How To Create Large-Scale Papier-Mâché Scenery

Set against the backdrop of 1920s Appalachia, DARLIN’ CORY is a haunting new musical by Playwright & Novelist Phillip DePoy and Sugarland's Grammy Award®-winning frontman, Kristian Bush. To create the set for their world premiere of the musical, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre called upon the skills of Tony Award®-winning Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal. His design re-created granite mountain passes and Blue-Ridge forests on stage. Charge Scenic Artist Kat Conley and her painting crew at the Alliance Theatre used many creative scenic techniques to bring Todd Rosenthal’s design to life. Kat and her crew created two components of the set design by creating large-scale papier-mâché scenery using Rosco FlexBond.


Component #1: Layered Mountain Backdrops

A key element to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is the 60’W x 37’H mountain background that he specified to look like crinkled paper. In the end, Kat and her crew created two individual, large-scale papier-mâché backdrops. Each backdrop was painted in different shades of blue to create the illusion of distant mountain peaks. Kat Conley shares their full technique below:

  • First, we rolled out lengths of 50lb kraft paper that we back-painted gray. Then we rolled out more paper and painted it in the appropriate base blues. The blue pieces were longer than the back-painted pieces. 
  • We laid the back-painted paper back out in vertical strips (paint side down), overlapping about 1”. This gave us a base to attach our wrinkled treatment to.
  • Next, we wrinkled up lengths of blue paper using a variety of methods (scrunch into a ball, sit on them, etc.). We laid the pieces roughly in place trying not to smooth out the wrinkles we had created.

  • Then, working from the center out, we began the papier-mâché process. Scenic Artist Brianna Bass rolled Rosco FlexBond onto the backing paper, and I followed behind and pressed the blue paper down – making sure the back-painted layer was completely covered by the wrinkled layer.
  • I worked hard to leave the wrinkles, big and small, and I paid attention to the edges and overlapped the wrinkled panels as needed. This process married the 2 layers into one large piece, then we repeated the process so that we had two wrinkled paper backdrops.
  • The drops were finished with lots and lots of sprays of diluted Rosco Supersaturated Scenic Paints and some minimal luan flats to give them shape and support. Then they were then carefully attached to their batons and flown into the air.
  • NOTE: We also used this same process to add a wrinkled texture to the facia on the curved scenery ramps that would enter on both sides of the stage.


Component #2: Tree Trunks

Large tree trunks that were suspended in midair were another element of Todd Rosenthal’s set design that Kat and her team had to create. They ended up using a very similar papier-mâché technique to create the three-dimensional tree bark on the trunks. Kat explains more below:

  • Each trunk was between 19 and 24 feet tall. The core of the trunks was built by connecting several 12”-14” wide plywood discs every 2 to 3 feet to long uprights. Three of the uprights were steel, while one of the uprights was wood so that we had a surface to staple into.
  • An 18” foam block was added to the bottom of each trunk core. We hotwired and carved the foam to make it look like it had been chopped down with an axe.
  • Each core was then wrapped with chicken wire that was stapled to the wood upright.

  • Several long sections of the 50lb kraft paper were laid on the ground. A 1:1 mixture of Rosco FlexBond & water was liberally applied to each section with a roller. Then the sections were draped around the chicken wire core.
  • Once in place, another layer of the FlexBond mixture was rolled and brushed on.  We let them dry overnight. This gave us a smooth base surface to apply the bark to the next day.

  • The bark was made using 90lb bogus paper that was torn into 2-to-4-foot pieces, then ripped to 3-to-4-inch strips.
  • Using the same 1:1 FlexBond mixture, we dipped the strips and pulled the excess off. This is why I chose the bogus paper. I knew it wouldn’t disintegrate as easily when dipped into the FlexBond mixture and I also knew it keep a softer, more malleable shape.
  • As we applied the strips onto the core, we scrunched and twisted the paper into ropy lengths of bark. Starting with the upstage side, we covered half of the trunk. Once the strips were dry enough that they wouldn’t fall off, we rotated the trunks and applied the bark to the other half. The trunks dried on sawhorses and the floor, which was covered in plastic, was covered in Rosco FlexBond that had dripped off!
  • We sprayed each trunk with a black base-color using an airless sprayer. Then we vertically dry brushed a thin coat of light blue and a follow-up coat of the same base blue we used on the backdrop. The trunks were finished with a final glaze and some top sprays for texture.

  • This same papier-mâché process was repeated using bent PVC ligatures to create several large limbs and branches that attached to pipe brackets on the trunks.
  • Once completely assembled, the trunks were rigged into our fly system and suspended within the rest of the set.


The Final Product

When it was all said and done, Kat Conley and her team effectively
brought Todd Rosenthal’s bold and textured set to life! Kat told us they ended
up using:

  • 41 – gallons of Rosco FlexBond
  • 4 – 48”x720’ rolls of 50lb Kraft Paper
  • 1 ½ – 24”x1,125 rolls of 90lb Bogus Paper
  • Lots of Rosco Supersaturated Scenic Paints. “Mostly Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber, with some Cerulean Blue, Green-Shade blue, and some Raw Sienna for good measure.”

To learn more about the coating product that Kat, Brianna, and the rest of the scenic art crew at Alliance Theatre used to create their large-scale papier-mâché scenery – explore the FlexBond product page on the Rosco website.




Joel Svendsen October 12, 2021 Questions?

About Joel Svendsen

Marketing Director: Joel's Rosco career began in Rosco's Hollywood office in 1999 – first in sales covering the Western US and the Los Angeles Film & Television market, and then as Product Manager for Rosco's Film & Television Products. Joel's knowledge about Rosco's products and how they're used in each of our different marketplaces makes him well suited for bringing the stories in Spectrum to life.