Setting the Scene: Joseph Forbes ’75
By Alyssa Bedrosian
If you’ve been to a Broadway show, chances are you’ve seen Joseph Forbes’ work on stage.
“Beetlejuice.” “Frozen.” “The Prom.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The list goes on.
They all feature work from Scenic Art Studios, a premier scene painting studio for Broadway that Joseph founded more than 25 years ago. The company’s backdrops, sculptures, and painted built scenery have brought to life more than 350 Broadway productions over the years.
In June, Joseph received the ultimate honor for his decades’ worth of work – the Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre, an annual award for individuals and organizations that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theater. Joseph was one of four individuals to receive the award this year.
“I’ve done props. I’ve hung lights. I’ve built scenery. You had to touch all of those things as a student at UNCG, and it made you into that well-rounded theater person.”— Joseph Forbes ’75
For Joseph, it all started in the early 1970s, when he was studying set design under Professor Andreas Nomikos at UNCG. His first assignment – draw a tree, a cloud, and a person – didn’t go as planned. Joseph sloppily drew an array of sticks and puff balls, and walked away defeated.
“At that moment I thought, ‘My career ends now,’” says Joseph with a laugh.
But soon, under Nomikos’ direction, Joseph started to develop as an artist. He also gained a broad understanding of theater – in part thanks to Nomikos’ “mind-numbing” History of Theatre course – that helped propel his career.
“I learned how to be a theater person. That has really served me well,” he says. “I’ve done props. I’ve hung lights. I’ve built scenery. You had to touch all of those things as a student at UNCG, and it made you into that well-rounded theater person.”
After UNCG, he worked as a carpenter for a year to save money. He arrived in New York City in 1977 with $1,000, a strong foundation from UNCG, and an all-or-nothing determination.
He continued his studies at a set design school in the city, and “got really good at scene painting.”
From there, he worked in a variety of roles at different backdrop companies. When the company he was working for went bankrupt, he opened Scenic Art Studios thinking that it would last a week. That was 1994.
What’s something the average theater-goer may not know about set design?
“I’m not sure they realize the amount of time, money, and effort that goes into Broadway scenery,” he says. “A set for a Broadway musical is millions of dollars. For ‘Frozen,’ we worked on that set for a year. There’s a lot that goes into mounting a Broadway show.”
Joseph put the paint brush down a while ago, and is now focused on management. There are about 20 artists who work regularly at the studio, and another 30 who are brought in for specific projects.
“What makes Scenic Art Studios special is that I hire the finest artists and designers in the business,” he says. “I’m surrounded by brilliance, and it’s exciting.”
Joseph feels a responsibility to pay it forward, which is why he also runs a not-for-profit school that teaches scene painting techniques that date back to the Renaissance.
“The digital age is moving so fast, and a lot of hand-built technologies are being lost on a daily basis,” he explains.
Joseph has made an indelible mark on the industry – not only as an artist, but as a teacher – during his more than 40-year career.
So how does he feel to be recognized, to receive a Tony Award after all of these years?
“Humbled,” he says. “Primarily because that Tony Award represents the work of so many people. I’m privileged to be the front man for the band, but it’s really the work of the band that’s being honored here.”
Joseph says he’s still having fun, walking into his shop and seeing the huge, breathtaking pieces.
“It’s a pinch yourself kind of deal. I consider myself incredibly lucky.”
Photos of Joseph Forbes and “Bernhardt/Hamlet” courtesy of Scenic Art Studios; Photo of “The Prom” by Deen van Meer; Photo of “Kiss Me Kate” by Joan Marcus.