Among themselves, they call it ‘The Black Plague’. On Sydney Theatre Company tins, you can even find the tongue-in-cheek label: 70% Black Plague. Not because the paint has any noxious properties – on the contrary – but because it was developed in 2020 during the global pandemic.
Blitz Total Black, as it goes by commercially, is in fact an astonishingly superior product: cheap, eco-friendly, highly durable, skid-tested for floors, and just the right level of shiny to backdrop some of the finest theatre productions in the country. That it now lends its dark, lambent glow to STC’s revamped The Wharf – open to audiences for the first time since 2018, and the first theatre venue in NSW to go 100 percent capacity – is thanks to Neil Mallard, STC’s Head of Scenic Art.
Neil Mallard in the scenic workshop at The Wharf. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Let me take you back (just for a little bit) to the early days of lockdown. Among many other burgeoning crises, import lines have begun to freeze up. Never totally constant, the supply of the black paint STC typically imported from America has dipped. While live theatre was in enforced hiatus back then, Mallard and his crew were (bar for a brief period of four-day weeks) very much full steam ahead with their work on The Wharf and in optimistic preparation for future openings.
Rather than wring his hands or sit on them, Mallard chose a more enterprising approach to the shortage problem. STC’s local supplier of white paint – Robertson’s Paints – didn’t at that time produce a black counterpart with the same kind of properties that made it perfect for stage use. Why not? he wondered. He rang them up.
Soon after, samples of black paint were arriving at the theatre. Mallard gave it the roughest, most strategically abusive welcome he could devise.
“We did what we call ‘traffic’ tests,” he says. “We painted a sheet of normal flooring and had our mechanist drive over it with scissor lifts and do donuts. We put gaffa tape on it to see how it behaved when we ripped it up. We gave it a battering as much as we could.”
A tin of Blitz Total Black. Photograph supplied
This process happened about six times over: Robertson’s sent a sample, Mallard and his team put it through the paces to test viscosity, shine, colour and durability, and then requested tweaks. “They adjusted it so that it was purpose-built for our needs,” says Mallard.
One important adjustment had to do with thickness. While you can find it on some of The Wharf’s walls and other surfaces, black Blitz is primarily used for covering theatre floors. If it were to withstand all the scuffing of feet, the movement of props and the general distress that a stage proudly suffers to support dramatic art, the paint had to be highly durable.
“I always remember this from when my dad taught me how to spray paint a bike: it’s always better to spray many light coats on than one big heavy coat,” says Mallard. If it’s too thick, it drips and runs – inconsistencies happen. “If you translate that to a stage floor, it’s better it has one or two light coats. It doesn’t peel as much and when you roll it, it levels itself and it gets a lovely constant lustre across the whole floor. Which of course, lighting designers love.”
The floor of the Wharf Theatre is now painted with Robertson’s Paints’ Blitz Total Black. Photograph © Brett Boardman
By the end of this workshopping, STC had a custom-made product which was tougher, shinier and more durable than the import version they’d been using for years. More by coincidence than design, Blitz paint is also more eco-friendly. Beyond the vastly reduced carbon footprint compared to overseas shipping, the local brand has no ammonia to it, and produces no fumes.
The real kicker? It’s half the price.
When Playing Beatie Bow opened at the Wharf 1 Theatre in February this year, it became the first STC show to be performed on a floor painted with Blitz Total Black. It’s not just STC that’s benefiting either. Robertson’s is stocking Blitz black paint and selling it wholesale and to arts companies across the country. Belvoir are using it, Mallard tells me, Opera Australia has tried it, and even Arts Centre Melbourne have had a couple of drums sent down.
“The supplier is doing gangbusters in terms of business, so it’s great for them,” he says. “For us, it means we get constant supply of a product that’s been bespoke designed for our purposes. When it’s made here locally, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.”