Back in January of this year I was contacted by Marc Ewart, production manager for the Cambridge-based theater company Liars&Believers.( liarsandbelievers.com ) They were workshopping a new play called ICARUS. It is based on characters from Greek myth, but was to be set in a 1930's depression-era traveling carnival somewhere in the midwest. The director, Jason Slavick was interested in having me produce a series of large sideshow banners that would act as backdrops for the action on stage. I met with the director, was intrigued and agreed to take on the project. After several months, changes in the story, cast and schedule I was given a final list of banners to design. 1) 3'x6' - Monsters Maze, 2) 3'x6'- Turbo FrogBoy, 3) 3'x6' - Passion Pavillion, 4) 4'x7' - Human Sea Cucumber, 5) 4'x7' - Spaghetti Girl & Human Vacuum.
I started researching vintage side show and carnival banners. I wanted the banners to look as much like actual banners as possible. This meant decorative scrollwork, hand-drawn type, bright colors, and lurid details.
The first thing I discovered in my research was that most sideshow banners were square or horizontally rectangular, and very large. The sizes I was given to work with were narrow, vertically oriented and a lot smaller. I would have to adapt the style to the new sizes.
In some cases I found a vintage posters with elements that were similar to what I needed and could be adapted for the final art, such as "Alligator Girl". She would eventually become "Spaghetti Girl".
There were also elements that were common to most of the banners I looked at, such as the decorative scrollwork trim and the "Alive" tag.
I produced a series of black and white sketches.
The director liked them, but there were some changes. The figure on "Passion Pavillion" needed to be sexier, "Turbo Frog Boy" needed a steam-punk styled monocle, "Monster's Maze" needed to lose the large figure in the foreground, and "The Human Vacuum"needed to embrace "Spaghetti Girl" in a more intimate way.
I did a second round of sketches.
These were approved and I moved to adding color to the designs. I tried to keep the colors bold and simple, with as many in common between banners as possible.
The color was approved. Now came the hard part; Transferring these to full-sized canvas panels and painting them by hand. Working with the production manager, we purchased rolled canvas and cut it to size. Originally they were to have a sewn pocket top and bottom for hanging, but this was changed to grommets. We located a studio space large enough to accommodate the banners and primed the canvas with a mixture of gesso and brown acrylic paint, to give the backgrounds a dingier tone. We then used an Artco projector to project the color sketches onto the canvas, painting in the outlines with a mixture of brown and black paint.
It took two men three full days to prime, transfer and color the banners. The show opens this coming weekend May 17, and 18.