Thursday, March 31, 2011


I dragged home last night, filthy, tired, scratched, with paint ground into both hands, sore fingers, and faux dirt deep under every fingernail... I had so much fun!

Yesterday was the day I "weeded" my Traveling Lady set at WaterTower.  Being theater, this was not pulling weeds, but adding them.

The carpenters and painters did a beautiful job of building topography.  There are several methods.  Theirs was to construct plywood shelves whose wriggly edge followed topo lines on my drawings (an architect thing, we draw topography, like the US Geologic Survey, as contour lines).  These shelves had chicken wire bent over them to get rid of the cloth-draped-over-a-table phenomenon, then faux grass laid over and stapled in place.  Joy!  The good grass, the expensive grass, the stuff I think of as "Barney Grass" because the first I used (still in my garage) was a discarded scrap from the Barney show.  (They got budgets in TV.)  This looked good except...

Well, the new boughten grass was the bleached tan I'd specified, the wheat-straw color of an early Texas spring.  To cut costs, a 10' x 20' swath was only rented (rental grass? theater's weird), the rest bought so we could cut it.  To further cut costs, we used scrap grass from earlier shows.  This grass was bright bright radioactive green.  So we painted the grass.  (How Alice in Wonderland.)  Tan onto green to tone the green down and merge the pieces until it looked like winter grass greening up at the lower, wetter areas of the landscape - at cemetery and where the stage's "yard" tumbled toward the audience and an imaginary creek.  The painting turned out well except...

There was a shadow line where the "lawn" lay, tablecloth-like, on top of the hillside grass.

So yesterday I planted weeds and ivy and, oh, 50+ daffodils.  These hide seams in the grass, tie house to yard, fill out gardens and hedges, and (minor point) warn actors where it's not safe to step!  Other than the grass and one 10' high fake ficus I'd lugged across the whole theater building days before, every stick and leaf was placed yesterday.  There are real stones, pea gravel, dead leaves from the parking lot, lots of silk foliage, faux dirt (sawdust with stage makeup), and branches from the TD's yard.  Fireflies!  (Ask the lighting guys about them.)

The point?  To set the play's time and place: early spring, 1950s, east Texas.  Daffodils and buds announce spring; period flower pots and tools (and house, oh yeah!) explain '50s; and plant choices, tan grass especially, suggest Texas.  3D foliage creates a fore- and middle-ground garden for the actors in front of stylized cut-out plywood trees and, further back, a cut-out tree-line against the sky.  (Where the lighting designer makes magic sunsets.)

Today I'm a little sore, but pretty happy.

(Oops - photo courtesy of Jeff Camp, TD  at WaterTower Theatre.  Thanks!)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Science Is Wrong...

The human race is theorized to have evolved from monkeys, but even a cursory examination of the workings of the human brain reveals the flaw in this "monkey" genesis:

It was obviously squirrels.

I mean, look at the way a human mind works!  Either racing in a lunatic way from point A to point B - by way of Z, G, with a double-back at P 1/2 - or our brain curls up in a metaphorical hollow tree to hibernate until we poke it with a stick.  If our brain does find an idea (seen the pop-eyed, startled look on a squirrel's face with a nut crammed it in its mouth?)...  then it darts here and there, not at all sure what to do with the awkward thing.  Mostly we fruitlessly dig for ideas, chittering a squirrelly, "Here?  There? Where?  Must be one somewhere!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Collage Site

An interesting site for collage - scroll down a ways.  Paper Digital Art

Building Codes

There was a fascinating article in Sunday's paper on how Japan's building codes protected the public during the earthquake.  Japan has the strictest seismic design and building codes in the world.  Their buildings are expected not just stay up long enough to let inhabitants escape a quake, but be (mostly) usable again immediately.  In the U.S. we expect time to flee to safety, but also to extensively repair or replace buildings afterwards.  This difference is a direct result of earthquake frequency: Japan having many, while we have few.  Cost/benefit calculation.  The damage in New Zealand, another first-world country,was mainly to the heart of Christchurch, whose old masonry buildings had not been reinforced sufficiently for such a big shock.  (I'm told the downtown square looks like it snowed drifts of bricks on the garden and benches.)

Charles Kenny's article (I'd link, but the News' site search is hopeless) discussed other quake areas like Chile and Haiti, where building codes are inadequate and enforcement lax or corrupt... resulting in horrific death tolls.  Poverty explains flimsier construction - it takes money to build well.  Easy to understand budget pressures to build cheaply and even to see how weak government allows corrupt building inspection, which sidesteps safety requirements.  No, the controversial part of his article is when he starts doing the math...

Dollar for dollar, you save more lives paying for, say, malaria medicine or schools for girls, who then know how to raise healthier children, than by buying seismic reinforcement of buildings.  Even of schools.  Though, obviously, that's where you start spending the money as soon as you have it.

Cold.  Hard to argue.

I'm glad to live in a country with enough cash and law to feel safe with a roof over my head.   Isn't that the age-old definition of safety: a roof over your head?  But even that only gets you so safe...  Japan did everything it could, built well and had extremely efficient and well-trained evacuation which saved even more lives.  Evacuation is a fancy word for fleeing-for-your-life and that was what was needed:  where there was the earthquake, there were few deaths, but where there was the tsunami, there were no survivors.
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is the reason our U.S. building safety codes really got started.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Aaahh!  The set designer's life.

A very short blog today (though I have tons of topic) because I'm in crunch.  Big time.  Yesterday was Tech at WaterTower for The Traveling Lady.  It's going to be beautiful... eventually.  This is an environmental set - an east Texas house and porch in a yard at early spring.  The carpenters and painters are doing wonders, building topography (which is hard to do!), creating a slightly sloped yard and a tumbled bank at stage edge where - theoretically - there's a bit of a seasonal creek with a rock ledge and a few cattails and spring wildflowers, sloping down to the cemetery at SL.  Lots of work.  And when they're done, I (mostly) get to plant all the weeds, since I find that few carpenters or painters have an eye for making foliage look natural.

Meanwhile, I've got two sets of construction drawings for other shows to just whip off.  That muted, rythmic thudding you hear?  That's me beating my head against my drafting board.

BTW  Boeing, Boeing closes soon.  Now's your chance to zip over to Fort Worth and catch a last glimpse of this very funny play.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Film Fest - Lockdown

It's Kind of a Funny Story.  A brilliant but depressed teen has himself committed.  Sorta teen rom-com meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest...  A little paced, a little quirky.  Sweet natured, with some charming see-inside-the-kid's-mind moments.  I liked it.

Curiously, on the production design front, this mental hospital is so very new and clean and nice, it's a wonder we don't all check ourselves in, now and then, as a break.  Way different from my Cuckoo's Nest set, which was all dingy hospital green tile and barred windows.


Another big gap between Snippets!  (I've been preoccupied with other stuff, sorry.)  Here's another tidbit from the "Design Methods" chapter of Alice Through the Proscenium:

Designer’s Block -  It IS possible to feel your brain freeze solid.  Try the tips listed here or a vacation, but if the problem is a particular show, maybe your heart just isn’t in it. 4.18   Then a professional can fall back on technique and do an adequate – if not an inspired – job.  You can get yourself excited by bread-and-butter work, but be careful which shows you agree to design. 

Fear -  Your mental block may be intimidation…  Macbeth?!  When menaced by a Great Classic, ask, “What’s the worst?  I make a fool of myself – nothing new – but can I dim Shakespeare’s reputation?”  The comforting answer: “Naaaaaaah.”

The Bad Version – TV writers do this: you know it’s no good, but spit out the idea anyway.  Trying to improve it may lead to something with real potential.

Prejudices – Like stone tablets, some teachers hand out “rules” of scenic design, things like, “always have an entrance upstage center” or “never paint a set white.”  Bah!  Those aren’t rules, those are… more like guidelines.

Rules – Back in the eighteenth century there were real rules of design to fall back on, things like “classical unities” which guided playwrights.  Imagine the comfort of rules!  Nowadays creative types are left flapping - no rules need apply.  (Writers say one rule does still hold: “be interesting.”)  Freedom is scary - so give yourself rules.  If the theater, play, or budget don’t restrict you enough, give yourself the cozy blankie of rules: design only in black and white, or only with rolling elements, or…  Deciding what rules ought to apply starts you designing.

Habits -  Set up a regular place and hours for design.  (Mornings have the advantage that directors aren’t awake, so can’t interrupt.) In The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp stresses habit, ritual, and organization in creativity.
4.18 Did you need the money? 4.19 Now earn it.
4.19  Needing the cash is a perfectly legit artistic impetus, as are deadlines and fear of criticism.  As Dr. Johnson put it, “"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

BTW Alice is now fully functional (samples, pic, and the all-important BUY! button) at all three sources:, Amazon, and as an e-book for Nook, iPhone, and iPad etc. from Barnes & Noble.

Drama Critic

From a conversation about the beloved film Young Frankenstein versus its Broadway musical version came the single most pointed theater criticism I've ever heard:

"It reminded me of Disney On Ice."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Film Fest Field Trippin'

I saw The Adjustment Bureau last night.  Fun.  Romantic. Give up All for True Love.  A nice date movie.  I have to say that the idea of mysterious men controlling our destiny by way of spiffy special effects has sorta been done: Matrix and Inception leap to mind.  But I really did like the kick here every time a new door was opened.

Wish I knew what buildings this was filmed in!  Some fantastic 1920s - '30s? era skyscraper lobbies and commercial spaces.  Just beautiful architecture.


Boy! the Battlestar Gallactica folks sure understand cliffhangers!  I can see I'll be racing through the seasons in record time, just to find out what happens next.  Besides that, the characters and situations are great.  (Though I've noticed at least one huge Infraction Against the Laws of Physics so far.  But if I can forgive Dr. Who physics-violations, I can forgive Gallactica.)

I need to find a "Geek and Proud" bumpersticker.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Memory Lane...

Is now a eight lane highway!

Sorting through old boxes of drawings (spring cleaning remember?) I came across this old sketch of the skyline of Dallas done in the early '80s.  There's a little more skyline these days!

But not nearly as many cranes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amazing Amazon

There is all sorts of weird and wonderful functionality over at my Alice Through the Proscenium Amazon page: annotated pictures and a (quite random) skim through the pages.  But you still get a better look at and a slightly different view at Barnes & Noble.

This self-publishing process is kind of fascinating... I'm beginning to think publishers may (just may) earn some of their money.  Certainly there are a lot of small but important jobs in getting a book out into the world.  I'm glad this is a book with a clearcut - though tiny! - audience, so it's easy to see who needs to hear about it.  And non-fiction so it has a real use, somewhere some real problem to solve.

Just imagine trying to launch a novel!

Construction Dust

I've been building away over at my Squidoo sites.  Check 'em out.

The Horton Foote Festival

Dallas / Fort Worth is starting a unique celebration of our home-grown Texas playwright, Horton Foote.

This multi-city, multi-group festival is exciting - theaters, cinemas, KERA, Arts & Letters Live, the arts magnet high school - all presenting Horton Foote's work.  I'm privileged to play a small role in all this, designing The Traveling Lady set for WaterTower Theatre's production.  (A big plus is that it is directed by a long time collaborator of Foote's.)  A lovely play.

Mr. Foote may be the most famous man nobody's ever heard of.  

He wrote 70 plays plus distinguished film scripts (including that jewel To Kill a Mockingbird!) and, oh, you know, a Pulitzer.  But he must have been a not-a-back-slapper kind of person... like his plays...  gentle, shrewd, well-observed, real-people drama.  Not much blood (I think it's wild that WaterTower is following the violent Lieutenant of Inishmore with the subtle Lady).  Stuff happens, of course - The Traveling Lady has more or less a prison break and chase, abandonment, theft, breach of trust, all that dramatic stuff - but it's at human scale and characters have recognizable real-human reactions.  You think - "I know that lady.  I know how she feels."

This is the second of Foote's plays I've gotten to design.  I find the effect of his work cumulative... seeping into my own world, helping me see other people a little more kindly - but more accurately.  Maybe I'm a little wiser?  Maybe we all need more Horton Foote more of the time?  
The Traveling Lady - Horton Foote, WaterTower Theatre, Addison TX

Monday, March 21, 2011

Film Fest and Period Decor

Just watched Nowhere Boy, a biopic about John Lennon's teen years, ending just as he goes off to Hamburg for the Beatles' first big gig.  I'm not a huge fan of biography - written or filmed - but this was interesting.  The lead actor did a good job, I thought, as did the actresses playing the two sisters, his mother and the aunt who raised him.  That triangle was the heart of the story... the Beatles really just a by-the-way.

I got a little sidetracked from the story though, enjoying the production design of the two contrasting households: the lively, floral, red-background wallpaper of the mother's house, with its cheerfully clashing furnishings - versus the cooler, grayer, much more controlled and balanced-looking decor of the aunt's house.  (With great '40s period suburban-pseudo-Tudor paneling!  I always think of it as "Pseudor" - a lame joke I bet one interior designer in a thousand might actually catch.  I have a shameful affection for fake Tudor and Gothic.  But I'm thinking about a 12 step program to kick that habit.)

Film Field Trip # 3ish

Jane Eyre - really enjoyed it.  A good version I thought that, though it condensed and simplified etc. as a film always does which always irritates a book-lover, nevertheless caught the passionate mood of the story perfectly.  Both this Mr. Rochester and especially this Jane Eyre were very, very good.  Worth seeing!

But I hadn't quite realized until I saw the audience how much of a chick flick Jane's story is... there were a few men in the auditorium, but many of them had a slightly "dragged" look.  Which was short-sighted of them.  I remember one critic, years ago, talking about Freud's question (asked by many other men before and since), "What do women want?"  and pointing out that Jane Eyre gives one answer: freedom of mind, heart, and action; and a loving family; worthwhile work (however humble) that uses abilities and talents, is respected, and has satisfying results; and a little money to make that work not wage-slavery; and beyond that, a soul mate to marry as an equal!  Or... to tell truth... maybe to have a little bit the upper hand there.

This book is emotional, gothic, almost surrealist at moments.  It's an orphan-makes-good story reminiscent of Harry Potter (but with a much tougher school), a combo of Oliver Twist and Cinderella.  In it's day it was also a sort of geometry proof of the theorem that: "Woman has a soul and isn't afraid to use it!"

A very controversial book.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Aaaand Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning is bad (all that dust); spring cleaning a studio is worse (all those electric-eraser crumbs everywhere! even in coffee mugs and window cracks, plus raffia grass shreds all over, and a suburb of models); but spring cleaning a studio where one does collage may be worst of all  (bitty clippings of paper that snag in the rug and choke the vacuum)!  Artistes shouldn't have to dust.

I may be grumpy at my production meeting tonight.

Designer's Taxes

And where on the form does "theater died owing me money" go?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Designer's Life

Sure as death, there's taxes:  I'm wrestling with a year's worth of receipts - some reimbursed, some not - and all the weird expenses a theater designer accumulates.  Somehow there's never an obvious space on the forms for "waterlilies, silk" or "grandfather clock rental" or "bought my own paintbrushes 'cause the theater's are ##$*7!!"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cool New Image Source

Just found a wonderful new blog... thing... an addendum to a blog, like a lean-to addition on a house.  Anyway.  A cool source for images in virtual collages at MudBay images.  Check it out you graphics types.  i can see I'm going to need to follow the main blog that goes with it a while...


Alice on Amazon

Alice Through the Proscenium is now available on Amazon.
(Preview pages etc. to come there... once I figure out how to do that.)  Check out this cool-o-tude!  

Then go buy direct from where the author gets a bigger cut, huh?  

Still, it's exciting to know that any casual book-buyer in the world could just accidentally, while skipping through - what is it? a gadjillion books? Let's figure this out: 150,000 books sold per day x 365 = 54 million books sold a year...  But that means multiple copies of, say, Stephen King's latest and 0 of Aunt Fanny's memoir, so... a gadjillion on their virtual shelves.  An easy gadjillion.)  But  the point is, a casual reader could wander through these LOTS O' BOOKS anyway and fall in love with mine.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gotta Love Gutenberg

I was showing off my e-book reader to someone considering getting one herself.  I'd always thought I'd be one of the last literate people on the planet to get an electronic reader... but I'm not.  And I love this gizmo.  Why?

Mostly because of Project Gutenberg.  This on-line library is, I believe, the first and biggest effort to get the world's public domain literature on-line for free.  It's wonderful.  It's comprehensive.  It's worthwhile.  It's filled with wonders: Shakespeare, Austen, Twain, great writers you've never heard of, historical curiosities...  It's like Literature's attic.  Visit.  Download a classic.  And consider donating money or time to helping this cause.
photo borrowed from

A Set Designer's Days

The pace is picking up here.

The Traveling Lady is being built at WaterTower Theatre, so I visited yesterday to meet painters and deliver paint go-bys and color chips and will visit again today to look at furniture in the warehouse.  There are notes and negotiations going on about exactly where the grave should be located and the normal tweaks.  I've shopped for spring foliage and taken a walk by the creek to collect chinaberries.

Meanwhile a first meeting with another director to decide on scenic directions for Five Women Wearing the Same Dress and furious sketching to show what was talked of at last week's meeting on Marvin's Room.  Lots more on other shows to do too.  Time is speeding up!

Film Fest and Books Too

The Town - the Ben Affleck and Boston film. A grittier, home-boy sort of crime spree story set in the Charlestown neighborhood.  I enjoyed it, though it isn't really my sort of movie.  Lots of bullets flying!

Dead Until Dark - the first novel in Charlaine Harris's southern vampire series - which is the basis for the TV series True Blood.  I like the TV show, but I think I prefer the books... probably because the reader can hear inside Sookie's head (just as that mind-reader can hear other characters' thoughts).  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Film Fest

I love Claymation and particularly love Wallace and Grommet, so Loaf and Death was a great entry to the Film Fest.  (I wonder if Woody Allen - or Tolstoy either! - caught the title's wink to Love and Death and thus War and Peace?)

Very funny - though by now, Wallace really ought to realize that he has bad taste in women... a serial, sorry, cereal killer this time!  Will he ever learn?

I once saw W & G on stage in London.  Obviously you lost the cool-o-tude of Claymation, but I remember a wondrous gadgety machine at center stage and a pretty cool dog suit for Grommet.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Been a while between "Snippets" so here's a new one from the "Design Methods" chapter of my Alice Through the Proscenium set design book:

Real Estate -  Get that room of your own!   At least get a good chair.  Plan your work area so it’s convenient, well lit, comfortable.  Control distractions like email or tiny tots.  Remove mirrors, muttering, “Get thee behind me…”  Some writers need dull rooms so writing becomes the escape from boredom; artists usually don’t.  Calder’s sculpture studio had mobiles flying overhead like birds.  Create the environment you need to work in, not to hyper-ventilate nor fall asleep.

Fermentation – The wide-awake version of “sleep on it.”  Simmer.  This is not waiting around for some ditzy Muse.  Mull over the problem, but make few sketches.  Resist drawing until you can’t stand for one more minute not to.  When you do finally put ideas to paper, the stupid, time-wasting ones have often dropped out.  But you must feel when the solution is ready (ripe banana!) and at that crucial moment you have to document, or ideas dry up.

Take a Break When feeling stale, stretch.  Walk.  Get blood pumping to your brain.  Or keep your hands busy with knitting or gardening.  Or wash your face.  That headache may be dehydration, so drink water.  Caffeine helps, but 12 cups are 10 too many (as are some energy drinks).  Give yourself a treat: eat chocolate, listen to a favorite song, wear the cozy red sweater.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Battlestar Galactica

Just saw the first mini-series.

I'm hooked.

'Nuf  said.

Last Word For A While

I've been debating my "Mining the Classics" question with others (tested good-dinner-conversation topic!) and just want to make it clear that I'm not against basing new art on old.  What a hopeless stand that would be!  Besides stupid.  No, what I object to is a lazy dependence on established icon to "carry" unworthy new work.  Sampling music, for instance, seems fine as long as the new work is genuinely either a new work or a commentary.  The Reduced Shakespeare Company or Warhol's version of Botticelli's Venus or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for instance?  Terrific.  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, however is just boring - unworthy of the hijacked original.

I object to cheapening classics for a quick buck... but a conversation with that classic or satire or just plain ridicule is fair game.  If living artists are expected to stand up to criticism, certainly dead classic ones should too.  In fact, de-embalming a classic is doing it a favor - keeping it alive.  No, I just want the new artist to do something GOOD with the classic.

If you're gonna hang out with Shakespeare or Da Vinci, then you ought to try to keep up as best you can.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Strip-Mining Classics

Awhile back I wrote about the present tendency to take a classic icon and mine it artistically - rather than attempt to create something new.  Well, here's a dreadful example.

Under the modern distortions, this painting is a rather beautiful self-portrait of Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun; a renowned portrait painter of 18th century France, a protegee of Queen Marie Antoinette, the first (for a long time the only) woman elected to the French Academy of art.  This particular portrait is the beginning and cornerstone of Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum - one of the great museums of the world.  Vigee Lebrun was in her early twenties, just entering into her fame.  And here...

She's been tarted up by some Photoshop "artist" as a pirate queen .

Here below is how she was meant to be.
Tell you what really irks me about the translation?

Vigee Lebrun's own lucid, intellegent eye has been replaced with what looks like Barbie's.  Mind you, I'm a fan of the painter, so I'm partial and perhaps unreasonable, but this makes me queasy.

Film Fest Theme...

...this week seems to be dumb "guy" movies - I need a (polite) term equivalent to "Chick Flick."  Last night's prize film was The A Team - the new version.  Now, any movie with Liam Neeson in it has a few virtues, and this one also had lots of stuff blowing up, plus, as someone pointed out, it will act as a balance to Jane Eyre which comes out next week and will be seen immediately!

Second Thought on Collaboration

Thinking about yesterday's schematic design meeting, I ought to repeat how rare collaboration is.  You always want it - you so seldom get it.  Why?

Nothing is more fun than kicking ideas around with someone!  But not only do the stars have to align... everything else does to.  I've noticed that there do seem to be some minimum requirements to make a design session work:

1)  Compatible people - and not too many of them:  The best collaborative design sessions seem to involve 2-4 people: more than that is a committee.  ALL these folks must (for this session) be relaxed, low-ego, bright, trusting, feeling a bit playful, and aimed at the same goal: a good design.  (See how easily this can go off-track?)  Add in natural personal sympathies and antipathies that affect the flow.  It's not that everyone has to be friends - often those fondest can't design together - it's more whether mind-to-mind you "get" what the other is saying.  Perhaps that's why relative strangers can find this easier... they can just handle ideas, in an playing-a-game way, without reading under-layers of feeling?  People.  Complicated.
2)  Management: The meeting has to be playtime: rough-n-tumble, giddy maybe, bouncy with ideas... yet everyone has their say and a respectful listening.  In the end, Mom or Dad decides what to do.
3)  Preparation: Can't do much till everyone has read the script and seen the space.  Have a floor plan and research materials.  And sketching stuff.
4)  Time: Idea-kicking doesn't need to take long - sometimes ten minutes is enough - but it can't feel rushed.
5)  A Supportive Atmosphere: Best is a quiet, comfortable room with a nice big, smooth table and food and drink - but just some of all that will work.  If folks are focused enough, noise can be okay or even help, as long as you can hear each other easily.  If ideas are exciting enough, you can ditch most of the comfort.  But you gotta have the table!  A clipboard might work, but I bet the ideas would be as cramped as the sketches.  A tile-topped table is just a tease - puleeeese!

I'd love comments on this one.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Schematic Design Meeting

Sometimes with some directors and some shows (every time is different!) and if the table is big enough and the stars align just right, it's possible to really kick ideas around.

Today was lucky: the director and I sketched our way through Marvin's Room.  It's a difficult show in that the script is realistic (though moments have a feel of "magic") with multiple, contrasting settings (warm home versus cool medical) and it's being produced in thrust in a intimate, low-ceilinged space, with no wings or ability to fly.  Tricky.

I brought research and a very rough floor plan sketch - started towards realistic - together we moved towards more abstract until I think - among the lunch bowls and fortune cookie wrappers - we may have found a solution.

Good fun!  Now I just gotta sketch it pretty - so it makes sense.

Blog? Or Exercise?

Well that's a no-brainer!  Someone needs to invent a treadmill powered computer - then we'd all be in shape.

Miscellany today: I finally finished The Elephant to Hollywood, Michael Caine's memoir - some pretty funny stuff about the Oscars.  Worth reading if you're fascinated by Hollywood.  A Film Fest entry so lame I've already forgotten its name, but it had Will Ferrell in it.  'Nuf said.  And on the further adventures of my book, Alice Through the Proscenium: the extra copies arrived (a crisply impressive little stack), so now I can distribute them to my faithful test readers and my Mom etc.  A few extras for sale!

Miscellaneous set designer duties today too: re-read one script; read two new ones; meet one director and email another; and return the last thing not-used in my last set (boy! was that concrete bench heavy!)

P.S. The film was The Other Guys.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Business-Inspired Design

We're all used to seeing corporate ads or logos used decoratively.  Maybe it started with the first rusty Coca-Cola sign brought indoors from off the barn, or maybe some ancient Roman college student swiped a tavern sign and hung it in his peristyled dorm, but it's pretty common.  Businesses can have great graphics.  There's one house I know with a classic red Mobile Gas Pegasus that I'd love to have.

But I admit to being startled in the sewing store yesterday when I saw pretty green and yellow fabric labeled "The John Deere Collection!"  Sure enough, little teeny tractors.
image borrowed from

What better post to put up on the day I put ads on my site?  Ah!  Another corporate sell-out!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ta-Da! My Digital Empire Is Growing

Just opened up a new web home - a Squidoo (what a funny word) lens called 9 Ways to Improve Your Theater Set.  Check it out.  But don't forget my ol' tried 'n true Website, eh?

Books, Books, Books

After a trip to the library, I'm swimming in new books!

So far I've read or sampled quite a few.  (Ever noticed how a book that fascinates at the library or bookstore dwindles to so-so when you read it?  A few of those.)  Among these tomes are:

The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo.  I heard the author interviewed on NPR, so when I saw the book on the "New Arrivals" shelf I grabbed it.  The true-life-and-crime story of a detective club of the world's greatest murder investigators and the cold cases they solve.  Darkly fascinating - NOT a book to read at lunch or just before bed!

Though I enjoyed (not the right word somehow) the book, the writing...  Stories were chopped up to add suspense and make you read another two chapters - which I found maddening - and the prose blushed purple at times, with a weird pulp-ish tone as it described the main characters' lives ...  Nevertheless, an absorbing read.

the mesh by Lisa Gansky.  A business/social trend book about businesses springing up where users share resources rather than each buying their own, businesses dependent on the internet and social media for their organization - like Netflix, Zipcar, or Kickstarter.  Interesting, though I'm not quite sure how this is qualitatively different from the lending libraries Jane Austen patronized in 1800.  Talking of tone - this book is written with that plain, flat, 'nilla wafer prose that bores me to tears.

Hollywood: a Third Memoir by Larry McMurtry.  I'm kinda flipping through this for the Hollywwood writer stories.  I'm not a big McMurtry fan.  Even Lonesome Dove, which I came to love, took me 300 pages to get into.

The Elephant to Hollywood, by Michael Caine.  Working through this one.  A nice lively tone - I bet he'd be fun at a dinner party, though a bit thick with the name-dropping.

In between all this I've read a few scripts (so-so, one interesting) and reread The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey.  It's worth hunting down!  A hilarious take on the writing of a novel.  One novelist I admire says she reads it after finishing each book and I see why - a perfect tonic for the artist in that frazzled-yet-elated stage when you've just finished a project.  I recommend this book highly.

Monday, March 7, 2011


This blog will not talk too much about critics, but I was amused to see that one who wrote a good review for Boeing Boeing liked my custom-built sofa because it was suggestive (in every sense)  of a particular masculine body part...

This illustrates where art critics both can come in handy and be misleading: because that idea never occurred to me.  (That I hadn't thought of it and the critic did says lots about both of us, I suspect.)  Once it's pointed out I can sorta see it.  Given the play, it's wonderfully appropriate.  Being alerted to this fact - if it is one - might add to understanding and enjoying the play - which is part of a critic's job.  So...

A.  Is this critic just reading into this work aspects of that critic's worldview?
B.  Is the critic seeing something my unconscious mind put there?  Consciously, I just remember calculating that a sofa was needed there of about that size and shape, sketching variations, making a requested change, then feeling that the final shape was "right."
C.  Don't over-think this!
D.  All of the above.

I gotta go with D.

Film Field Trip # 2 (or so)

True Grit -  Finally got to see this excellent western directed by the Coen Brothers.  I remember reading and liking the book long ago...  this film version captures its tough-minded quality.  Great performances all round.  Boy! I didn't even recognize Matt Damen until he spoke.  The girl was a pistol.  I loved the archaically proper diction of all the characters' speech.  It made me realize again how sloppily we all speak nowadays... can you imagine a double feature playing True Grit and, like, you know, the flic Clueless?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Film Festive!

It was Curmudgeon Night at the movies...

Despicable Me -  So much fun.  The viewer knows from the instant we see the cute little girls where this is headed... and that's much of the satisfaction.  Charmingly and imaginatively done (right down to super-villain toilet paper with a red V for Vector).  The final grace note is the minions' little competition during the credits. I laughed and laughed.

Ghost Town - Ricky Gervais as an unpleasant dentist who sees dead people.  Like Despicable Me, watching the film reach its expected ending is the fun of the thing. Nice to see Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni.

Pizza is a traditional movie food - and it was tasty - but to fit the theme it should have been those big movie house dill pickles.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On Reading...

There is an on-going debate on whether the our increasingly plugged-in click-the-screen world is somehow changing our brains.  And whether, for instance, we as a species are losing the ability to read Big Books.  Here's a great comment on the question from an article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books :

‘No one reads War and Peace,’ responds Clay Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University. ‘The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.’ (Woody Allen solved that problem by taking a speed-reading course and then reading War and Peace in one sitting. ‘It was about Russia,’ he said afterwards.) 


The latest excerpt from the "Design Methods" chapter of my set design book Alice Through the Proscineum.  (Why strain your eyes with this glow-y screen?  Buy a paperback at - it's more profitable, um,  restful!):

Start from Scratch -  Sometimes the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t the real problem.  It often isn’t the right problem.  (More of a concern in other types of design perhaps… I mean, there is going to be a show really, isn’t there?)  Naiveté helps: assume nothing, see clearly.  What is really going on?  As when Hewlett-Packard realized they weren’t really in the business of selling printers; the profits were in selling ink cartridges

Step Back -  Stop.  Look at the wall you are beating your head against.  Can you go round it instead?  Over it?  Under it?  Maybe blow it up?

Sleep on it -  Night can bring counsel.  Now and then, a problem that you fell asleep pondering will be solved by morning.  So take a quiet minute before starting the day to check for new-born ideas.  Dreams sometimes lead to something – though you sound like a dork if you admit it out loud.

Can’t Sleep? -  Fretting over stalled design can keep you awake, so practice putting work aside at bedtime.  A hot bath.  Chamomile tea.  Resist the idea that a true artist must live a bohemian life of too much booze and too little sleep.  Fun, yes, but counter-productive.  Monet advised artists to live like the bourgeoisie, with regular hours and excellent French food.  He 4.17 did okay work, by the way.

4.17 Oops.  It was Flaubert: “Be regular in your daily life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.”  Virginia Woolf also advised dining well, but mainly stressed having a good income and a room of one’s own.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Medals, Boris! Medals!"

(A favorite Woody Allen quote from Love and Death.)  There IS something a little grade-school-assembly about the idea of medals or trophies for artists, but who cares?

Harper Lee got a national arts medal for To Kill a Mockingbird!

One of great American novels.  Maybe THE Great American Novel.  (In my opinion it's a knock-down drag-out fight between Mockingbird and Huck Finn, with Steinbeck holding both authors' coats.)  To Kill a Mockingbird has been hugely important in dismantling Jim Crow and fighting race prejudice in our country and remains so today: a friend is painting a new a stage production of it as I type...  It's still read and loved.  One of my all-time most-loved books, Mockingbird had me at the word "teacakes" in the quote that follows:

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

That writer knows the South.  

Other winners I was thrilled to see?  Meryl Streep, James Taylor, and our local boy, Van Cliburn.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Incomparable Theater

Creditors:  I was lucky enough to see Broken Gear Project Theater's production of this August Strindberg play.  Easy to see what a delicate mechanism the play is... how quickly this love/hate triangle could slip into ranting or fossilize into one of those over-corseted classics where the back row audience snoozes.  Not here.  I never use the word "perfect" (it sounds so unlikely to be true), but I honestly can't think of a thing that could be improved.  Direction, sets, costumes, the sum of the parts including, most importantly, the wonderful performances... were just... right.

I admired the set and costumes.  The set was just a couple little bookend walls added to the jogs and corners of the existing space in what feels like an old garage.  There is a painted-over window and a cracked concrete floor.  All of this is simply painted over again in subtle shades of gray to suggest vertical boards that blur into a sea view - mostly a dark horizon line, pale water, lowering clouds, with the feeling of a Japanese ink brush painting.  Furniture is beautiful Victorian stuff, which either looks white-washed (and white upholstered) or gleams a little redly, like the actress's auburn hair.  Costumes take this delicate color game even farther, with gray, subtle shades of cream, palest green, hints of auburn, and in the gown, another green and a pale slate-y blue.  All nuance.

The play itself - which I'd never seen performed -  was a fascinating three-way duel of jealousy and mental-power games as written by a sort of evil Henry James (a contemporary).  All the characters were in their own ways, monsters.  This is going to sound fanciful, but it made me think of a delicate glass goblet, the kind made in Murano for Medicis and Borgias, filled with a white wine like crisp apples, all floral bouquet... and poisoned.
image borrowed from Rossana & Rossana 

Boeing Boeing:  A rollicking farce, set in the 1960s Paris about a man with three fiances, each one an air hostess - he just has to keep their schedules straight.  Could there be a greater contrast to Strindberg?  Mental whiplash!  Yet, you know, both plays are about men and women and love triangles/ rectangles/ pentangles (pentagons?).  I can't pretend to review Boeing, as I designed it, but I will say that directing and acting a farce are - in a utterly different way - just as difficult as in the most serious drama.  This farce is, I think, successfully accomplished and very funny.  As for the tech parts: the stewardess' uniforms are period correct in zippy colors and the set... well, when I read on page 2, "exit door # 7" I smacked my forehead.  Hard.  But amongst all those doors I did manage to sneak in a few playful views of Paris and some bright, '60s art.

Apples versus oranges?  At least those are both fruit - these two plays are poisoned apples versus orange shag carpeting.  Impossible to compare.  Except... maybe... both productions are souffles.
image borrowed from flikr

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Designer's Day

One of the great, fun, satisfying things about a theater designer's life is that each day is different.

Last week was filled with painting and set dressing days.  With shopping days and driving days and lugging-stuff days.  Today turned into a talk-to-people day... though, as we talked, a certain amount of painting happened.  Quite a bit of painting, actually, on a friend's set, plus a little loaning out of models and drawings to another friend with a class that's learning about set design, and, tonight, seeing yet another friend's show.

Meanwhile, there are shows waiting on my board: waiting for this weekend's scribbles to turn (magically!) into neat construction drawings; or for a scattering of vague back-of-my-mind ideas to jell into a coordinated design. Tomorrow will be a drawing day.

Film Fest

Finally got to watch The Social Network.  A fascinating film that is (according to Wikipedia) 40% true.  A clever screenplay, I thought, and good performances, because the subject could have been rather dry - the legal wrestling over profits and credit for what boils down to the writing of a lot of lines of computer code?  Amazing that it could turn into a riveting movie.

Just as, I suppose, a king's stammer seems a slight foundation for another gripping film, The King's Speach.

Just goes to show that the success of a piece of art is not really about its subject so much as how that subject is handled.