrive first.

Second is the sampling and paperwork stage. It begins when we receive the paint elevations (small scale images of the walls and floor painted or Photoshopped) in the mail from the designer. Each treatment is unique; some only take one sample to get right and others can take a few tries. I make alterations until we get a treatment everyone is happy with. Following approval, I create mix sheets (the colors and ratios of each paint color) and process sheets (the details of how to achieve the treatment). I also then generate finalized square footage paperwork and our mixing guide. By taking the square footage needed for each treatment (which I get from my earlier paperwork) I am able to devise how much of each color of paint and sealer we need in total to paint the show.

Third is the build (and paperwork again) stage. The scene shop starts turning over finished walls and set pieces so the painting can begin. I am responsible for teaching and supervising the Scenic Artist who does a large portion of the painting. This is also when I finalize all the paperwork for the show.

Stage four is load-in week. Most of what the paint department does happens overnight. We start by painting the floor, and then once all the set pieces are transported into the space, we come in at night to finish pieces and do touch-ups. During this time we often are working on filling the seams between the larger walls so they look seamless, painting the insides of doorways and numerous other small tasks.

Stage five is Tech Week. The full team, including actors and designers, arrive at the theatre to put together every element of the show. I usually arrive during the last hour of the rehearsal to discuss changes with the Scenic Designer, and I stay with the overnight crew to execute any changes. Depending on the show there is either a lot to change or very little. If it is a lot, the overnight crew works every day of the week fixing and tweaking until the set is perfect. If there isn’t much I attend the production meetings after tech and use my time working on the next show and cleaning up our paint shop so that we can start the next show fresh. Once tech week is over I attend the opening night and get to watch the show so very proud of the work that my team put into it.

Q: What is something about your job that people might be surprised to know?

The most surprising thing about my job is how much organization it takes to keep everything straight and operating in the paint shop. For such a messy job it requires incredible precision and forethought. A close second is how little time I actually often spend on the paint floor. As the Scenic Charge Artist, my main role is that of a manager, so most of my time is spent working on the various paperwork and attending meetings rather than on the paint deck. When I am on the paint deck I am either working on samples or am painting until I have another meeting to go to (which is honestly almost daily).

Q: What is your proudest achievement at Gulfshore Playhouse?

Gulfshore Playhouse productions have a mark of quality and perfection to them, we operate at a very high standard. My proudest achievement is meeting those standards on every show I have been a part of here at Gulfshore Playhouse. I also am incredibly proud of the personal and professional growth I have gone through as a member of this team. The set I am the most proud of working on here at Gulfshore Playhouse is a tie between Native Gardens, designed by David L. Arsenault, and The Lady Demands Satisfaction, designed by Edward T. Morris. I love them for very different reasons. Native Gardens was a monster of a set. In total there were around 20 different treatments present, which is an astronomical number as a set has on average around 5 to 10. Each different treatment was so unique and so interesting to create. The heavily textured brick on both sides, one which we had to create an actual peeling paint effect on was incredibly fun to figure out how to make. It also presented new challenges that I’d never faced before, such as how to paint astroturf so that it looks like real grass, and then how to take it a step further and make it look like dying wilting grass. Each treatment on that show was so incredibly complex that it offered a world of fun. I love the set from The Lady Demands Satisfaction because of its sheer simplicity and elegance. That being said, there is no such thing as a simple paint treatment and in fact, most of the simplest looking treatments are some of the most complex to create. The gradient effect on the walls, both due to the color as well as the sheer size of them, took an incredible amount of time to create and make perfect. It was by far the most challenging set I have had to work on here, but it also was one of the most beautiful ones.

Evan Sibley and Betsy Hogg in The Lady Demands Satisfaction (2020).

Q. Favorite set you’ve ever worked on?

My favorite set I’ve ever worked on is Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. This production was done at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2017, directed by David Kennedy and scenic designed by Andrew Boyce. This set was my favorite for so many reasons. The play takes place in a dilapidated plantation home in southern Arkansas, which is the first reason I liked it because I am an Arkansas native. The house has fallen into disarray as the family patriarch has become a hoarder in his old age. This premise creates such a lovely image as we had to create a set that had the stately beauty of a large plantation home, but the disgust and disarray of someone who has neglected their home for decades. I was able to work with so many techniques that I don’t get to use enough for this set. Distressing, the process of making something look old, worn down, and dirty, a set is my favorite thing to do, and this set required so much of it. From visible plaster cracks revealing the lath boards beneath, and severe water damage on the set’s ceiling, to the incredibly distressed plank wood floor I had a ball creating the nasty world in which this very dirty and tension-filled play could exist.