Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Set Designer's Day

This is a period of overlap.  Yesterday I was supposed to be painting on In the Next Room, but got hijacked by The Fantasticks with side swipes from The Frequency of Death.  Today will be much the same.  There's going to be a documentary made about the making of Frequency, the black & white mystery that opens on New Year's, and I'm supposed to have coffee with the filmmaker this morning... but I'm itching to paint on a different show... sigh.  Still, amid the clutter of Fantasticks' builder's and production meetings yesterday, at least I found a rug to borrow for In the Next Room!

Keeping shows straight in your head can get confusing, but luckily these productions are quite distinct in character and their sets are too, so that's not a problem.  But once I had two kitchen-sink style sets building simultaneously - with two kitchen sinks - and when questions came up then...!  Keeping these Victorian,  Minimal, and Black & White Deco designs straight is a piece o' cake!

public domain image - by Scheinwerferman

Favorite Shows

Standard advice to parents is that you should never have favorite children...

Designers have favorite shows.  Sometimes it's because the show was a hit (we like hits!); or the show was a wonderful experience; always when you think your design was especially good (some just turn out better than others); or because the  material was especially touching to you in some way.  One of my favorites - for all those reasons - is WaterTower Theater's production of Enchanted April.  I was happy with my design.  (Rain on-stage!  How cool is that?)  Making and watching the show was great.  Terrific cast!

But above all that, I love the original novel by Elizabeth von Arnim.  There's a terrific movie version too.  I can't figure out why it isn't better known!  So I recently made a Squidoo page about Enchanted April. Check it out here (includes a few pics of sets, mine and others').

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Steampunk Living

I have a real weakness for the Steampunk style.  And here, in the Wall street Journal, is an amazing loft done in that style.  LINK
From Library of Congress,


Bless 'em, I say.  Theater couldn't happen without 'em.

Work continues on the set for In the Other Room: the Vibrator Play.  The bulk of that labor comes from committed Kitchen Dogs who, though they may or may not be an official part of this show, turn up to help out.  The rest of the slogging comes courtesy of just flat-out volunteers, who from friendship or love of theater or some crazy-altruistic urge show up and get dirty and Get Things Done.  One of our volunteers helps, seems like, every theater in town.  Wonderful people.

Thank you!

I'd like to re-institute the Order of Merit I first created for that (killer!) build for Edward Albee's play The Goat and hereby bestow it upon You, the loyal, untiring builders of this show:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Image from poet John Siddique's website - check out his work.  

Set Designer's Life - Time Off

When things get busy, days off sorta... disappear.

But after working three weeks straight, I actually Took Yesterday Off (except for a few phone calls).  Felt nice.

Today is back to business: research on the next black & white show in January, The Frequency of Death for Pegasus Theatre; cut a bit more brick for Kitchen Dog; lunch meeting on the B & W; paint more brick (and other stuff) with help from my trusty apprentice as the hard-working builders keep building (no day off yesterday for them! I feel such a slacker); dinner; exhausted sleep.  That's the plan.
Brick photo believed public domain

Film Fest - Queen to Play

Queen to Play is a subtitled French film (there called .  Joueuse) which caught my eye because it co-stars Kevin Kline.  Though his French Kiss is one of my favorite films, who knew he really spoke French?  The main character is beautifully played by actress Caroline Bottaro.  Kline plays the mysterious-solitary-guru character to her under-dog-with-a-dream.  The island of Corsica is a character.  Chess is the arena.

I enjoyed it.  Good performances all round, lovely scenery, and who doesn't root for an under-dog?

Corsica - public domain image

BTW it's not too talky a film, so don't let subtitles scare you off.

Speaking of French Kiss - check it out.  Kevin Kline playing a ne'r-do-well Frenchman; Meg Ryan at her most appealing, a little quirky, charming, funny; Paris and the south of France; vineyards; reluctant romance... plus, as the clueless fiance explains, "a God-Ess, that's French for goddess."  Full of quotable lines!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book to TV

I'm kinda fascinated with the way a story is transmuted from one form of storytelling to another; in how books like the Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice, for example, change as they become films or minseries, musicals or radio plays etc.  (Earlier post on this phenomenon re: Atonement.)

The latest such translation I've seen are the mysteries of author and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs.  After enjoying the TV show Bones, loosely based on her life and writing, I decided to read her first mystery Deja' Death.  One book is not enough to judge from, but I have noticed a few things:  the TV show, being a visual medium, emphasizes the "Ick!" factor of seeing the body-of-the-week, while the book emphasizes the deep cruelty and perversity of its crimes in a way the show skims over; the TV series is an ensemble piece, while this book at least, is a loner's story; and the book's main character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, is a pretty normal person with caught-in-a-thriller problems, but the Temperance of the TV series is more damaged, frozen emotionally by the circumstances of her upbringing... which adds a great deal of depth and room for character development.

So far I like the TV show better, mostly because of the secondary characters, but I'll definitely be reading a few more of the books.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fall in the Pool!

After a long (fun) day of building the In The Next Room set at Kitchen Dog - my part carving MORE brick and painting about half of it (with an excellent assistant painter) - the thing is to fall in the pool.  It's bathtub temperature and very relaxing.

Bathing Beauty image believed public domain.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Some lovely photos by  Masako Fujinami on the BRW Creative blog.  The post's title is "The Beauty of the Unreliable."  I have to agree - the images that include accidental light leaks and other imperfections are the most evocative for me.  Like this one, taken at the Nasher Sculpture Center:

Photo by Masako Fujinami

Or this haunting, double-exposed self-portrait:

Photo by Masako Fujinami

I love the use of random factors and happy accidents side by side with expertise.  It adds depth and layers.  Perhaps I'm just easily bored with perfection.  Or perhaps allowing accidents reveals the true nature of our life in the world: there's all the control we can exert and we try to exert and then there's the ultimate impossibility of control.  Life happens - no one can control it. 

So why not flow with accident, imperfection, uncontrol?  Why not embrace it?  

Set Designer's Day

The second day... of carving foam brick.

Of course, theoretically, a set designer just sketches a set wall and labels it "brick" and, voila! some handy craftsman in the scene shop creates brick.  Which assumes a scene shop and enough craftsmen with time to spare.

At a wealthy theater this might be vacu-form brick; at a less wealthy one, because vacu-form plastic brick is pricey, it'd be brick board from Home Depot.  Except (here comes The Designer's Curse!) I want more and different brick detail than I can get using brick board.  I want longer "Roman" bricks, special brick coursing other than the usual running bond, and I want brick soldier courses over the window and as an arch over the fireplace...

So I've spent a chunk of the last two days carving brick.

Fun.  But my feet and Xacto TM arm are tired.

Film Fest - Gnomeo & Juliet

Very very funny spin on the Shakespeare classic - with great twists on some of the Bard's famous lines.  My favorites?  2B or not 2B (gotta see it) and "Out! Out" "Down! Spot."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Set Designer's Life - Drafting

It's weird, but after only thirty years...  I'm kinda bored with drafting.

If I can get started, I'm okay.  Force myself to my board and get involved with the design...  Because there's always more design!  You figure out details: how to build this?  What would be the cheapest or most straightforward assembly of materials?  What's critical to visual effect or use and what isn't?  In architecture,  materials and connections have to be substantial, but theater lasts five weeks - which allows a little cheating.  Make that joint Gaf tape!  (Love Gaf tape.)  I rather love the ability to cheat; sometimes it's easier to get the look you want working with cardboard and Gaf, than with granite and stainless steel.

There's no end to design.  After construction drawings are done you talk with the builder, who has a better idea.  Together you develop a third - even better - way.  You scribble details in your sketchbook or on scrap plywood.  Think slow and thorough at your board - then fast and collaboratively at the build site.

I've been busy at my drafting board, working on The Fantasticks for Circle Theatre.

A simple plan, yet mine own... or...  No, actually it's a redesign of Ed Wittstein's original scenic ideas for the first production of The Fantasticks, in Greenwich Village.  This is the longest running  show ever in the U. S. at 42 years.  Here's an amazing Wikipedia quote:

"The producers spent $900 on the set and $541 on costumes, at a time when major Broadway shows would cost $250,000. The original set designer, costumer, prop master, and lighting designer was Ed Wittstein, who performed all four jobs for a total of only $480 plus $24.48 a week."

Amazing?  For two reasons:  Wittstein's  ideas are still perfect for the show (I don't use "perfect" lightly); and both set budget and  designer's pay haven't changed much in forty years.  Circle's budget for both is bigger (thank goodness!), but I'd bet every designer in the DFW area (or elsewhere) has had less to spend and has been paid less on some show or other.  

Be honest.

Okay - I did the math.  According to one estimate, $ 1.00 in 1960 would equal $ 7.46 in 2011 dollars. So...  Wittstein had the equivalent of a present day $ 6714 to spend on his set and was paid (ignore the weekly) $ 4036 as a base fee... for, count 'em, four jobs... so let's say $ 1000-1200 for wearing the set designer hat.

Times haven't changed at all!  In fact, set budgets may have declined, while pay is... still pathetic.  Ouch.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Another Posting from Wichita's Art Scene

Our roving arts reporter, Lindsey Herkommer, talks on radio KMUW about Midwestern photography - LINK.

This photo, by Linda Robinson reminds me of '30s paintings and WPA murals of the sort that featured The Heroic Worker (as blogged  here)... but softened by time and weather and rust.  Somewhat melancholy.
Photo courtesy of  Linda Robinson, borrowed from KMUW radio

I've always found the shapes of oil pumps fascinating - especially when working, heads bobbing up and down.  They remind me of the Hammering Man kinesthetic sculptures by Jonathan Borofsky - we have one at the Nasher Sculpture Center.
(That or, if I'm feeling low-brow, they remind me of Drinky-Birds.  Sorry, but Drinky-Birds are cool.) 

Quotable Quotes

I'm on a quotation kick lately - I love apt quotations! - and I came across this gem from architect Tadao Ando, which exactly expresses what I was thinking about in an earlier post about the importance of sketching for architects (or any other visual artist):

“My hand is the extension of the thinking process - the creative process.” 

Exactly!  Tadao Ando, by the way, is the architect of Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum, next door neighbor to Louis Kahn's masterpiece, the Kimbell Art Museum.  Take a field trip!
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, image borrowed from ARTSnFOOD, where there's a good post on it.

Book Sale

Aptly following my Alice Through the Proscenium reminder of the other day, comes this book sale at my publisher

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Film Fest - Rediscovering TV

For 15 years I didn't watch TV.

I'd watched all the lame television I could stand: episodic, formulaic, stupid... Total waste of time.  So, for a decade and a half, I only watched movies on the cinema's big screen or my small screen courtesy of VCR tapes, then DVDs.

What changed my mind?

I went to see the movie Serenity.  (I see any science fiction film that has the least hope of being watchable.  I root for sci-fi.)  I loved Serenity - especially its characters.  I was told there was a previous TV show, Firefly, that concentrated on the characters.  Watched it.  Loved it.

I thought, if this TV show is so good by this Whedon guy who did Buffy the Vampire Slayer... maybe I should try that?  Slippery, slippery slope...  I've now followed various actors or writers or show creators or critic's recommendations to a whole galaxy of enjoyable shows (and a few that faltered).

Here are my favorites:

Firefly - humanistic space-saga/western with snappy dialogue and terrific characters.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer - snappy teen-speak  plus monster-of-the-week... that grows deeper over its run.  This is long-form TV that rewards the dedicated viewer.
Angel - a spin-off from Buffy with a darker tone.  Must-see if you liked Buffy (just slog through Evil Cordy)
Battlestar Galactica - superior sci-fi with an operatic feeling and scope.  (Earlier post here.)
Veronica Mars - teen detective show that reminded me of Buffy minus vampires. (Earlier post.)
Castle - mystery writer plus cops, formulaic idea, yet good fun
Bones - forensic mystery with character development
Dead Like Me - weird premise cable show
Sherlock - present day version of Holmes.  Terrific!
Dr. Who - gotta watch the latest Doctor
Torchwood - a spin-off from Dr. Who with a dark, sexy tone.

The enjoyed-until-it-faded or didn't-quite-work shows I'm glad I watched:
Glee I heard so much from theater folk I had to watch.  Liked it until I decided Will wasn't a nice man.
Chuck - unlikely spy story (fun until Chuck turned pro.)
Moonlight - cheesy vampire detective (Angel-lite)... Guilty pleasure.
True Blood - a heck of a lot of fun until I found I didn't like the characters anymore.  (Earlier post.)
Dexter - dark, dark, dark to find yourself rooting for a serial killer, yet fascinating.  I lost heart after the Rita thing.
Dollhouse - Whedon's latest TV venture, interesting but uneven (at the beginning... just... huh?!)

I suppose I'll end up watching "classic" shows I missed during my self-imposed exile.  Sopranos maybe? Twin Peaks?  There's a real advantage to catching shows later: sure you miss the watercooler chat, but you weed out worthless shows and watch good ones at your own pace - able to rush to resolve cliff-hangers (a real bonus on Battlestar Galactica!). 

Alice - the Reminder

It's been a while since I mentioned THE Book (AKA as Alice Through the Proscenium).

Sales are looking up as people I don't even know! are starting to buy copies.

You can get more info on this set design how-to at my Squidoo pages: Alice Through the Proscenium or Wing'd Tower Press.  Or you can read Snippets from the "Design Methods" chapter in this earlier post.

Special Offer:  Buy 50 copies and get a free Flamingo!  (Just kidding.)  (I think.) 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Set Designer's Life - So Much Going On

So much is going on lately, I've skimped on up-dates.  (Thank goodness! you cry.)  Set designers - or set designers who want to eat or... make that creative types who want to eat - have to juggle multiple projects.

So my last week was busy.

In the Next Room is heating up: I visited a theater warehouse (thank you Theatre Three!) to pull furniture and found a Victorian fainting couch in - further miracle - the right color!  Huge luck.  Today I'll visit the Dallas Theater Center's warehouse (thank you DTC!) looking for a sideboard.  I found many $ 1.29 matching gold(ish) frames at a thrift store.  More luck.  Thursday night was Designer Run... This is going to be a good show.  Lots o' emailing re: lighting fixtures and pianos.  Saturday was Load-In, at Kitchen Dog more like "Lug In" as stock platforms and flats get hand-carried from storage to performance space.  I didn't do too much lugging (a French door), but I did I lot of let-me-measure-that-ing and consulting.  And helped paint the French doors; modify the "green" lamp (another lucky find, a Craftsman lamp); and added padding and new upholstery to the pouffe (AKA a hassock or ottoman).
public domain sofa

The Fantasticks for Circle Theatre is also starting.  I sketched a schematic plan and elevation, presented them at the first Production Meeting, and need to revise them slightly today.  Like now.  (Type faster.)   I'm excited to work on this charming play, though it doesn't offer a lot of design scope, since the original production nailed it.  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is sound design advice.

Misc.  I'm gathering momentum on the new design book;  I'm aiming for a basic explanation of the creative process to the innocent... hoping to replace the unreadable text that didn't help me in Basic Design class lo! those many years ago, a book still assigned by professors, bought by students, and unread by anyone.  A book that says "ideate" when it means "think" is...  unhelpful.

Time for change, I say.  We'll see.  Meanwhile there are two scripts I should be reading.  And that plan revision...

Exact Words

“The stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” – unknown

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Introducing a New Art Critic

The National Public Radio station in Wichita, Kansas - KMUW - has a new art critic.  (Am I the only one who reads "art critic" but hears Monty Python saying, "Aaaaaaaut Critik"?)

Here's a thoughtful piece by Lindsey Herkommer on two Midwestern American Gothics: the first, the iconic painting by Grant Wood, the second, an important photo by Gordon Parks.

American Gothic by Grant Wood - image borrowed from KMUW radio

There's something really compelling about Wood's image of this farmer and his daughter.  I love many paintings from the 1930s - Hopper's slanting sunlight on hillsides, WPA murals of noble factory workers, Texas dust-bowl paintings of bony cattle, wire fences, cotton boles... but this double portrait has presence that seems out of its period.  

It feels a little like a Renaissance portrait, reminding me of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage.  I think it's the formal, self-conscious poses of the subjects: the men's severity and vertical gestures and the way the women incline their heads, deferential to the men, but staring off into a private distance.

The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck

Hard to imagine two painted couples with more different lives or times.

Film Field Trip - Another Earth

It'd had been a while since I'd read the review for this art house film, so I was surprised by it.

The title, Another Earth, clearly states the film's premise - that, mysteriously, a duplicate Earth with a duplicate population and history appears in our sky - but the film is not an sci-fi adventure.  It's a study in human mistakes and their aftermath.  Beautifully photographed and acted, this slow, thoughtful film sees the parallel Earth as a chance to try to "fix" the un-fixable.

A parallel Earth is a perfect speculative fiction idea.  But the speculation is not science fiction's "What if?" but regret's "If only..."

Love it, hate it, Another Earth is a great starting point for after-the-movie-theater conversation in the pub.  The movie theater is my favorite, The Angelika at Mockingbird Station, the pub is Trinity Hall, next door.  Order the bread pudding.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Return of the Dreaded Sofa!

Should that be Dreaded Sofa II: the Return?  Or Son of Dreaded Sofa?

I've complained before, once or twice, about how aggravating it is for a set designer to find the perfect sofa for onstage.  Or, for that matter, a barely-acceptable-sofa.  So I had to laugh when I got today's call from a set designer friend - so excited!  He'd gotten hold of the perfect 1950's sofa in great condition and for free!  He said only another designer would understand.

(The illustration is of a 1950s Naugahyde sofa - borrowed from a blog called No Telling.  Don't I wish I could tidy my living room with a hose!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Set Designer's Life - Stuff!

I'm pretty sure all set designers and set dressers have full garages.  Where else do you store all your stuff?

My own is absolutely FULL.  I can carefully inch a car into it, but every other inch is filled with the usual garage stuff - shovels, tools, bathtubs - the rest is crammed with theater set dressing, small pieces of stage furniture, and architectural fragments that might be useful on a set.  Vital stuff!  Because when I need to do, say, an Art Deco living room or, as now, a house of the 1880s, I can't count on instantly finding and buying or borrowing the perfect, telling, period details I need.  (Not at a price I can afford.)  So I store, for instance, a wicker sewing basket, a crystal and brass chandelier, a modernist desk chair, a circle of excellent fake grass, and (bought yesterday) a small Art Deco radio.  Among a thousand other things.

A few years ago - when the car no longer fit - I had to decide whether to rent a storage unit for this clobber, or to get serious about storing it neatly.  Renting a storage unit looked like an endless drain on my meager profits, so I invested a little money and a lot of time on sturdy shelves and organizing the junk into giant Tupperware TM style containers.  It's now much easier to find things...

...though once the weather cools down (109 F again yesterday) it'll be time to reorganize.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My First-Ever Blog Post

I just ran across this... an old Culture Diary entry on poet John Siddique's blog.  My first.  Kinda got me hooked on this blogging thing.

Architectural Materials and Recycling

Two related architectural happenings:

First, I went to a luncheon seminar called "Demystifying Resins" given by 3Form.  This doesn't sound exciting, but samples of their materials were!  We studied various kinds of plastics (many with high % of recycled content) made with combinations of beautiful translucent color, cool textures, and/or embedded materials like grasses, flower petals, or anything you like, really.  Very exciting to a designer.  My favorite panel had strips of white-with-color-fleck paper from recycled 3Form catalogues.  (In this photo the background looks white, really it's clear.)
image borrowed from 3Form's online catalogue

Second, I learned about a program call ZeroLandfill to recycle or upcycle architectural materials to artists... 

Theaters take note!  

On September 16, 23, & 30 design firms with reusable architectural materials like tile samples or carpet, etc. can drop off these materials at Corporate Floors; on the next days, September17, 24 & October 1 & 8, from 12:00-3:00 artists or others in the community (non-profit-theaters-cough)  can haul 'em home for reuse.  Most materials will be sample sizes, but sometimes small pieces can be useful: I can testify that tile samples make great mosaic table tops!
image borrowed from ZeroLandfill

More info if you click the Dallas ZeroLandfill Facebook page, but I'll get back to you with, you know, like, an actual address as soon as I find one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Set Designer's Life - Reimbursibles

This is the hardest thing...  As a designer, you have to save receipts for everything you buy for a show and then turn them in to be reimbursed!

I know this doesn't sound that hard - BIZ 101 - but it's surprisingly hard to follow through on.  You forget to label the receipt immediately because you're grappling with cards or cash, wallet, purchase, there's someone waiting on you and so on.  You lose or mis-file the receipt.  You're so darn busy finishing the show that you put off organizing receipts.  Time passes...  A year later, as you do your taxes, you realize that you forgot to ask for repayment and that all those forgot-to-asks add up to a tidy sum.  Maybe a car payment.

So today I'm herding a sliding mess of tiny, slippery receipt slips across my desk, trying to catch up.  Yuck.

Set Designer's Day - The Hunt

A big part of some shows is The Hunt - the search for the right furniture or architectural details.  If the play is set in a historic period, ordinary contemporary doors or furniture just won't work - not as-is - so you have to find real or seeming antique styles for... everything.  This hunt is complicated by the limits of a theatrical budget.

For In the Other Room, we need to suggest the late 1800s.  So the whole design team is huntin'; yesterday the builders and I went to the local Habitat for Humanity resale shop, the Restore - a fantastic resource! - where new and used building supplies are sold for less than retail prices.

Middling success.  We found great new, but old-fashioned, doors - but they still cost too much, so we decided on plain flat-slab doors for only $5 each, to which we'll add molding to suggest two-panel doors.  We found inexpensive brass and china handles to use in building the machine.  But no luck on a period light fixture.  (I'll go back to see if anything new comes in next week.)

Afterwards I hit thrift shops and found 2/3 of the weather vane I'm going to cobble together; I still need a metal bird.  More thrift stores today!  When possible, it's good to shop first at thrift stores that support non-profit charities: for one thing, they have the odd, used, random things a theater set needs, for another, your theater's money is used to support another non-profit and a worthy cause.

Oh!  And shop with a car or truck that can carry your finds.  We almost had to strap those doors on a car roof, but managed to cram them (mostly) into another vehicle, tied in place with computer cable!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hilarious Ad

Google in its wisdom auto-computerly-picks ads on this blog to go with its blog posts.

I published that last one on wine vocabulary... an ad for a substance abuse clinic popped up!  Even the vocabulary of wine is intoxicating!

The Vocabulary of an Art

I attended a wine seminar recently, a day-long series of discussions and tastings.  A rough day!

Seriously, it was a day the non-somelier had to train for.  For one thing, you can't swallow.  (So sad with such good wine!)  Swallow and you'd slide under the table by 10:30 a.m.  No, you have to sniff, swirl, look, sniff (nose deep in the glass), sip, slurp, chew, slosh wine round your mouth, and... spit.  Do not slobber wine down your chin nor "change the color of your shirt," as a wine guide once explained.  Still by late afternoon - 40 wines later - under the table looked like a comfy place for a nap.

(That was 40 wines plus the 5 at lunch and the 2 during the break.)  Drank some marvelous stuff!  Especially fine German whites and red Burgundys.

Aside from flavors, what was memorable was the vocab.

There is specialized terminology to describe the processes, components, and characteristics of wine.  The most impressive single word has to be terroir (pronounced "tear- war").  This means the totality of a vine's growing environment: most importantly soil and stone around its roots, but also climate and even the influence of nearby flora, like lavender or rock roses which, many experts swear, can influence the grape's flavor.  The French word terroir once meant simply "land" but is now used world-wide, gathering greater meaning as it traveled, until now it's mythic, mystic... a vinacultural version of gestalt, which in the art world means something like "the whole shebang" or the parts-making-a-greater-whole-ish-ness. Terroir.  Cool word.
Public domain image of The Fox and the Grapes

But it was words used to describe the scents and flavors of wine that fascinated.  Of course you compare a wine to another known quantity, so: "strawberry nose" (smell that is) or "raspberry jam" flavor.  Comparisons got weirder and wilder: "leather," "stewed prunes," or "Juicy Fruit gum."  (I thought: "Juicy Fruit would be much cheaper than this bottle.")  Certain flavors/scents are more valued than others in particular wines - sometimes a little oddly ranked to the uninitiated, so that, for instance, a winemaker might wince to hear "green pepper," but be happy to hear "sweat."  (One of my glasses reeked of sweat, a bit off-putting.  At a premier Saki tasting once, it was all blue-cheeses.  Ick.)

"Sweet" wouldn't thrill anyone at a serious tasting.

My absolute favorite wine taste description was:
"Elegant and clumsy... like a Ron Paul drag queen... you know, like someone so tall just shouldn't move like that..."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Horrible Collision of Architecture, Theater... and Wind

Unexpected weather caused a temporary stage structure at the Indiana State Fair to collapse - video at Boing Boing.  We have to ALWAYS remember to design for safety.

Drowned In Work

When I first started in architecture, I thought my bosses couldn't schedule an umbrella on a rainy day!  We were always either drowning in a downpour of due-dates or parched for work.  Why couldn't these bosses see a storm or drought coming?  How could it be that hard?

Nowadays, I schedule myself - and in theater, mainly, where Opening days don't change (unlike architecture where a project may get put in the drawer for a year or two, which tends to mess up scheduling).  But STILL I get unexpectedly soaked.  This week I'm like the pedestrian walking through a heavy rain with a teeny tiny umbrella... as a big truck passes... splashing through the flooded gutter next to me, drenching me in its spray!
public domain images from

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I just recently learned this term.  Apparently, in a brilliant burst of zeitgeist-savvy, Stephen Colbert coined (or reactivated anyway) the word truthiness to describe that it-just-feels-right! certainty we all know... when, in fact, we have no actual, you know, facts.  Or proof.  Or, possibly, logic or sanity.

But we're absolutely sure we're right anyway.

I stumbled across the word six years later (early adopter? me?) used in an article to describe factoids that seem to prove what, in fact, they do not - because shorn of their context, perhaps, or incomplete.  Facts which are accurate, as far as they go, but turn out to be deeply misleading and misused to buttress ideas that feel truthy...

What a perfect word!  So much of life today is truthy.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Theatrical House Cleaning

Today was Kitchen Dog Theater's annual company meeting... an interesting of mix of stockholders' report, pep rally, donut social, and cleaning out the messy garage.  Such a talented, hard-working, jokey group!  Chores become more fun than seems right, proving the theory that, "many hands make light work."  Personally, I hate chores, but must admit to satisfaction in helping put the set dressing/building materials storage into better shape. Now that I know what we have, I can design around it...  There are a couple antique doors crying out to be used in something.

Lots of joshing, business, sweat (lots and lots of of sweat), and camaraderie.

It's nice to have a theatrical home base.  Actors and designers must usually work in several theaters in order to get enough work and you can get to feeling rootless and unloved... but it's comforting to have a place to call home.
Photo public domain - by Liam Quin 2004 in Prince Edward County

And you, Dear Reader, I invite to come home with me to see a show this season!

Friday, August 12, 2011

From Model to Full Sized Set

Here are a couple photos for the set of The Mikado at Garland Civic Theatre, designed by my apprentice? protege'?  mentoree?  Joseph Cummings.

Interesting to see the leap in scale from model to full-sized set and how well the design makes that leap.

The handsome photos are by 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

New Generation Lightbulbs

There's been a rumor going around about the banning of incandescent light bulbs - those nice old, heat producing bulbs that make the warm yellowy glow of the table lamp placed in the center of Granma's front window.  All that heat means they're terribly inefficient and ungreen.  Are those darn unflattering fluorescent bulbs are only choice?  Will there be a black market in incandescent A lamps?

Take heart nostalgia lovers and owners of antique lamps or antique buildings!

In fact, the old bulbs are being replaced by fluorescents, (the most energy efficient substitute), but there will also be modified incandescent-lite choices that meet the new code requirements.  Read more about it at FastCompany.

ADDENDUM 1/22/14

Since this was written those compact fluorescents have gotten better and cheaper, though still in need of special disposal - don't just throw 'em in the trash!  But now it's LED lighting that seems the best choice.  It's even more efficient, cleaner to dispose of, and with such mutable color that now we can all potentially colorize our homes with a remote control.  Fun stuff!

Set Dressing is Everything!

Take a look at this art installation by artist James Hopkins:
Image borrowed from

Just your basic wall with some basic shelves... except for the very clever use of set dressing which includes cut cardboard boxes.  I am so gonna steal this idea!

See more of the artist's work HERE at The

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Architectural Squidoo Pages

Two web articles (or Lenses) on architectural topics:
Surviving Remodeling and Decorative & Scenic Painting - Scumbling.  Check 'em out.

Design Subtleties

There's an online steampunk comic I follow, 2D Goggles: Or the Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.  The latest blog entry has a great discussion of some of the subtleties of visual design.

Talking about drawing her heroes, artist Sydney Padua explains how she developed a "look" for Babbage (based on the real Victorian inventor) that combines the blocky and the flame-like (fitting his volcanic nature) which contrasts with his partner Lovelace (based on the real-world's first computer programmer), drawn with more ethereal, curved-lines.  Padua shows how this idea influences even the drawing of their hands.

This is thoughtful design that her readers (or our theater audiences) seldom consciously notice - but which can be subconsciously very powerful.  Whether a line is straight or curved, a mass light or heavy, can have emotional impact...  The audience doesn't know why.  Or even that it's been manipulated.  It's like the way lighting works or the way a film's musical underscoring can move you to tears.

Dare to be subtle!
Image borrowed from the conclusion of "The Organist" by 2D Goggles/Sydney Padua. Start reading it HERE

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Set Designer's Life - Project, Service, or Ego?

Thinking about my previous post on getting along with people in a show, I ought to mention the other points of view.

My mantra tends to be, "I'm in this for the design."  So I judge decisions against that, asking: is this decision/action/behavior/hot-tempered outburst... better artistically, truer to the text,  or better for the show?  ("Better" is filtered through the playwright's, director's, and team's goals, not just personal whim.)  You might call this the Project Oriented camp.

You can make a good case for a Service Oriented point of view, where the designer serves the show, of course, but primarily serves the director.  (Directors like this!)  Many theater schools seem to teach this approach.  Or the designer might be yoked to the producers - a resident designer maybe.  Don't be fooled, service-first designers often design wonderfully well - they have to, to get and keep the gig.

Ego Oriented is where some designers pitch their tents.  This becomes slowly obvious in their work: their sets express a strong design idea - often brilliantly! - but are ungenerous in supporting the show itself, unhelpful to actors, director's, or other designers' work or to producers' and builders' difficulties.

In the real world, of course, we are, as somebody put it, "variously moved."  Some decisions you make for an artistic reason, some for a pragmatic.  Some days you need to please the director; others, the producers need help.  But it helps to know in which philosophical camp you want to pitch your tent: when confused, you have guidance!  Principles even.

Much of this difference in approach may be temperament, not choice.

My own first loyalty tends to be to the Project, though I believe in service, teamwork, and pragmatism.  Service orientation can feel acolyte-like or have career advantages: you might bond with a director and ride their coattails around the regional theater circuit.  (Assuming enough talent - always assuming talent and hard work.)  The Ego thing... I'm biased against (ego hurts the show and is obnoxious), but egotistical designers succeed.  Look at Frank Lloyd Wright!  Some designers think they need to be divas, since the gullible equate ego with talent.

So pick a camp - if you can.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Sale!

Alice Through the Proscenium is on sale (and so are a bunch of other books).  Check it out at
Two ways to lower prices

Set Designer's Life - Gettin' Along with Folks

Talking with a colleague I was reminded that the person-to-person end of design can be a minefield.  Pulling together a show is high-pressure and people involved in theater care (often passionately) about the show and their part in it.  These tend to be, well, let's say dramatic personalities, shall we?  This means occasional flare ups.  It's inevitable.

What's a designer to do?
public domain image

Well, first off, make SURE you're not the one who's lost their temper!  It's unwritten, but a tacit part of your job as set designer, to always, always, always be calm.  Calm.  Actors, directors, some other designers may get to be divas, but the Scenic Code requires calm.

How to maintain that calm?  Or fake it?  Remember this:
1)  You've survived worse.  (If you haven't, you WILL have the Show from Hell.  Maybe this one!  You'll survive.)
2)  You're clever and resourceful, you'll figure something out.
3)  You are a gentleman or lady and, what's more, a grown-up.
4)  This person yelling (perhaps at you) is proving themselves none of the above.  They look silly.

When some other personality royally annoys you, walk away a minute, telling yourself: "I am in this for the design work.  People are side issues."  When you've cooled down, deal with the issue in the most professional way you can.

Is your design good? THAT is the point.  Amazing how that thought can lower your blood pressure.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Set Designer - Tip for the Day

When hauling around awkward yet fragile set dressing - like, say, a crystal chandelier - try standing it on a car seat and seat-belting it securely in place.

Not only will it travel more safely... so will you.  Who wants a chandelier flying around if there's an accident?
Image totally faked - I mean, really?

Film Fest - Battlestar Galactica Finale

The end of 70+ episodes.  An operatic, epic of a television journey.  Battlestar Galactica has been an incredible ride.

I watched the last three episodes at one sitting (recommended) and even the next day feel breathless.  There was controversy over the series' ending with many fans disappointed, but I don't feel that way: I think this is an appropriately science-fictional ending.  The central story-line is wrapped up and main characters given resolution and a hope, but the larger historical scheme seems to continue - in our imaginations - and the philosophical questions remain unanswered...  Such questions never can be answered.  Galactica is, at its best, a thought provoking show; it seems fitting that its end should leave us thinking.

Hard to write about this without Spoiling...  I just want to add two points that strike me:

1)  That hopeful ending for the characters.  Anyone familiar with the history of early American settlements or stories of castaways will realize that a group of exiles walking off across the savanna with just a knapsack each is - however pretty the photography of waving grasses and brave the sound-track music - in for a hungry winter. Urbanized, high-tech settlers setting off to become hunters, herders, and farmers with limited bullets and, as far as I can see, not a single shovel...  Well.
Great Rift Valley, Africa, public domain
2)  The epilogue repeats some of the show's themes and (a little heavy-handedly) underlines the beware-technology idea.  I have to disagree: I don't think technology is the problem, I think the problem is human nature.  How we use technology and what technology we seek...?  Very human.

Consider the first technology, the pointed stick.  This tool probably happened by accident and was first used, as chimps or gorillas still do use it, to poke at things.  (Little boys instinctively understand this.)  Chimps have been seen using a stick to break open ant mounds.  Spearing prey animals had to follow, along with jabbing at attacking predators, and so must - such is our nature - threatening others of our own species.  Using that stick to make planting holes for seeds seems to have come later.  Using the stick to draw or write in the dirt came later still.

The best you can say for modern human nature is that little boys often choose to draw in the dirt with a stick before they think to jab a buddy with it.

That said, Galactica's cautionary tale is timely and important: it asks us to think about creating another intelligent creature - Cylon, cyborg, robot, artificial intelligence....  Maybe the right label is Golem - a living creature made by man, but powered by the word of God in its head.  (Remind you of any Cylons you know?)  We need to think hard about creating a thinking (living?) species as slaves.  This timely story asks an ethical  question we do need to ponder.

I find it encouraging that the scientists, engineers, and designers exploring this new technological frontier must surely have Battlestar Galactica in their knapsacks.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Film Fest - Cowboys and Aliens

This up-date of the great American Western feels like a Western. Cowboys and Aliens sidesteps all the cheese-potential of its title to give us a stand-up, straight-shooting classic frontier tale that just happens to have an alien scout ship as the evil territorial invader.

I thought it was really well plotted, touching on many classic western tropes and character types, as well as some science fiction tradition, but the film managed still to surprise me a couple times: I won't spoil it, but in one memorable scene the movie-world gets a sharp twist to the right that delighted me.  Daniel Craig makes a great Clint Eastwood style nameless outlaw and Harrison Ford has finally found his late career groove with this over-powerful rancher character.

I really liked Cowboys and Aliens.  Between this and True Grit, the modern Western is alive and doin' jus fine, Ma'am.
A cowboy, Sturgis, Dakota Territory, 1887. Photo by J.C.H. Grabill. Public domain.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Designer's Life - the External Factors

One important factor in the design process is the condition under which the designer works.  It shouldn't have any real effect on the quality of the product - how good a design it is - but it sure effects the designer's life.

A well designed studio makes working more efficient.  Good lighting, a proper chair, design tools within reach...  Improve your work space, wherever it is, and the more pleasant it is, the easier you'll find it to sit down to work.   I wrote on this topic in February, but I'm thinking of it again because, well, you can only control so much of your environment...

Unlike last time, the External Factor effecting my converted-porch studio is not snow outside, but heat: 100-110 degrees F lately.

I'm melting!  Drawing early in the morning is my only hope - drawing fast!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Barbie's New Dream House - Kinda

I wrote a while back that Matel has created Architect Barbie TM, an event about which, as a female architect, I have horrorif, um, complex reactions.

Well, the AIA (American Institute of Architects) held a design competition for a new Dream House TM.  The winning design is much more interesting spatially than the actual Matel Dream House TM and boasts solar panels, bamboo flooring, a home office, a meditation room... and pink.  Lotso #$%# pink.

Image borrowed from

Read a good article on this competition at Fast Company.  This is, BTW, a great site on buisness and design.

Set Designer's Life - First Read Through

This is a milestone in the actors' rehearsal process - the first time the cast reads the script together.  Everyone sits around a big table (or three pushed together, actually), so there's no movement really, no blocking or props or set, just words and voices.  Still, I'm always surprised by how much funnier or more touching a script becomes when it's spoken aloud.  In the Other Room: or the Vibrator Play is going to be much funnier than I expected.

Mostly I just listened - and made a few notes along the lines of, "Don't forget sink! Ask about candles - real or electric?" and "Hides behind piano - how?"  (My best such note ever, from a Designer Run rather than a Reading was: "Can't watch eyeball eating!!!"  No kidding.)
Image courtesy of

Sometimes designers are invited to the First Read, sometimes not - most directors are glad to have designers visit anytime.  Last night, not only were designers there, there were both of the artistic directors and a few board members, which is a little unusual (Kitchen Dog often is).  We were celebrating: First Read Through of the first play of the new season!

More Info on Spray-Paint Delft Tile

About my earlier post on the Delft tile art house at the Zuiderzee Museum: that artist is Hugo Kaagman.  And here's a link to another - bigger - project of his.  His nickname seems to be ‘The Dutch Godfather of Stencil Graffiti.’

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Set Designer's Day - Research

I'm just starting on The Fantasticks for Circle Theater (if one show opens, the next starts).  I've read and noted the script - which I love - now I'm researching...

I don't usually look at earlier productions before I design - in case it over-influences me - but in this case the director wants to stay pretty close to the original production, so I've been looking at that.  I've also looked at  the touring productions.  Over-produced, I think.  Mind you, I understand exactly the problem the designers of those touring shows had: how to make this intimate show fill the usual huge venues on the road.  Fortunately, Circle's small space doesn't present that problem.  (Ha!  Circle's ceiling is only this high.)

Now I'm doing a little research on Commedia dell'Arte, the renaissance era Italian comedy troupes which much influenced this show.