Salvaged Stagecraft: Paper Mache Monkey Changes the Scenery
Every year, the theaters on Broadway in New York City create tons upon tons of trash. Sets, costumes, props, all so intricately designed to create an imaginary world for each specific production that they have no life left in them when the show closes. Theater walls are repainted again and again, erasing the past to create something new every season. Miles of fabric, gallons of glue, and acres upon acres of wood, steel, rubber, and plastics, are trucked into each theater in the months leading up to opening night, only to be rounded up and sent to landfills when the lights go down.
In recent years, organizations have sprung up to collect set pieces and props from Broadway and off-Broadway productions to resell to the public. A brand-new sofa sat on by only a few actors a few times per week for a limited run can find its way into a savvy New Yorker’s apartment. But this is still the exception, rather than the rule.
“Theater and art are inherently wasteful industries,” observes scenic designer Grady Barker, one half of the design studio Paper Mâché Monkey. “[As artists,] we’re really good at making something from nothing, starting with raw materials. But at a certain point, you start to feel guilty about the dumpsters. And the bigger and better you get, the bigger projects you work on, the more you realize you have a responsibility to do something differently.”
Grady and his business partner Meghan Buchanan admit that they didn’t necessarily start out trying to change the way theater dealt with reusable resources and waste reduction. In fact, they hadn’t really considered starting their own design studio until the last year or so. It’s a fairly untraditional model in the theater world, where most designers are either freelancers hired project to project, or members of large union shops. But after years of freelancing, moving gig to gig, hiring each other or referring each other to whichever director they happened to be working with, they caught a few good breaks, and were faced with a unique set of challenges that led them to form their current business.
While both Grady, with a history in sculpture and set design, and Meghan, who had begun to specialize in prop design, had both seen very busy—if not terribly lucrative—careers individually, it seems a turning point came in the fall of 2010 in the form of a rock musical about a certain complicated US president. Donyale Werle, whom both had worked with previously, tapped Grady to lead the design shop for Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson as it moved to the Bernard Jacobs Theater on Broadway. Per usual, Grady brought Meghan onto the team. What was unique about this project was that the particular aesthetic driven by the directors was one which highlighted Grady and Meghan’s particular strength — reusing and reclaiming salvaged materials in unique and innovative ways, to create something entirely new and fascinating out of ordinary (or extraordinary) “junk”. Bike tires and antlers became chandeliers, Western Beef billboards became giant catfood cans, overloaded with lights and scraps, even the centerpiece, a life-scale model of a horse bound and hog-tied, was reused from Kicking a Dead Horse at The Public Theater that Meghan had worked on previously. A skill that had been honed due to sheer financial necessity on smaller Off-Broadway productions was suddenly showcased in a big way. Audiences and critics responded, as did directors of new shows coming to Broadway. While not everyone wanted to recreate the ‘beautiful decay, salvage yard to centerstage’ aesthetic, over-extended budgets and a fledgling awareness of sustainability issues made the process more and more appealing.
As more inquiries came in, and the duo scrambled to fulfill prior, much smaller, commitments and still take on the bigger, higher profile, more profitable new work, the two faced a very apparent revelation that this was a moment to reflect on their situation and take their over-worked and under-paid lifestyles somewhere new.
“We’d gotten a bit out of control,” Meghan confessed, “and we had to focus on creating a better lifestyle with more control over our work schedules.”
“We had to make our careers sustainable, as well,” Grady added—the two seem to layer each other’s sentences like the plaster they named their business after—“Moving from freelancers to being a design studio provided us with a legitimacy, that will, hopefully, allow us to choose our projects...”
Meghan: “We want to take on fewer, longer term projects.”
Grady: “...be more creative in the process, rather than just fascilitating something.”
Despite the unusual structure, they hope that this will both increase their networks, and actually make them more accessible and make clients more confident that they can handle all aspects of a creative project. They had the sense that they had “too much work to start a business”, meaning they didn’t have time to do the research and legwork typical to launching an enterprise, and so are allowing themselves to create a structure that responds to the specific demands. Finding studio space was the priority, then forming a bank account to deal with processing payroll. They actually had to stop their small business advisor, who was launching into marketing plans and positioning strategies, to say ‘we don’t need more work. we need a place to work!’
Two of the shows that the duo worked on, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Merchant of Venice, were nominated for 2010 Tony Awards in Scenic Design—certainly a big boost for the young shop. They will continue to work with the director on forthcoming projects, and are still scrambling to fulfill individual obligations across New York and the Berkshires, all while taking on massive projects as a team. But they certainly look forward to a chance to be more in control of their own workflow. Recently, they’ve put their mark on the costume craft of the monumental Shakespeare in the Park's Measure for Measure (for which they introduced a plaster/plastic alternative called Wonderflex—a totally nontoxic and reform-able compound—for body armor and prosthetics), and tackled the wonderful world of Disney for their latest production of Peter and the Starcatcher at New York Theater Workshop. For the latter, Grady and Meghan were granted open access to the company’s acres-long prop hangars to reuse bolts of fabric and materials from previous runs of Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and In The Heights. They’re also quite happy to branch away from theater occasionally, and have worked on projects for YouTube and private events.
It’s a big jump from literally ‘rescuing’ french doors from burning buildings alongside the NYFD (though they’re certainly not above doing that again) and raiding the dumpsters after Macy’s holiday window displays came down, and has earned them the respect of the Broadway Green Alliance, an interactive feature on The New York Times, and the attention of the performance community at large.
“The reality is that building in sustainable practices to a production schedule is more expensive,” Grady admitted, “but if we can show a giant producer like Disney that we can actually lower materials costs enough to not only offset that labor, but actually end up below the bottom line, we can start changing expectations.”
Online at www.papermachemonkey.com
Photography courtesy Paper Mâché Monkey and Donyale Werle; portraits by Zack DeZon for Sheepless.