Backcloths can be used to give the audience a sense of depth. A landscape or building is painted in perpective onto a heavy canvas cloth whose size is governed by the width and height of the stage (a cloth in the London Coliseum is approximately 9 metres high by 16 metres wide). The cloth is suspended from a fly bar and, to add more depth, three dimensional objects (called trucks) are set down-stage of it.
The late 18th century Italian Stage Design with the Court of a Castle would not be out of place in most modern opera houses. Tosca by Puccini would work well here as the set provides a large acing area down-stage, different acting levels, and interesting entrances through the door up-stage and the arches stage-left and stage-right. The very up-stage building with the colonnades showing through the arches would actually be a painted backcloth with a hole cut for the door and backed with wood to keep it rigid - a perfect place to sing an aria.
The remaining drawings on this page also illustrate the use of backcloths:
In the Italian Coast Scene by John Devoto, the sea and ships would be a backcloth with the mound (built of wood then covered) and the tree (probably real) set down-stage to aid the perspective and add interest.
In Giuseppe Jarmorini’s Architectural Capriccio, the column and balustrade up-stage-centre are set immediately down-stage of the cloth so both would be in perspective. The plant and statue stage-right, and the portico stage-left would be near life-size pieces of set.
In Ferdinando Tacca’s Design for a Stage Setting, the colonnade down-stage-left is incomplete. It is clear that he intended this final column to be a built truck. The advantage of using a truck is that, being made of wood, it would not ripple and wobble as a cloth might if leant against. The illusion created by the backcloth would be heightened because a performer could enter up-stage of the truck and appear to have walked through the archway.
Backcloths are hung on a bar which is flown by a system of pulleys set in the Grid (the ‘ceiling’ of the stage). When used for a show but not needed for a particular scene, cloths are housed in the space immediately above the stage called the Flys or Fly Tower. Until recently, the Fly Tower in a theatre was very much like the rigging on a ship; a maze of hemp rope, blocks and tackle. Former sailors traditionally undertook the task of flying the cloths and pieces of scenery in and out, communicating by a series of whistles. For this reason, even today it is thought bad luck to whistle onstage because it could unwittingly be the signal for a piece of scenery to fly in.