What a difference a backdrop makes

Taking a break from work related matters this weekend, my wife and I cut and sewed a backdrop.

Yes, cut and sewed.

Fabric isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of backdrop materials, but fabric is used in the theatre all the time. In fact, it was a conversation with my friend Pierre Oliver – an experienced builder of theatre sets – that got me thinking about this.

Pierre advocated the use of fabric to create an “ouch-less valance” to shield layout lighting from view. It makes sense – if an operator leans forward they connect with forgiving fabric, not a skull-scraping edge of Masonite. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that a fabric backdrop would solve several problems for me too: I will need occasional access to the back of the peninsula on which Port Rowan is located. This is 42 inches deep – too deep to lean into the scene to do scenic work or repairs to details and background structures. With a fabric backdrop, I can simply duck underneath it. This is a far better solution than removable panels and the seams they would create.

I picked up a roll of medium blue fabric from a local store. It was a remnant (which I find amusing since it was almost 70 feet long) which means it was quite inexpensive – certainly a fraction of what I would spend on enough sheet material such as Masonite or styrene for a backdrop. I also picked up two rolls of one inch wide velcro – a roll of hook, and one of loop – each with self-adhesive (peel and stick) backing.

To prepare for the backdrop, Chris Abbott and I cut and installed backdrop supports using 1″x2″ lumber, with strips of Masonite curved in the corners. To this, I secured the hook portion of the Velcro. My wife and I then attached the loop Velcro to this, in a continuous strip, starting at staging and ending at the end of the peninsula. We cut the loop material to length, tore it free from the hook material, and had an exact measurement for the backdrop fabric.

My wife and I cut and sewed a 25″ wide strip of fabric as follows: We hemmed one end, then hemmed the top of the entire roll of material. We then went back and attached the previously measured and cut loop Velcro to the hemmed top – first with the peel and stick, then through the sewing machine to secure the Velcro to the fabric with a mechanical joint as well. The Velcro ran out about 50 inches before the end of the fabric, at which point we measured for a hem, cut the fabric and hemmed it. At the bottom, we simply cut the fabric with pinking shears and ran it through the sewing machine to add a zig-zag stitch, to keep it from fraying.

I will need to go over the backdrop with a fabric steamer to steam out the wrinkles, so keep that in mind as you look at the photos. As well, the valance is not yet in place – when it is, layout visitors and operators will not be able to see the top edge of the backdrop in normal viewing. Pierre has also suggested adding a chain pocket along the bottom edge of the backdrop, which will help pull out the wrinkles caused by twists in the fabric. (Good idea, Pierre – thanks!)

With those notes, here’s an overview photo of the fabric backdrop. At the left end, it has puddled on the deck for the sector plate. (Chris and I will cut a strip off the deck next time he visits so the fabric can fall naturally between the deck and the wall.)

Backdrop - Overview.

The backdrop hangs about two inches above the base of the benchwork, as shown in this photo of Port Rowan. This is about four and a half inches below track level:

Backdrop - Port Rowan.

For the fabric backdrop to work, it has to hang naturally, which means it can’t touch the scenery. Therefore, when I build up the ground contours I will leave an inch or so between the back edge of the scenery and the backdrop. This will create a soft edge – further softened by the addition of trees, bushes, fences and so on. This long-range view of the Lynn Valley area of the layout demonstrates how the fabric backdrop frames the scene:

Backdrop - Lynn Valley.

The lights will be hidden by a valance, which will also hide the top of the backdrop. And as previously noted, the backdrop needs to be steamed to remove the wrinkles in the fabric. But compare these photos of the backdrop to previous images I’ve shared – including the image below – to see what a difference the backdrop makes:

Lighting System.

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