Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shop Visit: or Our Industrial Legacy

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

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

Now we just need paint applied...

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

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

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

Believed public domain photo borrowed from Sunday Rearview Mirror

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books on Books

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

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

Set design for WaterTower Theatre by Clare Floyd DeVries  c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go flirt with danger!  Read.

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Set Designer's Day - Catch-Up!

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Film Fest - Pixar Shorts

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

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

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

Funny, funny, funny!

Lifted image, er, lifted from Pixar's site

Thursday, November 24, 2011

See 26 Miles at Kitchen Dog!

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Fest - Shaolin Soccer

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

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

Film poster borrowed from Wikipedia

Monday, November 21, 2011

Harry Potter and Long-Form Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paint Elevations

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Art Beneath the Skin

Lego anatomy.  Fantastic!

Image borrowed from

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

Shhhhh! A Secret Book Sale

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

Computer Sketching

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

Costumes as Design

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

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

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

Photo borrowed from The Supremes Lyrics

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Fest - Harry Potter

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

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

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

Poster image borrowed from

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Decaying Film Palaces

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

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

Books - The Hunger Games

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

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

Cover of The Hunger Games, borrowed from Wikipedia

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grammar Nazis and Iconography

I'm fascinated by good writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Life Interrupts Set Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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