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Ziska Childs: Creating a scene

Stewart Oksenhorn
Scenic artist and designer Ziska Childs, outside her Missouri Heights studio. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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Growing up in Aspen, Ziska Childs had enthusiasm and talent for the visual arts – an aptitude she calls “the family curse.” Her father was Bernard Childs, an artist renowned for his prints, and from as far back as she can recall, Ziska was putting pencil to paper, oil on canvas in her father’s Paris studio.So after graduating from Aspen High School, in 1974, Childs, with a career in fine arts in mind, headed to the University of Denver – where she went straight into the theater department.

“It was an epoch when no one was teaching perspective, no one was teaching anatomy. None of the fundamentals,” said Childs, who now lives in Missouri Heights. “Having as much of a background in art as I did, I knew I needed those fundamentals. And the only place that was being taught was in theater. That was my way of getting some art training.”Entering art through the back door of theater has proved a fortuitous move. Since earning her graduate degree, also in theater, from New York University, Childs has weaved a career that touches on many areas of the arts: She has dabbled in oil paintings on canvas, made murals in private homes, even done faux finishes and trim work on the walls of houses.But most of her career has been in the entertainment field. Childs has worked on some 300 theater, film and television projects. As a scenic artist, she has helped create the sets for “Phantom of the Opera” and “M. Butterfly” on Broadway, Woody Allen’s “Shadows and Fog” for the big screen, and “The David Letterman Show” on TV. Though the conventional wisdom is that there are no good roles for women of a certain age these days, Childs, a few weeks shy of a birthday known to make women stop counting candles, is about to get her name in lights. OK, not lights, exactly. But Childs will get her first official Broadway credit in the playbill for the new production of Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife,” which started in previews Friday at the American Airlines Theatre and opens June 16.The credit is only for scenic design. However, Childs has pulled an unusual double duty on Maugham’s social comedy, which stars Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave, and is presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Childs was hired by Allen Moyer, a colleague from her student years and designer of “The Constant Wife,” as his assistant designer. The job, a customary one for Childs, entailed creating the small-scale, two-dimensional renderings of each set.

Those renderings were then put out for bid to companies who specialize in creating full-scale sets. In this case, the winning bidder was Ziska Childs Design. Childs, along with Patrick Storey, created the sets from her own designs.”Normally, they’re entirely different jobs, given to two entirely different people,” noted Childs, who made the sets – bird-themed wallpaper in this case – in her Missouri Heights studio. “But I’m a scenic artist and a scenic designer. I hold both [union] cards in New York. It’s unusual for a designer to have their own shop.”Inside the theater industry, those dual tasks may be the most striking thing about Childs’ involvement in “The Constant Wife.” From the outsider’s perspective, what is startling is the speed with which she has worked. Childs was hired as the assistant designer around April 1. It was several weeks later that she won the bid to fabricate those designs, which took four more weeks. Within a month and a half of being hired to create the renderings, Childs was in New York, witnessing the installation of the finished product. Even more amazing is that this is considered a leisurely pace in the entertainment world.”That’s the big difference between theater and film and every other type of fabricating industry,” she said by phone from Santa Fe, where she was mixing business and pleasure, accompanied by her mother and housemate, Evelyn. “In theater and film, this is a very long amount of time. Usually it would be twice as quick. A lot of the skill sets are the same, for house painting or theater sets. The difference is the time frame.”Childs tells the story about loading one of her set paintings onto a truck for delivery to the theater. She joked with the drivers that they couldn’t deliver the work in its present condition – dry. It was practically a given that sets were brought into the theater dripping wet. “To have the luxury of allowing a piece to dry is extraordinary,” she said.

After spending nearly five decades around art supplies, Childs has developed a deep distaste for the materials of her calling. There’s a reason Childs calls her talent “the family curse.””I’m not one of those people who paints for pleasure,” said Childs, whose move back to the valley in 1991 didn’t stop her endless shuttling back and forth between Colorado and New York. “Being around the paint – I’ve been around it so long, it’s got a toxic quality for me that makes it hard to enjoy.”What Childs likes is being involved in the artistic process in ways that don’t involve solid materials so much. Her current passion, for instance, is using the computer to make print series: “Playing with shape and color and form on the computer – that’s a kick,” she said. Even as far back as college, her eye-opening experience came not from building and painting sets, but from a lighting design course.”That opens you up to a whole language of color which you don’t get in paint,” she said. “It makes you think about the world quite differently. It makes you look at things in three dimensions, and how two-dimension relates to three-dimension. It makes you realize why you see the colors that you see.”

And unlike the painter, who typically toils in solitude, Childs favors the art of collaboration. “The truly satisfying part is when you can sit with the designer, the director, or even the playwright, and say: ‘How can we support what we’re trying to say?’ And that’s the fun of off-Broadway – you get to do that more,” said Childs, who has worked in local theater just once, creating the sets for an Aspen Community Theatre production of “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” in the late ’70s. “You’re taking visual iconography and manipulating what the audience feels – the exact same way the actors say a line a certain way to have an emotional impact. You’re using line, shape and form to get at what the actors are saying with lines. That’s the fun part of theater or film.”I’m not interested in directing. But I’m interested in the same things directors are interested in.”Childs loves being involved in the theater world. To her it is true what the song says: “There’s no people like show people.” “I love the people. They’re a kick and a half,” she said. But she is more ambivalent about the onstage product that is theater.”I’m a theater fan – and the worst kind of theater fan,” she said. “Because I see so much of it, there’s so much I can start picking apart. It’s awful to sit in a theater with me.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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