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!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Finishing Touches

Part of completing a set is finding (or building) furniture and set dressing.

For a period piece, this can be a real challenge.  Ghost Writer (opening Saturday at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth) is set in 1919.

Almost nothing you can find in Walmart today is going to look like it belongs in 1919.

Especially the books.  And this set is a writer's office with - naturally - books in it.  But where to find books with the right sort of bindings?  Can't afford antiques.  So, you borrow whatever you can find that can sorta pass as the period and you find or make a few "hero" books that look actually correct.

Make?  Go online (the designer's first research source) where you can sometimes find public domain images of books from whatever period your set needs.  Copy, print, blow up to a usable size, and paste onto a dud book.  (By "dud" I mean one of those sad, unloved books, an out-dated technical or law book or a former best-seller or Reader's Digest, that absolutely no one wants to buy or read today.  The kind of book theaters have in the prop room.  It's a sin to mess up a readable book.)

Anyway, I've been 1919-izing a few books.

But the really tricky bit of set dressing turned out to be the wall calendar.

Oddly, there aren't that many 1919 calendars in the stores.  I actually found a few examples on-line... but the illustrations were never of a high enough resolution to be able to print and use at real full scale.  So, for several days now I've been printing and copying and cutting and pasting period images and pages of a disemboweled store-boughten 2013 calendar... basically Frankenstein-ing things together to create a believable wall calendar for July 1919.

Here's the messy process, with everything heavy I own (within reach of my board) piled on to weight down the top of the rip-off (but please don't!) calendar pages.  The antique flat iron is particularly handy.

And here's the final calendar which, believe it or not, is composited of fifteen separate pieces of paper!

Nope.  Sixteen separate pieces of paper.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gehry in New Orleans

HERE's an interesting article at Archinect on the Make It Right Foundation's housing project - rebuilding the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina.

(If you have the patience, the comments waaay below discuss some aspects of affordable housing, green-building, and Starchitects that I found fascinating.  Plus more pics.)

To Do

1)   Take a walk
2)   Lay in bed late - just idly thinking
3)   Wash dishes
4)   Go somewhere quiet
5)   Leave town
6)   Play music
7)   Sketch
8)   Daydream
9)   Garden
10) Visit a museum
11) Read something new
12) Eat something different
13) Talk to interesting people
14) Ask questions
15) Play
16) Hang out with a kid
17) Stare at nature
18) Close your eyes and listen
19) Rearrange your desk
20) Make something
21) Use your hands
22) Take a shower
23) Get moving
24) Critique something - how would you improve it?
25) Volunteer
26) Be lazy, lazy, lazy
27) Get bored - then find pencil and paper
28) Do something! Get busy
29) Take photos
30) Write a description
31) Invent a conversation
32) Plan a garden or a vacation or a dream restaurant
33) Ask "What if?"

What prompted this list?  A post at The World's Best Ever of "33 Ways to Stay Creative" HERE.
Earlier posts on creativity: Recharging and Creativity n' Cool.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Sale! and Status Update

My printer is having a site-wide sale... Your chance to stock up on my theater set design how-to book Alice Through the Proscenium!  (And a lot of other good books too.)

Got to's main page HERE for the deal and HERE to see more about Alice.

Status?  The Mystery of Irma Vep opened successfully last night - always a relief.  From the set designer's point of view, the last minute addition of a leopard skin rug (beautifully painted on) worked just fine.   Lighting was lovely.  The set looked almost like the model and nothing fell off on an actor or anything, so I was happy.  This was a fiddly carpentry and painterly set and the carpenters and painters worked like fiends to get it finished - thank you!

The only upset was the sudden illness of one of WaterTower Theater's board members.  He was doing better almost immediately and was taken for further care - all good wishes to Buddy today.  After about a fifteen minute break, the actors jumped back into the show very smoothly, very professionally... which is tough to do, actually, since they build up a head of steam in performance and need that momentum.

Funny show!

Today - a meeting with the builder on The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  My own personal theater train just keeps on steaming along...