Stained Glass Windows For The Divine Sister

In my third post concerning the recently opened  (June 15 at Stoner Theatre, Des Moines, IA) production of The Divine Sister, I wanted to describe the conception and execution of the stained glass windows that were a prominent feature of the set.  I described earlier that I imagined stained glass windows in the setting at my initial reading and that I learned that the original off-broadway (maybe off-off…but who’s counting the number of offs?) featured wacky parables in stained glass. Since the script makes no direct reference to stained glass windows, nor the subject matter, I was free to use my imagination in designing them.

By breaking the two walls with asymmetrical windows, I converted an otherwise symmetrical backing to the wide, shallow thrust of the Stoner theatre.  I conceived of a triptych of 3 lancet windows in the SR walls and a wider landscape arched window on SL.  The subject for the SL window was suggested in a conversation with the director when we were brainstorming the end of the show.  We were discussing what games might be featured at the bazaar that the sisters are holding in scene 12.  One of us suggested a shooting gallery where the targets were the disciples at the last supper.  While that idea was retained in the form of a sign advertising a “12 disciples shooting gallery”, it also sparked my imagination. I remembered the ambiguous gender of the figure to Christ’s right in the Da Vinci “Last Supper”.  Since one of the plot points of The Divine Sister revolves around “Joan, the older sister of Jesus”  and since the convent is discovered to be the final resting place of her remains, it felt right to include this homage to the “Da Vinci Code” in the spirit of the text.

With the subject matter of the single window chosen, the subject matter of the triptych sprang quickly to mind.  Since the “Last Supper” falls at the end of Jesus’s mortal life, something from the beginning of it was in order.  Since the play revolves around secrets kept, something pertaining to hidden knowledge would be suitable.  The idea of “See no evil; Hear no evil; Speak no evil” only with the “Three Wise Men” instead of monkeys came immediately to mind.  I looked up the latin translation:  malus non vide; malus non aude; malus non loquere and included them in the designs.

Not content with realistic a realistic representation of the chosen subject matter, I cast about for a distortion or abstraction that might add another level of irreverence and whimsy to the windows.

My inspiration came from a parallel challenge that the text offers.  One of the few  clues that the text gives concerning the courtyard is that Agnes spends some time tending to a statue of the Madonna.  As I was thinking of some way of distorting that iconic detail, I ran across the image to the left.  The “bobble head Mary” seemed a perfect distortion, one that could be carried through in the figures in the window as well.

I researched different styles of stained glass windows (some of which research was displayed in the  preceding blog).   Even though the windows on the set were to be rendered in false perspective, I drew the window cartoons without distortion.

The three kings were largely an invented mash-up of a number of images that I researched.  The “Last Supper” was simplified, retaining only 5 of the original figures in roughly the same orientation to one another as the original (though compressed to create a more compact composition.  The subject of the feast: a pizza, a “B ig Mac” and some beers (in iconic pub-style glasses) is an attempt at irreverent humor.  All of the figures clearly feature oversized heads and stick necks typical of the “bobble head” motif.

I used Photoshop to introduce the cartoons into the distorted shapes of the false perspective window shapes of the set.

The mostly finished pre-distortion rendering of the “Last Supper” window depicts the color palate.

Rather than try to execute the windows in some exotic (read expensive) material, I decided to go old-school and create the windows out of plain old muslin.  Paint also became a challenge.  Stage West’s stock of paint consists of dribs and drabs of nondescript colors of house paint.  While I would have preferred to use theatrical paint, I am quite comfortable using paint from the local hardware or big box store.  My strategy was to pick high-chromaticity colors from the color chips available at the paint counter.  One of the tricks is to pick the colors that rely on a base with the minimum amount of filler.  Most paint suppliers describe that as neutral or ultra-deep base.  If the chip doesn’t have the base identified, you can usually count on the neutral base being used for the deepest, most vibrant color on the chip.  When in doubt, ask the paint technician.

Another trick that I use  is to ask the technician to leave out any white or black pigment.  This works well at the local hardware store where the mixing process is manual, but the technician at the Menard’s where I bought my paint did not know how to “trick” the automated mixing system into omitting the undesirable pigments.  The white and black pigments increase opacity (an undesirable characteristic for this project) but are important to help coverage in a home or house-painting application.

For the windows, i selected  colors representative of the watercolor paints that I used to paint the rendering.  Thus, I chose a primary red, yellow and blue.  I also selected secondaries orange, green and violet.  I selected a yellow-green instead of a perfect secondary hue and two versions of violet (red-violet and blue-violet).  I also picked a couple of earth-tones (burnt sienna and yellow ochre).   I had the technician mix quarts of each.  At $8 each, the cost of paint for the windows was around $100.

After covering the frames for the windows with muslin and letting it dry for 24 hours, I  sized  with white glue and water. I used an overhead projector to project perspective versions of the cartoons onto each window, tracing with wide black sharpie marker.   Painting proceeded in paint-by number fashion with each color thinned to the consistency of skim milk.  It is better to err on the side of too thin (you can always add another wash if the first try is too faint) rather than put on the paint too thick (which will prevent back-lighting from achieving the desired translucent results).  Once the painting was finished, I brush-coated the front of each block of color with clear water-soluble gloss polyurethane.  After the front was dry, I brushed the same polyurethane on the back of each window.  The purpose of the polyurethane is to catch the backlight and to provide a sense of sheen to the front surface when not back-lighted.  In my experience, it is best to expect to put 3 or more coats on the front to achieve a glass-like sheen, but I only got one coat on this project.  I was prepared to finish the stained glass windows by re-lining the led-lines with dark-grey paint to increase opacity and to cut out any unwanted polyurethane sheen, but I fount that it was unnecessary in this case.

That’s enough for now! Have fun!  Be safe!



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