Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fun Stuff and Colleagues

I had a lively meeting today with a fellow set designer, talking about our various projects: I showed sketches for Irma Vep (upcoming at WaterTower Theater); Joseph showed sketches for Man of La Mancha; I had tiny architectural models to play with; he had photos of an enormous model for the dream sequence of a student film.  Fun.

In the course of our discussion, we found some interesting online material to share here...  work by artist Emily Allchurch that references the imaginary prisons of Piranesi. Fascinating work that I hadn't run across before.  HERE

Pianesi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - See More!

Related links: Joseph's theater design website and my own Man of la Mancha and its earlier flirtation with Piranesi.  You can see my version HERE. (Click at the left on the show's name.)

Oh! and in another online discovery, I found that D Magazine readers voted WaterTower's The Diary of Anne Frank (which set I designed) as their Readers' Pick for best theatrical production.  Pretty great news!

It's really really helpful to talk with a fellow designer.  They learn from your triumphs and mistakes and vice versa - and you can cheer and/or commiserate each other as needed.  Sometimes only another designer understands.  Having a few friendly colleagues is good both for the work and for morale,  a real comfort and help... sometimes as an extra painter or adviser, sometimes as a sanity break!

Go make friends with a colleague.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Busman's Holiday

I like this old British saying which comes from the idea that a bus driver might take a vacation... by taking a bus tour.  So it refers to any vacation that looks an awful lot like your usual work.

In my case, it means a weekend-long architectural design problem with bonus model-building, done just for fun.

Very refreshing!

Believed public domain photo- messed with

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Driving Hazards

The Scenic Ride is limping today... going slow with one of those toy spare tires on it.

Yesterday, driving back from a fun furniture hunting trip in Fort Worth (for See How They Run), it ran over something small but lethal on IH 30 that INSTANTLY! blew out a tire.

A minute later I was pulled over on the, thankfully, wide side of the road realizing that:

a) I had a bad flat
b) I had a new toy spare and jack etc. that I had never practiced with
c) I had all that tire gear buried under boxes and boxes of set dressing (for Crimes of the Heart)... and
d) It was 100+ degrees out there.

Rather later I realized that even a wide roadside - and I was pulled waaaay over, half on the grass - still meant that 14 wheeler trucks were zooming past my ear at 75 miles an hour and that was way too close for comfort.

After I'd jacked up the poor Scenic Ride, removed its old wheel, and was sweating mightily as I struggled to put on the new toy wheel, the courtesy truck came by and a nice man showed me how to use my weird new jack handle properly.  I felt foolish and over-heated (though I had done most of the work myself) and slightly deaf in my traffic-side ear.

Then someone else pulled over with a flat... caused by the same debris on the road.

Today?  Buying a new tire... at about $ 250.


Wish my flat tire experience had been as glamorous as pictured below.  Notice that this distressed lady-motorist looks neither sweaty nor flustered, though the wind from passing trucks has obviously affected her...

I bet she won't be changing her own tire either:

Flat Tire by Elvgren - believed public domain image

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sale on Set Design Book

My printer is having a sale on my set design book Alice Through the Proscenium!  ( I love that this salesman is the Mad Hatter - perfect for Alice!)

Shhh...  The secret savings word is SILVER.  Catch your savings HERE at Lulu.com.

Alice is also available as an epub format e-book HERE at Barnes and Noble.  (No sale there, but it's just naturally cheaper as no trees were flattened...  then again, the pictures turn out better printed on trees.  Take yore pick.)

Monday, July 23, 2012


In all the rush of a designer's too busy schedule it can be a while before you realize you're in danger of going stale.


Tired.  Flat.  Boring.  Unimaginative.  Uncreative.  Stale design happens when, presented with a new design problem, you find yourself working on auto-pilot, designing using only your practiced tools and techniques, your routine methods... by rote... using the same old ideas you've used until their edges are shopworn.  (The opposite of "edgy" right?)  Stale design is hardly design at all, is it?

It's important to experiment with different ways of doing things - to jump out of that rut you've been busily digging while you were being so productive.

But, most importantly, you need to fill up that idea-well that you've been emptying buckets of inspiration from all this busy while.  Creativity, like any underground aquifer, needs recharging.

This past weekend, for me - these recent weeks - are a recharging period.  I'm determinedly not designing any theater shows.  I'm seeing movies; reading novels; swimming and doing summer stuff; seeing friends; designing and/or writing totally different kinds of things; tidying up the mess left by my recent busy period; and doing household things... even hanging pictures that have been patiently waiting, leaning against the wall, for months and months and months.  

I'm not trying too hard to fill the well - no desperate rush to the museums or my theater design books - I'm just idling.  Idle is good.  (Well as idle as I can get away with!)  After all, if Newton hadn't been loafing around under an apple tree, would we have gravity now?  No!  We would be free floating in space.  So enjoy gravity properly, break out the hammock!

Here are a few of my favorite methods for recharging the designer's well:

1)  See stuff: visit museums and art shows; go to the mall and stare at clever window displays; watch well designed films or live shows; flip through art books, travel books, and fashion magazines;  find cool images online; look around everywhere you go; sketch from life...
2) Practice other senses: listen to music; move; taste apples; smell roses or pool-side chlorine...
3)  Learn stuff: read up on subjects you know little about; study history; look at visions of the future; talk to experts on anything...
4)  Get busy - with other stuff: wash dishes; garden; take long walks; exercise; socialize; live your life!
5)  Get lazy: goof off, whether that's lazing in the pool, daydreaming in a hammock under that apple tree, or racing raindrops down the windowpane beside your chair as you pretend to read.  Let your mind wander...

Summer is a perfect time to recharge.

Public domain images messed with

ADDENDUM: Related post Busman's Holiday.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Update on That Film...

Some of you may remember that way back in April I linked to a friend's Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his short film, Perfectly Normal.  Well, I just got an email update from him: principal photography is finished!  Sounds like it was an intense burst of a lotta-hard-work by the whole talented film team.

Now the film goes into post-production for editing, sound and music tracks, etc. etc.  Wish 'em luck.

HERE's my earlier post and HERE is the film's Kickstarter page.

"Kickstarter" - what a funny name and what a good idea for funding!

public domain photo

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Start a Set Design

As readers of this blog will know, a set designer may have several designs going at once at different stages of development.

Right now things are quiet at my board: The Divine Sister is on stage at Uptown Players (come see!); I just struck Crimes of the Heart (my car is still full of its set dressing); Smokey Joe's Cafe doesn't open until Monday night (come see! at WaterTower Theater), but my part in that is largely done; and See How They Run is building, but it's too early for me to fuss with dressing just yet (soon, very soon).

Which leaves me at leisure to wade into two up-coming shows for Echo Theatre.  The fall show is Or, a fictionalized biographical piece about the early woman playwright Aphra Behn.

Aphra Behn - public domain image from Wikipedia

The second play will be one written by Aphra Behn herself.

I'm looking forward to these.  The restoration period is one I haven't worked with, other than a modern version of The Country Wife.  As a designer I'm interested in both the period and the "bookend" quality of designing two related plays, but as a woman designer, I'm especially interested in this fascinating trailblazer of a playwrightess.  

(I'm glad the obnoxious pink-ghetto ending "ess" has gone out of fashion!  Except just that, if I were an Italian female architect, I believe I would be addressed as "Dottoressa" which, I have to admit, sounds flatteringly cool.  But the English "esses" like poetess, laundress, stewardess, etc. sound either dorky, dated, or as in the case of negress, flat-out insulting.)


No question that Aphra Behn would have suffered her share of insult in the 1600s as a woman who dared to write professionally.  An added "ess" would have been the least of her worries.  Here's "Thanks!" to all the tough women who were Firsts in their professions, hacking trails for later women - like me - to stroll along, just doing the job.

My job for Aphra Behn started with reading Or, written by Liz Duffy Adams.  

A set designer looks for several things when reading a play: you look for story, atmosphere, literary quality etc. just as the audience will when watching the play, but you also look for the practicalities of staging.  What entrances are required?  What furniture or other set items will actors interact with?  What scene changes are required?  

From my first reading I learned that this play has a realistic (and occasionally farcical)  tone and two settings - first, a private room in a debtor's prison and, second, the main living/writing room in the writer's apartment, with an entry door to a common hall and another to her bedroom, plus a wardrobe large enough to hide a person in.  The writer's desk is important.  I assume there'll be at least one chair.  Will we see her bed?

Immediate questions are: how elaborate or complete must the two settings be (the budget is limited); how much or little will we see of the bedroom; and where will we find period furniture?  As with any period piece, it will be part of the set's job to establish the time frame... but this poor playwright would not have much up-to-date in her environment.  Look at most poorer people's spaces - old stuff, old buildings - even your own living room and its furniture is probably 5-10-20 years old.  So, though this play is set between 1666 and 1700, the playwright's room could easily be from the 1640s or earlier, though she would have late-model clothes, of course.  (I hate period shows that forget this fact!)

Next step is to meet with the director to discuss her take on the text, to ask these questions, and to debate first ideas.

Fun ahead!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Design Quote

"Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design"

– Dieter Rams

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Film Fest - Rome n' Spiders

Two recent movie viewings here: Woody Allen's latest To Rome with Love and The Amazing Spiderman.

About as different a pair of movies as you could imagine.  I enjoyed both.

To Rome is Woody Allen Lite.  It won't be one of his most beloved, but it's not one of his worst either: it has its pleasures, which include terrific actors and scenery.  Plus I think the singing in the shower gag is funny.

Damned with faint praise, I know, I know.  But here's my stand on late career Woody Allen: his work is erratic nowadays, but his worst films are watchable and his sweet-spot films are... uniquely wonderful.  For the viewer it's a box-of-chocolates problem: sometimes you bite into delicious hazelnut creme, sometimes that hard stuff that sticks to your teeth, but give up chocolates?  Never!

Likewise, one Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Matchpoint is worth a few Scoops.  Even the awful dregs of Melinda and Melinda (which I took as a personal betrayal) is redeemed by Midnight in Paris.  If Mr. Allen was my buddy Woody, I'd suggest he slow down, that maybe he needs more time to recharge between films.  Sadly, we're not speaking.  (I'm free for lunch any day, Mr. Allen!)  Then again, I'm not sure this dedicated filmmaker would know what to do if he wasn't making a film.  So... his fans watch some not as good films, waiting for the next really really good one.  

Time - that great editor - will sort 'em out for posterity.

What posterity will think of The Amazing Spiderman I don't know.  I remember the Toby Maguire versions well enough not to need a reboot yet, but I did like this new take on Peter Parker and Spidey by actor Andrew Garfield.  Great romance this time and a very good villain.  I am sure though that our day will be considered a Golden Age of Super Hero Movies.  

(As I write this post, outside my studio window, bright in a shaft of sunlight in the garden, there's the Biggest Spider Web Ever.  I'm feeling kinda nervous about spider bites right now.  Maybe I'll leave it, huh?)

Spider web - from Publicdomainimage.com

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fire Station # 4

I got to go to the ribbon cutting for the city of Richardson Texas' new Fire Station # 4.

A Boy Scout flag-raising; a bag piper; lots of hot dogs and popcorn; city council folk ceremonially pushing a ladder truck into the new app. bay; the ribbon cutting (of a "Fire Line Do Not Cross" tape, of course); lots of families with little kids, wide-eyed at the fire trucks; and a fire-safety clown in baggy pants and fireman's rubber boots... a lovely Americana moment.

A really beautiful new fire station.

Not just a functionally beautiful building - though it is that and that's essential - but also beautiful as a composition of stone and shading roofs.  

Fire Station # v4, Richardson, TX - photo courtesy of BRW Architects

I found a nice blog post by its designer HERE.

(Full disclosure, I know the folks at BRW Architects.)

Musicians On Tour - Dukes of September

After hearing Boz Skaggs, Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan), and Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) Saturday night I have to recommend, if their Dukes of September Rhythm Revue tour comes through your town, that you rush out to buy tickets!

The music was a mix of covers of great songs by others and, as Mr. Fagen put it, "works of our own composition."  Terrific stuff!  Plenty of favorites for fans, while mixing in songs like "I heard it through the grapevine" and "Break another little piece of my heart" kept the song list unpredictable.  The musicianship was amazing: terrific instrumentals (I tend to dread drum solos, let me confess) while the backup singers (Carolyn Escoffery and Catherine Russell) sang highlights of the evening.  Everyone got the spotlight, but the headliners were in very fine form.  A wonderful concert!  (Dallas Morning News review HERE.)

Go hear 'em.

And - a side-note from the set designer viewpoint - they also had a great lighting designer and board op.  But the Verizon theater venue needs to replace a few light bulbs at the house left wall for the pre-show look; try to live up to the performance, huh?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Quiet Place

Yesterday one show Opened.  Tomorrow another one Techs.

But today is quiet.


Le Hamoc by Gustave Courbet - believed public domain image

Enjoy a summer Saturday.

Friday, July 13, 2012

First Peek at The Divine Sister

Here's the first photo I've seen of my newly-completed-paint-barely-dry set for The Divine Sister at Uptown Players.

Photo courtesy of Uptown Players

Notice my St. Francis church window?  With his traditional giraffe of course...  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dressing a Boar

Well, Set dressing with a Boar's head.

A fake one.

My set for Uptown Player's The Divine Sister consists of two sets, really, splitting the revolve at the Kalita Humphreys theater.  The big half represents St. Veronica's convent school; the small half is the living room of a mansion.  It seems that the late husband of this rich widow was a naturalist and traveler, so naturally we looked for "naturalist" sorta stuff to use as set dressing for the it-could-otherwise-be-generic rich lady's salon.  I borrowed African masks, framed copies of Audubon's bird paintings, and even framed my own home-made (paper) butterfly collection, then...

One of the interns has a connection to SMU's theater department.  Several of us remembered the handsome faux animal heads that hang in SMU's shop and... well, there was this gorgeous Boar's Head.  And we could borrow it!

It's about the size of a small car - a Smart Car, maybe.

A HUGE black Boars's head!

A Boar's Head - public domain image from Wikipedia Commons


Years ago I watched SMU's wizard of a prop designer build this surprisingly light-weight fake taxidermy specimen hair by hair.  Incredible!  I've always admired it.  Was thrilled at this chance to use it.  So now, over my large faux marble fireplace in this elegant, rather dainty, lady's sitting room there hangs this monstrously over-sized pig head.

This creates a few decorative problems.  For one thing, although the fireplace mantel is tall and the set wall is tall and the fireplace-breast even taller, the director needed the piggy hung very very low so the dainty-sized actress can touch it.

This looks kinda like...
                                 the boar's head is so heavy it...
                                                                      slid down the wall.

But I fixed that.  Some.  I added a temple-front "cap" to the wall (to make it look shorter) and then added a faux stone heraldic shield between that cap and the Head to help fill the upper part of the wall (a shield left over from Shakespeare's Richard III, most recently reused over the fireplace for Boeing, Boeing).  Then I dressed the mantel top with over-sized candlesticks and photo frames.

Now it looks rather as if the Boar is pushing his Head through the wall to look at snaps of the late husband.  (I found great man-with-mustache-in-pith-helmet photos!)


Then I dragged in the biggest, blackest classical urn I could find to hold the decorative palm tree off in the set's corner... so The Boar's Head isn't the only big, black thing on set.

ADDENDUM: a link to an earlier post on using art as set dressing HERE.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Towards Opening...

At Uptown Players (in that famous Frank Lloyd Wright theater the Kalita Humphries), the set for the Divine Sister is inching closer to completion.

It takes a Ton of Work by many, many people to get it there.

Oh, and at the same time - and often on the same square foot of stage with the clashing of ladders, lifts, buckets and whatnot - the actors, director, producers, light and sound and costume and prop designers, techs and stage hands, stage manager, interns, and volunteers are all equally busy.  Not on the set alone, but on the Whole Show.

Tons o' Work!  By Tons o' People!

The Crowd- believed public domain photo

I've working in and out of the theater every day for a week and will be there for the next several days too.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Art as set Dressing

Apologies for the scarce posts lately - the combination of work and summer holidays makes it more difficult than ever to find blogging time.

Today, however, I'll give you a peek at what's happening off stage before it appears onstage:


My up-coming set for Uptown Players' next show, The Divine Sister, has two locations that share a turntable - St. Veronica's Catholic School (and convent) and a rich woman's living room.  And for that living room, I need art on the walls.

Not just art though.  The story is that her late husband was a naturalist and traveler, so some of what goes up on the wall will be dead animal heads etc.  So far I've borrowed a sad collection of taxidermy: a one-eyed deer head, a set of antlers, a stuffed fish, and a molting duck.  (There are duck feathers in my car now.  All over my car.)  I need to make a couple picture frames filled with a butterfly collection... once I find suitable frames.  But I do already have a collection of matching gold frames (incredibly cheap dollar store ones), which I will fill with reproductions of Audubon bird paintings.

Many shows require art chosen to illustrate a character's biography or interests.

I've been creating a ton of set art lately, including a whole collection of faux Picasso and Miro prints for the rich playboy's apartment in Boeing, Boeing, creating faux Broadway show posters for the theater producer's office in Mistakes Were Made, and framing a family gallery of photos for Crimes of the Heart.

A set designer (and/or set dresser if lucky enough to have one) spends a lot of time thinking about what this art should be... and an even longer time finding and then buying or copying images, photo-copying these into usable sizes, finding frames, and then framing and hanging it all.  As anyone who has framed even a diploma lately knows, framing art can be hugely expensive.  Remember that theater has no real budget for that!  The designer has to borrow, thrift shop, and fake that pricey framing.  And, obviously, public domain images are the way to go, for all sorts of legal reasons.

It gets tricky.

Audubon flamingo - public domain image.