The big musical is on the schedule to open the next season and your current backdrop won’t do the job. It’s time to get a new one. But it’s a big investment and you want to know you’ve chosen the right one. Welcome to Backdrop 101, where you learn how to find the perfect backdrop for your theater space.

Theater Backdrops: A Primer

So what role do theater backdrops play, anyway? Is there a need for them in 21st-century theater? While it’s true that new productions might use the back wall of the stage to good effect, backdrops are still an important part of the magic of theater.

The variety of backdrop uses include:

  • Painted for scenic design
  • Solid color for neutral space
  • Chromakey for special effects
  • Scrim for transparent or translucent effects
  • Cut drops for doorways, arches, etc.

All of these possibilities help anchor your show in time and place. They can indicate to the audience emotions, moods, and themes that will prevail throughout the work.

Choosing a Backdrop

Here are the important considerations before you purchase a backdrop:

  1. Know your space. This includes how you will hang your backdrop and its precise dimensions. 
  2. Know your show. Determine which scenes will use a backdrop and which will not. Also, consider if one backdrop can tell the story or if you will need more than one.
  3. Know your budget. Sure, it would be great to have five backdrops you can fly in and out, but that will cost you. Dream big and then get realistic about what your theater can afford.
  4. Know your vision. Every show has a mood and an emotion the artistic team wants to convey. Be specific about what that is before you commit to a backdrop.
  5. Know your lighting. Lighting will have the greatest effect on your backdrop. Talk to your lighting designer about the vision of the show and make sure your ideas mesh.

After you have discussed with relevant production members and written down all the info you gathered, you are ready to choose fabrics.

Choosing a Fabric

For painted backdrops, the two best options are canvas and muslin. They hold paint beautifully and can be painted with realistic scenery. Canvas is heavier, more durable, and more expensive. If you can afford it, get it and you will reuse it for years, maybe even decades. If your theater has a tight budget, muslin will look fine.

If you need a scrim backdrop, sharkstooth is the fabric that goes completely transparent. Other scrim fabrics are more translucent and allow for gorgeous lighting effects. Scrims support projections as well. You can combine canvas and scrim with cutouts for particularly creative scenery.

Netting and gauze backdrops are also translucent and filmy. They cannot be painted easily or well, but they can be dyed and have objects attached to them.

Finding a Backdrop

Now that you know what you need, talk to theater professionals in your community. Get their recommendations for backdrop suppliers. Look for companies that offer warranties and will provide limited guarantees. You want a backdrop that will serve your theater for years to come.