From Bustles to Birdcages

When one is involved in non-professional theatre, one must learn to do a myriad of things. Everyone says I’m sooooo creative, but really I’ve just learned how to think out of the box. In fact, I’m not even sure where the box is anymore.  I love directing, acting and making costumes. Those are my strong suits. I feel comfortable doing those things.

However, during my recent theatre production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I found myself painting the flats for the street scene. I had three flats to decorate. Now I preface my comments here by saying, I am not an artist. I draw designs for my costumes and that’s about it. The need was there, no one else was available, so I took the challenge. One flat already had a small bakery scene so that’s where I started.

Since the play is based on a Dickens novel, I chose to create Miss Havisham’s Bakery. If you recall, Miss Havisham was left at the altar and never recovered. She had been in the process of dressing for her wedding when she found out her groom wasn’t coming, and she literally never changed after that moment. It was so bad that though she had only one shoe on, she never put on the other one! So why would I create a bakery for her?  If your mind works like mine, the answer is simple, her wedding cake was still in the dining hall years later! The description of it is quite delicious, so if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to read all about it in Great Expectations! On my flat of her bakery I painted a cake with a bride on the top…only the bride mind you! And of course, at Miss Havisham’s Bakery all wedding cakes are always half off.


Next, I decided to create a dress shop. I wanted to name it Jenny Wren’s after the doll’s dressmaker in the book Our Mutual Friend, but I knew no one would ever get that association. I chose Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop because I thought she might have become a good shopkeeper if she hadn’t died so young and…alas, tragically.

In the window of Nell’s, I painted a beautiful gown on a dressform. Now remember I’m not an artist, so I had to find a way to draw a lifesize dress. Enter my friend Andrea! I had her lie down on the flat, so I could sketch around her! Of course I changed her figure a bit to accentuate the bust and the bustle. Image (This picture doesn’t really do it justice, but at least you get the idea! By the way, the actor whose hand is in the picture is a lot closer to the camera than the flat is.)

Lastly, I did a flower shop called Flite’s Fanciful Flowers. Now, Miss Flite is one of my favorite characters in all of Dickens, so even if no one else got the connection, I don’t care! Miss Flite is a crazy bird woman in Bleak House. I guess she’s only slightly mad, but I loved in the movie when they visited her house where she had dozens of birds. In her store window, I painted large flowers and a lovely birdcage with two sweet blue budgies. I also put faces on the sunflowers to give the actors something to discover and laugh about.

I have to say that I’m pretty proud of those sets. I’ve painted sets before but never with the details that these had. It was fun and it expanded my experience. If you’re thinking of taking up a new hobby, think about the theatre because it’s not all acting. There is a lot to be done, and you never know what you might end up doing!