Thursday, August 30, 2012

Painted Model

I don't build a model for most shows.  I tend to think in 3D and to be able to document ideas for directors and producers in sketches.  It's faster (and cheaper) to scribble than to construct a model.

But for this show sight-lines are tricky.  Hard to estimate on paper.  The lighting designer kindly made an AutoCAD 3D model which helped immensely, by letting you virtually-sit in any seat.  Fantastic!  Still, a physical model could enhance our understanding.

What decided me that I needed a model was the scenic painting.  This design is not the simple paint-by-number, give-'em-paint-chips! paint job that many sets are.  (Realistic interiors, for instance, can be straightforward to paint: flat or simple scumbled color, then dirtied up.)  This show needs to be much more "scenicly" painted.  But I was having trouble understanding how color ought to vary across the walls without seeing them together in 3D.  AutoCAD models are great, but famously poor at rendering color...

I needed a model for my own sake - to figure things out - and for everyone else's sake - to explain.


I spent one efficient Sunday making little side trips outdoors to spray-glue copied construction drawings onto foamcore board, which I then cut and glued into the basic "white" model.  Finicky work.

White model of a theater set - copyright Clare Floyd DeVries

The next day I painted this white model (and the model for the other scene I'm not showing you - come see the show, eh?)

Tell you the truth - I was nervous.  Afraid I'd botch up 8-hours worth of model by 8 seconds of Oops! with a paintbrush.

But it worked out okay.

Painted model for the same theater set - copyright Clare Floyd DeVries

ADDENDUM:  My buddy Joseph is featuring this model on his Stage Design by Joseph blog.  His posts are worth reading as another view of the set designer's life.  His current project is Man of la Mancha.  (A show I love.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Back In Town

Boy, ya look away for just a minute...

and the work piles up!

Back from a brief trip, I'm scrambling to catch up.  Yesterday was devoted to building a model for The Mystery of Irma Vep.  This morning - in mere moments! - I'll paint it.  This morning I also need to select paint colors for that and for the show Or, then physically buy paint for that show's set... which I hope to start base painting this afternoon.  Meeting at 4:00.  Run Through at 6:30ish.  Late home.

Tomorrow?  Another morning of on-the-board work, more afternoon painting, and then two meetings, starting just before 5:00.  Sometime in there I really need to go hunt more furniture.

Meanwhile, a third show The Beauty Queen of Leenane waits impatiently - ideas scratching at my skull - for me to put pencil to paper.  I've been thinking about it for a while.  A fourth, Ghost Writer, waits for me to read it and to start thinking.

Busy, busy.

Believed public domain image.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fabric Shopping

Fabric shopping is one of the unexpected joys of set design.

Unexpected by me, anyway.  As an architect I'm comfortable with selecting building materials - brick, stone, wood etc. - even if in theater these materials are, like as not, merely painted imitations of the real thing.  Since most sets turn out to be of interior rooms, there are interior finishes to pick too.  Architects often choose carpet, but many hand off carpet selection and certainly "soft" furnishings to interior designers or even to clients.

Not in theater.  If it's physically on stage and neither worn by nor carried by an actor, then the scenic designer chose it.  Or at least okayed it.

Which turns out to be kinda fun.

Fabrics!  The colors, textures, the drape and weight and translucency!  Fabrics are fascinating.

Dallas is luckily big enough to support a lively collection of fabric stores and warehouses.  There are the big chain sewing/fabric stores like Hancock's or JoAnn's.  Retail prices are high for theater budgets, but these  stores have frequent sales.  Remnants sometimes.  Retail fabric stores that specialize in upholstery, curtain, and decorating fabrics, however, are mostly too expensive even with sales, but there are great cut-price fabric stores along Harry Hines.

The most famous of these discount warehouses is Golden d'Or with its legendary Bargain Room.   (Half off of already discount prices!)   I enjoy visiting Golden d'Or - in part because it's such a hidden I-know-the-secret-door sort of place - but my favorite and luckiest store is Wherehouse Fabrics just up the street.  It's organization is more slap-dash, tables heaped with fabric rolls, but prices start at $1.50 a yard.  Can't beat that!  Best Fabrics next door has a great decorating fabric selection at good prices... but I have more luck at Wherehouse.

Believed public domain

The other day I had luck for an upcoming show.  If not quite the silver-blue brocade I was looking for, which was 22 $/yd even at a discount, then my find is a very good substitute at 2.50 $/yd.  Seven yards?  That's a savings of almost $140 - a substantial fraction of this entire set budget.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ruth Photo

I just saw this (rather gorgeous) photo of Ruth at Kitchen Dog Theater, taken by Matt Mrozek.

From a set designer's point of view, a good photographer who actually shoots sets along with actors is a rare jewel.  Many thanks.

Ruth, Kitchen Dog Theater, photo by Matt Mrozek

I loved this show!  A great script with a powerful idea (Vicki Cheatwood); ideal cast and director (Tim Johnson); really in-sync design team...  And, as you can guess from this photo, I especially loved the lighting by Aaron Johansen.

Ruth, Kitchen Dog Theater, photo by Matt Mrozek

One side note on that lighting:

See the coolo lighted slots between the wood strips of the wall behind the guitarist?  At the same time Ruth was on-stage, the Dallas Theater Center's set for its Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat had a similar detail.  (Scenery designed by the amazing Bob Lavalee.)  The DTC accomplished their effect by many man-hours of cutting strips of Plexiglass TM to fit between their slats.

We did the exact same thing in half an hour using $1 worth of masking tape.


Just goes to show that ideas aren't always limited by budget.  In our case, the wonderful precision of the set builder (Steve Leary) made that cheap masking tape ploy work.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wodehouse World

I've just finished reading P. G. Wodehouse's Summer Lightning or, rather, rereading Fish Preferred, which was its American title when I first read it years ago.

It hasn't gone stale.

There's something timeless and wonderful about Wodehouse's world of country house parties and purloined pigs, a clock-work  lunacy to his farcical plots, and an eternal freshness to his slang.  (I particularly like his version of American gangsters, missing from this book; they sound like a cross between James Cagney and maybe Woody Allen.)  Wodehouse is a master of the colloquial.  And can the man turn a phrase!  He's a stylist.  A miracle of quotes and almost-quotes, like this gem:  "But the milk of human kindness, of which the butler was so full, had not yet been delivered on Baxter's doorstep."

This particular novel is set at Blandings Castle so, naturally, it is full of pig-thievery and all the split-second timing of farce.  It is impossible to explain its plot.  But its humor!  It has only gotten funnier since its first publication in 1929.

Cover, Summer Lightning PG Wodehouse

Why did I reread it?  Well, I skimmed through the intro at the library...

"A certain critic - for such men, I regret to say, do exist - made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names'.  He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning.  With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names.  Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy."

How could I resist?

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Glimpse of Smokey Joe's Cafe

On WaterTower Theater's website there's a video interview with the director, Terry Martin.  At about the 1:45 mark, there's a glimpse of my sketch for the set and then video of the set itself: scroll down to Conversations@WTT: Terry Martin & SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE   HERE.

Opening and Other Up-Dates

Saturday night was the Opening for See How They Run at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth.

A very funny show.  The audience howled and clapped - adding ten minutes in laughter, so that actors had to find ways to vamp until their next line could heard.  A nice kinda problem!

I'm pretty happy with the Tudar style, half-timbered set.  There had to be a few minor compromises on the details of this one due to real-life-situations which took up some of the builder's time, but nothing an audience would notice.  It happens.

I spent the afternoon before opening in Fort Worth.

The Kimbell Art Museum had few visitors (they're between big shows and knee deep in construction), but part of their wonderful permanent collection was on display, so I was happy to visit favorites like Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun's self portrait and Matisse's L'Asia.

Ancient pieces are currently featured.  There's a lovely bronze head with amazingly curling hair.  A lovely crouching marble Venus.  A few red-figure vases...  How, I wondered, could the Greek vase painter of 2500 years ago make the gory death of Pentheus so beautiful?  Even his dismembered torso (partly hidden by the display stand) has dignity and beauty.  You can see it below, or better on the museum's website  HERE  (Click on the Pic for a detailed close-up.)  There's a wonderful crispness and richness to the lines that define the characters in this tragedy and a balance between linear and solid-area painting that I admire.  Decorative ceramic painting is an unforgiving art - it's hard to fix a mistake - so the sure hand here is remarkable.

In many ways this illustrated story is similar to a modern graphic novel.  The original viewers would have known the story and not needed the museum's cue card explaining that King Pentheus had forbidden the worship of Dionysus (or Bacchus, the wine god and the king's own cousin).  He forbade the women of his kingdom (his aunties and mother included) to take part in these rites.


You can imagine a Greek god's reaction.

Pentheus's mother only recognized her son's head on her sharp stick after the wine induced frenzy faded.

The longer you look at and think about this scene of the insulted god Bacchus's revenge, the more disturbing this beauty is...

The Death of Pentheus, Kimbell Art Museum, believed fair use

Construction of the new addition to the Kimbell Museum is proceeding.  New concrete work is finally above grade.  A few long beams have been delivered and set in place.  Wrapped in such heavy black plastic, I wonder whether these are wood beams?  Or pre-cast concrete unusually well protected?  You can start to see the massing of the new building versus the existing one now and, so far, it seems as if the original will not be overwhelmed...  we'll see.

I do hope, once the new building is done, there will be some repairs to the existing Kahn building; I spotted quite a bit of damage to the too-thin travertine of its steps and porch floors.

After this museum visit - pizza!

I was happy to see one of the theater critics having a good meal at the same restaurant.  I have long advocated for DFW actors and designers to chip into a special fund to make sure critics get a good meal and a drink before coming to see a play - the last thing we want is a hungry/grumpy critic.

A grumpy critic might write a review a little too much like that ancient vase-painter painted his gory picture!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Watercolor Sketching

I found a really good book called Watercolor Sketching, by Paul Laseau.

Aimed at architects and designers (perfect! for theater and scenic designers), this book is spare of text but lavish with step-by-step examples.  Very helpful whatever your level of experience.

The author has also written a book called Freehand Sketching which I'm going to hunt up!

Building With Books

Just found this cool blog post at on art/construction projects using books as their raw material.  Go look!  HERE.

Public domain image

Still more fascinating work on the the website of artist Guy Laramee (who carves books) or an earlier post on Miler Lagos (who uses books as bricks).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spoiler! Construction Drawings

A helpful stage manager was able to scan my construction drawings for a show called Or... so I'm taking this rare chance to show you what the full Builder's Drawings for a small, simple set look like, even though these particular drawings are a bit unusual.

The set - well, setS - consist of two locations: a jail cell circa 1670 or so and the main room of writer Aphra Behn's (rather nice) apartment.

The jail will be represented just by the writer's table and chair plus one side of a tiny wagon with a jail door.  The apartment will get two whole walls, the jail wagon spun round to reveal a fancy wardrobe, and rather more furniture.  Construction will be pretty simple: standard 4' x 8' wall flats - some with doors.  Even the little 4' x 4' wagon will be built using standard flats.  So the trickiest part of the build will be neatly adding trim and some fabric wall covering.

As for the drawings...  I like to draw at a small format - 11" x 17" - because I can easily photocopy that size.  Even when I can't find 11" x 17" paper, I can copy half a sheet at a time onto standard 8 1/2" x 11" paper.

So, here's what simple build drawings for a simple theater set look like, at least as I approach it:

This is drawing sheet #1 - the plan.  There's no dimensioning on this (unheard of!) because in this theater the existing columns will tell us exactly where the walls have to go.  Besides, I'll be there on Load-In day to point and wave my arms.  Because this set is built using only standard flat sizes, I just noted which size (4') at each panel.  Normally there'd be bunches o' numbers to define what goes where.

And this is sheet #2 - small scale wall elevations and then large scale details of the little jail/wardrobe wagon.  A big hairy note describes the types of trim I want to use...  

Because we'll be using existing (scrounged) trim, I didn't pick exact model numbers from a catalogue, but instead gave guidelines for selecting from stock.  I'm sure there'll be some horse-trading along the lines of: "We have 24' of this kind of molding, but only 10' or this other, so let's use this here and that..."

And sheet #3 - shows a large scale elevation (vertical view) of the folding screen and my first design sketch of the full set, which includes the screen and wardrobe in place.  

(This is a color sketch actually, but I have to leave some surprise for Opening, don't I?  Come see the show!  Or, by Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas.)

Small as these drawings are and fast (if I say it myself) as I am as a draftsman, these construction drawings took a surprisingly long time to draw... mainly 'cause ya design as ya draw.  

Thinking.  So sloooow.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Sale

My printer is having another sale... good news for Readers who want to buy my how-to-set-design book Alice Through the Proscenium!

More on Alice HERE.  (Psssst!  the secret word is ASTOUND)  And, as always, Alice is also available as an ebook from Barnes and HERE. (The illustrations and glossary work better on paper though, I think.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Real People Collect Art

Art collecting sounds like a rich person's hobby - something waaaay out of budget for ordinary people.

Not so.

If spiffy art galleries are too expensive, there are unpretentious galleries too.  And venues like antique or craft stores and art and craft fairs that often display lower priced artworks.  Look in thrift stores!

My best thrift store find ever?  At one nasty-dirty thrift shop where I was looking for picture frames for set dressing - flip, flip, flip, through the art, then - wait... What was that, back a of couple frames?  An etching by Salvidor Dali that I bought for less than $5.  There are bargain treasures!

Dali by way of a thrift shop - gotta love it!

For less expensive art, look at art that come in multiples, like posters or prints.  Work on paper tends to be less costly than work in  paint on canvas or, for real sticker-shock, bronze sculpture.  Look for work by less well known artists or in less popular genres.

Let me make a plea for "real" art.

If you buy art made by living artists (from a gallery or direct from the artist's studio), you help support the Art Of Your Time, help support the lives of the very people who, a hundred or even a thousand years from now, will define our era.  "Real" art is work that real people put thought, care, skill, and intention into.  Sure it will pretty up your rooms, but living with art also enriches your life.  Serious art never goes stale - it continues to delight and enlighten.

Live with something you love.

Who says the fine art is not for us regular folks anyway?

I love the story of art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel - a librarian and a mailman - who put together one of the greatest collections of contemporary art.  Listen to Our Roving Art Critic talk about the Vogels at KMUW Wichita HERE.  (There's a great clip of a documentary film about them too.)

More on tips for buying inexpensive art on my Squidoo page Thrifty Shopping for Home Decor.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Film Fest - Batman Rises

A little... overblown, I thought.

Mind you, I enjoyed this big (biiiig) summer blockbuster - Catwoman especially and the advent of Robin - but the film did feel too long and too impressed with its own importance.

There were several points of logic that annoyed me too.  (Spoilers)

1)  The scary villain's face mask?  Cool yes, logical no.  And the delayed explanation... I just didn't buy it.  Wouldn't nice conventional heavy-duty pain meds make that scary mask unnecessary?
2)  And why exactly is the League of Shadows so het-up about Gotham?  What makes this city so much more compelling a target than any other big-city-with-rich-people... any other city, in other words?
3)  Can Bruce Wayne not find a hobby for Pete's sake?  Ten years of glum reclusiveness!  Dead parents and girlfriend are depressing, I get that, but many people recover from much worse.  Can't Alfred get the guy a puppy?
4)  And the Unclimbable Wall... looked climbable.  Not by me, but I've seen rock climbing gyms and known folks who climbed Yosemite's El Capitain.  Looked easily climbable for someone fit enough and motivated enough.

So.  Fun flick.  Not my favorite of this series.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fight Call and Farcical Design

Last night was the Designer Run for the British farce See How They Run at Circle Theatre.

It's going to be funny!

But before the Run there was Fight Call, to rehearse various chases and physical bits.

Director Robin Armstrong is known for farce and physical comedy - creating one of the best comic moments I've ever seen in Incorruptible - a brilliant silent fight between a man and a woman (who was supposed to be dead at the time) literally over the head of a monk who knelt, praying, with his eyes closed.  As he finished his prayer and opened his eyes, the woman lay there again "dead" in front of him - fight over.  Perfectly timed.  So it was fascinating to watch this new show's fight rehearsal.  I didn't know (being no actor or athlete) that such scenes are practiced at varying speeds: slo-mo, 3/4 speed, and full speed (AKA did-you-catch-that?!)  I could see the actors becoming both controlled and fluid.

For See How They Run, it's lots o' chases and mock fights that turn into real mayhem... Very funny stuff.

How does this effect the set?  (Because a Designer Run is not called just so I can giggle.)

Well, first of all there's safe footing for these running actors.  We'd intended to seal the painted stage floor with a slightly glossy/slick polyurethane, to ease a scene when an actor is dragged away.  But, what with all this running around, it became obvious that it's more important to make the floor non-skid. We'll leave the stage as an UNsealed painted finish.  Luckily its faux "stone" look will hide some skid marks and, if damaged, will be relatively easy to touch up.

Then there's the rug in front of the sofa.  There's a mock fight there, so padding under the carpet is important (not to bruise actors), but there's still all that running... so we'll triple pad the rug, then firmly staple it to the stage to keep it from sliding.

Furniture selection is inportant.  There is so much physical business on (and over) the sofa that it had to be not just a good period "look" (meaning appropriate fabric and style) but well padded.  There are gym mats that get less of a workout than this couch!  The sofa will get screwed down to the floor too.

In a farce doors must always be sturdy specimens with heavy-duty hinges, catches, knobs, and latches.  Having doors "bounce" back open when slammed is a problem to solve.  At this stage of the build, doors are in place, but hardware is still being found and installed.

At the floor plan stage of set design, door placement and distance between entrances are critical decisions, because this effects comic timing.

I've designed this vicarage as a Tudor half-timbered house.  Building timbers from foam might have been a good/cheap idea for a straight play, a drama, but as this is farce they need to be of sturdier plywood.  There's a stair rail that gets some rowdiness, so the carpenter has built it like a wooden M1 tank.

A wooden tank - found HERE

After watching the Designer Run, building this set like a wooden tank seems about right... it's a comic battlefield!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Runny Aroundy Day

Today is going to be one big circle o' driving here.

The Scenic Ride is still stuffed full of set dressing from The Divine Sister (including an I-hope-not-too-smelly deer's head, ick) which I need to return this morning... in order to RE-fill the car with set dressing and furniture for the upcoming show See How They Run, which I'll need to first pick up from... is it Plano? (a far north-of-Dallas suburb), then deliver to Fort Worth when I go there for tonight's production meeting and designer-run.  At least three towns worth of hauling.

Phew.  Tired just thinking about it.

Of course, what I need to be doing is staying at my board all day, finishing drawings for The Mystery of Irma Vep.  This is the theater designer's Standard Dilemma.

public domain images continually messed with...