The ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ scene team at Signature Theatre paints a (disposable) masterpiece of its own


Artist Carolyn Hampton helped turn a classic painting into a set for “Sunday in the Park With George.” (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Georges Seurat was in no rush with “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” his most famous painting (it’s the one Cameron stares at in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). It took him five years from start to finish, and it is now permanently enshrined in the Art Institute of Chicago. Carolyn Hampton’s life-size version took a couple of weeks and will get trashed once Signature Theatre’s run of “Sunday in the Park With George,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical inspired by the painting, finishes next month.

The set of “Sunday” — which tells a heavily fictionalized story of Seurat’s life as he’s working on his masterpiece — is designed to mirror the painting.

“We are cheating a little bit,” says Hampton, who, as the show’s charge artist, took the scenic designer’s renderings and brought them to life. Cheating was necessary: While Seurat used a technique called pointillism, which involves about a zillion tiny dots that, when viewed at a distance, blend together to form the image, “in the theater we ain’t got time for that,” Hampton says.

The “Sunday” scene team “Frankensteined” paint rollers, she says, by gouging them with knives to create a textured surface. “When you roll the paint, it will read like pointillism to the audience,” Hampton says. “But for things that are more visible or closer to the audience, we are going in and layering dots and dots for days. It’s so insane.”

They took other liberties with the painting. Seurat used oil, but that “would take forever to dry,” Hampton says. “We use a scenic paint [that’s] casein-based. It smells really bad but has these really vibrant colors.”

Hampton, a classically trained artist, says working on “Sunday” has been a treat. “Sometimes we have jobs that are very by-the-book, like ‘here, paint this wood grain,’ ” she says. “This is more creative and fun.”

Alas, her work for “Sunday” isn’t meant to last. “One of the beautiful things about the theater is it’s a temporary art form,” she says. “Afterwards we tear it down with no mercy and throw it in the dumpster and move on to the next show. There’s always another one coming.”

 Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through Sept. 21, various times, $40-$95.

More stage stories:

Signature Theatre celebrates its 25 anniversary with — what else? — song

‘Good Times: A TV Theme Song Cabaret’ celebrates boob-tube tunes

At the Washington Improv Theatre’s Binge festival, the funny never runs out

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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