Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Interrupted By Work...

Sorry for this delay in Blogging Service.

I've had a rush of actual, you know, Work here and oddly enough it's delayed the writing about the work.  Strange.  Two successful Openings: of Ruth at Kitchen Dog Theater and Boeing, Boeing at WaterTower Theatre.  Meanwhile a heaping plateful of other deadlines are looming...

LOOMING I tell you!

Back to our Regular Blogging Service asap.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crunch Time

Sometimes trying to get a theater set done before opening - and tweaked and fine tuned - is a real physical grind.

Tonight my knees are protesting all those ladder steps, I have a third degree hot glue burn on my left hand little finger, and I'm bone-weary after another long day following a partly sleepless how-to-fix-it? kinda night.

Little Nemo here also has a restless night - public domain image

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Kitchen Dog Theater - New Works

It's that time of year - Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival.

My show Ruth headlines!

But there are also lots of exciting readings of brand-spandy-new-plays by, you know, living writers.  Come listen.  Help develop the next Great American Drama!  (Besides, we throw great parties.)

More information on Kitchen Dog's website HERE.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Picasso's Studio

Now this is a studio!  Picasso's...

Picasso's studio - photo from Eye-Likely blog

More photos of his studio - plus a young Brigette Bardo HERE.  (My own, more humble version of a studio HERE.)

Sweeney Todd Video

A little YouTube tidbit about the Prague Playhouse production of Sweeney Todd, HERE.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Time Flies

There is never enough time!

Yesterday afternoon I spent "weathering" all the raw wood on the Ruth set to look like weathered fruit crates or pallets.  This meant washing the bright yellowish newness of natural pine or fir with dirty gray paint water.  I had a bucket of medium gray very washy paint, a bucket each of black and cream, and a bucket of it-started-out-clean water.  I'd wash the raw wood with the watery gray, then maybe swipe in a little black or a very little cream, so that each board varied in shade from its neighbors and changed tone a bit across its length.  Brush strokes followed the grain of the wood - which runs the length of each slat.

Weathered wood - public domain photo from Public Domain Photos

Fun and easy... but slow.

Earlier in this project we painted most of the slats en mass before incorporating them into the structure ("Slats" post HERE), but we needed more slats than just those so, by now, the set has a lot of raw wood.  About three hours' worth.

Which meant I didn't get to start the faux "concrete" floor because it wouldn't dry before rehearsal.  So I'll be painting that Monday.

BTW  that "concrete" look will be essentially the same grayish colors plus a little more brown, just applied differently: instead of streaked and wood grain-y, paint will be applied wet on wet and rather puddle-y with spattering into the still wet base colors, and letting some of the black stage floor show as cracks and discoloration.

I enjoy painting wet on wet... but it's hard to pull off on a large area like a stage floor.  It dries too fast.

Time is not the painter's friend.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Inspirational Photos

Sometimes when you're trying to find a design idea it helps to look around...

For some weeks now I've been trying to come up with a schematic design for Smokey Joe's Cafe, a sort of '50s musical revue(ish), or rather, an evening made up entirely of music - no book - that seems to be more unified than a typical random revue, yet has no strong story-line either.  Scenicly, it has a strong sense of Time, but not so much of Place.  Specific settings change, as they tend to in a collection of songs.  Ambiance, maybe, is what this show demands.

I find musical reviews difficult, since sound isn't my leading sense (I favor words and pictures) and my imagination tends to fasten on stories and specificity...

So I've been struggling.

The plan?  Oh, the plan was easy - I had it half sketched before I left the initial meeting with the director.  But the "look"... really tough.  All that came to my mind were '50s cliches not worth drawing up.  The only thing that seemed hopeful was the lovely name of the show: "Smokey Joe's."  There seemed promise, though in fact all I developed from that was badly doodled smoke curlicues on the edges of all my notes made in other shows' meetings.

So I've spent a while flipping through books or the Internet, researching, looking for a hint.

And on the morning I absolutely HAD TO FINISH, I finally found my inspirational photo:

Believed public domain photo - from Imprint

I won't include the sketch yet (if you can, please go see the set itself!  at WaterTower Theater), but the secret was the circle.  Smoke rings gave me the design nudge I needed for a good set for Smokey Joe's Cafe.

What else is up lately?  Busy, busy.  Lots of emailing on various shows; lots of shopping mostly for Boeing, Boeing at WaterTower which opens soon; and several hours painting on Ruth at Kitchen Dog which also Techs this weekend and opens soonest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Follow-Up on a Site Design

A while back, I wrote a post about the spectacular new Tarrent County College in downtown Fort Worth, which opens up a view to the river below. (Earlier post HERE.)

Well, this month's Texas Architect magazine finally explained the circumstances behind this dramatic choice to carve out a river view... originally, the rest of the campus was going to be across the river!

But then the Radio Shack/Tandy property - a handsome corporate headquarters campus - became available... (Taking in lodgers as folks do when times turn tough.)  Suddenly it made more financial sense to keep the college all in downtown.  The new college buildings went from a grand entrance to a grand new campus, to a footnote to the main campus down the street.

The best laid plans...

Still, that cut-out view and the water garden are amazing!  I'm glad it happened.

Photo donated to the public domain

(The city intends to put in a pedestrian bridge across the river eventually, but there is a lot of river control work needed before that ever happens.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Man-Made Environment and Nature

When Dallas' North Central Expressway was rebuilt it was much widened and - in order to find that extra room - sunk into the ground with its side access roads sometimes cantilevering over it.  As much like a cave-highway as possible, basically.  To cheer this bleakness, landscaping was added in the endless concrete dividing way between the north-bound and south-bound traffic.

Of course, plantings required water and maintenance... so were allowed to die.  No, were allowed to die in patches and then even the hardy still-living plants were rooted out to be concreted over.

There was a public outcry.  So, reluctantly, the highway folks agreed to try to grow something.  As long as it could be completely ignored, of course.

Today, there is a thin band of native grasses running down the center of the expressway.

Yesterday, stuck in traffic, with nothing but metal and concrete as far as my eye could see, I noticed that these fragile looking yet tough native grasses were swaying and dancing in an elusive breeze only they could feel, their delicate seed heads nodding.  The light falling into this man-made canyon lit them in the way sun sometimes catches a spiderweb... suddenly they were much more real than the legion of cars and trucks surrounding them.

Public domain photo

I noticed that on a concrete sidewall or embankment nearby, there was a seepage through the concrete.  A little ancient spring was still weeping - regardless of highway designers - and at the foot of this trickle, a tiny willow sapling grew from a crack in the road's shoulder.

Nature finds ways.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Time!

My printer Lulu.com is having a sale - a great time to stock up on copies of Alice Through the Proscenium: more scenic set design, my how-to book on... well, you guessed it.

Alice Through the Proscenium, set design how-to Central! 

Here's the Secret Code you need to save:

Alice's page is HERE.  Go! Hie thee off to spend to save!

 (For those of you who don't read dead trees any more, Alice is also available at Barnes and Noble for the NOOK HERE.  Slightly cheaper, but with an uglier glossary - I prefer the dead tree version myself.)

The Arts and the Holidays

I'm suffering under a persistent conviction that today is Tuesday.  Not Monday.  This is mostly because I worked much of the weekend.

The arts - certainly theater - tend to ignore the idea of taking the weekend off.  In fact, the weekend is considered prime work time exactly because folks with day jobs can finally get a whole day (or two) free to work on their art!

So for me this weekend was Mother's Day, which was nice, and also family celebration of a graduation, also very nice, but the bulk of it was work: hauling furniture for one show; building/painting that show; answering set questions; sketching answers to set questions; sketching another variation on another show and scanning and sending that; meeting on yet another show; meeting on still another show; and watching a designer run of that show.

This work-whenever-you-can schedule can wreck havoc with holidays, family and social life, and even rest breaks for your own health if you aren't careful.  It's too easy to lose track of time.

But tomorrow I know will be Tuesday.

Because that's Garbage Day... the only fixed temporal point in my week!
Public domain photo 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Yet More Variations

The latest latest on Sweeney Todd:

The Sweeney to combine all Sweeneys.

This is the second weekend morning I've woken Too Early because I needed to sketch an idea.  Earlier Todds HERE.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Thrill of the Find

My Ruth set needs a 1920s vintage stove - either a wood or a more modern gas model would do.

So we've been hunting for weeks for a loaner.  We've looked at several good imitations built of plywood; these were all either too wide or both too wide and too high, and generally looked rather more like plywood than like cast iron.  We've looked at several real stoves; these were all too recent, but even if they might pass for the right vintage, all weighed an absolute ton... being made of actual cast iron.

But today!

A wood stove of actual cast iron, but with beautiful roll-y wheels so we don't have to care how much it weighs - and sized to fit!

A 1938 photo of a woman cooking at a stove much like ours - from Old Picture of the Day

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Sometimes the first sketched set design you show a director is exactly what they had in mind.

Sometimes it takes a few tries to work through the issues of the performance space and the particular production and to understand each other.

I'm usually lucky in hitting on a scheme the director likes fairly quickly, but sometimes... not.  Multiple designs are more likely to happen when you're working with a director or producer for the first time, or designing for a new venue, or are talking (and scanning drawings) long distance.  Right now I'm doing all three for a production of Sweeney Todd in Prague.

The assignment is a low-budget set that's relatively easy to build and put up and down in a rented theater space, a set that will act as a sort of screen for lighting and projections that will suggest the period and specific settings.  In a phone call the director spoke of overlapping ships' sails, shrouds, cemeteries, Victorian engravings, the drape of fabric...

As the Prague team looked at theaters, the director morphed his images of the production to fit the nature of each stage.  (Luckily, they'd settled on one theater before I came on board.)

Back at my board this is all turning out to mean lotso versions:

Version #1:
Sweeney Todd - the Drapery version

I like this one.  Movable fabric "wings" could pivot in and out of the stage to subdivide it, make dramatic reveals, or change the look.  Projections and lighting would animate these draped panels. I also enjoyed inventing a way to turn a photo of the theater into a perspective of this design: the 3D drapery effect is actually 3D drapery (made from thin tracing paper plus glue and colored pencil) squashed into the scanner. 

Version #2:
Sweeney Todd - the Sails version

These next two versions had to be drawn fast (no time to play with the world's flattest modeling technique!), so I'm back to ink and colored pencil.  (A bit washed-out here. Bolder in real-life.)  These represent the extremes of my understanding of the director's visions.  The platform added at SL (your right) is to create the bodies-exit-through-the-floor usual for Sweeney and a "real" oven door.  (Version #1 assumed a more minimal faking-it approach.)

Version #3:
Sweeney Todd - the Graveyard version

Essentially the same plan as Version #2 dressed differently.  This Graveyard version is fun, but this set is getting harder to build.  I'm starting to worry about budget and time.  Flurry of emails between designers, directors, technical director, director... a mix of pragmatic worries and enthusiasm for more elaboration.  Much back-n-forthing, resulting in:

Version #4:

No pretty sketch yet, just a hasty plan that amalgamates aspects of the previous three schemes while trying, desperately!, to also simplify things. 

As you can see, there's some real debate about what this Sweeney should be, with some conflict between the ideal and the budget-real, between several competing ideas in the director's mind, and (I betcha) by now between personalities too...

Email from the director.

Stop Press.

Version # 2A now in the works...

Monday, May 7, 2012

Film Fest: The Avengers

Enjoyed it!

For fans of big summer action flicks, this is a very good example of the sub-genre "Super Hero".  The action is well choreographed and exciting, with  New York City, as usual, given a hard time.

(Poor NYC and poor Tokyo too, what with that Godzilla constantly.)

But, as a fan of Joss Whedon's work, it was the banter and bickering between the ill-assorted heroes of the Avengers that I really enjoyed.  That and the Hulk!  Frankly, I had never understood the appeal of the Hulk in the comics, but in this film he's one of the best characters... and when he goes Green, he's either really impressive in his rage or wonderfully comic.  (Hulk one-on-one with the villain Loki - watch for it.)

There's a lot of character based humor in this film; it's clear that the director and screenwriter  both (Joss? both of 'em?) understand(s) the different points of view of his very different heroes.  i'd love to watch a poker game between these guys.

Screen capture from The Avengers from Collider.com, more pic there.

A fun summer movie with much much better dialogue than usual.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Painting Slats...

And slats and more slats...

My Ruth set is going to have a built-out-of-pallets look, so here we all are painting the slats for the pallets.  (The blue box is the side of the theater building.  I'm the one bending over so elegantly, fiddling with a paintbrush-onna-stick.  Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker is the only one facing the camera - wearing her "Boss Hogg" Tshirt - and wonderful, wonderful volunteers are behind us, painting.  Thank you, volunteers!)

Later in the day, as the shade disappeared, this got to be a very hot job indeed.

Building Ruth at Kitchen Dog Theater - photo by Tim Johnson

Taping Out

One important stage in the rehearsal process is when the actors rehearse their blocking... but the set isn't there yet!

Instead, the stage manager "draws" the outline of the future set on the stage floor using spike tape.  (This is a kind of narrow gaf tape, or a thin duct tape, but in rainbow colors.)  Sometimes the set designer has to help, if the set's floor plan is tricky.

Last night was a Designer Run for one of my shows - a full performance of the play, but last night at least, concentrating more on getting the new blocking down than on emoting.  All acted out on a taped out set.  This is a very useful run for the lighting designer especially, because he needs to know where everyone will be in order to point lights at them.  An exercise in imagination!

(For the set designer the biggest amusement is usually to watch the actors walk through walls.)

This morning we start building the set.  Gotta run...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Furniture Pull

This morning I'm meeting at a helpful theater's warehouse to pull furniture for my up-coming show Ruth, at Kitchen Dog.

It's a huge, HUGE help to poor and struggling theaters (i.e. all theaters) when those with furniture, props, or other assets share their wealth.  I am, personally, grateful for these loans.  It doesn't just improve a show, often it makes it possible.  Especially for period work.

In KD's In the Next Room: the Vibrator Play even the impressive legs of the doctor's table were loaners.  Sure, we could have built that table without 'em, but it wouldn't have looked nearly as solidly, Victorianly, authoritative as that exam table HAD to look - appearing a very Altar in the Temple of Science.

Those legs helped both sell this Doc's authority... and make the sexy carryings-on funnier.

In Fort Worth - enlightened theater world! - one university shares a warehouse with many theaters.  All put furniture in it, all are welcome to borrow it out again, with a simple sign-out book and an honor system.  Dallas?  Nope.  Few theaters can afford a warehouse, but if you call around, many kind groups, schools, or individuals will offer what you need.  (I've had sofas out of living rooms sometimes!)  Theatre Three is particularly kind and helpful and rich in furniture.  Thank you Theatre Three!

Now look again at that photo of In the Next Room...

In the Next Room: the Vibrator Play - photo by Matt Mrozek

See the handsome antique cabinet on the upstage wall?  Holding medical books and instruments?  It helps set the time period, reinforces the doctor's wealth and authority - literally gives him weight - plus it's the only real piece of furniture in the room, almost on the set, so scenically it's quite valuable... (And, as a designer, I love that it has fat corner "legs" too, so it talks to my table.  It's funny.)

Wouldn't be allowed to borrow that this year.

For some reason - no one's been told why - the Dallas Theater Center, which has a grand and very rich storehouse of furniture and props (paid for, in part, by tax money and in tiny part by my ticket purchases over the years)... Well, they've stopped loaning out.

No loans.  Nobody.

This is a great loss.  I'm very grateful for their furniture over the last decade, as I know many many other designers and theaters are, all around town.  The Dallas Theater Center's stock has enriched plays in the entire region.  They have by far, by multiples of tens and hundreds or thousands, the budget for furniture of any other theater in Dallas, Fort Worth, or all the cities around.  Their warehouse is a treasure trove!  I'm sure their generosity cost some time, but... surely the flagship of Dallas theater thinks supporting this region's theater is worthwhile?

I'm heart-sick that DTC's generous lending has stopped.

I wish the Dallas Theater Center would reconsider.  Please loan out to us little guys again.  We may be poorer, but we do good theater too.  We would appreciate your help.

(More on furniture: Return of the Dreaded Sofa and Pulling Furniture, an earlier post on the topic.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I just happened across the on-line portfolio of a lighting designer, Lisa Miller, who I've worked with several times.  It was a treat to see photos of our shows together at Kitchen Dog:


In the Next Room: the Vibrator Play
(Both photos by Matt Mrozek

For me, these two shows seem to be bookends to each other... I suppose because the Victorian period is the same and some of the "women's" issues in each play, although the styles of both texts, productions, and sets were completely different, Charm being a sort of magical realism and In the Next Room much closer to realism.  Even the set colors are opposite: blues and greens versus reds and oranges.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some Days...

As a designer you just want to say, "That's the way I drew it because That's the Way I WANT It."


Wise to find a more graceful phrasing.

The alternate (equally maddening) situation is, "I want it that way and so - look! - I drew it that way."

Naturally, as I wrestle with a couple shows where I'm NOT saying either of the above, it is today that I am introduced to a company that offers pre-designed theater shows.  Rather like an architectural plan shop, the places that offer those send-away-for plans for ski chalets and kit-houses in the backs of magazines.

Buy a pre-designed show and change anything you like 'cause the designer doesn't know or care.

Though this horrifies me as an architect, it makes some sense since most folks really only want a roof - many buildings just want to be buildings, not The Art of Architecture.

A catalog kit-house, public domain image Wikipedia

But ALL theater production is - by definition - trying to be Art.