Saturday, December 31, 2011


As the Build for The Frequency of Death has been finishing up, the Build for The Diary of Anne Frank has been quietly progressing.  I've been popping in now and then to check progress, look at painting, and answer questions.

In a few minutes I'll head that way again to help puzzle out a sight-line problem that will probably require relocating a couple faux truss pieces.  We'll see.  Monday is Tech.

Meanwhile, I'm still scratching silver paint off my arm from chandelier painting on Frequency.  (Earlier post.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Set Designer's Day - Rest

Last night, finally, though I spent a good few hours at the theater during the day, finishing up, I did NOT have to return at 11:00 p.m. for Notes after rehearsal.  And I didn't need to get up to an alarm this morning.  So I finally caught up on sleep.  Ten hours!

Sleep deprivation can be a problem in theater generally: actors have day jobs, then rehearse or perform at night; the same for running crew and board ops; producers ditto; while carpenters and painters work long hours during the Build, usually starting early; and prop designers or costumers just flat have so much to do that they skip sleep...

Theater set designers have the problem of starting early, to look in on and coordinate with builders and painters, but also spending hours finding, creating, or modifying set dressing, then staying up late to watch rehearsals or pop in afterwards for notes.  Some theaters, some of the time, ease this by sending out set notes as emails, but at others (and part of the time anywhere) the designer just needs to physically be there for discussion.

By the time Opening arrives, everyone involved in a production is getting a little punchy.

Crib * Molineaux - public domain image, messed with

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Today's Lesson (Start the New Year Right)

Don't drop your theater wagon!

Tested advice.  Though, actually, this mishap wasn't a complete disaster this time... only because an on-stage table caught the set piece's fall.  A typewriter roller just punched a hole over the fireplace...

That's all.

Public domain image, Wikimedia

(Set Designer totters over to sofa and swoons gracefully upon it.)

Comics Alert!

My very most favorite steampunk on-line comic has started a new adventure!  So rush over to visit 2D Goggles: or the Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage for:

(da, da, daaa!)

This cover design is, of course, the work of artist (and copyright holder) Sydney Padua
I'll remove it instantly if requested, but hope it'll be a gateway to further fandom.

Catch the start of the new saga HERE


One of the interesting challenges of a Black & White production is that all metals must be silver colored.  In the case of our borrowed chandelier, this means very very carefully masking off all the "crystal" beads, in order to spray paint the (many) brass colored parts silver.  Yeesh.

Believed public domain image

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tech, Notes, and the Punch-List

A looooong evening watching Tech, as actors and sound and light interact.

An even looooonger list of things - large, medium, and small - to finish on the set.  For me, it's set dressing, mostly framed photos to go in the Study.  Or, rather on the Study wagons.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Home Stretch

The race to the finish for Frequency of Death!

Painting by Theodore Gericault, public domain @ Wikimedia, modified

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Hiatus

Probably no post tomorrow - though a big Catch-Up later, I promise, as there's been much progress and sights seen etc.  Meanwhile:

Merry Christmas!  And Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year.

"God bless us every one!"

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Mystery notes in last night's Rehearsal Report.... wanting to change things.  Why?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Little Jobs

This is the stage when the set designer does a lot of little jobs.  If there were enough budget - on Broadway maybe - there might be a set dresser, but usually it's the set designer who finds and prepares the little stuff, the set dressing, that brings a set to life.  For Frequency of Death this is mostly silver-framed celebrity photos and desk accessories needed for the bumbling detective Harry Hunsacker's study.  All in black, white, or gray, of course.

Today's job is to finish creating those photos... mainly by cutting and pasting Harry into movie stills of Hedy Lamarr or her glossy Hollywood ilk.

Harry Hunsaker, played by Kurt Kleinman, copyright Pegasus Theatre

Well, that and all the preparation for a big family Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holidays and Show Biz

It only takes a moments' thought to realize that it's not just Santa's elves who are feverishly building at this time of year - because the (holiday) show must go on!

This late into December, weary Scrooges and tired elves are soooo ready for the Christmas crowds to go home to eat turkey.  Some years, when I've been Christmas-decorating stages too long, it's been hard to muster enthusiasm for decorating my own tree.  That's not such a problem this year, since my Black & White show opens on New Year's Eve, but I bet the sleep-deprived carpentry and painting elves are doing little cookie baking.  They're gearing up for the madness of Load-In, while the hard-working actors are preparing for Opening.

Norman Rockwell, believed public domain

Monday, December 19, 2011

Urgent Messages

As the build of a set nears the crunch time of Load-In, the frequency and urgency of phone calls increases.  If for some reason you, the Designer, must be out of touch, for instance at a holiday party, a movie, a death-bed...  on your return you will find half a dozen urgent messages awaiting instant decision!

It's like mothering a toddler: take a fast little personal trip away and you may hear a desperate creature pounding on the bathroom door, sobbing, until you rejoin them.

Image borrowed from We Too Were Children - modified
If copyright holder (if any) wishes removal, gladly! Just ask.

This mommy-don't-leave! problem gets worse in film.  I once prepared the set for shooting, then told the crew and AD that I absolutely had to get something at Home Depot and that I would absolutely be back in thirty minutes.   Ten minutes later, when I was deep into the plumbing aisle, I got a frantic call because a) shooting had moved and now, instead of the prepped set, they wanted to shoot another area entirely and b) in that other area... how - please God! how?! - should the hand towel be folded?!!!

I kid you not.

But if this sounds like these calls are unwelcome - far from it.  Calls are much more welcome than what happens when no one calls!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A New Sale

My publisher is hot to sell some books!  This sale on Alice Through the Proscenium is aimed at those of you looking at Alice for a text book (you know who you are), because it's geared for quantity:

Me?  I'm happy to sell 'em onesies too.  HERE for more info at the Lulu page.

Set Designer's Weekend

My several shows are moving along:

Yesterday I visited the scene shop where Frequency of Death is building.  It's all base painted now in shades of gray.  Painting the floor was the next thing on the list, along with mounting all the dials, switches, and vents I'd found and bought and brought with me.  I spent a fun few minutes arranging them on a tabletop - like pictures on a wall.  Then the TD (Technical Director) took a phone-pic of them, so he could match that arrangement on the actual face of the faux equipment.  (The floor was wet, so we couldn't get at that wall to do this in place.)

Typical scene shop chop saw - photo donated to public domain

Meanwhile, my The Diary of Anne Frank is also building.  I went to that scene shop to look at painted doors and to discuss the caps that need to be added to the chimney.  And to borrow a couple black chairs for Frequency.

Today there's a Designers' Run of Anne Frank.  Heating up...

Friday, December 16, 2011

New Squidoo Page

(Don't you love the word "Squidoo"?  It just feels good to say.)

Anyway.  Here's the launch of a new Squidoo page with suggestions for architecture gift books... to go along with an earlier one on architectural gifts.  Just in case anyone needs a holiday hint, eh?

Public domain image.

TV Catch-up

After avoiding television for fifteen years, then discovering that, in fact, there HAD been a few things on worth watching, I'm slowly and carefully catching up.

My latest catch-up is on 30 Rock.  I'm the last one in North America to discover this, but it's pretty funny.

Link to NBC's 30 Rock site HERE.  
Image not mine, of course - will be removed by request.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fun With Hardware Stores

Yesterday's running around included trips to several building supply places looking for switches and dials to use in the control booth of Frequency of Death.  Hardware stores are fun!  I came home with lots of galvanized "rough" electrical boxes and switch plates and white, not ivory, switches.

Thrift stores (also fun) were my other searching grounds - this time for silver(ish) photo frames.  In a black & white show, it's silver that you need.  I'm actually a little worried that some of the silver I found is a little "off," a little too warm and golden in tone; I may have to spray paint them more silver.

Believed public domain photo messed with.

Trying to avoid all color and tinting?  To find true black, white, or especially gray?  Very difficult.  Look at the world around you.  That black?  Tinted navy blue.  That white?  The faintest possible pink.  That silver?  Slightly, slightly brassy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quick! Sale Ends Today

Hurry!  Order my set design book Alice Through the Proscenium today through and catch the Sale before it leaves the building...


Like rereading... it lets you really appreciate the good stuff that flew past on first viewing.

At the moment I'm starting to rewatch the TV teen noire private eye show Veronica Mars.  Really well written!  A second viewing is a real test of any mystery because, after all, the mystery is gone, leaving only the characters, the emotions, and the wit.  Veronica has all that.

Earlier post HERE.

Believed public domain image messed with.

While I rewatch this mystery, I'm also first time reading Death Comes to Pemberly, P.D. James's mashup of mystery and Jane Austen.  There is a slight re-read-y flavor to this too, in that I can recognize slivers and shards of Austen, particular phrases, characteristic turns of thought.  Fascinating.  Too soon to tell yet, but I'll let you know how the mystery goes...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Most Impressive Bio?

After writing that last post on writing program Bios, it occurs to me that the most impressive Bio would be the shortest - five words:

Name (two words)




Writing the Bio

In most theater programs there's a collection of cast and creative team biographies or Bios.  Someone's gotta write 'em.

Generally that someone is you.  It's hard to boil down what you need to say to the number of words allowed.  As theatrical budgets tightened in these lean years, so too has printing Bios: yesterday's was 100 words.  (Actually, I had to write two - twice the fun.)

There are two schools of thought: either write one stock Bio to use forever or tweak it to fit each project.  Theaters mildly prefer the second way; they like to feature work done for them or experience that reflects on this show.

There are also a couple styles of Bio writing.  Each theater dictates which format to use.

The List.  You've read them, line by line: work at this theater; work at other theaters; TV or film work; education; affiliations/etc.; awards.  Boring to read, boring to write, but sometimes preferred because it keeps things short and cuts all "Love ya Mom! Thanks H.S. Teach!  My Rock!" burble, which can look unprofessional unless cleverly written.

The Paragraph.  Same info, deposited in actual sentences.  Studded as those sentences must be with indigestible names of shows and venues it's not a huge improvement*, but even fruitcake-like prose is easier to read than a list.

Occasionally even amusing to read.  Unintentionally.  Besides sometimes odd gratitude ("Thanks for all the good grits!"), the patient Bio Reader can look forward to amusing pomposity - "re-dedication" - and purple prose - "never-ending undying love and support" and quirky enthusiasm - like my favorite phrase, which appears more often than you'd expect, "I'm stoked!"

Bios get interesting as you read between lines.  Look at schooling, then pattern of work.  Spot Locals versus (it IS versus, believe me) Out of Towners.  Spot Real Pros versus Newbies.  Spot Fish out of Waters and Divas and Drones...  All good fun.  And if you ever get a flier in your program announcing that actor AAA or designer XXX was replaced by BBB or YYY, then you know there is a dramatic! story hidden behind that bland photocopy.

Shoot!  Sometimes just the list of cast names tells a story to those in the know...

Believed public domain image from Wikipedia

* In yesterday's Bios I tried to gracefully fit in the show name, In the Next Room: the Vibrator Play.  Much easier to fit in Charm!
** In case you're curious, here's the 100, um 107, word Bio, written for the up-coming Diary of Anne Frank:

Clare Floyd DeVries is an architect and set designer. 

Among her favorite shows for WaterTower Theatre are: Traveling Lady, Our Town, Glass Menagerie, The Crucible, Urinetown, Enchanted April, Spitfire Grill, and Sweeney Todd.  She designs throughout DFW, including at Shakespeare Dallas, Undermain, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Casa Manana, Trinity Shakespeare, and Second Thought Theater.  Recently: Seven in One Blow at Circle Theatre, The Frequency of Death for Pegasus, and In the Next Room at Kitchen Dog, where she is a memberFilm work: Ciao and Whatta Ya Think?! 

Her sets have won Column, Critics’ Forum, and Leon Rabin Awards.  She recently published the design book Alice Through the Proscenium.

I'm now in a fruitcake (writing and baking) mood.  Fruitcake - have you noticed? - eats better when soaked in brandy.  Certainly, that Bio would read better!

Monday, December 12, 2011

California Modern

Just stumbled over this great site on the California or Mid-Century Modern houses of 1950s developer Joseph Eichler.  This particular house was designed by architect A. Quincy Jones.  Nice to see the current appreciation for this design era.

Enter the World of Eichler Design.

Just noticed the photo I'd like to sample is by a pro. photographer 
labeled "reproduction by permission only,"  which always seems to mean, 
"if you pay me cash."  I don't have time today to beg.  So go visit!  See for free.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Film Fest - Powell & Loy

After the on(small)screen Moonlighting's Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis, I was in a mood for chemistry on a bigger screen.  So I'm revisiting Myrna Loy and William Powell - B & W film's most chemical couple.

Double Wedding is a romp.  Its set-up is close to that of Moonlighting: rich, glamorous, control-freak woman meets brash, odd-ball man who shakes up her neat world.  Shepard's character was a model, Loy's designs and retails fashion; Powell's character is an artist, Willis's character is a detective and a dreamer, a con-man, a fantasist...   Chemistry ensues.

Both the TV show and the film are charming.

Double Wedding film still borrowed from Immortal Ephemera

My favorite of the Loy/Powell films is probably still The Thin Man and its sequels - just sooo '30s sophisticated and funny - with Love Crazy in second place.  Double Wedding is interesting mostly because Powell plays a Bohemian, rather than his usual man-about-town.  Frankly, I'll take Loy or Powell in any movie, by themselves, but best of all together.

(The website Immortal Ephemera has a good summary of Double Wedding with more movie stills.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wood in Architecture

After WoodWork's day-long conference on building with wood, I came away with one major realization: this has got to be the most versatile and potentially "greenest" material to design with.  With the one proviso - that timber come from properly managed forests - this is the renewable resource.  And if you look at carbon-storage issues, then wood is IT.

My second realization was just how beautiful the stuff is.

After a day of timber-talk, I'm more knowledgeable about detailing and attaching wood and wiser about the vital matter of keeping wood dry and protected from insects and rot.

Easy to think that wood is less permanent than steel or concrete (they look so darn sturdy next to sticks, more kinda butch, you know?), but that permanence is an illusion: steel and concrete both have serious issues with deterioration when unprotected or late in their lifespan.  At least wood tells you when it's in trouble - other materials may not.

Though I must admit the seminar that advocated wood posts buried in the ground as building foundations just felt... wrong.  My brain knew the argument made sense, but my architect-schooled instincts felt all queasy.  Silly, really, since any number of buildings are well-built on pilings, just like in Venice and Amsterdam.  I know this queasiness is illogical because over thirty+ years of watching gulf coast houses - on wood or concrete pilings - I absolutely know that under harsh conditions wood outperforms concrete.  Reinforced concrete depends on its steel... and steel corrodes .  After just a few salty, gulf-humid decades, steel rebar is just a rust colored stain.

So!  Wood.  Good-lookin'.  Green.  And surprisingly Durable.

Remember that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's In Today's Water

A while back I had an extended discussion of the present day phenomenon of creators (writers, filmmakers, artists of all kinds) mining the classics in their own work.

Sometimes it's a retelling, like the two current versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories: the splashy Hollywood films with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson and the modernized (wonderful!) TV Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.  Sometimes it's a mash-up like the funny and clever Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (or its lame clones).  Sometimes it seems purely a smash-and-grab, theft and vandalism.  (Read earlier posts here, here, and here.)

But today I woke to an NPR interview with well-respected novelist P.D. James talking about her new mystery, Death Comes to Pemberly.  Apparently this terrific writer - who's never written such a collaborative work before and vows not to again - just felt an irresistible urge to combine her modern detection novel skills with Jane Austen's classic comedy of manners.

So I give up.

Image borrowed from Plus Nine. Neo Now - visit to see more great robo-classics.

This is not artistic laziness (well, sometimes).  This IS a real part of our era.  This urge to work with the classics IS some millennial phenomenon, some zeitgeist, which creators must wrestle with, this need to manipulate and reshape our past.


Why? Or why now?

My gut feeling is that it has something to do with the Millenium, with the vast social and economic changes happening in this developing Information Age, and a lot to do with the sudden computer-driven ease of finding, grabbing,  and manipulating these classics.

This will come as a shock to younger readers, but when I was a kid the only way to "borrow" the Mona Lisa, say, was to find a postcard to physically cut up or to trace her out of a book - where she was probably black and white.  Now you can tweak her colored pixels instantly.  If you want to mash her up with Paris Hilton, no one can stop you.  Ditto literature and music.  It's all easily available and manipulable.

Who can resist?

Or why not?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Car Time

A theater set designer spends a lot of time in the car.  Obviously, a lot of that time is spend traveling to and from the theater or between theaters.  More is spent traveling to meetings and shopping for furniture or set dressing.  And some of it is spent not even moving...

'Cause you're on the phone.

Today it was answering questions for builders and painters (or, actually, shuffling their question off onto the builder).

There can be a lot of questions and coordination during the build, scenic painting, load-in, and set dressing of your show.  Check messages often, if you've been out of touch, and be ready to instantly decide... whatever it is.  It's a good idea to have your drawings always at hand (or memorized).  That contact sheet with the rest of the production team's phone numbers comes in handy too.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Retro TV

After hearing about the charm of the '80s show Moonlighting for literally decades, I figured I ought to see for myself.

I only sampled a little of the first season.  Plots were nothing special - though situations got a little more ridiculous and physical-comedy than usual - and evil-doers were not scary by today's standards - the pilot's bleached, Mohawk-haired punk looked silly - but the chemistry between the stars was immediate and charming and obviously The Whole Point.  (Though '80s fashions make a fun side dish.)

Young, young Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis are worth visiting.

Image borrowed from ShareTV

Monday, December 5, 2011

Frequency Build

A few photos from the Frequency of Death scene shop:

Overview of the scene shop

"On stage" view of the set

Close-up of the Sound Booth

Almost built!  Painters will start black & whiting it shortly.

Heating Up

The pace of my set design practice is warming up.  On Frequency of Death (the B&W show) today I'm meeting with scenic painters, to explain the paint elevations and get them started, and meeting with the rest of the production team tonight for, well, a production meeting.  Somewhere between the two meetings I need to finalize a furniture and set dressing list and research a few sources.  And do a little mentoring.   Gotta run!

Public domain image

Saturday, December 3, 2011


One aspect of designing and building a theater set - or any other design field with a "client" - is the on-going negotiation that goes on throughout the whole process.  At the moment on the The Frequency of Death! build, one of the questions being negotiated is whether sound booth doors have "glass" (or Plexiglass TM) in them.

At stake are issues of realism in the set (glass looks realer and what's more, actors won't accidentally put their hands through it... which looks unreal) plus adding a little variety in gloss (a whole world as flat paint gets dull) versus the possibility that glass will reflect lights and create a problem.  Glare can be a BIG problem.  As an example, look at this photo of a very cool glass stage - see that white reflection?

Photo of glass stage borrowed from  Cool, huh?

The solution I'm proposing right now - 'cause the builder needs to build right now - is that we use the plexi, but make it easily removable.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Speaking of Research...

In trying to explain the incredible steepness of Dutch stairs to the set builder for The Diary of Anne Frank, I found this picture online - almost the twin of apartment stairs I climbed with my heavy suitcase in Amsterdam:

Photo borrowed from the blog 

Notice the bicycle pump?  Those risers are about 10" high.  As an American architect I can only marvel, because these stairs would never be legal back home.  Then again, the Dutch look pretty healthy!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Set Design - Research

Often as I research a new play I look for photos of the location where the action is set.  In this case the play is Collapse, by Allison Moore, and the city is Minneapolis.

I happened across especially beautiful local photographs at 

Can't figure out yet who the photographer(s) is/are or what the name of this site is or anything, but I'm huntin'.  Meanwhile, enjoy this teaser photo:

Film Field Trip: Breaking Dawn part I

Okay, okay, Breaking Dawn part I is a guilty pleasure.  But I have a real weakness for page-turning novels!  So, of course, I read the Twilight series.  Enjoyed it.  Not lovely prose, but a fun, fast read with a perfect grasp of the desperate obsession of teen-love.  (Why Edward, at 17 + 100 years, yearns like a teen is a question...)

Anyway.  The films have been cheesy fun... just as long as no one (male) I know sees me watching.  But if the movies so far have been the film equivalent of Nacho-Cheese Dorrito TM chips, this latest one is canned CheezWhiz TM: not nutritious, you're not sure it's food, but yet uncannily palatable, violently-attractively colored, and propulsive!  It can't be good for you or the ozone layer, yet embarrassingly, still kinda fun.

Breaking Dawn part I has several too too silly moments.  I cringed at obviously CG wolves thinking cheddar-y dialogue at each other, synthetic wolfhair blowing in the breeze.  I covered my eyes when vampire venom battles human blood in Bella's conversion scene -  a psychedelic out-take from Fantastic Voyage.  I covered my ears at lame dialogue.  And then there's always the dopey sparkle-vampire thing.  (Someone spent too much time in the girlie aisle of Toys R Us.  "What would make girls like vampires better? Sparkles!!!"  The mercy is it's not PINK sparkles.)

But mostly the film underlines how very very... odd... this story is.  Creepy, actually.

So my recommendation is: if you just can't help yourself, go see it, eat cheese-food products while watching, enjoy!

image borrowed from seriouseats

Remember the opening-the-bag-of-nacho-cheese-chips scene from Over the Hedge?  Here's a CLIP.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shop Visit: or Our Industrial Legacy

Last night I got to check progress on my B&W The Frequency of Death set.

It looks great!  The faux hotel ballroom is built - walls but not details.  The faux control booth is, as yet, only a chalk line on the raised platform.  Stairs are half done.  Everything looks very neatly and substantially built.

Now we just need paint applied...

Pegasus is borrowing another theater's scene shop, so I got to explore a new workshop: a former auto manufacturing plant now used as cheap studio or shop space.  My set shares a lofty room with rows of kitchen cabinets left by a former tenant and with glorious mosaics of angels of gold-tile wings, designed perhaps in the '60s, now being restored.

It's fascinating to find the tucked-away places where Things Get Done, the garages, old warehouses, and other forgotten spaces where wondrous things are created.

One theater had a huge metal barn of a shed as their shop - in a scary part of town.  I always felt I was exploring there...  Fantastic pieces of children's shows hung from metal rafters; mildewy chairs crowded shelves; Narnian lampposts jostled Wonderlandian mushrooms in back corners; and feral cats slunk in and out of a rip in the metal ceiling.  (So did rain.)  Many scene shops hide in old industrial areas.  If the TV production is big enough, it takes over the whole complex, but you'll seldom see a sign.  Why advertise?  It's an invitation to get tools stolen - or expensive cameras.

Believed public domain photo borrowed from Sunday Rearview Mirror

One theater shop hides behind a Bingo parlor.  One hid behind a wedding chapel.  Many theaters are tucked away in garages (including, once, mine), more for the cheap (free) rent than for the anonymity.

One theater group built outdoors on a deck - hellaciously hot in summer -  and had to bucket-brigade water from a paint sink downstairs.  Which was shared as a laundry sink.  (There's a disaster waiting to happen!)  Every shop has a floor stained and spattered with the paint of a thousand shows and a sink painted the weird gray-beige gungey no-color of a hundred thousand splashes.  (Look!  Blue paint on my driveway.)

Besides paint spatter, the other thing scene shops have in common is that tucked-away quality that comes with low rent: a blank or even disreputable exterior, hiding a beehive of creative activity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books on Books

I just finished reading Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, the musings of a Constant Reader on a year dedicated to reading and rereading only books found around her own house - books forgotten, accidentally acquired, received as gifts, misplaced, once loved, or bought but never read.  A fascinating and deeply literate journey.  I didn't always agree with her likes or dislikes (Not like Jane Austen?  Or Terry Pratchett?  How misguided), but her ruminations were always considered and interesting.  Her love for books and a reader's life is... well, endearing.

About half way through reading, it dawned on me that Susan Hill is the author of The Woman in Black.  I haven't read that novel yet, but I have designed a set for the stage adaptation, a thoroughly spooky story.  (There's a film version coming out soon starring Daniel Radcliffe.)

Set design for WaterTower Theatre by Clare Floyd DeVries  c

Among the quotes scattered through Howards End is on the Landing is this gem from David Cecil on criticism:

"...[the literary critic's] aim should be to interpret the work they are writing about and to help the readers appreciate it, by defining and analysing those qualities that make it precious and by indicating the angle of vision from which its beauties are visible.  But many critics do not realise their function.  They aim not to appreciate but to judge; they seek first to draw up laws about literature and then to bully readers into accepting these laws... [but] you cannot force taste on someone else, you cannot argue people into enjoyment."

I suggest you broaden that quote to art criticism of all kinds.

To a Constant Reader, books and reading itself are fascinating.

A thoughtful reading-tour like Hill's is the pleasant equivalent to sitting in a cozy armchair and reading about adventurous travel through rain forests or deserts.  (I'm slowly traveling through Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle now too, a fascinating trip of a different kind.)  Other books on books I can recommend are: Book Lust by Nancy Pearl (the librarian with her own action figure!) or any of its sequels for discussions of books worth reading; Talking About Detective Fiction by noted mystery writer P. D. James; or the novella The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, the tale of a bibliophile driven mad when he loses the essential catalogue to his collection.

Susan Hill is the only other reader of this story I've ever (almost) met; that shared affection for this quirky, charming, tragedy helped endear her own book to me.  To quote Hill quoting Dominguez...

"So books may drive men mad.  'Books change people's destinies,' the author writes, and 'Whenever my grandmother saw me reading in bed, she would say, "Stop that!  Books are dangerous."'

Go flirt with danger!  Read.

Related posts: Insulting Your Audience, Meta Fiction sorta...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Set Designer's Day - Catch-Up!

Freshly back in town after a family-medical month away, today is filled with meetings.  If cloning were practical, three of me could be going to three different meetings tonight!

Instead, the lone single one of me will be in Addison this morning (after a trip to the copy place) to talk about The Diary of Anne Frank at WaterTower Theatre, then to Dallas at a production meeting for the B&W The Frequency of Death! for Pegasus tonight.  In between, I'll be reading and rereading Collapse and Ruth for Kitchen Dog Theater.  This week will include several more meetings and trying to sneak into some of this week's rehearsals for Ruth, as well as the usual-after-a-trip errands and Laundry Fest.

I've had able assistants while I was gone and did a lot of business remotely - thanks to email, scanning, and FedEx - but, inevitably, things do pile up while you're away.

Believed public domain image, messed with.
Here's your big chance to stock up on Alice Through the Proscenium: more scenic set design for the holiday!

(Sample chapters etc. at the Lulu site here or at the "Design Elements" chapter on this blog at the top of the page, click "Set Design Process" then "Snippets.")

Friday, November 25, 2011

Film Fest - Pixar Shorts

One of my favorite parts in watching a new Pixar movie is the short cartoon that usually precedes it.

Up until this week, my favorite of these was Knick Knack, the brilliant silent film that followed the thwarted love life of a snow globe bound toy snowman.  I still love this.  But over the holiday I was introduced to a couple others that pushed this former favorite (if you'll forgive the phrase) off the top shelf.

My two new favs are: Presto!, about the conflict between a stage magician and his rabbit, and Lifted, a breath-taking study of space alien training.  Breathtaking quite literally because I was gasping with laughter.

Funny, funny, funny!

Lifted image, er, lifted from Pixar's site

Thursday, November 24, 2011

See 26 Miles at Kitchen Dog!

Kitchen Dog Theater's latest show is 26 Miles.  Check it out!  Virtually here and for-real from a theater seat.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Fest - Shaolin Soccer

Hard to know what to say about this weird and wonderful film.

Shaolin Soccer is a Hong Kong kung fu comedy by Stephen Chow.  About half way through, I thought it was magical realism... but then the realism dissipated... leaving, I guess, only the magic.  Wild, woolly, violent, raucous, sentimental, funny, cruel, extremely entertaining.

Film poster borrowed from Wikipedia

Monday, November 21, 2011

Harry Potter and Long-Form Fiction

Finally finished all seven (um, eight) of the Harry Potter films.  Cumulatively they add up to something special!

There's something wonderful about the really long, immersive experience of long-form art.

These exist in many genres: whether that's a series of books like Patrick O'Brien's Aubery/Maturin sea saga (more a single multi-volume novel than a series of sequels) or Lois McMaster Bujold's similarly multi-volume Vorkosign series in science fiction.  Bujold says the multi-volume form is distinct from the standard novel; I tend to agree - just as the short story is distinct from the novel, or the ode from the epic poem.  Sprint versus run versus marathon.  The TV version might be a miniseries like Roots or, more extended, a mythologically dense long-term series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  And there are operas, like The Magic Flute, and operas, like Wagner's Ring Cycle.  Personally, I enjoy the long-form, but I'll admit that some of its satisfaction comes from making it through the whole thing!

The cover of Ace's LotR, center of a copyright dispute

I think creators have a natural pace and style... and some need time and elbow room.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paint Elevations

Now, please make allowances, Dear Reader.  This image is a translation from a PDF of a scan of the original acrylic paint, colored pencil, and photocopied original (and who knows what your monitor is doing to it!).  But under all that distortion is an example of a set designer's paint elevation to instruct the scenic painter.  In this case, it's a black and white and mostly gray rendering for Pegasus Theatre's B&W show, The Frequency of Death.

Not only have I been drafting and designing in absentia, but painting too.  Splashy fun!  Trying not to get paint on someone else's carpet and walls.  (Oops - just scratched a fleck of gray off a window blind.  Ahem.)

The Frequency of Death, Pegasus Theatre, set design copyrighted Clare Floyd DeVries 2011

The fastest way to do a paint elevation is to photocopy a drawing, then tint it.  1/2" = 1'-0" scale is the smallest you'd want to bother with.  This is a simple version, just meant as a painter's go-by - knowing that I'll be around to talk with the painter - but paint renderings can be works of art in their own right.

BTW  Seven in One Blow opened last night!  Fun for the whole family!  Circle Theatre, Fort Worth.  Spend the day in Cowtown and see a holiday show!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Art Beneath the Skin

Lego anatomy.  Fantastic!

Image borrowed from

Art by Jason Freeny at  Wonderfully detailed anatomy of LEGO men and other characters, plus goldfish cracker sashimi and other wonders.  Check it out here.

Shhhhh! A Secret Book Sale

Alice Through the Proscenium goes on sale just in time for Secret Santa.

Buy two theater friends a how-to book on scenic design.  (The "Design Methods" chapter is also useful as how-to for design in general.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Computer Sketching

I've been experimenting with a computer drawing tablet.  Lots of fun!  (Though I think it'd take years to get really good with it.)  Here are today's kid-with-fat-crayon-in-fist results:

Costumes as Design

There's a new exhibit here at Wichta's Art Museum: costumes of the famous musical group The Supremes, from the Mary Wilson collection.

Wilson was a member of the group from its start as a group of Chicago  neighborhood girlfriends, who made their first costumes with skills learned at school home-ec classes.  (I wish one of those dresses had been part of the exhibit!) The gowns on display come from a bit later in the Supremes' career, including couture by famous designers like Bob Mackie.

Overall, the effect is of fabulous '60s and '70s glamour.  "Fabulous" is the word.  The lines of the gowns are usually simple, lean, even severe, but the materials are rich and often heavily encrusted with beads or sequins and the colors strong, so that even on a mannequin they seem to want to shimmy and shimmer...  These aren't evening gowns - though that's the look - but performance costumes.  They want to move!  I wish there were video clips to show this fashion in action.

Photo borrowed from The Supremes Lyrics

And here's a video clip on You Tube: The Supremes at the Hollywood palace 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Fest - Harry Potter

In honor of the latest and last Harry Potter film coming out on DVD, I'm watching the whole series.

It's rather impressive to watch the films one after the other (one a night) and to feel the cumulative effect of the story.  Rather fascinating to see the young actors grow up before your eyes.

Tonight was the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban.  This may be my favorite.  It's tone is distinctly darker, marked by the introduction of the Dementors, as well as two of my favorite characters: Professor Lupin and Sirius Black.  It also has one of the funniest scenes in the series - the inflation of the visiting Aunt.

Poster image borrowed from

I'm a fan of the Harry Potter books and films.  Classics, I think.  For anyone who hasn't yet read the last book or seen the last film, here's my spoiler free reaction to seeing it back in July.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Decaying Film Palaces

Sad and beautiful images of abandoned movie theaters from photographer Matt Lambros in an article at

Photo borrowed from's article about Matt Lambrose's photos.

Books - The Hunger Games

I've been hearing about this Hunger Games book trilogy by Suzanne Collins for a while now, the recommendation generally boiling down to: "Exciting! Page-turning!  Can't put it down!"

I've been in exactly the mood for exciting, page-turning, can't-put-it-down.  So I read 'em.

Cover of The Hunger Games, borrowed from Wikipedia

Good.  VERY e, p-t, c-p-i-d... also engrossing, surprisingly violent and, indeed, cruel.  Surprising for what seems to be meant as young adult novels.  (Adults have been reading it.)  The setup is a future where the ruins of the United States have become Panem, a civilization with a tyrannical central region/government and a series of enslaved provinces.  They have this annual game - more or less "Survivor" crossed with gladiatorial combat - played by sacrificial teenagers.  The books' main character is a young girl.  That female protagonist and the need for this game to look pretty (or horrific) for the cameras takes the story from beauty pageant one minute to carnage the next: instantaneously from Barbie to G.I. Spartacus.

I'm still digesting the implications.  But as a page-turning distraction I have to rate these books high: the first book, The Hunger Games, is the most gripping, the succeeding books, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay get, as trilogies tend to, less compelling but since it's cliff-hangers all the way, you'll gobble them all.  Fast!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grammar Nazis and Iconography

I'm fascinated by good writing.

(Occasionally I even attempt it myself.  Mixed success.  Writing well is just as hard as good grave digging, making every corner "neat and square," as Mike Mulligan's steam shovel would put it.)

So in reading this month's Naked City: Taboo, Wichita's art magazine, I had to laugh out loud at Bart Wilcox's description of being edited by a grammar sensitive, yet poorly informed, writing client:

"A client once told me that I had to rewrite a sentence because 'you can't end a sentence with a verb.'  My reply was, 'I can.  And I just did.'"

Grammar geeks in the audience: can you parse that joke?   For more fun with parts of speech I recommend reading Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

More interesting stuff from this issue: an exhibit of Chris Parks' strongly graphic art work at the Naked City Gallery.

Images of art by Chris Parks at Naked City Gallery, Wichita, Kansas

These are really strong, crisp visuals - no surprise the artist also designs logos and signage - but beyond the first pow! impact of shape and color and wit, there are subtler messages.  Iconography.  In an earlier age, surely Parks would have been slipping clues into somber paintings of saints or palming memento mori skulls into the innocent shadows of portraits.  Here and now his colors are brighter and the jokes and skulls easier to spot.  

(Click on the image caption to read the magazine article.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Life Interrupts Set Design

Sorry about the few-N-far-between posts here lately.  There's been a family medical emergency, so I'm in remote mode and rather... distracted.

Nevertheless set design has been going on in a start and stop kinda way.  I completed all the construction drawings for my black & white show The Frequency of Death in a motel room and I'm working on sketches for The Diary of Anne Frank in a guest room.

One professional trick I've learned over the years has come in very handy now: have a "traveling" design and drawing kit!

In my case the traveling kit is a mini drafting board with a parallel bar (I like to work on 8 1/2" x 11"* sheets), plus drafting pencils, pens, colored pencils, mini drafting triangles and scale all fitted into a very small black leather case.   The drafting board isn't mandatory but, frankly, I've done all the drawings I ever want to on sticky kitchen tables or - horrors! - tile counter tops.

You never think you're going to need design much while on out of town... but sometimes you do.  I've had to create colored renderings in beach-side rental houses, designed shows in motels, and especially re-designed elements of a show in restaurants, coffee shops, and on the phone in the car.  Changes strike anywhere!  And the designer must be prepared.  So, when it became obvious that I'd be here longer and need to do more drawing than first thought, I supplemented this mini-kit with real-sized triangles, my handy electric eraser, and a few other things.  But the expanded kit still fits in a smallish cardboard box.

For those who draft on the computer, the Kit could fit in a laptop... but you'd better practice a bit at using your drafting program on that teeny tiny screen.  I don't think a smart phone is going to work.

Give it some thought...  How would you get your projects finished if you had to leave town in an hour?

* Make that 11"x17" sheets!  (Told you I was distracted.)

Monday, October 31, 2011


Designers sometimes hear the phrase, "I'm/he's/she's so visual!"

This, I've discovered, usually translates to a designer as: "No you/he/she aren't."

This misleading statement is, I think, due to a difference in definition.  "Visual" to a Designer means you think visuals are important, you value them, and you can see them in your head because you can imagine what something will look like.  To the Non-Designer I think (it's a foreign tongue so I'm guessing), "visual" seems to mean that you literally have to SEE it - for real, in all full physical reality - to understand it.

Kinda the opposite, huh?

I suspect there is a misunderstanding - because I've worked with a few "so visual!" directors.  I've even acted out scenery for them with the help of several people, boxes, sticks, and spike tape at full scale... and this was after the model, the perspective drawings, the construction drawings, the sketches, and a fair amount of hand-waving.

Just a heads-up, Fellow Designers.  "So visual!" can be so misleading.

As for the REAL directoral rattlesnake-warning phrase, it's "I'm open to other ideas."
image courtesy of

There's a pretty funny (mildly insulting!) report on the architectural versions of these warning rattles at Life of an Architect.