Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Yesterday was strike for two of my shows The Frequency of Death and The Diary of Anne Frank.

For the set designer this mostly means collecting your junk off the sets... before some eager stage hand tosses it in the dumpster.  (This has happened.)  So I drove first to Lewisville to collect picture frames, flowers, assorted black & white tchotchkes, and two borrowed chairs, drove those chairs back to their owner-theater in Addison, and there picked up my few bits of set dressing from that show.  Then drove to Dallas to paint on the rapidly-up-coming Collapse.

Lotso drivin'.

Here are a few pics of the Frequency strike:

The Frequency of Death strike, Pegasus Theatre at the Lewisville Grand

Stage left, starting to disassemble wall flats - See the bucket?  Roof leak!

The sad shambles... See the once elegant chandelier, grounded.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Art Break

One of the great advantages of designing a show for Kitchen Dog at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary is that you can take Art Breaks in the galleries.

There's a wonderful show right now with an installation by Eric Eley.  The artist's information talks about camouflage - which I understand - but I think his sculpture would make a wonderful set for The Tempest!  It's as if Prospero laid all his salvaged ship's rigging, and fishing nets perhaps, out to dry on those old fashioned umbrella-style laundry lines...  Fantastic!  Beautiful.  Casting fascinating shadows.

Photo borrowed from Eric Eley's website  

Come see this intriguing art show at the MAC and see Collapse too - opens Friday.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nudges from the Future

Emails arrive reminding me of deadlines for Circle's next show.  (Secrets of a Soccer Mom just opened!  Go See!)  And of WaterTower Theatre's next show.  Time to reread, sketch, and meet with directors.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ladder Work

Collapse is getting ready for Tech - in fact today is Dry Tech, when the director and lighting and sound designers talk through things.  So today I'm scenic painting fast-fast-fast.  The big item?

The big highway bridge.  There's an important scene on the bridge... so we've built one leg of it and hope to suggest the rest.

Which means that today I get to paint the 15' high bridge leg: some from on top, leaning over and down; some from the theater's lift (if I can get it over there); some from a tall ladder (if I can get help moving it); some from the ground using a roller and the longest pole; some while sitting on the ground.

Naturally this is not simple flat-color-painting like your living room wall - it needs to be rich and varied in color, attempting to suggest concrete.  So I'll be mostly scumbling, which is where you slap several shades of paint together to blend and modify them.  (More on scumbling HERE.)  Gotta run!

Friday, January 27, 2012


On many shows there are little jobs that the set designer may bring home to work on.

For the up-coming Collapse, it's been painting: a coffee shop sign, a condo sign, and now a coffee table top.

When hunting for furniture on a low budget, you're very much at the mercy of what you can find.  This time it appears that the sofa we'll end up borrowing is more of a love seat, which means all the other furniture will need to be a bit reduced in scale too.  So our coffee table will be a smallish Danish modern piece.  It's a nice little table... with the totally wrong top.  (Red.  Floral.  Wrong.)  So I'm repainting it to look like that '50s - '70s tile medley of white and Scandinavian blues and greens that was so popular.  It's looking good so far.  The finishing touch (when my typing and its drying are done) will be to put gloss medium (a sort of varnish) just on the tiles.  Under stage lights the painted "tile" will glisten but the "grout" will not - totally selling this illusion!

Believed public domain photo

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Squidoo Up-Date

Just added a lot of new information to my Squidoo page Theater Set Questions Answered, so I thought I'd spread the word.  Don't forget to visit my other set pages: 3 Ways to Improve Your Theater Set and, 3 More Ways to... um, you guess.

A photo from the Frequency of Death build given TaDa! to public domain

Chihuly Exhibit Coming

...To the Dallas Arboretum!

I'm a big fan of Dale Chihuly's colorful glass sculptures.

Years ago he exhibited his glass at the Venice Biennial and I would have loved to have seen his twisting, sea-weedy glass tendrils suspended and reflected in Venice's canals...  So I'll try to be first at the garden gate to see his work hung among the trees of Dallas' most beautiful park.

Image of Chihuly chandelier borrowed from Current.org

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


A set designer spends so much time driving and hauling junk around that a pour-down-rainy day like today can be a real inconvenience.

Multiple public domain images, messed with

I'm scheduled to pull furniture from a theater warehouse.  I'll go, but now it'll only be to look.  Because a sofa just will not fit into my car and the guy-with-the-pickup-truck (everyone should know one of these useful folk!)... Well, a sofa in a pickup in the rain?  Not good.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Speaks for Itself

I'm guessin' this sign is now in the public domain...? 

Not sure who Betty Willis is, but if she tweaked this,she did a wonderful job.  Image is to be found (or at least Google ascribes this image to) Harrah's Las Vegas blog.

Film Fest - Modern Westerns

I watched Blackthorn the other night, a fictionalized account of the life of Butch Cassidy after his supposed death... and the death of everyone else important to him.  The story is set in Bolivia - very beautiful and very bleak.  An unexpected plot puts Cassidy in the role of dupe to what turns out to be one of the nastier Western villains.

There are the classic films like Stagecoach or Shane.  

Cowboy Breaking a Horse, Frederick Remington, public domain image

Then a new period starting in the 1960s when the western was reconsidered.  There are several variations: spaghetti westerns, like those starring Clint Eastwood - or sort of Pop westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many which modified or even shifted traditional audience sympathies from the white settlers to the displaced native peoples as did Little Big Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, or Dances With Wolves. 

Now comes this tough strain of modern variations where the traditional western virtues exist alongside sympathy for the natives plus a sometimes bleak, even nihilistic, viewpoint ...  3:10 to Yuma, True Grit (tougher than its '70s predecessor), The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada, or There Will Be Blood.  Or Blackthorn.

I'm impressed with this latest generation of westerns.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sign How-To

One scene in the play Collapse, by Allison Moore, is set to the blinking light of a Minneapolis landmark: the Gold Medal Flour sign.  My set design for this show now includes several other signs inspired by local landmarks.

But how to build them?

The coffee shop sign was the simplest to build - a wooden board with a painted coffee-cup-n-spoon reminiscent, though not matching, one local spot and many other signs around the country from that era.  Easy: cut a board, trim it, base paint it, render a cup-n-spoon, letter it etc., then figure out how to hang it.

The sign with wavy "river" lines (inspired by a landmark property) was almost as easy.  Another board - almost 6' long - with painted lines and lettering.  This was harder though, because at almost 6' long it's difficult to keep lettering straight and keep waves from... going crazy.  So all this had to be drafted; then those drawings peeled off my board; the rear of the drawing blackened with graphite; then flip it, place it, and trace it onto the board.  Paint with a steady hand.  Last step - drill holes, attach clips, and install blue rope light so "waves" will light up.  The volunteers doing that work did a terrific job.

Looks cool!

The "FLOUR" sign?  I anticipated a horrible time cutting out letters, but got lucky.  The automated cutters used in frame shops to cut picture mats can cut letters too!  Letters turned out to be the easy part.  But then letters needed 1" diameter holes cut in them (with a drill bit) so light bulbs can be installed.  A metal-strut frame needed to be built.  Letters had to be mounted on the frame.  Then lights installed.  Later this week, I'll be figuring out how to make the raised rims or edge bands around the letters...

The audience will see cool, local-ambiance signs, but will have no idea how much work went into them.
Believed public domain images

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Film Catch-Up

I watched two interesting films lately: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog about paleolithic cave paintings in France discovered only about a decade ago, and Margin Call, a film loosely based on the actions of the Lehman Brothers investment bank at the beginning of this recession.

The films have almost nothing in common except high quality and a certain quirkiness, but the contrast between them is noteworthy: the first film deals in human activity over tens of thousands of years, the second, of one day; the first film has only one identifiable actor, a painter, millenniums ago, with a crooked little finger, while the second is an ensemble of instantly recognizable Great Actors.

Both worth watching.
Public domain image of the Chauvet cave paintings

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Second Weekend of Collapse build

Everyone pitches in and helps.

Help!  Time to pack up these (almost) dry signs and go.

believed public domain photo.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I'm just dipping my toe into what looks like a fascinating take-it-slow read: Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  By a Nobel Prize winner for economics, it's a study of how human minds work, of the ways our intuitive ideas and our conscious/rational thought systems interact as we make decisions.

Art and design, of course, are all about decision-making.

For me, one disadvantage of staying busy-busy with theater design is that I don't get to drop by the library.  But I passed the door today and, on impulse, stopped.  Browsed.  Found this unexpected gift-book of new ideas.

Art and design are also, of course, all about impulse and new ideas.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program

On the set design frontier we're paintin' signs today for Collapse.

Last Word on SOPA/PIPA for a While

Gratifying that yesterday's internet protest made our lawmakers stop and think - including my own Senator John Cornyn.  Thank you, sir, for reconsidering your support for this flawed bill.

(My email last week persuaded him, gotta be.)

I'm not political, but this proposed legislation irritated me.  Shooting gnats with a canon.  Much as I love movies and want films made and profitable - heck! I've made one myself! - I do think internet film piracy in this country is pretty much a gnat.  (China?  A different matter.)  There has to be a way to reduce piracy without messing up the internet... which is the frontier of our time.

Hey! You, film industry!  The MPAA's claim that yesterday was just big internet bullies like Google misleading us dopey little people into protest?  Wrong.  Whiny.  See me?  Grassroots!  Dirt between my toes.

I got involved when it dawned on me that it is my internet too.  Laaaate adopter here, non-tech, born too soon to ever be a native citizen of the World Wide Web...  Yet I email, I Google, I love Wikipedia, I blog and read bloggers, I have websites, I've even written an e-book sold on the internet and made a minuscule amount of money off the www.  I don't use the street in front of my house as much as I use this new-fangled invention.

So I care.

Public domain images (Clkr & Wikipedia) messed with

Please keep that fact in mind, Congress and Big Entertainment Biz.

HERE's a link to a nicely articulated TED talk - an explaination of why SOPA/PIPA are dangerous to internet freedom and our constitutional rights.
And HERE is a fascinating and very even-handed explanation of why SOPA is wrong-headed, written by a Hollywood film editor.  It's the best summation I've seen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Joy of New Pencils

Is there anything nicer than a set of crisply pointed brand new colored pencils?*

I just received a box of art supplies from Blick (the great Chicago art supply stores) with a stack of empty sketchbooks and the coolest box of Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils.  These draw like any colored pencil, but add water and line turns into ink wash.  I envision many hours of fun.  Plus they come in the most cunning little wooden box, with a sliding lid that has glossy varnish and a beautifully dished-out recessed finger pull.

I could spend hours just sliding the lid open and shut, daydreaming of Beaux Arts ink wash renderings.

Public domain image from Wikipedia

* Possibly the big-kid box of 64 new Crayola crayons.  The colors!  The colors!

Monday, January 16, 2012


Or, okay, sofa-bound by this cold.

Sadly the show must go on... no matter how nasty you, the designer, feel.  At least neither of my shows is opening in the next few days, so I have a little bit of time to drink tea on the sofa and baby this cold today.  Tomorrow I absolutely have to be in Fort Worth to direct leaves going up - that's for Soccer Mom.  I brought home three different signs to paint for Collapse.  Those can wait till Wednesday.

Image = several public domain images + sketches

This dilemma of projects going forward whether you need a sick day or not is hardly unique to theater.  The world is full of deadlines.  Perhaps it is more awkward though for anyone who is self-employed - there's just no one to hand your work off too.  Ever.

The lesson children?

Stay healthy!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Truth, Lies, Stories, and Fiction

I just finished rereading Michael Chabon's Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Border Lands.

A thoughtful book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys (a good movie too).  Chabon is one of those writers whose career I follow.  (And whose books I buy, even sometimes in hardback - true fan-love.)  I really do love Chabon's mix of straightforward and fabulous fiction, the layering of myth and tall-tale that is characteristic of his writing.  These essays are fascinating discussions of the tangle of truth, lies, magician's sleight of hand, and curious exploration on the unmarked areas of the map that create fiction writing.

I'd say this book is a good-read for any serious reader of fiction, especially fantasy, and a must-read for any aspiring writer of the same.

First edition cover borrowed from Wikipedia

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Too Tired to Write Much

Today was the first day of the build for Collapse.  Starting that and a cold at the same time?  Not perfect timing.

But I showed up anyway with a new sketch to better explain the "bridge" part of the set; answered lots of questions; and did my fair share of hauling, lifting, building, and painting.  We ended the day after we finished raising the "bridge" structure - built of heavy steel pipe.  Phew!

Steel scaffolding, public domain

Friday, January 13, 2012

Set Designer's Day, the Press, and Treasure Hunting

Always nice when a day starts with a photo of one of your shows on the cover of the Dallas Morning News' weekend Guide: a close-up of actress Molly Franco, who plays Anne Frank.  (Beautifully plays.)  So far both The Diary of Anne Frank and The Frequency of Death! are getting good reviews... and with those, a few nice mentions for their sets.  (I'll take "pretty spectacular" when I can get it.)  Deeper into the Guide is a nice shot of Frequency under "Hot Show of the Week."

(You can read DMN's online review of The Diary of Anne Frank  HERE.  And HERE's their review of The Frequency of Death.)

But no time to reread for me.  I need to hop into the car to make the visit with the scenic painter on The Secrets of a Soccer Mom that was supposed to happen yesterday.  It's even colder this morning!  Poor painter.

After that, a shopping trip to that favorite source for discount fabric, The Golden d'Or (which translates as "The Golden Golden").  It's having its annual HUGE SALE.  I'll see what treasure I can dig up!

Pirate treasure painting by, I believe, Howard Pyle, public domain

Later tonight is a run-through of Collapse at Kitchen Dog, followed by a really late production meeting.  So much for Friday Date Night, huh?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

High and Low Tech - Part II

In an earlier POST I talked about the differing types and tech of drawings needed to create the giant foam leaves needed for Secrets of a Soccer Mom, depending on whether these leaves would be cut-out the old-school way - by hand - or the new-school way - by laser.  Computer (CAD) drafting and laser won out over hand made, as much cheaper.

But now that the leaves are (almost) all cut, they need to be painted.  Painted by sprayer, but a sprayer controlled by the human hand.  Which means laid out on a warehouse floor - which warehouse has no heat.  And it's Cooooold today.

Pretty ironic that completion of these high-tech laser products are being delayed by lack of one of the oldest techs of all... a Fire to warm human hands at!

Public domain image from Wikimedia, messed with

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Between Things

Between Dallas and Fort Worth today.  Right now I'm going through the stage when set design is all about meetings: Production Meetings and individual meetings with directors or builders to help coordinate the build.  Tonight I'll get to see the stage at Circle painted.  Gotta run!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Low or High Tech?

For the next show at Circle Theatre, Soccer Moms, we need to cut out a bunch of over-sized leaves.

Expecting our usual bunch-o'-guys-cutting-foam method, I prepared drawings of free-hand leaves that fit within standard 4' x 8' sheets of thin building insulation foam or 2'x4' sound insulation ceiling tiles.  (Sound may be an issue on this show.)  These sketches would be copied onto clear sheets, blown up using the overhead projector (most shops have one), then cut out by hand.  To aid all this, my drawings showed how the leaves fit on each sheet - nesting together not to waste material - and I included a 1' x 1' grid for reference, just in case a projector wasn't available and the leaves had to be enlarged by hand.  Very old school that -Michelangelo used the grid method to enlarge his sketches for his murals.

Then the Tech. Director had a bright idea: lasers!  Laser-cut foam can be very cheap and fast, because it uses little manpower.

But the foam cuttin' place can't use hand drawings because line weights are too fat to guide the thin precision of a laser.

After experimenting with scanning, photo image programs and Sketchup, it became clear that only true computer drafting would work.  So we found an AutoCAD wiz to draw them with a very fine line of .0004.

So now a zippy high-tech laser is doing a job that at many other theaters would be days of hand labor.

I wonder if Michelangelo would be miffed when told his hand drawing was useless?

The Creation of Adam (with God + Laser) by Michelangelo, hand drawn BTW 

Book Sale!

Maybe your holiday pile of gift books was a little skimpy?  Now's the time to read Alice Through the Proscenium and gift a friend too!

Find out more, HERE at Alice's Lulu.com page.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book and Film Catch-Up

Don't you love the pile of Christmas books and DVDs?  I'm slowly making my way through some well-chosen gifts.

Among the books: Three Men in a Boat (and its companion piece Three Men on a Brummel) by Jerome K. Jerome.  This laugh-out-loud tale of three buddies on a boating trip was first published in the 1880s: some aspects now appear rather quaint - though funny - others are as timeless as the author's riff on the way you can so carefully and neatly coil a rope, only to find it, minutes later, in a maddening snarl.

Believed public domain image messed with

I've also been dipping into The Complete McAslan by George McDonald Fraser.  Best known for his Flashman books, Fraser's stories of life in a Scottish battalion just after WWII are long-time favorites of mine.    His memoir of the British campaign in Burma, Quartered Safe Out of Here, is one of the best from WWII.

Films?  I've just finish the new PBC documentary on Woody Allen - a must-see for a fan.  Also the first season of 30 Rock which is great.  How did I miss this on TV?  I'll keep my eye on Tina Fey from now on.

I hope you're having as much fun with your holiday stockpile!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Alive on Stage

Here is a pic from The Frequency of Death by Pegasus Theatre - now playing at the Eisemann Theater in Richardson - in living B & W:

The Frequency of Death, Pegasus Theatre

And don't forget to see The Diary of Anne Frank at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.  Opens tomorrow!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Film Fest - The Descendants

George Clooney continues to show up in interesting and unexpected films and then do beautiful acting there.

The Descendants humanizes Hawaii.  Still beautiful, but even those who live in paradise have heartbreak.  I was particularly touched by the reality of the family - good and bad, funny and sad.  Worth seeing.

Public domain photo

Reorganizing the Studio

One key element in efficiently designing and drawing a show - not to mention other paperwork - is having an efficient office.

For me this means finally getting a theater carpenter buddy to build custom cabinets to hold specially-sized boxes to store drawings.

The standard for theater drawings is changing now as computer or CAD drawing becomes popular.  (Earlier POST.)  It used to be that a set designer would hand draw on 24" x 36" or larger paper, a size that is easy and cheap to store rolled.  With CAD I've seen all sorts of weird sheets, many too small to roll well.  I, myself, like hand drawing on 11"x17" sheets.  These store best flat.

I've been keeping drawings in clean pizza boxes: Pizza Hut "The Big New Yorker" boxes to be precise.
These boxes are slightly less than 17" clear inches inside though, making my drawings curl at the end but, being square, wasting room at the side.  After 130+ shows (plus architectural and other projects) and 40+ boxes, wasted space becomes important in my little studio.  So now I'm replacing squashed pizza boxes with spiffy rectangular ones from IKEA and The Container Store right-sized for my drawings.

Which all means removing every stick of furniture to replace cabinets under my layout table (and that table top too), then sorting through and reboxing every single file and drawing I've ever saved.


Thursday, January 5, 2012


Part way through the rehearsal process for The Diary of Anne Frank the director made a comment that it'd be nice to add some set dressing of kitchen clutter - dishes, can goods, that sort of thing.  And it hit me that, of course, we couldn't just plunk down a couple cans of Campbell's Soup.  It would need to be WWII vintage Dutch cans of... what brand?  Knorr maybe?

Research is indicated!

Okay, okay, Italian Knorr, but the cutest picture so far...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Color Dims...

Today's paper brought sad news, architect Ricardo Legorreta has died at 80.  Though based in Mexico, Legorreta designed several buildings locally: Dallas' Latino Cultural Center, the IBM campus at Southlake, and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Go visit that museum on a sunny day for a wonderful kick of color in the yellow, yellow, YELLOW entry tower and then the deeply BLUE courtyard with its grand old tree.  Legorreta continued the design approach of his mentor Luis Barragan, a blend of Modernism and Mexican tradition noted for clean lines, sculptural volumes, and poetic use of sun and shade and, above all, color.

This was not default color either, not add-on color.  I love this quote by Legorreta:

 "Instead of saying I will make a wall and paint it red, I [say] I will make something red and it will be a wall."

A red wall by Legorreta, photographer unknown, image borrowed from Glamour Drops

FW Museum of Science and History, architect Ricardo Legorreta, photo by David Kozlowski

Another illustration-find (previous) this time at this website for DFW photographer David Kozlowski.  Some wonderful texture and color here.  (I also like his title "Photos Tagged with Brick".)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Film Fest - War Horse and Hugo

Too busy to catch the Christmas glut of movies then, I'm now struggling to catch up cinematicly...

War Horse, by Steven Spielberg, is a gorgeous big-screen saga that reminds me of my young-teen favorite book Black Beauty, being a horse's eye view of the often cruel human world.  Remarkably free of gore, this IS the story of a cavalry horse in the trench warfare of World War I...  A moment's thought suggests that this cannot be all cantering through fields of poppies.  Not for young children.  But I was able to watch without peering through my fingers too much.  Really liked it.  No one could help but root for the horse Joey and his boy.  The film has a big old-fashioned heart and an engrossing story.  Gorgeously photographed.    

Hugo, however, stole my heart.  About a boy living secretly in a Paris train station in about 1920, this is a magical film.  Run to see it.  Even its 3D - usually silly - seems appropriate to this tale of early film-making and its technology.  A love-letter to early film by Martin Scorsese.  Extra bonus is the steampunkish sensibility shown in the camera's loving study of clockwork, gears, and the automata central to the story.

Wooden automota by artist Andrew Boyce

BTW  I love researching illustrations for this blog - I find such wonderful things!  This photo is of a wooden automata by artist/craftsman Andrew Boyce.  See his site HERE.

Monday, January 2, 2012

So Much Going On

Starting the New Year with a rush.

The Frequency of Death opened successfully on New Year's Eve.  The audience enjoyed it.  The B&W looked terrific (the set seemed to work and was finished, always a nice thing).  The addition of jazz singer Simone, preshow and before Act II, was wonderful!  "Stormy Weather" and "My Funny Valentine" sounded terrific and set the period mood.  Go see it!  Pegasus Theatre.

Today is Tech for The Diary of Anne Frank.  That set is looking good.  I was there recently to consult on a truss vertical in the attic that was getting in the way of blocking a scene; in a move that would make a structural engineer shudder, we arbitrarily moved it - and its mirror twin - over two feet.  Then talked through a few other items...  handrails, remodeling a cabinet, painting etc.  Normal at this stage.  Today will be more about lights and sound.

Also today is an important Production Meeting on Collapse at Kitchen Dog, which starts building this weekend.  I have the design, but it needs tweaking...  Then I draw like the wind!  Or maybe more as if being shoved along by a stiff wind.

Public domain image

Sunday, January 1, 2012

First Anniversary

Dear Reader, today marks a first full year of blogging.

A few interruptions,yes, but an almost daily look at the life of a regional theater set designer.  For those of you interested (I see you three!), the "Set Design Process" tab above leads to an almost complete index of this year's set design related posts.

For the really determined Reader, the rest of my general Culture Diary posts - deadly, um, deathless prose on books, movies, museum exhibits etc. - can be found by skimming the monthly archives waaaay at the bottom of the blog.

It's been heartening to see Readership grow - thank you.  In this new year, Design Diary will continue to report to you from the front-line trenches of scenic design.  (And sometimes from the front row of the movie theater too:  War Horse!  Good.  And, from the front row, a very very tall equine.)

New Year's Eve - public domain image.

Happy New Year!  Thanks for reading.