Theatres and vaudeville stages were the entertainment outlets that Americans sought before the days of movies, television, and the Internet. The University of Minnesota celebrates that bygone era with a new exhibit, titled "Creating the World for the Stage: 1893-1929 - An Exhibit of Scenic Sketches."
Painted renderings of backdrops, sketches and other artifacts from the Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries are featured in the exhibit that explores the exotic worlds created by the scenic artists for both public theatres and private fraternal spaces of the Freemasons. The exhibit is guest curated by Professor Lance Brockman of the University's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. Presently on view the exhibit concludes March 15, 2013 at the Elmer A. Andersen Library, West Bank of the Twin Cities Minneapolis campus and is free and open to the public.
The exhibit documents the backstage technical environment of the popular stage during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The artifacts include original renderings and materials from Twin City Scenic Company, Great Western Stage Equipment Company, and the Holak Company.
The companies used these materials to market their painted drop scenery to public theatres across the country and later to fraternal organizations, such as the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Brockman said that the Freemasons use of theatre and set design in their degree rituals helped them to boost membership.
"What had once been recitation, previously, now becomes a lively and fun theatrical presentation - you can see how attractive this would be to potential members," Brockman said. "And as public theatre became less and less of a market for these scenic studios, the Freemasons became more and more of a market."
Brockman, who is retiring after 37 years, was instrumental in acquiring the collections for the University of Minnesota, beginning in 1983. His research into this period of set design, he said, was primarily to help him teach theatre students about the nearly lost craft of painted drop scenery.
"The exhibit shows people that we have the collections and it's also a great resource for scenic artists," said Peter Baker, a theatre arts student who assisted Brockman with the design and installation of the exhibit. "The art of painting these drops was never really passed down. It sort of died off. But having the sketches and being able to look at the extant work, you can actually pick out how they did it, how they painted it. It becomes a resource, not only for the historical context, but the practice itself - the art, as well as the artifact."
Theatre arts student Nicky Rodriguez assisted Brockman with the exhibit curation.
Gallery hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Friday; and 8:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. For more information, go to z.umn.edu/stage. All images are available online at lib.umn.edu/scrbm/paa/scenery.