Thursday, June 30, 2011

Archaic Technologies

My college had architectural drawings for some of its oldest buildings - drawn in ink with a ruling pen on linen.  When I started in architecture, construction drawings were hand drafted using lead on a 100% rag paper called vellum.  Shortly after - briefly - it was ink on Mylar, a frosted clear plastic.  Now computer drafting is back to ink, but on bond paper.

Reproducing drawings was, in olden days, a matter of tracing by hand onto translucent paper.  (In the late 1960s a school kid had to trace illustrations for a report - no copiers yet.)  Blueprints came, then blue-lines, then sepias and black-line prints... all Diazo prints made with chemically treated papers rolled through a printer that fumigated them with ammonia.  (Boy! did it smell and did a papercut ever sting!)  In the Mylar days, some drawings were made on multiple layers and assembled with pin-bars (to hold them registered with each other), then printed on a flat-bed printer.  The intern who printed these got to throw their body on the flat-bed to try to keep it flat and keep air bubbles out.  Now the computer's ink-jet plotter makes as many copies as you like.  

What comes next?
public domain image of an architect at his drafting board

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Authorial, um, Authority?

As all this blogging may have hinted (foreshadowing!) that I now and then write.  Non fiction, like Alice.  Now and then I even commit fiction.  But as any of you, Gentle readers, who have tried your hand at fiction know... authors are supposed to be authorities within their own books - all that "omniscient narration" - but still characters fight back.

My favorite steam-punk web-comic recently had a post about that: 2D Goggles OR The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.  (Based on real 19th C persons, mixing science, math, mayhem, and monkeys.)

image borrowed from 2D Goggles by Sydney Padua

The great detective novelist Dorothy Sayers also talks about the free-will of characters in her Mind of the Maker.  She believed in authorial authority.  "Too much attention should not be paid to those writers who say (holding one the while with a fixed and hypnotic gaze): 'I don't really invent the plot, you know - I just let the characters come into my mind and let them take charge of it.'  Writers who work this way do not, as a matter of brutal fact, usually produce very good books."  Read one of hers.  Murder Must Advertise is a great Golden Age mystery, starring her detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cool Links

Check out links to all sorts of mostly design-y subjects at my Squidoo page: Parsnip Pie.


Advice to design by from Strunk and White's "The Little Book"  The Elements of Style:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

This dictum holds as true in visual design as in writing.

Monday, June 27, 2011


It's been a while, but here's a new excerpt from my theater set design book Alice Through the Proscenium, from the "Design Elements" chapter: 

Line – A strong horizon line, maybe, or the stripes of columns or floor.  Lines are straight or curved, vertical, horizontal, or diagonal.  Every edge of the set creates a line you need to understand.  Composition.  One thing to beware is a diagonal across the stage which pulls the audience’s eyes back to… what?  A nasty sucking void?  Or the family refrigerator-shrine?
Pattern – That black and white checkered floor, that plaid sofa.  Control it.  Strong pattern distracts.  Or becomes a joke as in The Invisible Circus, where the performer wore a tapestry coat and blended with the tapestry wall… until he moved.  Play games with pattern: establish a black and white grid like a checkered marble floor, then turn a few squares into puzzle pieces or ducks.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Butchering Shakespeare

Looking for a speech from Othello, I happened upon a website (can't find it now) that "translates" Shakespearian into English.  A sample follows, below:

CASSIO (in Bardish): Reputation! Reputation! Reputation!  Oh I have lost my reputation!  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.

Hard to, you know, get the gist of that, isn't it?  I mean, what's the fuss about?

CASSIO (new and improved):  My reputation!  My reputation!  I've lost my reputation, the longest-living and truest part of myself!  Everything in me is just animal-like.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lunch 'N Learn on Blogging etc.

Rainmaker Advertising held an interesting lunch seminar recently on how to create web-content.  (Like this.)

The secrets of SEO and Cloud words and Tags and other arcana were demystified.  It seems the way to Attract Traffic and Clicks and Stuff... is it just flat write things worth reading.  No escape from hard work, huh?  Along with the resident Rainmaker expert was a very interesting speaker, Joseph Crisalli, who is a writer of historical novels and a blogger at  For me, it was really useful to hear an author talking about using the internet to promote his books.  The old Author's Platform... all those blogs, articles, interviews on Oprah needed to shill a few books.  More work than writing the book, frankly.

Oh!  BTW  I have now sold my first copy of Alice Through the Proscenium overseas!  My book, you know.  In Great Britain.  It sounds so swanky: "I have foreign sale."  It'll sound all the better when I sell another:
"Foreign Sales!"  Should have made that one book a two-fer deal, huh?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lots O' Snippets - Snippet Central

For those of you, Gentle Readers, who need a small project, here's a link-list to all my earlier Snippets from the "Design Methods" chapter of Alice Through the Proscenium.  You can catch up!  It might be useful, whatever you design project: at some level, Design is Design.

#1 - Brainstorming
#2 - Collage
#3 - Happy Accidents
#4 - Logic  
#5 - System & Be Dumb
#6 - Inspiration & Guides
#7 - Go-Bys
#8 - Comparables & Talk
#9 - Bubble Diagrams
#10 - Ask Questions & Diary & Drawing
#11 - Crutches  
#12  - Color
#13  - Minimalism & Reduction & Can't Beat It Join It & Contrairywise
#14   - Start From Scratch & Step Back & Sleep On It & Can't Sleep?
#15 - Real Estate & Fermentation & Take A Break
#16 - Designer's Block & Fear & The Bad Version & Prejudices & Rules & Habits
#17 - Experiment 
#18 - Criticism
#19 - Creativity

Books on CD - The Traveler's Friends

Many of my shows this season have been in Fort Worth - a 100 mile round trip - so I try to make fewer, more efficiently planned and productive trips!  I also take along a book on CD.

I've driven my way through several classics that, reading all by myself, I might not have finished:  Beowulf, transformed into English poetry and read by Seamus Heaney was terrific and so was The Odyssey read by Ian McKellen.  I found myself driving in time to the rythm of the verse.  On the lighter side, P. G. Wodehouse is pretty good company.  My favorite is still Michael Chabon's Summerland, (earlier post HERE) a wonderful, imaginative tale.

But at Half Price Books...  Do you have one?  A treasure-trove of a used bookstore!  Ahem.  At Half Price Books recently there were irresistible CD books:  Alcott's Little Women crazy-cheap; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, THE time-travel-romance-adventure book which, as my elderly mother phrases it, "gets a little warm"; and the charming Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.

Almost makes me want to drive to Fort Worth.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's Summer!

Taking time to smell the...
For the next couple weeks blog posts will be sporadic as I...  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Goodness

Ha!  Thought I'd abandoned books for... ?  What, really COULD replace a good book?  I'm currently reading or rereading or madly skimming:

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser - a fascinating look by an economist at the life and death of cities and why they are Mankind's Greatest Hope.  His discussion of the rise, fall, rise-again of New York City and poor Detroit's current plight is interesting...  As an architect I find his a useful switch in perspective.  Highly recommend this one.

Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe - This book was written to teach thinking skills to Japanese school children, then became a hit in Japanese business.  Now it's reminding (probably teaching) the rest of the world the steps in making rational decisions.  Useful!

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp - every artist and entrepreneur ought to read this.  All about the importance of preparation and habits in creativity.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris - Very funny Aesop-esque tales about our furry friends... which turn out to be about ourselves and not always so friendly.  Illustrated.  I'm half way through, but, you know, those animals are getting kinda disgusting... They're animals!  Also I'm a little frightened to read the story illustrated with the impolite end of a rhinoceros.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bill Gates's House

Researching for a theater set, I went hunting for photos of Bill Gates's house.  Although it's listed on architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's website as "private client" it's identified elsewhere on the internet...  Besides, who else could afford this?

An interesting (and large) "green" house in the unostentatious regional wooden style.  Inside, it has some rather deconstructivist detailing.  Click on the link below the photo to go to an Examiner article that has more photos.

Question: is it still "green" when a single family house reaches 50-60,000 SF?
image borrowed from the "Celebrity Homes"


For the last year or so I've been mentoring a younger set designer - a lot of fun!  Mostly it's been a matter of talking through our various shows, figuring out what went wrong or right and why, of helping each other paint sets or set dress in crunch-time, and of show-N-telling designs as they develop.

So today I showed photos of my As You Like It and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress sets, while my apprentice brought his latest set model - a painted model - for The Mikado at Garland Civic Theatre.  I won't Spoiler that set... I'll just give you a tiny taste:

renderings for The Mikado by Joseph

New Work Reading

I've been so nutsy-busy I haven't gotten to do much with this year's New Works Festival at Kitchen Dog Theater.  (Bad dog!)  But I did get to the reading for last night's Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  This play by Lauren Gunderson was hilarious!  About a serious issue - domestic abuse - it was nevertheless very very funny.  And quotable: the best line I remember (others flew by too fast) was the wife, hoping her unborn child is a boy because, "My goal is to repopulate the world with gentlemen."

If you've never been to the reading of a new work - go!  It is exciting to hear new material and to see actors grapple with it raw; there's a special camaraderie to audience and cast; and it's fascinating to see how a text works, stripped of "production values" like costumes and set (did I say that?).  For this piece I kinda vote don't ever give it a set - not a realistic one - because the mental pictures evoked by read descriptions and stage directions are funnier than reality is likely to be.  Loved it.

Still a few performances of Ponzi left - go see a new play!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Film Fest Outing - Super Eight

I finally got to see this new film, Super Eight.  Enjoyed it!  A good take-the-kids popcorn movie, perfect for summer, with likable characters and enough surprises, excitement, and feeling to reward the viewer.  Don't leap up to leave as soon as the movie is over - there's a nice extra along with the credits.

Super Eight does, as I'd read, have a real classic-Spielberg feel to it, but not in a copy-cat or homage way exactly...  it's more like it could have been made at the same time as E.T.  For one thing, the late '70s setting and costumes don't have that exaggerated look that "period" films tend to have - where the hallmarks of the period's style are too obvious and the viewer has to keep saying, "Wow!  Look at the period color/hairdo/car etc."  Of course, those things are there - you can't help but notice the bulk of the electronics, for instance - but there's no tongue-in-cheek coyness to it.  (Unlike the great enormous mobile phone joke in the Wall Street sequel.)  Subtle production design.

There are obvious parallels in plot and characters between this film and E.T....  actually, what it feels like to me, is an E.T. made by a Spielberg who, a few years older, had suffered through Vietnam.  This film's world is darker, more dangerous, and much more violent and cruel.  The hero's mother, for instance, doesn't just die young like Snow White's, she's killed in a brutal industrial accident.  The powers that be are not just unthinkingly unkind as in E.T. but malevolent.  But love does exist and is powerful and self-sacrificing - and the young hero is truly heroic.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ethics and Morals of Theater

Theater has historically gotten a bad rap... and a bad rep.  Actors, actresses, the Stage in general have been thought depraved, immoral, flat-out sinful.  Here's a quote from Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential 1869 book, The American Woman's Home (which, no kiddin' I happened to read right before watching Five Women Wearing the Same Dress):

"Another rule which has been extensively adopted in the religious world is, to avoid those amusements which experience has shown to be so exciting, and connected with so many temptations, as to be pernicious in tendency, both to the individual and to the community...  So with theaters.  The enacting of characters and the amusement thus afforded in themselves may be harmless; and possibly, in certain cases, might be useful; but experience has shown so many evils to result from this source, that it has been deemed wrong to patronize it...  Horse-races might be so managed as not to involve cruelty, gambling, drunkenness, and other vices.  And so might theaters.  And if serious and intelligent persons undertook to patronize these, in order to regulate them, perhaps they would be somewhat raised from the depths to which they have sunk."

There you have it, theater = pernicious.  And yet...

At the Opening party I got to chat with theater buddies.  There's generally some Drama going on somewhere to discuss, but last night's was a doozy:  a local actor (different show) refused to perform because the audience was, he deemed, too small.  General shock and horror.  FaceBook outrage.  And I truly was shocked, because the famous "the show must go on" really is bedrock ethics in this community.  The rest of the world may think theater people immoral, but that is untrue, their moral code is just different...  What was Beecher Stowe's list:  "cruelty, gambling, drunkenness, and other vices"?  Sounds like a good party!  (BTW She missed, or was too prudish to mention, licentiousness.)

But never let the show or audience down.  That's unethical.

I doubt that actor will be cast in many shows after this - the directors are all in an uproar.  And the audience happened to be a critic so... word will spread.  As Cassius from Othello puts it:

"Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!"
illustration from Othello courtesy of Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (Public Domain)

Opening for "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress"

A successful Opening for Five Women last night!

Always nice when there's a good-sized crowd.  The cast did a great job, very funny, and properly upsetting at the upsetting parts... From a design standpoint, it was a good looking show.  The set finally came together in its butter (not egg-yolk) yellow and '80s powder blue Laura Ashley florality and the moment when the first bridesmaid enters in her insanely clashing bright FUSHIA satin dress is a visual ewwwwwwwww!  Those dresses are a great costume designer statement - all identical, yet each individually awful on each individual wearer.  I have to say, a collection of lovely women, each in her own style.

The audience seemed to enjoy the show - you can too!  At Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Copyright and Public Domain

Here's the best statement (okay rant) on public domain material that I've seen lately.  Also kinda funny.  At VintagePrintable.  Here's an excerpt:

"Disclaimer and waiver *sigh*: Vintage Printable can’t guarantee anything in life. If anyone wants an image removed, please send e mail. Also *sigh* no representations or warranties about anything to anyone, including that the images actually are public domain or otherwise have no restrictions on use, or warranties of merchantability or any other kind of warranty. Each user is fully responsible for their own use of these images and recognizes Vintage Printable is not responsible in any way for anything. Users understand that we believe the images are free to use, and are not carriers of some awful computer bug or some other terror that will crash the internets *Sigh*. Of course we can’t guarantee anything, or give any kind of legal, copyright or advice about your life in general, so if you are at all concerned, find your trusted adviser and ask them..."

It's almost as funny as one of my favorite passages of Terry Pratchett in Truth, a warranty for a Gooseberry TM  Disorganizer MKII:

"This device is provided without warranty of any kind as to reliability, accuracy, existence or otherwise or fitness for any particular purpose and Bioalchemic Products specifically does not warrant, guarantee, imply or make any representations as to its merchantability for any particular purpose and furthermore shall have no liability for or responsibility to you or any other person, entity or deity with respect of any loss or damage whatsoever caused by this device or object or by any attempts to destroy it by hammering it against a wall or dropping it into a deep well or any other means whatsoever and moreover asserts that you indicate your acceptance of this agreement or any other agreement that may be substituted at any time by coming within five miles of the product or observing it through large telescopes or by any other means because you are such an easily cowed moron who will happily accept arrogant and unilateral conditions on a piece of highly priced garbage that you would not dream of accepting on a bag of dog biscuits and is used solely at your own risk."

What is with our society anyway? An excess of lawyers?  
Well, there's an obvious cure for that!

Must See Theater This Weekend!

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress OPENS tonight!
Click over to Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and read all about it.
Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival finale:
PONZI by Elaine Romero
Thurs - Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm (June 19)*  Wed @ 8pm (June 22)
* Talkback with the actors and director following the performance
And staged readings:
Sat. June 19th @ 1pm
Sat. June 18 @  4pm
(EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR) by Lauren Gunderson
Sun. June 19 @ 7pm

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stage Design Exhibit

This is old, old news, but I saw this exhibit of David Hockney's stage designs when it came through Fort Worth. Today I found this write up about it in the New York Times:  "Hockney Paints the Stage."
And a brand new article in The Independent.  Enjoy.
image borrowed from The Independent, just ask and it shall be removed!

Hockney's wonderfully quotable: "I love working in the theatre," Hockney says. "The people are tolerant, they know about human frailty, they're not mean-spirited..."

Dallas' Architectural Magazine

The Dallas AIA (that's the American Institute of Architects to you in the cheap seats) sends out a monthly magazine called Columns.  Frankly, it's never been the prize of my mailbox catch... until lately.  But now?

The present AIA chapter president, David Zatopek, can write!  (More elegantly than I.)  What's more, he writes about thoughtful subjects.  The rest of the mag follows his lead with a 30th year retrospective that's chock full o' nutty articles: a piece on influential early Dallas architects; another on archiving drawings; a piece on State Fair Park, one of the great collections of Art Deco; a photo-essay on restored houses; and a playfully written page (playful?  AIA?  together??) on the fraught relationship between architects and contractors.

Read HERE.

The "President's Letter" is about the loss to architects as technology and modern practice take us farther from the dirty hand-work of construction and even from the dirty shirt cuffs of hand-drafting.  Gothic architects were masons who built cathedrals with their own hands - we don't even draw first hand, but once-removed by CAD.

I agree.  There is something wonderfully real - and instructive - in thinking through a design by drawing, erasing, redrawing, or in wrestling with real materials under real conditions, whether it's weather, mud, deadlines, or the obstinacy of concrete as it's poured.  The nature of materials, like the grain of wood, can inspire.  And it's deeply satisfying to create with your hands.  One of the things I love about theater work is that I get my hands dirty.  (Or my leg to the knee.)

So I will quote David here: "What have you really made today?"
image by J. F. Millet, public domain courtesy of WikiPaintings

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

History of Graphic Design

Just tootling around the internet, I found this terrific site giving a History of Graphic Design.  With a particularly nice section on the history of the Poster.
image believed public domain, courtesy of

New Poetry

British poet John Siddique has a new book out - Full Blood.  Ours is one of those blogging-acquaintances where we've never actually met in, you know, person, but he seems cool even virtually.  Anyway, here's a poem from the book that I really like:

Imagine thirst without knowing water.
And you ask me what freedom means.
Imagine love without love.
Some things are unthinkable,
until one day the unthinkable is here.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Some things we assume just are as they are,
no action is taken to make or sustain them.
Imagine love without love.
It is fear that eats the heart: fear and
endless talk, and not risking a step.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Fold away your beautiful thoughts.
Talk away curiosity, chatter away truth.
Imagine love without love.
Imagine believing in the whispers,
the screams and the gossip. Dancing to a tune
with no song to sing inside you.
Imagine love without love.

© John Siddique 2011
from Full Blood (Salt Publishing, 2011).


It'd be easier to see the orderly, step-by-step process of designing then building and completing a theater set, if you didn't always overlap one stage with another...  For instance, I'm at the last stages of finishing Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, but also in the earliest stages of reading and talking to the director for Sara Ruhl's In the Next Room: or the Vibrator Play.  While, on my drafting board, are first scribbles for Becky's New Car.

But it's not just that one show overlaps another - on the same stage, same show, one stage of completion often nudges against another.  Yesterday set dressing for Five Women was (mostly) completed, yet today I need to go back and repaint the floor where ladders scarred it.  (Ladders for delayed arch painting and chandelier hanging.)  So there I'll be, juggling clumsy paint buckets and drippy brushes, trying not to klutz paint on fabrics or rugs, or to break china, just like a toddler loose in her big sister's dollhouse. Overlap!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Unexpected Find

Hunting for an illustration for my last post - "critic public domain" didn't yield much.  But I did stumble over this public domain photo of this magical garden sculpture:
The Mud Maiden, a sculpture by Sue and Pete Hill at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, in Cornwall, U.K.


Another good review in for As You Like It (Trinity Shakespeare in general).

Funny, as much as reviews encourage or depress the reviewed-upon-one, they have relatively little effect: one producer told me a great review only adds 10% in ticket sales.  Any review gets the word out.  I've found that individual reviews - fantastic ("stunningly brilliant") or terrible ("crappy") - don't seem to have much immediate effect on a career... though their accumulation does.

(I've seen one critic campaign, over many reviews, to get a designer fired - and succeed.  The reviewer has started another campaign, so far inconclusive; I'm rootin' for the excellent designer!  Not me BTW though as a bystander I caught a little shrapnel.  Not me yet.)

But a review's effect isn't always what you'd expect.  If, say, a set gets mentioned favorably first in a review, such prominent praise is not always helpful to a designer's relationship to every director in the world... understandable, if they get dinged in the same review, but maybe even if that director gets praised in second place...

Of course, most theater people "don't read reviews."

There's a great NPR "Fresh Air" interview with actor Robert Duval where he quotes an early painful review - remembering it decades later, word for word.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dress Rehearsal

Watched the Five Women dress rehearsal/Tech last night.

Set design is kinda funny...  Tech and Dress, which are such very BIG deals to the rest of the design team, cast, and crew, are (unless the set moves a lot) dull for the set designer.  Although its interesting, even fascinating, to see the show on its feet, as far as getting your own work done, you kinda wish everyone would get out of your way and let you: staple down the new rugs, straighten that lampshade, paint that piece of wall, install that "wallpaper" etc.  At this stage the set designer and crew can feel... alienated?  Also tired.

But the run through looked good!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Film Fest Wedged into Tech

Rewatched The King's Speech - which holds up to a second viewing well.  (See my original notes on it HERE.)

But that was late yesterday, wedged into a pretty busy Tech Weekend for Five Women.

Among the funny skills a set designer needs - in theaters without the budget or staff of big regional or university stages - you need to be able to fake upholstery.  On stage you can get away with crudities like staples or hot glue that would never do in a living room, but work still needs to be neat and must stand up to harder use than at home.  So yesterday I wrestled with creating a smooth seat cushion on a rhomboid shaped window seat (padded with three separate pieces of foam)... where actresses sit, stand, and wriggle too much.  I also re-covered the dressing table's chair (keeping fabric stripes very straight) and created two seat cushions for borrowed chairs.  To protect their cane seats, the cushions have plywood under the padding, making upholstery a matter of stapling, not sewing.  Much easier.  To finish these blue moire satin cushions off, I stapled a blue-n-yellow rope trim round the edges and added a pair of blue ropes with tassels at the rear corners, as if to tie the cushions in place.  Très élégant. Upholstery, drapery, wallpapering, painting... the set designer is Jack-of-all-decorating-trades.
Today I am finding, copying, cutting, matting, and framing art.  Tomorrow I'll hang it.  And set dress.  Busy!

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Here is the next excerpt from the "Design Elements" chapter of my set design book, Alice Through the Proscenium:

Volume Some theaters are low and squat, making it difficult to suggest the spaciousness or vistas your play may need. 5.1  (Views through a window or over a wall can help.)  In other spaces, hanger-like emptiness drowns the actor… That, of course, depends on the actor: in one production, one couple had a fight in the bedroom and seemed to flail in a limitless void; next scene, same bedroom, the next couple folded a bedspread and filled the space.  (For the too much volume problem, dropping in a soffit, cornice, or chandelier can help.)  Remember that solid and void and volume create shape and form.

Balance – The classic approach to balance in design is symmetry.  A drawing of a symmetrical design can be folded in half and match: imagine a colonnade with three equal arches centered on the stage.  Symmetrical arrangements are automatically balanced and pleasing, but, because they’re predictable, can be a bit dull.  Classical logic also places the large or heavy object at the bottom and the small or light object on top, as a wise child stacks blocks.  Symmetry can be suited to classical authors or periods. Mozart maybe or Moliere, the Greeks…

The other type of balance is asymmetrical balance.  Now, instead of one side of the stage mirroring the other, imagine center stage as the pivot point of an old-fashioned see-saw.  On one side, balance a single, blocky, visually heavy element, on the other, a couple tall, thin, light elements - maybe a bulky fireplace versus tall windows.  Japanese prints perfected the asymmetrical.

As with arranging flowers, an odd number helps  - a dozen roses look better in a vase if one becomes a boutonnière – so place 3 or 5, not 4 roses or windows.  Balanced asymmetry is harder than symmetry, but may arguably better represent the modern world.  Maybe Harold Pinter sees the world thus lop-sided?

5.1  As Shakespeare once put it, “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?”

Set Designer's Life

Today was an upholstery and rug-buying day: 3 chairs and 3 rugs.  Set dressing is coming along for Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.


The first review for As You Like It, from Fort Worth's newspaper, is a good one.  All the performances are praised and kind mention is made of the set... so I'm happy.

Go see for yourself!  Tickets HERE.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Like It!

I watched Trinity Shakespeare's As You Like It last night... really liked it.  Always a relief, after working on a show, to like the result, but this production is, I think, good Shakespeare.  Strongly cast, well acted and directed, and looks great, with a nice set (if I say it myself) and gorgeous lighting and 1900's costumes.  The clowns are excellent: foolish/wise Touchstone and melancholy Jaques.  While Rosalind and Celia... shoot! all the actors are good.  But the astonishing part is that the production captures the giddiness of love at first sight, the silly, dizzy delight - and goofiness! - of infatuation.

Quick!  Dash off to TCU to see this charming (air conditioned!) summer Shakespeare.  Playing in repertory with "The Scottish Play" or as we called it "Mackers."  (It being thought unlucky to say the name out loud in a theater: you know, "Macbeth."  Sssh!)  I haven't seen this yet, but the set is terrific.

Did you know the phrase "too much of a good thing" is the Bard's?

Harry Potter Watch

Tonight's Film Fest was rewatching the latest in the Harry Potter film remind myself what happened last time in preparation for the next - and last - installment which open July 15th.

I have to say that I've enjoyed both the books and the movies.  Plus I absolutely love the fact that someone can reach into their own head, pull out an idea, write it, and become richer than the Queen of England!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Coolo Links

Take a look at some Squidoo sites with links to favorites of mine or just interesting info:

Parsnip Pie - arts and design links
Alice Through the Proscenium - the site for The Book

Film Catch-Up

I re-watched Atonement the other night.  Romantic, tragic, beautifully filmed.  This is an odd story - usually, if I like something, I like it in any format (if well done, of course), for instance, I love Lord of the Rings in any form... book, film... it'd make a great opera, I think.  Ditto tales of King Arthur.  The Arthurian stories work as: epic poetry, Idylls of the King; as a musical, Camelot; as several very different novels, including The Once and Future King and, focusing on Merlin, The Crystal Cave and its sequels.  (Avoid First Knight, a terrible movie - Richard Gere as Lancelot?  As bad as Tony Curtis.) A good story keeps working.

But Atonement...  the switcheroo ending is powerful in film.  In the critically acclaimed book it just... makes me mad.  Furious.  The author breaks the unspoken agreement between writer and reader:  "If you, the Reader, invest your emotions in my characters' fates, I, the Writer, promise to make it worthwhile."  It's okay for a writer to harrow a reader's feelings if that's well done and satisfying, but it's not okay to cheat.  A reader invests a lot of time in a novel, while a movie watcher only invests a couple hours, maybe that's why I was willing to be shocked but satisfied(ish) with the film version, but royally teed-off by the book?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A big part of any scenic design gig is the scheduling - somehow making sure that you're always in the right place at the right time... with the right clothes (for painting? Opening? hot warehouse?) and with whatever it is that you're hauling around at the moment.

Today's haulage is: 2 small rugs; 1 windowbox plus silk greenery (ivy); more silk greenery (wisteria); 2 lamp shades; 2 bookcase units (flat-packed a la IKEA).
Yesterday's haulage was: 6 gallons of paint (various colors); all the fabric for the show (20 + yards, 4 fabrics); and a hand-sewn slip-cover-cushion for the ottoman (completed along with Veronica Mars).

So far all the stuff has been getting delivered on time, but I omitted somehow to write "Designers' Run" on my calendar, so... surprise!  My dinner was late.  Like 10:00 p.m.  Scheduling!

M & Ms pulled me through till then.

Crazy Busy!

By some measures (sheer sweat, say) a fully realistic set is the easiest thinkin' but hardest labor for a set designer... at least for one without a scenic painter and a set dresser.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is set in a the bedroom of a young, wealthy, Southern woman in the late '80s/early '90s during the garden wedding reception of her sister.  The theater - once a church - has a handsome arch on-stage and, using this, her bedroom becomes even grander.  I imagine that this nouveau riche family restored an neoclassical house.  To capture the house, period, and milieu, we're going all Laura Ashley florals, wood floors (painted), wallpaper, etc.  Fun to find and assemble.

But all of which I (with help from the prop designer, thank goodness!) have to find, haul, place, paint, sew, staple...  By Friday.  Oh, and consult with the builder too, first thing today - then IKEA, Garden Ridge...  Where are my paint clothes?

I feel hot and exhausted just thinking about it.

(BTW On Monday we pulled furniture from the Dallas Theater Center warehouse - thanks DTC! - it was 100 degrees F outside; inside it was so hot that carpenter's glue was melting and making chair legs wobbly.)

As You Like It opens tomorrow at TCU in Fort Worth.  Come see!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

High School Noire

I just finished Veronica Mars at lunch.  A really good TV show.   (Seasons 1 and 2 better than 3, though it perked up.)  Imagine Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe reincarnated as a petite blonde walking the mean hallways of Neptune High, a town with no middle class, just millionaires and the little people who work for millionaires... maid, gardener... Veronica gets to be a barrista.  And a precocious private eye.  There's a Buffy flavor to the teen setting and snappy dialogue and it's funny, but this cup of Joe is strictly non-fat-non-vamp, an expresso-dark detective show, with an extra shot of class consciousness and nihilism.

Veronica is tough enough to handle it.  But, as her BFF Wallace points out:

"You really think I'm gonna let you get away with that?  That might play with the masses, but underneath that angry young woman shell, there's a slightly less angry young woman who's just dying to bake me something.  You're a marshmallow, Veronica Mars.  A Twinkie."


Monday, June 6, 2011

Addendum to the Last Post

Woody Allen's website.  With a trailer for Midnight in Paris.  The "Projects" section has audio clips of Allen reading bits from his writing - worth listening to.

Film Fest Goes to Paris!

Run out and buy a ticket to Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris.

The auditorium at the Magnolia was filled with long-time Woody Allen fans (more gray hair than usual in West Village).  The gray-hairs were rewarded for their patience with Allen's hit-or-miss late career with this lovely, romantic, nostalgic, funny, surprising, and whimsical trip to the City of Lights.

A valentine to Paris.  A valentine to and a clear-eyed  analysis of the whole idea of an earlier, more golden age.  Those Good Old Days.  What is the appeal of the remembered or imagined past?  As one character remarks, "the present is a little unsatisfying, because life is a little unsatisfying."

The film is beautifully cast (Chock-Full-O'-Stars) and looks enchanting (Ahhh, Paris) and its tone is much more cheerful than in many recent Allen films.  Wilson's character takes midnight strolls that bring him to Paris of the twenties, where he hangs out with artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dali.  The audience gets to tag along.
image courtesy of Sony Classics

My only quibbles are uneveness of tone when a (very funny) joke is dropped late into the film - maybe it needed another, balancing joke earlier?  And the role of Fiance is played too one-note, too obviously hostile too early...  I think it would work better if she started out more I'm-just-teasing-sweetheart then morphed into a Shakespearian scold.  But who cares?  This is a terrific movie.  Anyone up on their early-modern Western Culture will enjoy it - so much fun! to meet Luis Bunel, Dali (Adrien Brody enjoying himself), and especially Gertrude Stein (our own Kathy Bates).  But even if your cultural history is a bit rusty, it's a magic carpet ride.

I'm making room on my shelf for the DVD.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Part of the interest, for me, in one of my present shows has been to watch this director at work...

This production, more than most, has been about process, feeling a way toward  the script; this director, more than most, has been willing to cut deadwood. Understand that it's common - especially with classic material - to approach the story with a slant, with that "vision" directors are famous for. This is needed.  As it was once explained to me, "someone has to drive the bus." Nice when the driver has a direction, y'know?

But there's danger that an early idea can drive the production too far or in the wrong direction - a no-exit toll road. An original thought may be vital as a starting motor, but later stall progress. There is, of course, a strong ego-incentive to NOT change; flexibility can feel like failure, not just a necessary stage of development.  (Bystanders don't usually get it, for instance.)  Ego can curse a creative project.  You have to be able to step away to evaluate what the project (not your ego) needs.

I learned this myself on Sweeny Todd, when the image in my head of St. Paul's in the Blitz helped me start, but needed to be cut finally because it confused other people.  My set for As You Like It is somewhat that way - I needed to take a (almost literal) machete and cut "deadwood' that just didn't work on stage.  I was embarrassed - I hate to waste people's time - but the set is unquestionably better.  Now I feel better too.

Fascinating - encouraging! - to see a director be equally ruthless in pruning his own work, cutting a first idea to stay in touch with the show.  To create simplicity.

Editing can be the most powerful design tool.  Design with an eraser.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hunt and Seek

Fabric warehouses are fun!  Some beautiful things.  And, after 5 visits, I managed to track down a great fabric in the right colors to use as "wallpaper" for Five Women Wearing the Same Dress... unfashionable colors and pattern and all.


I had a really productive, collaborative meeting with a director the other day... working out the design for Circle Theatre's production of Becky's New Car.  Rare.  Really rare.  Here's a link to an earlier post on what (I think) is needed to achieve it.

This fun meeting was held at my house, because my ride refused to start.  Again!  (Link to that saga, for those interested.)  But boy did my Firestone dealer - which installed the faulty starter - respond well!  I was very impressed.  I mean, I had three guys from the shop on my driveway almost instantly and a fixed-for-free car back on my drive same day.  Amazing.

This vehicular hitch delayed me visiting Tech on As You Like It until the next day: the production is going to be beautiful I think (acting and design "beautiful").

It also delayed my shopping for fabrics for Five Woman Wearing the Same Dress.  For that we email-ordered an actual Laura Ashley bedspread.  Now that that's arrived I'm trying to find a coordinating striped fabric for "wallpaper"... but these late '80s early '90s colors are out of style, so I'm having a hard time.  Today's blues are tinged with green, while this is a pretty pure blue-blue.  And the director and producers prefer a buttery yellow to an egg-yolk-y one, also an unfashionable choice.  The two colors together?   Aaaargh!

I've worked through all my favorite fabric shops - more fabric shopping today.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Film Festing

A funny assortment of film and TV today:

I made my first visit to Austin's famed Alamo drafthouse last weekend (the S. Lamar venue) to re-watch the latest Pirates movie.  I liked it better the second time: I wasn't distracted by waiting for things I hoped would be in the movie, thus free to enjoy what actually was but, most importantly, the goofy pre-show pirate theme film clips (of the Disney Pirates ride, a You Tube-ish ad for home-made pirate capes with a charmingly bored kid modeling them, a baaaad pirate music video, a cardboard boat captained by a real cat in a pirate hat etc.) and the silly 3D glasses put me in the proper mood for this romp.  Plus my burger was very good.

I watched a weird alien-attack film called Skyline that, up to the end, was a not that memorable B or even C movie with remarkably silly alien biology that required human brains... but the ending!  (See end of post for Spoiler, if you like.)

Still working my way through Battlestar Galactica - and the writers still keep their mastery of The Cliffhanger, curse them.  My fingernails are getting sore with all this nail-biting and cliff-hanging!  Also working through Veronica Mars, a show I'm enjoying more and more.

And the latest Woody Allen is out!  Midnight in Paris.  And sounds good!!  Must See!!!

BIG SPOILER for SKYLINE: All that silly brain removal?  The film actually ends with the good guys getting sucked up into the alien ship and the Hero's brain removed and "his" alien (the one with his brain) recognizing the Girl and...  mind-blowing.  Almost enough to make 2 hours of lame dialogue and action worth the kick at the end.  Weird!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Staggering Onwards


Today is a busy one: a meeting with the director on the next Circle Theatre production, Becky's New Car (don't forget to see the one onstage now - Marvin's Room - very good); fabric shopping at the outlet stores on Harry Hines for Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, which is a'building; and a visit to Fort Worth to take a peek at the cue-to-cue Tech of As You Like It.

Even when I'm bummed, a day in theater is a good day.


A re-design-y sort of day yesterday.  Bummed today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Green Building

Yesterday I walked around the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, southwest of Austin, Texas.  This is one of my all-time favorite places in the world, a beautiful melding of site, purpose, and building.

Built of local limestone with the galvanized metal roofs traditional for Texas ranch buildings, the Wildflower Center shows what kindly neighbors architecture and nature can be.  Buildings take advantage of the irregularly sloping site, existing trees and views, passive solar shading, and were some of the first public buildings to collect rainwater.  The collection system is pragmatic (green, back when green was just a color) but also playful - a rain-sculpture I've always wanted to see during a real gully-washer!  Climbing the cistern/tower is one of the joys of the design.  So is the beehive-dome room half way up; the masons get a plaque with their names and that plaque is deserved.

Between and around the buildings - which form an couple irregular plazas - are lovely gardens of native plants.  Great water-features!  In the central patio of limestone pavers (that remind me of San Antonio's La Villita) is a pool like a natural spring... one of the loveliest I've seen.  Tantalizing on a hot summer afternoon.

The center is a great source for information on native species (planted or wild), on xeriscaping (low-water gardening), and green-gardening.  Visit!