Scenic Artist Brings “Miracle” Director’s Vision to Life

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO, Media Relations Coordinator at MCT

Yana Dryden’s hands gingerly glide a brush across a canvas more than 30 feet long.

With a group of brushes and buckets at her feet, she employs a bevy of techniques, including wet blending – the merging of colors to achieve a gradient look. On the bottom of the canvas, she uses bright blue palettes and wavy, snowy silhouettes to create a vast winter scene.

Dryden isn’t just any ordinary painter, she is a scenic artist; the canvas will serve as the backdrop for the Missoula Community Theatre’s upcoming production of Miracle on 34th Street The Musical.

“I’m not just painting to make beautiful things,” says Dryden. “But I’m making something to help audiences feel like they are part of the show, something to better the overall experience. A lot is riding on this being done at a certain time.”

Scenic artists such as Dryden must have a good knowledge of basic scenic painting techniques, layout and paint application skills, and color blending. A scenic artist’s skill set should include the traditional fine arts of sketching, rendering, and painting.

“Scenic art is a lot like most art,” says Dryden. “It can be relaxing and easy-going. But there are deadlines. It is hard work. But very fun.”

Dryden is a junior at the University of Montana pursuing two degrees, one in the technical aspects of theatre, the other in Fine Arts. She comes to the Missoula Community Theatre on a recommendation from the UM art staff.

MCT scenic artist Yana Dryden at work on the backdrops for "Miracle."

MCT scenic artist Yana Dryden at work on one of the backdrops for “Miracle.”

Dryden is one of the artisans realizing the set designer’s vision – in this case, director Michael McGill. As director and scenic designer, McGill is in command of all of the holiday classic’s scenery, set design, furniture, and props. That includes the two large canvasses Dryden has created. One depicts Santa’s North Pole workshop, and the second is a realistic-feeling, time-period courtroom background.

If you think of the set designer as an architect, Dryden is one of the contractors. Her imagery will be interwoven throughout the play. “Michael basically explained what he wanted the drop to look like,” said Dryden. “I’m in charge of putting it all out there.”

“Paint can create some pretty incredible things when it comes to theatre,” says McGill. “I really admire people who are able to take an idea and transfer it to a piece of canvas that’s 17’ by 30’. In order to create the onstage magic, you have to create distant lands and strange, creative places. In Miracle on 34th Street The Musical, there has to be a fairytale Santa’s workshop on a scale Macy’s would create. It’s not just some great big display, but a step into a fanciful, magical kind of a world.”

The role of the scenic artist requires excellent artistic skills, combined with the ability to work independently and to fulfill deadlines. Projecting a strong sense of accuracy is pivotal, too.

“As a director,” says McGill, “you focus on which settings are most important to spend time on. It’s about fitting all the elements together and pulling them together. You want to create a real sense of blue, silver, white palettes and snow-scenes. If (during the courtroom scene) the audience starts asking questions like ‘would he have had a lamppost like that in the late 40’s, early 50’s, then you may have lost your audience.”

MCT's Miracle on 34th Street, the Musical opens on November 30 at the Missoula Children's Theatre.

MCT’s “Miracle on 34th Street, the Musical” opens on November 30 at the Missoula Children’s Theatre.

Miracle on 34th Street The Musical is Dryden’s introductory assignment at the Missoula Community Theatre. “I usually do four shows a summer at Bigfork Playhouse,” says Dryden. “I’m getting a great opportunity here and enjoying it.”

McGill points out that some of the other painting projects for the play have been carried out by cast members and staff.

“Everybody gets involved here to do what they can. If someone feels comfortable tracing something, then they are a tracer. If they like to paint, they are a painter. If they feel like they can take a rag and polish up a brass horn, that’s what they do. It’s community theatre not community acting.”

Ultimately, each individual artistic effort sets the authentic tone of a production and jibes with McGill’s vision.

“I would like people to exit with a great holiday feeling surrounding them,” says McGill.

Come see the scenic artistry of the Missoula Community Theatre’s Miracle on 34th Street The Musical on November 30, December 1-2, 5-9. Tickets go on sale November 12 at the box office: (406) 728-7529, and online at the MCT website. For more info, visit the MCT Facebook page.


Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.


Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.