Friday, September 28, 2012


In the crunch, in the last days and minutes of finishing a set, many things happen at once...

Carpenters build "finish" details there was no time for earlier, but also repair Really Big Stuff that, for some annoying reason, isn't working properly, and they add missing elements, like masking.  At the same time, painters base-coat the new "finish" stuff as soon as carpenters place it, while continuing to paint everything else.

Ladders clash.

It is a wise theatrical convention to try to paint a set in stages. First a base coat on all raw wood.  (Under stage lights raw wood glows like an Ain't-Finished-Yet sign.)  Next, as time allows, scenic painters make sure every set piece gets a sort of broad-brush version of its final treatment - colors, texture, and some delineation of any image.  In The Mystery of Irma Vep, this would be the outline and base colors of the Sphinx's head on the Egypt wagon.  As soon as possible, this fast version is improved with the final finish - perhaps what was a flat color gets scumbled in several shades or, for the Sphinx's face, careful gradations and shadows would be added.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, WaterTower Theater C

In this photo you see the Egypt wagon getting its finish painting (the Sphinx's eyes will be revised, for instance) with, behind the wagon, tall parts of the main Sinister English Mansion set and its Portrait # 1.  (Those are props and set dressing sitting around, in the way, not the painter drinking lunch.)

But because carpenters are still building, any neat three-step scenic painting process is continually interrupted to hop back to slap paint on sudden new wood or to touch-up a finished surface marred by later work.  Also, special projects are finished, like dashing through, at a single sitting, that second portrait that everyone's been only pretending to use for Act III.


Late-stage set building and painting (and dressing! and furnishing!) is all about juggling priorities until - if lucky - the set is perfectly finished or - in the real world - the audience sits down.

The hard deadline of Opening explains the painting strategy: if, at any moment "Places!" is called, no scenery will look raw and it will all be (roughly) at a matching stage of readiness.

The Mystery of Irma Vep - amazingly enough - is going to be about done.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Full Days

Yesterday: two hours of one Strike, nine hours of another Tech, no dinner.

Today:  finishing things for the rest of Tech....

Gotta Run!  Gotta fly!

public domain image at Public Domain Clip Art

Friday, September 21, 2012

Line Drawing

I love color.  And color is a rather important aspect of a theater set.  So I usually add colored pencil to my ink sketches to indicate material colors and even to suggest lighting effects.  (An example HERE.)

But for my meeting with the director the other day... well, I ran out of time.  The ink was still wet when I laid my sketch on the restaurant table.  (One-on-one theater meetings with directors are often at restaurants: if your sketch isn't wet with ink as you present it, it's often wet with iced tea before you finish.)

My black & white sketch got more response than I expected when I showed it then and, later, to others.

So I guess it'll stay uncolored.

Sometimes I forget how strong pure line drawings can be.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Kitchen Dog Theater, design sketch by Clare Floyd DeVries C

This is ink pen - Staedtler Pigment Liners in 0.3 and 0.1 sizes - on that ol' faithful, yellow trace.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane isn't really a color kinda set anyway.

(An earlier post on yellow tracing paper and drawing is down the page or  HERE.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Avast! Readers!

This be Talk Like a Pirate Day maties!

In honor of this world-wide Piratical Celebration, here's a little image from one of my very most favorite architect/pirates, a detail from the historically important map of the Mississippi river delta and adjacent coastline drawn by Barthelemy Lafon in 1805:

Excerpt of Lafon's map:  CARTE Ge’ne’rale du TERRITOIRE D’ORLE’ANS
in the public domain

And here's a great website, Big Map Blog, where you can see the whole map and zoom in on it and everything.

Set sail for Barrataria me hearties!

Film Fest?

Let's goof off at the movies!

I absolutely love that we live when films are on tap for viewing at will.  Because I grew up in the day when, if you didn't catch a movie at the theater, you might never see it.  Even if you did see a film on first run and loved it passionately, you might never see it again.  Or only at 2:00 a.m. one day, one year, years later.  VCR home taping technology was as big a breakthrough as printing books, as far as I'm concerned.  Revisit a much-loved film?  Wonderful.

Consequently, here's a series of my takes on various films - new, old - that I've watched lately, either in the theater, on Netflix, or otherwise on that big screen hogging my living room.  

Robot and Frank - A charming film about aging set in a  near-future that you barely notice happens to be science fiction.  Robots, right?  The retired guy - beautifully played by Frank Langella - reluctantly accepts a robot home-care assistant (he calls it "Robot"), while the town librarian - lovely Susan Sarandon - accepts robotic help at work more gracefully (she calls hers "Mr. Darcy").  Thoughtful, charming (did I mention charming?), well-acted, and often funny.  A few nice surprises.  And - Easter egg bonus! for s/f fans - the actress playing the daughter is Liv Tyler AKA Arwen.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - No nice surprises here.  Well, okay, faces you're glad to see.  Otherwise, the actors give their all, the sets, costumes, effects, etc. all well done... yet a deeply stupid movie that misses the point of Sherlock Holmes.  (So did the first film, but somehow that was more fun.)  SPOILER... I absolutely hated the way The Woman - Irene Adler - is swatted like a fly.

This sequel joins my personal list of sequels-that-shouldn't-have-been-made, right up there with Indiana Jones IV and Pirates of the Caribbean IV, both also filled with clever stuff in service of a bad idea.  Skip Sherlock Holmes the Action Hero and go watch episodes of the BBC's Sherlock instead.

Mirror, Mirror - Julia Roberts, Snow White...  A dud.  Why?  Besides the lame story?  But a definite dud.  However, seeing Nathan Lane in a cockroach costume made it worth my time.

Wrath of the Titans - Another mythically good story told with terrific actors and at great expense of time, trouble, talent, and cash... also somehow dead on arrival.  Hard to say why.  It's not lack of trying.

Why do movies fail?  Well, a film (or a stage production) is a big clanky walking-machine with about twenty legs, all full of rusty gears and shiny new ones, that barely mesh, which nevertheless tries to dance for your amusement.  Art is mysterious.  Some projects just magically click! and dance and leap!  Others just never do.  Some films turn out to be stumble-bums no matter how hard their mothers love them.  So have patience with bad movies, knowing that a good one needs magic and just flat luck to succeed.

Ruby Sparks - Charming and quirky.  It's the Pygmalion and Galetea story of an artist who falls in love with his creation.  Romantic... but not what you expect (whatever you expect, going in).  This film is also funny, sad, kind of disturbing, lonely, meta-fictional to the max, quirky, and hard to describe without spoilers.  Go see for yourself.  It reminded me of Stranger Than Fiction, another worth-while movie about a writer and her character.

There you go: a couple duds (though with moments of worth, because their makers loved them, whatever the luck was) and a couple little jewels that went click! and dance.

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome, public domain image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New Venue

Last weekend Dallas celebrated the completion of its new Arts District performance venue.

We already have the Dallas Museum of Art, at the head of Flora Street, the Symphony, the Opera Hall, the stunning Nasher Sculpture Center, and The Wyly Theater - home of the Dallas Theater Center.  Now there is this new 750 seat space, the Dallas City Performance Center.

But here's the catch:  although the local theater community was in on discussions about how to design - what to design - for this new building... It doesn't seem they were listened to.  750 seats are just too many for most small theater groups to fill.  The Bath House Cultural Center seats about 200, which is about right for small troupes or edgy material.  These groups really could use a larger venue for more commercial or broader appeal shows and as they build audiences, yet the jump from 200 to 750 is just too far.  What these groups need is someplace with 400-500 seats.  (Can't just half-fill a hall - it kills a show to have a half-empty house.)

Of all the groups I can call to mind, only Shakespeare Dallas presently has the pull to fill the new venue.  Air conditioning may be a powerful draw too!  Wow.  But what about the picnics?  (Looove Shakespeare picnics!)


What our small theater groups actually want, are the up-to-500-seat black box theaters of the proposed Phase II...  Given the present economy, however, Phase II will be slow a-comin'.  Those black boxes would have been a more nurturing next-step in developing small theater troupes into viable larger ones.

Here's the other catch with the new Big Venue: big rent.  My understanding is that rent on the Bath House is in the neighborhood of $75 a night.  The new venue asks around $1400.

Faint whiff of a problem there?

For months, years, I've heard - and shared in - grousing about the dunderheadedness of the new theatrical venue.  (And also heard rumors that high rent for that other new theater venue, the Wyly, is crippling the finances of the Dallas Theater Center.  I hope that's not true.  But high rent IS an art-killer!)

But now...

Reading today's paper, it seems this mismatch of new-venue and user-needs may be resolving itself in a way I never expected:  a new musical group is born!

The Dallas Chamber Symphony has been established - inspired - by the nature and good acoustics of the new City Performance Center space.

Public domain image from

TaDa!  Art is wonderful.

Bureaucrats and committees can decide what they will.  Nay-sayers (who? me?) can carp.  Yet artists will find a way to work - around, in spite of, even sometimes using dunderheaded mistakes.  The city thought it was filling in an existing need by existing theater groups - missed that target! - yet, inadvertently, inspired a whole new music group.

"Build it and they will come," indeed.

I think it's wonderful.  All the best - break a leg! - to this new Chamber Symphony.

Maybe the City Performance Center will turn out to be a good and financially viable home for music?  Perhaps dance?  There will certainly be some theater...

Please prove me wrong!  I'll happily eat all my words and doubts.

Maybe we should start collecting nickels for those black box theaters in Phase II?

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Importance of Drawing

In architecture -  but also to any type of design or designer.

Here's the master Michael Graves writing in the New York Times: "Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing."  I absolutely agree - drawing and the designer's hand are part of the machinery of thought, vital parts of study, memory, and creation.

I am also strangely encouraged to discover that I share my love of the humble rolls of yellow tracing paper known to architects of my generation as "yellow trace" or, most affectionately, "trash paper."

(Because, while designing, we trash soooo much of it.)

A sketch for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Uptown Players, copyrighted, of course

As Michael Graves's sketches are copyrighted, here's the most Gravesian of my own, a sketch for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on - of course! - yellow trace.

An earlier post on architectural sketching HERE.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Set Designer's Weekend

Weekends off?


I'm having fun this wonderfully gently rainy day... but I'm not off duty.

Saturday, I spent several hours sketching on the floor plan for the set for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  It'd gone sticky on me - the vernacular architecture of this corner of Ireland (which I love) not meshing well with the seating configuration of the performance space at the MAC, or with the director's needs for blocking.  I made some progress, but it remained sticky.

So I switched to research instead.  Research is useful, but sometimes far too much more fun than other urgent, but harder parts of set design.  It can become goofing-off-with-camouflage.  However, I did find a couple good sources for Irish ephemera, which will help in set dressing.

This morning, Sunday, I woke up with my plan problems all unstuck.

The subconscious is a handy design tool, I tell ya!

Public domain photo courtesy of

That, or maybe today's almost Irish "soft" weather has finally put me in tune with Connemara?

Anyway, that epiphany meant another couple hours at the drafting board today.  Then, in about an hour, I need to leave for a run-through of a completely different show.  I'm eager to see The Mystery of Irma Vep on its feet - should be great fun!  But, since there's a production meeting afterwards, today is definitely a work day, not a day of rest.

I could use a nap though...

Earlier POST on the helpfulness of sleep in design.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thank You!

Don't you like to know how things turn out?  (I hate news stories, for instance, that get you interested... but then you never, ever learn how the court case or whatever ends up.)

So about that Giving Day appeal recently...?

Success!  Wonderful success!

Thanks to those Supporters of Good Works who gave so generously, North Texas Giving Day (earlier POST) broke all previous records!

Thanks to you, loyal Supporters of Kitchen Dog Theater, we collected enough money to fully support our young playwright program Pupfest and our New Works Festival readings... and that's before the matching money even kicks in!  This will Really Help.

Please, you Readers who gave so generously, pat yourself on the back.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Alternate Versions

Looking through the stats for this blog, I've discovered that a good few visitors find their way here by Googling TM "Boeing Boeing set design."

I've designed two versions of the show - for Circle and WaterTower theaters - and although those two shows had the same text, same director, and most of the same cast, the two very different venues demanded different sets...

Boeing, Boeing at Circle Theare, Fort Worth, Texas
Photo courtesy of Circle Theatre

My first version of Boeing, Boeing... on a small thrust stage about 25' wide by 16' deep (in front of the proscenium), by 9' high.  My idea here was that this was a penthouse/rooftop apartment with views of Paris, renovated by the architect-character .

Boeing, Boeing at WaterTower Theater, Addison, Texas
Photo courtesy of WaterTower Theater

This time the performance space was 38' wide, by 25' deep, by almost 30' high.  (Almost 2 1/2 times the size.)  Consequently, the architect's digs suddenly became a seriously grand Paris apartment.

But how many other ways can there be to design what's basically a box set living room with 6-7 doors?

So I thought I'd Google it myself.

Immediately, I found a fun video for a production of the show at Phoenix Theatre HERE.  (Since these videos and photos are all copyrighted, I daren't display them: please click on the links.  Though this ought to be "fair use" as criticism: compare and contrast, kiddies!)

Where my design impulse was to emphasize the '60s Parisian and architectural nature of this architect-character's apartment, the designer of the Phoenix Theatre's version, Richard Farlow, emphasizes the airplane motif and adds colored lighting and a piece of switcheroo-set-dressing-comedy to "decorate" his set for each stewardess.  Clever!

Many other designers used a variation on French paneled walls, with the Hartford Stage's version by David M. Barber perhaps the most handsome example.  French and - to a much lesser extent - 1960s seem to be the leading motifs.  I'm surprised so few of these designs attempt any views of Paris; though, on my own sets, only selected seats saw any view since this is, basically, The Lotso Doors Taking Up All The Wall Play.

The Papermill Playhouse production - designed by Ray Klausen -  besides many doors, had a neat silhouette of Paris above the apartment and nice moldings (though I kinda hate the typical-theater-railings).

A production in Melbourne used an elegantly curved-wall set, again all doors, no views.

I'm also a little surprised that no designer went nuts with the '60s.  I had touches - the art, a few details and colors - but no one seems to have carried the period style much further.  Possibly this is because of the price of large pieces of '60s decor?

Earlier posts on Boeing, Boeing: Rethinking a Design, Further Adventures of a PlanNice News, Pictures in the Paper, Art as Set Dressing, Critics 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Giving Day

Today is North Texas Giving Day - your best  chance to support the performing arts in DFW, while streeeetching your dollar.

All gifts of $25 or more given TODAY will be "matched" by extra funds!  (Just like mine were.)

For the price of two movie tickets, we theater folk would be very very grateful.  

And your support will go a long way!  At Kitchen Dog...
$25 pays for copies of the script for the cast, designers, and crew
$50 buys two lightbulbs for stage lights (see why theater's expensive?)
$150 pays for one costume for one actor
$1000 pays all expenses for one staged reading of a new play
$5000 buys building supplies for all shows in a season (we pinch pennies!).

Just click on the theater name to reach the Giving Day page, where Spending Your Cash For a Good Cause is made very simple and pleasant, even down-right enjoyable.  It's that glow of nobility, that's what it is.

And here are some other theaters doing good work, that I also work with:

Thank you.  There IS no theater without you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Embarrassing Post

I promise this won't happen often... but I have to link to a funny cat video.  Really.

LOLcats are everywhere!

But here's the deal: this little black & white flicker of film about Henri is a clever satire of cats, humans, the-tragedy-of-life-as-we-all-know-it, and (not least funny) French Cinema of the most pretentious, um, serious and artsy sort, complete with subtitles.

(I'm told the narrator's accent is so thick that actual French speakers understand better with the sound off.  But do cats have the right shaped palette to speak French properly?  Their English is certainly sub-par.)

This little gem has everything I most respect in, um, Art: it's made for love and learning (you see the filmaking improve between the original Henri and this Paw de Deux); it's made with modest means - using the limitations even as part of the story (especially at the end!); and it has a point of view.

Anyway, here's Henri:  YouTube LINK.

Salon calls this "Officially the best cat video ever."   Henri Paw de Deux just won an apparently prestigious LOLcat-film award.  (They have those?  Sure.  There's an award for everything.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dallas Critics' Forum Awards


Great news!  The play Ruth by Vicki Caroline Cheatwood at Kitchen Dog Theater was chosen as one of the best new plays in the DFW Metroplex for 2012.

I really liked this play.  Very gratifying to see it recognized.  Way to go Vicki!

Ruth at Kitchen Dog Theater - photo by Matt Mrozek

HERE's an earlier post on Ruth with a few more pictures.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


After a few recent trips my biggest impression is how very varied the country is.

Some of that difference is geologic: the steep glacier-carved ravines of upstate New York and the abundant! water of Niagara Falls versus the endless rolling horizon of the Great Plains and the muddy almost-dry Red River.  But more of the difference is the climate.  I've just witnessed how lush and green upstate New York is (even in a dry summer) compared to the thirsty landscape of North Texas and the drought-parched pastures of Oklahoma and Kansas.

In New York cottonwood trees must be 60-80 feet high, with huge trunks and lush foliage riffling in the breeze; their cousins in Texas - even on the banks of a creek - are at most half that size and their tired leaves hang limp or fall.  In Oklahoma, the cottonwoods look smaller still and are losing big limbs to the drought.  Many look dead.  Southern Kansas, though very very dry, looks a bit greener than Oklahoma.  Along the drive you can see swaths of burnt grass alongside the road and sometimes singed trees.
Public domain photos of Oklahoma and upstate New York

Other notable things?

I visited several historic sites in New York, including East Aurora, which was a Utopian Arts & Crafts community founded by Elbert Hubbard in 1895.  There are few craftsmen now - just a gift shop -  but the gorgeous Roycroft Hotel still showcases lovely interiors filled with Arts and Crafts detailing and furniture, plus murals by Alexis Jean Fournier.  Now a restaurant and a hotel, I'd love to spend an evening here soaking in the atmosphere of William Morris and the American Craftsman Movement.

Public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia

From about the same period, Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery is an interesting place to walk around.  Okay, hike around. Victorian funerary monuments are often interesting and this cemetery's sometimes rugged and often wooded terrain makes it especially picturesque.   

I spent a few minutes sketching (often as I walked, which explains a lot about the quality of these sketches!)  There are several famous graves - most notably Frederick Douglas' and Susan B. Anthony.  The sketch above is one of the prizes of the cemetery: a marble monument to a young girl, carved by many of the leading stone carvers of the day.

This is one of the mausoleum entries that lead to tombs cut into the side of the rocky hills.  Nicely creepy.

This is another landmark, a tomb with a Victorian-Gothic canopy reminiscent (though much smaller than) the famous Albert Memorial.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Sale!


My printer, is having a sale on my how-to theater set design book Alice Through the Proscenium.

You can learn more about Alice HERE on Lulu or on this  Squidoo  page.  And, as always, it's also available at Barnes and as an eBook.