Sunday, June 26, 2022


Historic scenic backdrops on display in Winona
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The Theatre Du Mississippi will showcase old theatrical backdrops in a program that coincides with the Great River Shakespeare Festival. This forest drop is among the seven that will be paired with snippets of theatrical text and classical music. Each drop was made around the early 20th Century for use during Masonic iniation ceremonies. (Photo courtesy of the Theatre Du Mississippi)
Theater enthusiasts head to Winona this weekend for the start of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. This year's five week festival features 'Richard the Third' and 'Much Ado About Nothing.' But there's another special treat. Festival goers can also enjoy an amazing collection of old- fashioned theatrical backdrops.

Winona, Minn. — Tucked inside a mammoth brick building in downtown Winona, stands an old Masonic theater. For years it's been home to a large collection of antique scenic backdrops. They're actually stored high above the stage, ready to be dropped into place. However that's rarely happened in recent memory. Now, a local theater group known, as the Theatre Du Mississippi will use a handful in a new show called 'Drops, Dialogue and Drama.'

Kathy Peterson helped organize the effort. She's spent hours pairing the backdrops with classical music and theatrical text.

"I think the whole point is to create a mood here in the theater so people can sit back in the theater and see the artwork and hear the voices," explains Peterson. "That's part of classical theater. I just think it will be amazing for people to see."

Peterson gazes at the forest scene currently on stage. It's called a backdrop but there are actually four layers to give an illusion of depth. Bold strokes of brown and gold paint and even traces of lavender combine to create the dappled effect. These backdrops were made for use in elaborate initiation ceremonies staged by the Masons in their heyday in the early 20th Century. There are more than 90 drops in all.

Sarah Aydlett is a scenic artist and a member of the Theatre Du Mississippi. She says so much has changed since these backdrops were created.

"Scenic painting is a dying art," says Aydlett. "There's only a few places, I know of that still teach and there will always be a need for it but back at the turn of the century this was theater and this was the way they did scenery. Three-dimensional was not thought of as important yet."

Aydlett climbs up a narrow set of stairs just off the side of the stage. She reaches a small balcony known in theater speak as the fly gallery. This is where the stagehands control the scene changes.

She tugs on thick ropes, and the forest scene rises to the rafters. Everything in this theater is done the old fashion way, from the scene changes to even flicking on the lights.

In moments the forest is replaced by a gloomy moonlit moor. Plans call for this backdrop to be paired with bagpipe music and a scene from Macbeth.

Kathy Peterson stands at the edge of the stage and looks at the moor scene. She's seen it many times before. But she says she's still struck by its beauty.

"What's amazing to me is if you look at the brushwork close up and it looks quite --- I don't want to say abandoned but it looks very loose and brush like," says Peterson. "It seems to form a kind of pattern but when you step back under the correct lighting an image appears. It's like a little jig saw puzzle and then you step back and its just the whole is lovely."

Drops, Dialogue and Drama will run the length of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which begins this week.