Monday, December 31, 2012

Start the New Year Right...

If you're interested in theater (you are reading this!), maybe this is the year to really get involved?  If a designer, then to Design; if an actor, to Act; if a theater buff, then to Do Theatre.  

If you like New Year's Resolutions, here are few respectful suggestions:

1)  Go to a theater.  Go on - you know those folks loooove an audience!  Buy a ticket.  Have fun.  
2)  Help a local theater.

This last suggestion can be as easy as buying tickets to a local performance and, if you enjoy it, telling your friends.  Get the word out!  Tweet, text, email, smoke-signals, whatever it takes.  Help make theater a important part of Our Time.  

Helping can be as simple as buying tickets or donating a little money - theater troupes always, always, always need cash.  And it's that time o' year, right? 

But helping can also be as life-enriching as donating a few hours to help somehow - to send out mailers or to build or strike a set.  But beware! because you may accidentally make a few friends... gradually become part of a theater company as crew, cast, staff, or volunteer... discover your own talents... and expand into an art form that slowly, insidiously, lets your own creative, playful, intellectual self Out of Its Box.  

(You know that Box.)  

This year, set yourself free...

image courtesy of

Sunday, December 30, 2012

(What to) Coloring Book!

One of my favorite theatrical/architectural presents this season is a book:

PANTONE: The Twentieth Century in Color

Photo from Felt & Wire's interview with the authors

Authors Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker lead the Reader through the changing color schemes of the just-past century, explaining some of the influences, reasons, and technical developments behind changes in color preferences.  Beautifully illustrated.  And always, on the right-hand edge of the page, there's a palette of PANTONE colors keyed to the illustrations and period under discussion.

Incredibly helpful for designers.

PANTONE takes us decade by decade through the colors of fashion and design, from the gentle pastels of ladies' dresses circa 1900, through the psychedelic brights of the 1960s and the dreaded Avocado Green era of the 1970s, and on to the end of the millennium.  What I found most fascinating was the many contradictory color palettes of the 1990s: the Martha Stewart somehow-nostalgic shades; the Anime-bright-pastels; the Zen-like greens and neutrals; the African and Latin inspired hues; and the look-at-me-I'm-conspicuously-consuming! rich tones of the '90s.

I wish they'd go back and make a matching book for the 1800s.

Then for the 1700s.

If you're a designer who ever deals with historic periods - or someone inspired by color - you're going to enjoy this book!  It's a must-have for theater designers I think.

HERE's a good interview with the authors at the bookish website Felt & Wire.  And HERE's an interview with the publisher about the design and making of the book.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Into the New Year

Time to get ready.

Time to fill in play-opening dates in my 2013 calendar.  Time to clear off my desk (there's wrapping paper scraps on it and... is that a recipe for beef brisket?).  Time to reorganize my whole work area, to put the colored pencils back in their drawers, to send up-date emails, to clear the decks for the new shows of the coming New Year.

Among my preparations...

Research for Aphra Behn's play The Lucky Chance for Echo Theatre.  Because we're changing the play's setting to the Swinging London of the 1960s.

Image from "Andy Warhol Pop Politics" at the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

White Christmas!

Believed public domain photo

Theater may not pause long for the Christmas holiday, but in Dallas (where we're not much used to freezing weather) it may sometimes reschedule for snow.  This a.m.'s meeting - 50 miles away - was postponed until tomorrow when the roads should be clearer.

Wahoo!  Snow day today!


The snow started in the afternoon.  And it gave us a Perfect Christmas Moment: all the gathered friends looking out over our table - laden with wine glasses, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, Southern greens - as outside the dining room window we watched dusk gently settling and fat, white Christmas snowflakes fluttering... turning the everyday world glowingly, sparklingly, Magical.

A Merry Holiday Season to you too, Gentle Reader!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Imperfect Studios

Sitting here in my studio-in-exile (a temporary move due to house guests and cold weather), I've been mulling over what makes a good working space, a great studio...

Perfection ain't it.

I just happened across a lovely expression of this sentiment in Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones :

"If you want a room to write in, just get a room. Don't make a big production out of it. If it doesn't leak, has a window, heat in the winter, then put in your desk, bookshelves, a soft chair, and start writing... It's hard to sit in an exquisite space and rub across our imperfections which writing brings up."

She continues with, "It is natural in our studios to find," then goes on a lovely rift about the detritus of creation in her own writing room - including cold cups of black tea and open books.  In my own temp. studio at this moment there is: her book, open; a used-up check book; a bottle of Elmer's glue; filled sketchbooks; and a cardboard fan of the kind that southern funeral parlors used to give out, except this one is courtesy of a golf tournament and has an insurance gecko's green, big-eyed face on it.

Believed public domain gecko.

Writing Down the Bones is worthwhile, an excellent writing and creativity book.  I recommend it.  Possibly a good present for writer-type friends?  (More writerly gift-book suggestions HERE.  Or theater/architecture/designer gift suggestions HERE.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Prep

What with cookies, cards, present wrapping, house guests, and holiday parties there hasn't been much blogging going on...

But fear not!  Theater is still happening.

Currently I'm reading the script for The Lucky Chance by Aphra Behn for Echo Theatre (first design meeting this evening) and designing for The God of Carnage at Circle Theatre (drawings due Friday, first meeting with builders bright and early on the day after Christmas).  And last night I had two simultaneous parties for two simultaneous theaters!  (Good training for the important set designer skill of Omnipresence.)

Tenniel's illustration (public domain) mightily messed with

Monday, December 17, 2012

Film Fest - The Hobbit

This is a film I've been waiting for...

Really, really enjoyed it!

But the reviews I've seen (the other reviews, you know, the professional reviews) are kind of strange. Most of them talk about how much money the film is making (tons, but who cares?) or about its new filming technology (more frames per minute, do I care?) or about its length (three hours or just-long-enough), but few are talking about the actual, you know, storytelling.

I approach this film as a loooong-time fan of J.R. R. Tolkien's work, as someone who read the Lord of the Rings every year at about this time of year for many years and read The Hobbit many times; heck!  I've read LotR out-loud twice.  I've watched the films oooooh... a couple times maybe.  (Cough, cough.)  Anyway, it's difficult for me to imagine meeting Middle Earth for the very first time by way of this Hobbit film.  Best guess?  I expect that for first-timers Peter Jackson's The Hobbit would be a fair intro: "fair" in that it has a beautifully rendered Middle Earth atmosphere and characters - casting and performances are great - and the story is well told, enriched by judicious borrowings from the appendixes of LotR which gives it a more adult tone than the book and helps to yoke it to the established film-world of its sequel.  I cannot imagine how anyone could do a better job of a Hobbit movie.  And Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo.

I still think having The Hobbit read aloud to you as a little kid has to be the very best introduction.  After that, I'd suggest, in due time, reading The Lord of the Rings silently to yourself.  Then see the films in order.

This may be the film that separates the sheep from the goats as far as the film audience goes.

Those who merely liked the Lord of the Rings films, or who loved them only for an appealing actor or for the cinematography or the battle scenes or something, but did not fall in love with Middle Earth itself... well, this Hobbit (while having charming actors) doesn't have the rising-star power of the first installment of LotR.  And The Hobbit, like the book it comes from, has a more episodic structure which - plus filling in of the background for the later Lord of the Rings films - makes this film slower paced.

Middle Earth fans will love this.  Casual movie-goers maybe not so much.

Personally?  I loved this movie and can't wait to see the next installments.  Or to see it again.

This great map of Middle Earth is public domain - courtesy of one wiki to rule them all

Favorite parts for me (Spoiler free) were seeing Hobbiton again; meeting Radigast the Brown; the dwarves' dinner party at Bag End; Bilbo's riddle game with Gollum; seeing Rivendell and Galadrial again; the ending...  Revisiting Middle Earth!

A highly detailed review HERE.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

New Toy!

My recent birthday/early-Christmas/Easter/4th-of-July present is a brand new computer drawing tablet!

Eventually, you, Faithful Reader, will get to see examples of my computer-drawing prowess...

Maybe on July 4th?

Until then, I'm practicing!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Color Schemes

In yesterday's first meeting between the director and the set designer (me) for The God of Carnage, one of the things we discussed was color of the scenery.

(This was after thrashing through the basic approach to the text and determining the best floor plan, including actor entrances, placement of major furniture, and even locating the tulip vase that has to take a dive.)

For thematic reasons and because there are multiple references to Africa in the text - one character is writing a book on the topic - some visual reference seems appropriate... and the director (also a costume designer) just happened to have a piece of fabric with a Kente cloth pattern...

Public domain image of Kente cloth courtesy of Wikipedia

Thus giving me the most important colors for the set!  

(This photo is an approximation - the actual cloth has some green and blue in it too.)  This fabric will be the brightest, boldest, most important source of color on the set; other materials will pick up a few of these colors in more muted shades or, like the floor, will be more neutral wood tones that sympathize with it.

For more on African Kente cloth, read HERE for a brief overview or HERE for a longer discussion that includes color symbolism.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"It's Like Sand-Painting Isn't It?"

That's what an actor remarked to me as we watched a bunch of volunteers sweeping up the last of the sawdust.

The strike for The Beauty Queen of Leenane was almost over.  We were waiting on the sweepers before repainting the bare stage floor black.  Watching those push-brooms make the last pass I reflected: theater IS like sand-painting.

You put all this work, all this care into a production... and then it's over.  It's swept away.  It's gone.

It took me a couple years to reconcile myself to this fact.  But I'm mostly okay with transience now.  I do think it may be a little braver than usual that theater people can be so open about and at peace with the idea that you throw your work out there and then it disappears like a soap bubble.  Because the human urge to create a monument is strong.  But, in the long run, nothing much really lasts does it?   Even the pyramids aren't what they once were.  Even they,  from a planetary viewpoint, are temporary phenomenon.  From a galactic view, so is the Earth.

Everything is a soap bubble.

Soap bubble - public domain image

Today?  My first meeting on a new show, The God of Carnage for Circle Theatre.

Where's my bubble wand?

Early posts on the Beauty Queen strike HERE or on this idea of transience HERE.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Film Fest - Anna Karenina

I saw the new version of Anna Karenina - screenplay written by noted playwright Tom Stoppard.  Perhaps this helps explain the decision to set this retelling on a stage...

An interesting way to handle the story.  It facilitates fast and stylish scene changes and gorgeous visuals, but I'm not sure that, ultimately, it adds to the storytelling.  Stylish though!  It reminded me of Moulin Rouge - where, I think, the theatricality was a much better fit.

That said, the acting and production values were very fine - costume design especially.  But did Anna really, really need to change clothes so often?  Gorgeous outfits.

I enjoyed the film, but wasn't completely convinced.  Partly, of course, this is because I never could quite finish the book: I always got to the famous race scene, read as Anna disgraces herself; threw the book against the wall; ranted, "Idiot!  Idiot!" for a few minutes; then, panting, picked up the book to skip ahead to make very sure (SPOILER!) that dopey Anna gets hit by the train; then quit reading in disgust.  I tried the novel several times, but I do hate wasting 300 pages on idiots.  Anna's heart-throb, Count Vronsky, is another idiot and a weakling too, not worth throwing her life away over.


I'm happy to report that this film version is much easier to finish.  (I liked the visual ending).  Anna, however, remains an idiot and Vronsky still not worth her time.  Both good performances, plus Jude Law's as Anna's saintly husband.  (I feel for the husband - he gets a rough deal.)

So - classic story interestingly translated to the screen, where you don't have to endure idiocy so long.

As Dorothy Parker once said, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should be thrown with great force."

First edition of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, from Word Virus

Re: this illustration of the first edition of Anna Karenina, see the blog Word Virus HERE for more photos of first editions of classic novels.  Fascinating!  There's a photo of The Hobbit which makes a nice teaser for the I-can't-wait!-for-it film.

Okay - to be fair - You may love the book.  It's a classic for a reason.  Me?  Not so much.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Back to Black

Today was Strike for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

What took about four weeks to build... took about four hours to take down.

As a last step, we painted the floor black again.

On the topic of floors, it's nice to report that the builder's idea of putting down tar paper to protect the stage floor from our super-sticky tiles worked beautifully!  And the extra scraps of tar paper put down under our rain effect areas clearly protected the stage floor itself from water damage.  (Earlier post on that HERE.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Gifts

Okay, okay, okay...  I, myself, have barely started my holiday shopping, but for those of you who are more organized than I am, here are a few hints for those theater, architecture, or artsy people on your lists:

Gifts for Architects
Best Gift Books for Architects
Architecture and Building Toys
Gifts for Theater Folk
Virtual Theater Bookshop
Theater and Stage Posters
Theater for Children
Children's Stages and Theaters
Romantic Gifts for Designers

The best part?  Shop on-line!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Woohoo! Arts Funding

Terrific news! Kitchen Dog Theater has been awarded a sizable NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant to support its new play festival this coming spring.

One of only four theater grants in Texas.

This is a huge boost.  Thank you NEA!  We'll put your funding money to good use.

Now for something completely different...

My printer,, is having a buy-it-in-time-for-Christmas sale on my how-to theater design book Alice Through the Proscenium.  You can find out more about Alice  HERE at Squidoo or see the page HERE.  Don't forget the secret-santa-saving code word!

And, if you like, you can think of this purchase too as Funding for the Arts... because I'm in the throes of starting a sequel to Alice Through the Proscenium, which is about scenery design, with a new volume about scenery building.  

I've gotten such a great response to my Squidoo page "Theater Set Questions Answered" that it's become obvious to me that there is a throng of desperate readers just waiting for such a book to be written.  Take heart! Gentle Readers, it will (eventualllllly) come.  Meanwhile, there's a lot on set construction and painting in Alice... available in soft covers at or as an epub book for NOOK etc. at Barnes and Noble HERE

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Plaza d'Italia

One New Orleans landmark that most people don't know is architect Charles Moore's post-modern masterpiece the Plaza d'Italia...  Situated in the arts/warehouse district, a block or two out of sight, is Louisiana's answer to the Trevi Fountain.

Plaza d'Italia - photo gifted to the public domain

In plan this fountain plaza is more or less a 3D marble and cobblestone map of Italy, set in concentric circles of paving and embraced by arcs of colonnades, with water spurting out here and there unexpectedly.  (There's an intermittent geyser at Mt. Vesuvius!)  

This park displays all my favorite aspects of the short-lived Post-Modern movement: humor, playfulness, color, and erudition.  Charles Moore and Robert Venturi may have been the only designers able to pull this tricky style off.  I love this place!

Plaza d'Italia colonnades - photo gifted to the public domain

Plaza d'Italia had been in terrible condition - nicknamed "the first post-modern ruin" - but I was glad to see that its renovation of a few years back is still holding (mostly) good.  Charles Moore himself is gone, but his face remains at this space he created... as a fountain which, I'm told, was a surprise from his students.

Charles Moore's face, Plaza d'Italia, New Orleans - photo gifted to the public domain

Monday, December 3, 2012

Last Chance! The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Okay all you procrastinators...  The Beauty Queen of Leenane ends its acclaimed run Saturday.

So get yer tickets!  HERE.

Photo by Matt Mrozeck courtesy of  Kitchen Dog Theater

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Back in Town

After a visit to New Orleans.

I'll bring you more info - and photos - next time, but for now suffice to say a very nice trip, filled with historic architecture and Creole and Cajun seafood!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Hiatus

What with Thanksgiving and this and that, it's been hard to even get to my computer during the last week, much less to write anything.  I hope you all, Dear Readers, had a wonderful Day of Thanks.

(This is one of my top favorite holidays - so purely family, friends, and food.  A very happy Thanksgiving here, this year.)

So I've been busy outside the theater - here's the Recap:

FILMS: Skyfall, the latest Bond... and a very good one.  I loved M, Q, the actually frightening villain, and have now Officially Designated Daniel Craig as best Bond ever.

MUSEUMS:  The traveling exhibit of art from the Phillips Collection now at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth is full of  goodies - wonderful art - that and the Kimbell's permanent collection (of which I've written before HERE) are well worth the drive.  Construction on Renzo Piano's addition to Louis Kahn's building is advancing: right now the poured concrete walls have tidy little plastic pup-tents on top to keep rain off of them.  There are models and an interesting film in the Kimbell's lobby about these buildings.  * Extra bonus: visit the KAWS sculpture outside the Modern Art Museum... a sort of giant, cartoon, heart-breaking, tragicomic figure that just appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a giant balloon.

(Existential Angst in the Holidays?  That is traditional for many.)

A compare-n-contrast moment with the happy Mickey Mouse who followed him certainly.

KAWS Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float - believed public domain

While in Fort Worth, don't forget to order the enchilada plate at Joe T. Garcia's .  And, if the fall weather and leaves remain as beautiful as today's, consider eating on Joe T.'s patio.  Or visit the Fort Worth Arboretum - its Japanese Garden is lovely now.

In Dallas, the new Perot Science and Natural History Museum opens soon.  It's designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  It looks fantastic so far - I'm looking forward to visiting.  HERE's the Dallas Morning News article.  I looked at it again while exploring...

PARKS:  I finally! got to walk through the new Bridge Park (Klyde Warren Park), built over Woodall Rogers Freeway, connecting the Dallas Arts District with Uptown.   I liked its small, even domestic, scale and variety of areas.  Cool playground.  Oddly, there seems no design emphasis on the "bridge" part of the park's function; everything seems oriented lengthwise, ignoring the symbolically important across-the-park-n-across-parts-'o-town-ness that is its reason for being.  Puzzling.  But there were plenty of people enjoying the park on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  The street cars serving it were standing room only.  Maybe it's a hit!  More park info HERE.

THEATER:  Don't forget to buy tickets to Kitchen Dog's (and my own!) The Beauty Queen of Leenane which is gathering rave reviews.  To totally rip off the best quip about it: "Come see the family in Beauty Queen... then love your own family so much better!"  This is truly a holiday special.

Compare and Contrast, kiddies, Compare and Contrast.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Film Fest - Lincoln

This new film about Abraham Lincoln will be most interesting to people with a little understanding of and interest in history, but anyone who's just survived the most recent American election process ought to find the back-room, bare-knuckle politikin' fascinating.  I loath politics... and found myself riveted.

Lincoln is a good film.

The amazing part is not so much the story or situation - which is pretty compelling, being the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which outlaws slavery - or the fascinating collection of characters, but the real amazement is your utter conviction that you're sitting there in the dark watching Lincoln - Lincoln himself - pacing the screen.  Mesmerizing.  Actor Daniel Day Lewis is... well, he doesn't seem to be there at all.

The movie feels talky (this IS politics) and there are no car chases or even the Civil War cavalry charge equivalent; it's closest in feeling to a courtroom drama, where the interest comes from what's said and what the final vote will be.  Not a film everyone will find fun - but history and/or acting buffs may want to own it on DVD as soon as they can.

There are many outstanding performances, including that of Tommy Lee Jones, and I'm just more and more impressed by Steven Spielberg's career...  I'd say the guy will need a monument eventually, except that he's creating it with every film.

Now I've got to get my hands on the book this film is based on!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Holidays Approaching (the Studio)

This week has been spent mostly in temporarily moving my studio in order to create room for house guests.

I can heartily recommend designing your own studio using easy to move furniture because, over the years, you'd be amazed at just how often it's been useful to move or rearrange my working-quarters.  Sometimes its been because the weather out in my converted porch has been too arctic or Saharan; sometimes it's been to make room for house guests or house plants or visiting other-people's-cats; sometimes its been due to repainting or...

In a weird way, the moves are fun.  Working in a slightly different environment shakes up old habits - I kinda enjoy it - and when I move back into my usual space and configuration I always have a few improvements... plus it's tidier!

My studio, looking a little messy and November bleak.

More discussion of studio organization HERE.

As you can guess from the black box in the foreground, I am an advocate of the "Box" school of storage - everything for one project goes in one box, in strict chronological order with most recently utilized on top.  (File folders?  Phoo!)  I was heartened to discover that the famous choreographer Twila Tharp uses the same method, just with bigger boxes.  I like 'em flat-n-shallow for drawings - I started with pizza boxes.

More on office environments HERE.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Get yer tickets HERE!

Kitchen Dog Theater's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane is getting rave reviews.  Check 'em out: The Dallas Morning News and PegasusNews.

Tickets are sellin' fast...
And here's another rave at EdgeDallas.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Film Fest and Catch-Up

It's been busy here at Set Design Central...

But I took this weekend OFF.  (For the first time in six? eight? weeks.)

So - Film Fest!

I watched Argo and Cloud Atlas.  I can recommend both:

Argo is a very satisfying edge-of-your-seat will-they-make-it? flick.  Good characters, good acting, great based-on-truth story (though I understand our friends the Canadians deserve even more credit).  I have to admit that, at the time, I was head-down in architecture school and not following news as much as I should have been, but I do remember the dread and horrified sympathy I felt for the hostages.  A terrifying ordeal.  This story, of the six who escaped captivity, I missed entirely.  Worthwhile film version!

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, was a book that completely caught my imagination... one of those books you ponder long afterwards.  When I heard about this film version, I had to see it, though I didn't understand how anyone could possibly make a movie from it.  But it works!  My companion had not read the book, but was still able to follow the complicated, inter-locking, multiple plots.  In fact, I think the changes in sequence, using the same actors for multiple roles, and the cinematic/visual links of the film may actually tie the stories together even more.

Really good performances by a sterling cast that includes Tom Hanks.  Excellent... everything.

The story?  Hard to explain.  Impossible.  Go see the film and read the book please.

The only point I'd make first is that, this is not a time-travel story, but a series of stories set at different times - with different characters - which interlock.  Themes twist and continue throughout, also a few characters, objects, or visuals repeat in new ways in the different periods.  I was fascinated by the book.  Its subtle, often inexplicable, linkages create a satisfying whole.

Cloud Atlas is one of those rare books that you finish, close, and just hold for a minute as it settles into you.

Other than movie-going, I've been reading a lot of history.  (These movies are history too, aren't they?)

Oh!  And there's an historic sale on at my printer's if you'd like to stock up on Alice Through the Proscenium (my how-to on set design)... Stocking Stuffers!

Find on Alice HERE or just more on Alice in general HERE.  As always, Alice is also available as an epub virtual all-digital electro-book HERE at Barnes and Noble.

And in stage news: I've read the first review (I've seen) for The Beauty Queen of Leenane - terrific!  Rightly pointing out the excellent acting, particularly in the lead role of the daughter.  

(But ignoring the set - typical.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tweaky, Tweaky

With set builds there are only two ways to time completion:

1 Too Late - You worry that it will, in fact, be finished.  The set designer and builder suffer ulcers and/or sleep deprivation as the deadline approaches.  Somehow though, the set is nearly always done for Opening ("How?  I don't know, it's a mystery").  The audience smells wet paint.


2 Too Early - This means that you did in fact get 98% of your design built onstage looking 98% like you, the designer, hoped... but this gives everyone else in the production time to stare at the set and suggest tweaks.  The audience smells wet paint.

Tonight is the opening for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Great show - come out and see!

(And what do you think you may smell?)

sketch by Clare Floyd DeVries - copyrighted, for once

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Ah!  The Golden Rectangle.  The Golden Triangle.  All the classic - and intensely elegant - proportions designers have used since Antiquity... and before then even.

Da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian Man - public domain

Leonado Da Vinci made that famous sketch of Man Justifying the Square and Circle - good ol' classics of composition.  There's something very satisfying and complete about a square or a circle.

But of these theories about proportion, all these guides to beauty in composition, one of the most fractally lovely is the Fibonacci Series, that spiraling shape that Nature uses as Design Guideline for Nautilus shells and, yes, hurricanes...

Creative Commons image by Jim Leftwich, from Boing Boing 

In this overlay of the Fibonacci diagram over a satellite photo, you can see the beauty of nature... even in the destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy.  

(Thank you Jim Leftwich for sharing this image.  Creative Commons and Public Domain are gifts to us all.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Little Details

Well, the Beauty Queen set is inching closer to finished.  In a minute I'll head out once more in my paintin' pants (a pair of jeans so stiff with paint they stand on their own) to do touch-up painting on the set.

But, on the way, I need to do some errands to:

1)  The copy place, for an enlargement of an Irish newspaper header page, to top my stacks of Dallas Morning Newses with.  (Even onstage newspapers get costumes.)
2)  The dollar store, for cheap mats-of-plastic-foliage to put in rain troughs to "tune" the sound of falling water into a proper "rain" sound instead of the present water-on-water splash that's more like "pee."
3)  Also more moss - to make more fake "peat" for this Irish fire.
4)  The art/craft store, for spray wood-stain to "age" my '50s fabric sink-skirt, which is looking too pale under the stage lights, plus, if I can find any, fake spider webs left over from Halloween to show that these characters don't dust much.
5)  My grocery store, for plastic "butcher-block" stickem paper for a kitchen counter top and also a mouse trap to put under the refrigerator.

The audience notices details...

public domain image courtesy of

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Sugar Trade

In the course of some research I've been doing lately into that rascally architect/pirate Barthelemy Lafon, I've been slowly learning the extent and (economic, historic, social) importance of the sugar (and allied slave) trade at the end of the 1700s until the Civil War.

It turns out that sugar - and slaves - built the new world to an even greater extent than I'd imagined.

believed public domain image

In the course of learning all this, I've found a couple fascinating things: the book Orders from France by Roger G. Kennedy, which is the beautifully written, entertaining story of French architects bringing neoclassicism to this side of the Atlantic (including a chapter on Lafon) and the sugar-mural Cargo by the artist Shelly Miller, which you can see HERE or on her blog HERE.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Opens Friday!

Come see The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Kitchen Dog Theater (and, incidently, my set).

photo by Matt Mrozek

I promise the paint will be dry... and the acting and the story darn good!  My typing hands are too tired, scraped, cut, painted, and sore for more details on the set finishing just yet, but more details on the production and getting a ticket HERE.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Crunch

Well The Beauty Queen of Leenane has entered that stage I think of as "The Crunch."

Lots to do and too little time to do it!

This afternoon I'll bring in my latest crop of Irish-looking canned goods  ('80s Noodle Doodles are hilarious), plus some Irish language book covers I've printed, and I'll finish carving foam into stone and, I hope, pick up where my talented volunteer quit painting stone Saturday, and finish that, and then I'll touch-up the base painting other volunteers did Sunday, and then...

You get the idea.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not a Review: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

The name of the Dallas Theater Center's latest play intrigued me: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

This curious phrase was explained in the show, so I'm happy.

There's rather a lot of explaining, since the main character (not Chad) acts as narrator - a charming, profane, often funny one - who soliloquizes throughout. The play, for me, did teeter on that dangerous edge plays usually do teeter on when the playwright Has Something To Say and a handy narrator to say it with: at moments the story began to slide into preaching.

But that would be the world of TV Evangelism...

This is the world of TV Wrestling.  THE Wrestling.

Photo courtesy of

The actors did well by the material. There were parts I really enjoyed (one great Dallas joke!), but on the night I watched, the audience felt uncertain... Characters interacted with us, but how much were we supposed to interact back?  Was "the roar of the crowd" okay? This was a preview performance though, so I expect the actors will soon whip up the crowd at will.

The set is, as you might expect, a wrestling ring.

Somewhere or other I saw a comment about "innovative designers" which puzzled me a little because, really, how else would you tell a story about televised wrestling besides with a wrestling ring, video camera, and huge screens? All nicely done. Good design. But then, DTC had its usual comfortable set budget to spend and they spent it - what I would think innovative would be to do this show well on the usual yoga-mat-n-bungie-cord budget.

Maybe a theater company could temporarily, for this show only, relocate to a gym?  That'd be innovative!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alice on Sale!

My printer is having a sale - a good chance to stock up on my how-to theater set design book Alice Through the Proscenium.  (What else would you give Trick-or-Treaters?)

Read more about Alice HERE on its Squidoo site or HERE at (you'll need that Lulu main page to get the, shhhhhh! SECRET CODE).  As always, you can also get Alice as an epub book at Barnes and Noble HERE.  

(The ebook is handy, but the pictures and glossary get kinda squished.  I like the dead tree version best.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

This n' That

A This n' That sort of set designer's day:

Coffee with a colleague, talkin' set design - his, mine, every show we've seen lately's, and the scenery for the Andrew Lloyd Weber sequel Love Never Dies on DVD.  Lots of fun.  Plus a demonstration of the very cool Bamboo drawing tablet.  I think I know now what I want for Christmas.  (Okay, and for birthday and Presidents' Day and...)

After that, I stickem-ed the last of the tacky (in every possible sense!) floor tiles to the stage for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Other brave and sticky volunteers started the job Sunday - until we ran out of tiles.  We're protecting the actual stage floor with an intervening layer of tar paper, stapled down, in hopes of easy removal.  But the sticking down is the stickiest thing you can imagine!  Sticky hands, sticky hair, sticky to the paper backing, sticky to the floor, to everything!  Wash-up includes slathering hands with WD40, then lots of soap and water.  Repeat.  Maybe a couple times.

Sketch by Clare Floyd DeVries, copyright, right?

This sketch was made during the designers' run the other night.  

I've started sketching during runs like this; it took me a while to figure out why exactly.  I think it's partly to document progress and partly a sort of shyness.  In the brightly lit theater under house lights and in the sparse audience of a designers' run (4-5 people!) it lets me feel less on-display myself and gives me a little distance from the show (like adjusting the volume).  Because a play can be too powerful for comfort sometimes, undiluted by the rest of the audience and unprotected by the darkness of the auditorium.  

At least for me.  

But then, I never sit in the front row for a show either, for similar reasons.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - even under house lights - is a powerful play.

You can see my earlier sketch of what this set will (I hope) eventually look like HERE and the latest progress photo (and the tacky tile!) right here:

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Kitchen Dog Theater, week 2 progress - photo by Mike Wang

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Progress Pic

Here's the set for The Beauty Queen of Leenane as of 4:30 yesterday.  I'm off in a few minutes for today's stint, after a morning of printing out Irish grocery store-brand canned goods.

(I know, I know, but just wait till it's finished: the magic is yet to come.)

Photo courtesy of Mike Wang 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kitchen Dog Live!

For all (3) of you who are desperately following the progress of Kitchen Dog Theater's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, HERE is a link to their Facebook page where there's bloggy-type up-dating going on.

ADDENDUM: A brief set update HERE.

Latrobe on Design v Drafting

I'm reading the Journal of Benjamin Henry Latrobe - the architect who designed and built so much of the Capitol in Washington D.C. - and I found this quote:

"The architect indeed requires all the imagination of the painter.  The building exists in his mind before it is sketched on paper, and if the operation of design is the same in other heads as in mine, arrangement, construction, and decoration are attained so simultaneously that I seldom materially change the design first elaborated.  But when imagination has done her duty, her aid is no longer wanted, and to a moment of enthusiasm succeed months of dry mechanical labor in drawing and the more dry and tedious application to it of calculations.  When the castle in the air has been made to descend into the office, and such constructions in writing and drawing shall guide the hard hand and iron tool of the mechanic, imagination is busy only to distract.  To execute such a building as the Capitol without relaying a brick or altering the shape of a single piece of timber or of stone, a competent knowledge of eighteen mechanical arts is necessary, a tolerably perfect command of every part of mechanical science, and, above all, a very correct mastery of accounts.  Where these are not combined, the architect is the slave of his mechanics; he is either ignorant of or must wink at their deceptions for fear of exposing his own ignorance, and alteration and experiment constitute a very considerable portion of his expense."


Present-day architects have plenty on their plates, srtuggling not to be "slave" as Latrobe puts it, mainly to building law, legislation, and codes, on top of the actual architecture gig itself, which is the same "moment of enthusiasm" and "months of dry mechanical labor"; but now we have become responsible for coordinating the efforts of dozens of experts like structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers and specialist suppliers and installers of high (and low) tech components like roofing or glazing systems or office work stations, as well as working with the general contractor or construction manager, whereas Latrobe was it.  Architect, engineer, construction superintendent, inspector, the whole design and administrative division of a huge construction project.

The U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C. - public domain photo

BTW, Latrobe's version of the Capitol had a lower, flatter dome, arguably more in keeping with the scale of the building and its central pedimented entry bays.  Personally, the tall dome is so iconic that I can't imagine not having it, however overpowering it (once you really look) obviously is.  There's probably something metaphorical in that...

Latrobe's Journal is available for free or very cheaply as an ebook.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Theatrical Sleep Cycle

Compared to actors (poor sleep-deprived wretches) set designers have it easy.  But there are days when your bed can feel a looong waaay off...

Yesterday I was up at 6:30 a.m. - normal around here.  I was busy all morning, but my theatrical day didn't start until 3:00 p.m. when I wedged my faithful car ("The Scenic Ride," I call her) chock-o-block full of kitchen cabinets, borrowed from another theater, and drove them to the theater at the Mckinney Avenue Contemporary.  Time off for lunch/dinner; rehearsal with a run-thru starting at 6:30, ending at 11:30pm; drive home; read to wind-down; bed at 12:30 a.m.

Not bad if I hadn't needed to be up this morning at 5:30 a.m.


Luckily, this was just a one-off schedule, but this can go on for weeks, especially if you're overlapping a few shows.  When you get kinda sleepy.

The tricky part for set designers is that builders - carpenters and painters - are Day People, needing to work day-hours when they have actor-free access to the set, but directors are Night People, needing to work evenings with access to actors (who have day jobs), and it's most convenient for directors and stage managers and even other designers (usually with day jobs too) to meet right after rehearsal when production issues are freshest.

Set Designers are the sleepy interface between these Day and Night groups.

Public domain images by Van Gogh, messed with

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Figures I used the rocking chair as my example for How to Choose Pick Stage Furniture the other day.

Because, of course, inevitably! it has changed... for stage kinda reasons.

Instead of the upright style of rocker we liked at the warehouse, we're going back to the lower, more rounded Windsor-style rocker the actors have been using in rehearsal.  Because it works better with the stage violence.

A Windsor rocking chair from 
(Where's there's a nice illustrated history of rocking chairs.)

THIS is actually how you choose stage furniture: by looks and design and sturdiness etc., by trying out various options, but most of all by deciding what "plays" best.

It has to play.

The Fun of Research

At present I'm doing research for a writing project so I'm having lots of giddy history fun (battles, cannibals, pirates, woohoo!), but research for set design is also fascinating.

One of a set designer's mandates is to understand the time period and milieu of a play's setting.  Even when you have a dramaturge (a production's Official Research Guru), it's usually still the set designer who is the authority on the visuals.  Dramaturges concentrate on aspects that affect actors and director more than set, while set designers have professional interest in architecture.  And interior design.  And furniture.  And...

So it's your job to know what the time period looked like.  Plus, as much as possible, to understand the logic - economic, construction, social, artistic - behind why it looked as it did.

Recently I've been researching the countryside and villages of Connemara, Ireland, Victorian-Gothik mansions, ancient Egyptian monuments, and office spaces in 1919 New York.  A nice varied menu!

The law office of R. Y. Williams in 1919, part of the Santa Ana Public Library's History Room Photograph Collection

Here's the most inspiring photo I found for Ghost Writer.  Though this law office pictured was on the west coast, not in New York, other photos showed it was characteristic of the time.  

What I found fascinating as a scenic designer was the spartan quality of the room: the severe wooden furniture; the contrast between dark woodwork versus plain paint; the rectilinear geometries, with only curved chair arms for relief; the details of picture rail and paneled door with textured glass; and the bare, bare walls - that ad-calendar the only decoration.

In my interpretation for the set of Ghost Writer, I added an opened transom above the door for a little 3D-ness and more verticallity for Circle Theatre's short space.  (More on my version of that calendar HERE.)  But though our writer's office remains bare looking, we did add books (from the script), soften the color contrast into sepia tones, and add a wainscot of bead-board -  because spartan was a bit too spartan onstage for a romance! 

A theater set needs to be true physically - to its time or location - but it must also be true emotionally.

Many thanks to libraries and collections like the Santa Ana Public Library, that generously make their collections accessible to the public online.  It's impossible for a designer to own every book on every topic or even to find all information needed locally, so I'm very grateful.  

(BTW, I believe copying this photo here is Fair Use, as I'm teaching theater set design, but please let me know if I'm mistaken and I'll remove it instantly.  Please don't copy it elsewhere, Dear Reader, without researching restrictions HERE.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Set Designer's Busy Weekend

This past weekend was chock full o' artsy goodness.

Saturday morning was start of the Build for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  I showed up to help place walls.  Sure, a drawing shows that (the Plan and it's important), but because this set is trying to look like the kind of ad hoc, by-golly-this'd-work-here rural cottage that uses old bed springs as a fence and has a dead tractor in its front yard, we're going with an ad hoc, by-golly method of building too.  Drag in stuff, stare at it, then say, "By-golly..."

Fun!  But the designer had better be on hand to stare.

Saturday night was the opening of Ghost Writer at Circle Theatre, so that afternoon was spent in Fort Worth, visiting museums and eating waaaay too many enchiladas at Joe T. Garcia's.

There are two terrific art shows:

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has an exhibit from the Phillips Collection "To See as Artists See."  Amazing!  One of those exhibits like a good cocktail party: you keep recognizing faces across the room and say, "I can't believe it! You're...  I know you!"  Many famous images.  The Amon Carter's own collection is interesting too.  They made their reputation on Western art, but have a lot more, including a serious photography collection.

Next door is the show "The Kimbell at 40."  Superb pieces, arranged in order of acquisition, which is not the most visual display logic.  

You can see more of the ongoing construction of the Kimbell's addition as it grows taller than its construction fence.  (There's a good over-look from the plaza of the Amon Carter.)  Inside the Kimbell are models and a video about the Kahn and Piano buildings.

That evening (after enchiladas!) came the play: Ghost Writer went very well.  I like this script.  It's subtle with a lot of emotion bubbling underneath.  Beautifully acted.

Sunday was more construction at Kitchen Dog.  My personal highlight had to be when I helped collect a vintage refrigerator for the set: a gorgeous Fall afternoon, a few quiet blocks of tree-lined streets, where the very first yellow leaves were beginning to fall, and... I got to ride in the back of a pickup truck!

I'm in theater for the thrills.

Believed public domain images messed with

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Million Muppet March!

I loooove this idea.

In reaction to Mitt Romney's vow to un-fund Big Bird (and Sesame Street, and PBS, and publicly-funded art in general) there is proposed a March on Washington.  A furry, feathery, brightly colored, and adorably huggable Million Muppet March on Washington.

Bring your own puppet!

It really is high time to rebut this stupid dump-the-arts idea.

I'll skip the statistics on how publicly-funded arts create jobs and bring income to communities.  I'll skip the proven results of early childhood education and the documented facts on how arts education fosters creativity and entrepreneurs.  I'll skip pointing out that arts are Fun and make life Nice.  I'll just say one word:


Public domain and believed fair-use images messed with

Sesame Street (wonderful as it is) is as close as our American civilization has come to publicly funded pyramids.  France has managed Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Chartres Cathedral so far, and even back when the country was so poor and primitive and backward that they were literally in the Stone Age, managed to pull off the Lascaux cave paintings.  But This Great Nation, the United States of America, can't afford to house and feed a few puppets?!

No way.

Just imagine how much we could do culturally with a just little real commitment...

Read more about the Million Muppet March HERE.

Book and Film Up-Date

I just read a very good review for Terry Pratchett's latest book Dodger on Boing Boing HERE... which reminded me that I'm waaaay behind on reviews of books and films myself.

So here's a fast up-date:

Dodger by Terry Pratchett - This novel is set in Dicken's London rather than Pratchett's Anhk-Morpork, yet the resemblances between the two cities are even greater than I had suspected.  Read the review above, then buy and read the book itself.  I enjoyed it.

Looper - This time-travel film is very cleverly worked out, with one of the most compelling scenes of if-something-happens-to-your-younger-self? you'll ever see.  For anyone serious about their dystopian time-paradox sci-fi this is a must-see film.  Intelligent. Well acted.  A great creepy kid.  Bruce Willis.  Entertaining.  And rather more gory than I'm quite comfortable with... but I'll watch it again.  Great resolution.

I'm re-reading The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton.  I cannot overstate the thoughtful clarity of this discussion of architecture and design and how they affect us.  Every designer, every user of design, everyone could finish this book a happier, wiser person.

(Over-sell you think?  Seriously, a good book.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

How To Pick Stage Furniture

After spending a few hours yesterday debating furniture with a director and prop designer, it occurs to me that it might help to explain what goes into choosing furniture for use onstage.

There are several equally important considerations to juggle:

1)  Sturdiness - A chair or sofa onset has to survive.  Depending on the script and blocking, an actor may jump on that sofa, commit murder in that rocking chair, or dance on that coffee table.  You need good communication between director and designers so everyone knows what this furniture needs to do.

2)  Shape and Size - Maybe an actor needs to hide behind this sofa, so you want a high back.  Or maybe it's imperative the sofa not hide important business behind it, so it needs a low back.  Know which!  Likewise, you may need a round table to allow flexible seating around it or a very small one because space is cramped.  For story-telling reasons you may want an extra big and pompous desk... so big and pompous you need to build it.

3)  Style and Color - The "look" of furniture onstage is important, since it will reinforce (or undermine) the scenic design.  Hard to pretend this palace is in the 18th century if that chair screams 1978's avocado green!  (Did Louis XIV even have an over-stuffed corduroy Lazy-Boy recliner back then?)  One vital question when borrowing is always, "Can I paint or reupholster this?"

4)  Availability - Is-it-possible-ness includes both the ability to borrow and the budget to buy, build, or reupholster.  This is the problem with happily sketching The Perfect Sofa into your scenic design.  The director will love it... but you'll never ever find it.

For this play we looked first through Kitchen Dog's stock of furniture and photos of other pieces from the homes of Dogs, but nothing was quite right as the "hero" rocking chair of The Beauty Queen of Leenane

So yesterday the director, prop designer, and I visited another theater's warehouse to pull furniture.  Among the pickup truck plus one small SUV and a car's worth of stuff we picked, we also debated which of three wood rocking chairs would best suit the show: one was Colonial (of the gracefully curved head and dowel-back type)  in faux mahogany; another was more rustic and straight-lined with a "pickled" finish, but with a too Texas-porch-looking slatted seat; and the third was a classic blond Bentwood rocker.  All were sturdy.

I nixed the Bentwood immediately as too '60s or '70s looking.  The director and I preferred the weathered look of the pickled finish over the gloss of the mahogany, as well as the pickled chair's plainer lines.

But what about the wrong-looking slatted seat?

The Mother-character who sits in it is an invalid...  So I'll pad the seat to fit the character, comfort the actress, and hide those slats.  Multiple cushions maybe?  Going for that layers o' stained fabric cat-bed kind of look?  I was lucky enough to find a sheepskin.  Bed-ridden patients lay on sheepskins to avoid bedsores, so why not sit on one?  Perfect!

That's how furniture is chosen.

Now multiply that same discussion x however many pieces of furniture needed.  With the added consideration (which any interior designer would understand) of calculating how well each piece of furniture chosen will interact design-wise with all the others!

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

A note on that photo of a rocking chair: I found it illustrating a funny and true rant, "Stuff That Doesn't Completely Suck Part I," that discusses worthless versus sturdy chairs HERE at Gordie's Lounge.

My own rants on furniture?  "Return of the Dreaded Sofa"  HERE.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Texas State Fair

I recently spent a day at the Fair.  Looking at the photos now, I realize that it was really a day about sculpture...

First, of course, the iconic statue of Big Tex.

BIG TEX at the Texas State Fair - photo gifted to the Public Domain

It just wouldn't be the State Fair of Texas without Big Tex saying in a deep voice: "Weeellcooome tooo thee Staaaate Faaair ooooof Teeeexaaas..."  (B.T. stated his showbiz career, I understand, as a giant Santa Claus beside some West Texas highway.  Miscast there, I think: too skinny and tall!)

Then, nearly-as-iconic comes The Butter Sculpture.  Carved from (you guessed it) real butter.  This year's sculpture was designed to honor of the Girl Scouts' 100th birthday:

Butter sculptures of Girl Scouts and Big Tex - public domain
Those reflections are from the glass sides of the refrigerator case.

That's Big Tex (butter version) they're giving those cookies to, of course.(More on sculptor Sharon BuMann HERE.)

The midway rides have their share of statues.  Here it's a fiberglass mermaid (with light-up under-sea flowers) who sits in the center of a spinning boat ride.

Photo gifted to the public domain 

The animal barns have their own statuary.  This is a reproduction of the famous mix-N-match animal invented for the 1936 fair, which combines attributes of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle.  Nowadays they'd throw in llama too.  I saw a lot of llamas!  This sculpture has a funny name... that I just can't remember...

Photo gifted to the public domain

And, of course, there are the famous Art Deco architectural murals and statues that mark the main buildings along the Esplanade.  This one is called "The Tenor" or similar.  (His female companion is "The Contralto"  I'm pretty sure.)  Behind him you can see a few details of the buildings.  I love this guy's manly chromed hood-ornamentishness.

Photo gifted to the public domain

This sculpture is a reproduction too, as the original was lost, but many original statues remain.  Like this one - my absolute favorite - in front of what was the Women's Museum.

Photo gifted to the public domain

She has an official name, but I call her "The Cactus Lady."  

No trip to the Fair is complete without stopping by to say "Hello" to Big Tex and "Goodbye" to The Cactus Lady.  She stands conveniently close to the exit to the DART trains heading home.  (More on the architecture and statuary of Fair Park HERE.)

This year I enjoyed the llamas and quilts and music and the Girl Scout exhibit and the kids dancing Mexican and Irish dances, but it was the sculptures that turned out to be the highlight for me.

Well... that and the Belgian Waffles with whipped cream and strawberries.  Darn tasty!