Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ghost in the Theater

Many theaters are reputed to be haunted.

I wouldn't be surprised.

There IS a sensation in almost any theater building that's more than a few years old that performances may sort of... linger... in the space.  To me at least, different stages have different vibes depending on their age and character, but any stage feels anticipatory - as if it waits for the next act - and also a bit whisper-y with past performances.  This is true when sitting in one of the velvet seats in the house, but especially true in the darkness of the wings and backstage.  (Way up in the catwalks?  I wouldn't venture there alone without real business; it just doesn't feel like a place for tourists.)

I'm not getting all Magic 8 Ball TM  here - just making an observation.

Of the theaters in Dallas Fort Worth there is only one that I've heard claims to a haunting.  (There's another where haunting seems faintly possible though.)  The Dallas Theater Center building - the old Kalita Humphreys - is reputed to be haunted now and then by its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

In a very real way his character does permeate the building - as it must any of his designs - simply because his architecture reflects so clearly his personality through his choices.  A short man, his horizontal "Prairie" style of design gives the theater low-hung soffits that feel comfortable to me, but must oppress tall people.  Likewise, the angled stair treads of the Kalita's narrow stairs demand that visitors Pay Attention to the Building.  And their own feet.  (One drink too many and many patrons have fallen down the steps.  In fact the steps to the restrooms were rebuilt to the standard way years ago because so many patrons fell.)  And FLW's floor plan backstage, with its rat-maze corridors and identical stairs that go to different destinations... everyone gets lost backstage at least once.  Try finding the Coke machine!  Twice.  Dare ya.

But besides this very material kind of haunting, there are claims that Frank Lloyd Wright's shade occasionally attends rehearsals.

I haven't seen him.  However the carpenter for my last show there, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, reports that he kept seeing in the corner of his eye a man sitting the front row - house left, 2-3 seats in from the aisle - who, whenever he really looked... wasn't there.  This is where, according to other sightings, FLW likes to sit.  Just watching.  Very benign.

Now, where FLW ought to haunt the building is in its elevator.

There's an old story - how true I don't know - that the master refused to have an elevator in his theater, designing, instead, two switchback ramps to bring up scenery from the basement carpentry shop.  (He didn't really believe in much scenery - his building should be enough.)  The story goes that the elevator was installed secretly - where a second ramp was supposed to go - and hidden from the aged FLW by strategically placed scaffolding etc. during his site visits, only revealed after his death.  Great story.  With all due respect - the elevator IS needed, because the horrible ramp at stage right is utterly unworkable.  If you could successfully roll even an office chair up that thing in the dark between scenes you'd be lucky.  But FLW's posthumous disapproval may well explain why it's such a very cussed elevator.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright does haunt that elevator - some anonymous theater crew made sure of that: "Nooooo ELEVATORS in my Theatre!!!"

Frank Lloyd Wright's face in his theater's elevator - gifted to Public Domain

This photocopy portrait has been riding up and down in the stage's freight elevator for years - as long as I've worked there certainly - so it's getting rather torn and shabby, but many of us have mended or re-taped it in its place.  It seems appropriate.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sixty Years of Architectural Drafting

How things have changed!  Watch this great video Holiday Card from Omniplan.


A picture of my own, circa 1970 drafting compass set - gifted to Public Domain

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

David Mamet on Designers

I just finished reading Mamet's book Theater.

(A few years behind everyone else... but I was waiting to find a cheap copy.)

Actually, I'm quite glad I waited for the cheap read since this book is not as satisfying as his Three Uses of the Knife: on the Nature and Purpose of Drama.  That book I found fascinating; this one, sadly, deteriorates into a rant guaranteed to irritate most Method actors and the more "visionary" sorts of directors.  (I had to laugh.)  But amid these entertaining swipes at over-blown acting methodology and overweening directorial egos comes some feet-on-the-ground comments about theater design:

"...the job of the designers of costumes, sets, and lights, is to increase the audience's enjoyment of the play past that which might be expected in a performance done in street clothes, on a bare stage, under work lights."

This is a very low bar... and yet a also a surprisingly difficult bar to leap over.  Especially if you carry the true weight, the true cost - in money and human effort - needed to create those sets, costumes, or lighting effects.

"Why is this great rehearsal more enjoyable than the vast bulk of designed productions?  It allows the audience to use its imagination, which is the purpose of coming to the theater in the first place."

Myself, I might not have said "vast bulk," but otherwise I have to agree.  (Maybe I'm just an optimist.)  Then, a little further on (writing from page 5 to 6)  Mamet goes on to say:

"It takes a real artist to increase the enjoyment of the audience past that which would be found in seeing the play on a bare stage, for the first rule of the designer, as of the physician, is do no harm."


Sunday, December 15, 2013


Julia Morgan becomes the first woman architect to win a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

Mind you, she died in 1957.  But still.  A well-deserved if long-delayed award.


An article about the award HERE at Co.DESIGN.  An earlier post of my own on such prizes HERE.

Julia Morgan - I believe this is a public domain photo, though I'm no longer sure from where.

Friday, December 13, 2013

More Public Domain Images!

The British Museum uploads a million - one MILLION - 1,000,000 images from public domain books..  What a great institution!  Read more HERE.

We're in Gold Rush times Dear Reader.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Computer Games

THE emerging art form.  Heck, it's already flowering.  The lovely art of games like Myst and the interactivity and free-will of World of Warcraft or Evercrack, er, EverQUEST, show some of this form's possibilities.

It's like the early days of film.

I've recently discovered Minecraft.  And have become deeply addicted, of course, since that game in Creative Mode, is basically pixilated crack for designers.  Love it.  At present I'm building an entire Dutch Colonial town in a tropical swamp (why you ask? silly question!) with a growing backstory in my head of feuding tulip-farmers.  I suspect other builders run more toward forts and sci-fi palaces and Super Hero Lairs, but for me that last update adding stained glass and four colors of tulips to the world was just too compelling, so natch, first a Gothik cathedral followed by Nederlandish Imperialism!  (Tulipmania scheduled next week.)

What does a designer do to relax?  More design!

Today on the great site BoingBoing there's a post HERE about the retirement of the computer game Glitch.  Upon it's demise, it's creators were generous and wise enough to set free all the art and code involved free into the Public Domain.  Bless 'em!  May all their creativity inspire others.

Free for your use HERE.

Glitch art - public domain

So pull up a comfy Glitch "pink lime box armchair" (obviously inspired by Rietveld's famous chair; creativity goes around, it comes around).  See what YOU can think of to create with these now publicly-owned treasures.

Rietveld Chair - photo by Ellywa at Wikimedia Commons

On the theater set design front?  I'm having my first meeting for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at lunch.  Exciting project!  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Kimbell Addition

The new museum addition by Renzo Piano to Louis Kahn's masterpiece original building opens over the Thanksgiving holiday.  KERA radio has an interesting talk with Piano HERE.

Kimbell Art Museum - believed public domain photo

Monday, November 18, 2013

I Missed Ada Lovelace Day

This year the date of Ada Lovelace Day (like so many others) just slipped past me.  Named for the first computer programmer - who happened to be female - the day celebrates women in science and technology.  (In a previous year, I responded before with a post on early female architects  HERE.)

But today there's a great post over at themarysue.com that nicely expresses the Go-Girl-Tech! vibe of Ada's celebration: a  dangerous study of the remains from early huminins found in a cave in Africa, this mission can be accomplished only by paleontologists who are also cavers.

All Female Team of Spelunking Scientists!

Cave photo by Ik Ikrig - public domain at publicdomainpictures.net

TheMarySue.com is worth visiting for the girl-geek of pop culture and, as today, science.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Catching Up

Busy, busy...

But here are a few highlights from the books 'n movies front lately (as I scramble to get back into a regular schedule posting here... and in the rest of my productive life!).

Films:  Just saw the knuckle-biter Captain Phillips.  A very intense study of the real-life  story about Somali piracy.  Tom Hanks's performance is riveting.  I do wish the film makers had had the grace to cut away and end the film just a few minutes sooner - it just seems wrong to watch this tough character finally fall apart once he's saved.  He has every right to!  But give the guy some privacy, right?  The very human portrayal of the pirates makes the film, I think, turning this from just another action flick into art.  I'm hoping to see the other current crisis-on-the-sea movie, Robert Redford's All is Lost this weekend.

I tried watching This Is the End the other night on DVD.  I'm not at all the demographic the filmmakers were aiming for... but did anyone find this apocalyptic brat-pack film funny?  I could see it trying.  Pirates: Band of Misfits however, remains a light but amusing claymation/animation romp with a great alternative version of Queen Victoria.  Funny.

Books:  I lost steam in reading Telegraph Avenue.  Beautifully written, coming from Michael Chabon, but... after being interrupted I never quite got back into it.  I think because I can see the ending coming too clearly and don't (just personal taste) find the ambiance of jazz, blaxploitation/martial arts movies, midwifery, and Berkeley engrossing.  I may go reread The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay instead because I like the world of comics, golems, and Brooklyn better.  (Personal taste.)

I'm in a funny mood.  I want adventure and vicarious thrills, even a touch of the creeps.  Probably the Halloween/November weather.

I got all excited at the library because several authors I follow had new books.  Sadly these were all to some degree disappointing.  Charlaine Harris's last book in her Sookie Stackhouse series (basis for the True Blood TV show) was... O K.  It ended about as I thought it should, but I got the feeling the author herself was tired of the series well before it was actually all written.  (The TV show went off the rails completely at some point.)  I can, however, heartily recommend the first book Dead Until Dark as an entertaining stand-alone.  Then you may find yourself reading the whole saga just to see what happens to Sookie.

On the other hand, though I enjoyed the earliest Anita Blake vampire novels by Laurell K. Hamilton, the series... Well, first I stopped buying them, and after this last library trip I've now officially stopped bothering to check them out.  By page 15 or so it was clear the story has dwindled to boring vampire politics, confusing yet boring interpersonal relationships, or more sex... which reads like self-indulgence.  For me the books are now unreadable.  But the early ones?  The title of the first novel says it all: Guilty Pleasures.

Speaking of which... I'm working my way through a Buffy-thon.*  Enjoying it all over again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course.  Now in mid season 4.  Then maybe Master and Commander again for further sea adventures.  Remember the fun film Cowboys and Aliens?  How about making a Pirates and Vampires?  Pure popcorn!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Und so weiter...

And so on.

The crush of theater work here has slowed a bit (I'm only behind on one, well two, shows at present) and I'm back from a quick flit to the seaside (shrimp!) and settling into my annual cool weather highly efficient work-mode.  Or so I tell myself, in a effort to become, you know, highly efficient.

So what's going on?

I'm off to Kitchen Dog in an hour to help strike Detroit.  I'm not exactly sure what we're going to do with all that sod!  On my board are final details for The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at Uptown Players, which starts building soon, and designs for The Great American Trailer Park Musical for OMG Productions in [the greater] San Francisco [area].  

I'm presently reading a newish book by Michael Chabon called Telegraph Avenue... which I'm enjoying, but so far at least it hasn't bumped his Summerland off my "Chabon Favorites" shelf.  If you happen to be hot on jazz or Berkeley, however, it may become your fav.  Always a good writer.  I saw the movie Gravity recently - liked it.  A great sense of Spaaaaaaaaaaaaace as an unimaginable huge and hostile environment.  The admirable reliability of the Space Shuttles (a marvel of engineering, though, tragically, only mostly reliable) sorta let us earthbound onlookers forget just how inhospitable space IS.  This film reminds me.  i want to see the new pirates-meet-Tom-Hanks film but haven't gotten to yet.

But the thrill of my recent little beach trip was getting to see a poor quality photocopy of a map of Galveston Bay.  Unsigned... but then would he dare sign it? At the time he was both secretly working for the Spanish and against them.  Simultaneously he was working both-ends-against-the-middle with the Americans and the French.  And the Mexicans.  Plus Texan filibusters and Louisianans and who knows who else?  Pirating is complicated.

HERE's an earlier post on Lafon with a link to his most famous map.

Friday, October 11, 2013

I know, I know...

No posts lately!

But I know you'll understand when I tell you that I've been chained to my board (well, to my car, to my theaters...) because I've been working on three shows since I returned from that road trip - one now half way through its run, two others about to open.  Insanity!

Public domain image of the Mad Hatter

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Silent Reading

So long, so silent.

Sorry, I've been absolutely slammed with three shows building: Detroit at Kitchen Dog, Hank Williams: Lost Highway at WaterTower and Too Many Cooks at Circle Theatre.  Phew!


While waiting for a substantive post here, try a little reading, right?

At the little teeny libraries of sculptor Marc Giai-Mainiet  and photographed by Michel Dubois HERE.

HERE's the artist's own webpage.  (ADDENDUM)

Or maybe stay in the Dewey Decimal themed hotel?  In Manhattan and HERE.  (Both bookish places discovered on the estimable site Boing Boing)

Thursday, September 12, 2013


The DFW Critics' Forum recently ate their annual fried chicken lunch and handed out kudos to local theater companies.  So a general Congratulations! to the theater artists mentioned.  Well done!

Particular shout-outs of happiness from this blog for the recognition of so many Kitchen Dog shows (the home team, right?) and for praise of both Wingspan Theatre Company and Funhouse Theatre and Film's Daffodil Girls.  These are two examples (ones I personally know best) of small companies with small budgets that are nevertheless rich in ambition and talent and that do terrific work...

Here's to all the Little Theater Engines that Can and Do!

Believed public domain image.

Earlier post on Funhouse Theatre and Film HERE.  Daffodil Girls?  A clever adaptation of David Mamet's Glen Garry Glen Ross... morphed into the cookie sales of the Daffodil Girls.  A wonderful show written by Jeff Swearingen.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

This'll Hold You...

I'm buried in Back-in-town-catch-up-work with a side order of Visitors, but while you're waiting for a new post from me, here's something addictive to keep you busy: that latest (to me anyway) entry in the competition to rewrite Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the Lizzie Bennet Video-Diaries.

Very funny retake on the classic story, with a clever spin on the Lydia scandal.

BTW  Just saw the film The End of the World at Dallas' spiffy new Alamo Drafthouse.  Fun.  Though I think I still prefer the film duo's previous Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Back in Town

Apologies for the dearth of posts lately.  I've been on a three week cross-country road trip (wonderfully scenic!), but writing on all things theater scenic related will soon resume!

Albert Bierstadt’s A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Brooklyn Museum

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Set Design Process

I've been asked to write about the process of designing for Circle Theatre's soon-to-open! production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

Unusually, this process started - for me - two years ago when Kitchen Dog Theater produced a staged reading of this script.  Hilarious!  Flash forward to last December when I learned that Exit, Pursued by a Bear would be part of Circle Theatre's 2013 season.  I've been looking happily forward to it ever since.

I remembered the play with a fond glow around it, without remembering many details.  But what a great title!  Shakespeare's most famous stage direction - certainly his most evocative.  (And one of his few, he being experienced enough to know that everyone ignores a playwright's stage directions.)  I love the idea of taking a little shard of the Bard and spinning out a whole story...

So, happy anticipation until the beginning of June, when I read the script.  It's a funny as I remembered!

That first reading is to get a basic idea of story and movement onstage; the second reading is specifically for scenic design issues.  Set designers look for setting and mood (to be translated into form and color), and also for practicalities. We look for entrances.  We circle words like "sliding glass door" and "deer head" as we work through the text.   In Exit, Pursued by a Bear it became clear that the husband's chair was almost another character.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear recliner - photo by CFD, gifted to the public domain

Next,  meeting with director Krista Scott - to compare views of the script, feel-out how scenic design can further her interpretation of the text, and talk through staging issues.  A good meeting!  I left with intriguing notes and indecipherable scribbles to help me on my way.

I started sketching.

An added wrinkle in designing this set was that the show which preceded it on Circle's stage... was another kitchen.  I didn't want the audience to feel they were seeing the same set, repainted.  (How budget friendly!  Earlier post on the issue HERE.)  So there was that...

But the plan came together pretty quickly.  Circle Theatre's thrust stage dictates that anything bulky - like kitchen appliances - has to go on the upstage wall.  The need to make a difference from the last kitchen helped determine what reshuffling was needed to change "the Look."  Fortunately, the mood of Exit is quite different, so color and texture of the set needed to change radically...  And every set is, in part, a biography of the characters that "live" there: when you watch the show, look for which items of set dressing are His and which are Hers.  (To my surprise they developed color schemes of their own too, His is mostly brown, Hers is cooler blues and greens.)

This set for Exit, Pursued by a Bear is essentially designed around that deer head and the husband's Lazy-Boy.

ADDENDUM: Previous post HERE.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


A lot of things going on simultaneously here.

In Fort Worth, construction on the set for Circle Theatre's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear is finishing up.  I'm kinda on-call to go help on building trees.  And I still have a bit of set dressing to do, though the bulk was done last week for picture call.

Yesterday I had the first big director/designer meeting on Hank Williams: the Lost Highway.  This went very well - we came up with what I think are some good ideas and (what's even better) we seem to be on the same page.  The director and the designer understanding each other and having complimentary goals is a wonderful thing!  Because the schedule's a bit tight on this one, we're meeting again tomorrow to discuss the solutions I will magically Presto! pull out of my hat today.  (If only it was as easy as setting a hat on my board.)

Tonight is the first production meeting for Kitchen Dog's production of Detroit.  I have a basic idea on that one, but need to ask more questions tonight, then fine tune the design, then whip out fast construction drawings this week.

What else?  I've been working on a writing project and making preparations for a trip...  And, since it's as hot as the hinges of Hell here right now, there's a certain amount of swimming and lawn watering going on.  Plus icy-cool movie theater sittin'.  I recently saw Red 2, which was fun (all those distinguished actors obviously having a blast) and Pacific Rim (a well done, popcorny fun, robot-versus-Godzilla-y rockem sockem film).  And in the less popcorny, pay-more-attention-to-details film category, I rewatched Cloud Atlas on Netflix...  I really do like that film.  The book too.  An excellent writer!   (Earlier post on it HERE.)

Photo of clouds from Photos Public Domain

Friday, August 2, 2013


There are a LOT of plays set in the family kitchen.

Recently  I wrote about the design difficulties of creating one kitchen set right after another on the same stage - using a lot of the same appliances and cabinets too.  (HERE)

SPOILER coming...

Here's a progress pic of that second kitchen for Circle Theater's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  The snap was taken yesterday after I set dressed for picture call so construction isn't quite finished, and it's under work lights, so please make allowances; it'll be way cooler at Opening when the deer head is highlighted and there's a view out windows etc.  But you can see the physical metamorphosis of the last kitchen for Miracle on South Division Street into this one.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Circle Theatre

Miracle on South Division Street, Circle Theatre

Details, colors, and moods of the two rooms are quite different, expressing, at base-rock simplest, unhappy versus happy homes.

(BTW those weird bags overhead?  Expensive new LED stage lights made construction-dust-proof with the application of Official Theatrical Pillowcases.  Among other details you can't quite make out are the sunflower decorated flyswatter and the tasty pork rinds.)

Other kitchens from other plays?

Farmhouse kitchen for The Drawer Boy, Plano Repertory Theatre

Yuppie kitchen-family room for The Rabbit Hole, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas

Urban loft kitchen for Dinner with Friends, WaterTower Theatre

Lego kitchen for Bright Ideas, Circle Theatre

Like any other room, kitchens on stage are portraits of the family that cooks in them.  They offer the designer the same choices of form, color, set dressing etc. etc. though you are constrained by the possibilities of borrowing appliances.  You can only use what you can get hold of!  (For Drawer Boy, above, a terrific Harvest Gold stove which weighed an absolute ton.)  But because the audience understands kitchens they'll pick up even subtle clues.  

The moral, I suppose, is that as a scenic designer you better be prepared to design and redesign the Family Kitchen over and over again!

Photo credits on my website at http://www.devriesdesign.net

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Scenic Painters

One of the perks in being a set designer is that sometimes you get to work with wonderfully talented painters.

It's not uncommon for "fine" or gallery artists to moonlight doing large scale work like murals or, occasionally, scenic painting.  (One painter I know does it as a sort of charitable help-theater! donation because, of course, the pay is terrible compared to rich folks' decorating fees.)

Since I've recently been asked to recommend artists who would feel comfortable working at a large scale (yo! theater!), this morning I've been going through old contact lists looking for emails etc.

I found one painter's very cool website: CatheyMiller.com

Painting by Cathey Miller - copyrighted! (also sold)

I was lucky enough to have her paint a couple wonderful circus-sideshow-like banners for my show Slasher a few years back.  Made the set.

Slasher, Kitchen Dog Theater

PS  When the show was struck, one company member took the painted blonde home - I understand she now startles guests who turn the corner of the hall, looking for the bathroom!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Trend in Photography

Remember my little musing on the future of photography?  (HERE)  Well, this morning I read on BoingBoing:  "...the Chicago Times has fired their photographers, issuing iPhones to their journalists: a move which is either very prescient or very foolish, but which shows which way things are going. "  ???!

The newspaper fired all their full-time photographers including a Pulitzer Prize-winner.  At Forbes, there are doubts about this move working out and a mention of the importance of a photographer's "eye."  (Having an "eye" myself - though not for photography - I second that objection.)  Talk about creatives not feeling valued at work!  

Public domain image

And here's an early result of this decision: compare front page photos HERE.

Lost, Looooooossst!

For a few days there I lost my sketchbook!

No, no.  Look more devastated.  This was serious - I lost my sketchbook!

The thing goes everywhere with me.  I buy purses specifically to fit my sketchbook IN.

What's so special?  This particular one is perfect for my uses - the 5.5" x 8.5" Strathmore Sketch with a spiral binding and 100 crisp white sheets of fine-tooth surface paper (preferably recycled).  It's small enough for purses but with a big-enough page and it's fat enough to last - usually 3 months - yet not too heavy.

I live with and in my sketchbook.

It holds a lot more than sketches.  I make notes and tuck things into its pages... whatever needs recording in my design-life, overlapping into life-life.  My sketchbook's been known to carry exact measurements for those new drapes, though I draw the line at wasting it on grocery lists.

This lost sketchbook is reaching the end of its three-month-ish life span so it holds... well, three months of my life.  For the four days it was lost I only needed to consult it five times.

Inside this papery Rememberall there are: design notes and sketches for three shows; notes from a playwriting seminar; notes on writing projects; a Rilke poem; a museum show flyer and those notes and sketches; ALL my notes from the NYC Scenic Masterclass; scribbles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including the name John Haviland, an 1800s American architect who embezzled his clients' funds and whose portrait is especially self-important); notes from a LEED/Accessibility architectural continuing ed. seminar; more play notes; more seminar notes, this time on "Through-Wall Flashing" (lunch was good)...  You get the idea.

Losing all this - even for four days - was a real wrench in the works here!

But my sketchbook is safe back home now, thank goodness.

Where was it?  Locked in a car at the airport.  I guessed it was there... but finding the car...?

Believed public domain photo messed with.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Turning Down Work

It's a sad fact that you can't actually design everything.

(In our hearts most designers really want to design everything though.  World domination through Design!  Wahahahaha!)

Image found HERE

But the world being the ill-organized place that it is, sometimes the offered show is just at a bad time and can't be shoe-horned into your schedule.  That's the usual reason to have to turn down a design job.  More rarely the show might be one you've already designed and don't want to repeat; or one you dislike; or one you see doomed to failure due to some circumstance you alone  can foresee; or the theater company or director may be one you prefer not to work with; or you know you're wrong for this show; or something else in your life demands your full attention for a while and you have to turn down every offer; or, you know, you've planned a vacation.

And any show you have to miss instantly feels like The Coolest Show Ever!

Turning down work...

Don't you just hate it?

(See more of the brilliant Pinky and the Brain cartoons HERE.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Film Festive - Despicable Me II

Needed cheering up so went to see Despicable Me II.

The correct prescription!  The credits are a the funniest thing I've seen on film in ages.  Okay, the story isn't quite as good as the first film's, but there's plenty to entertain and Gru, his daughters, and the Minions are in great form.  (And those credits!)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Pritzker Prize and Fairness

The Pritzker Prize is presently THE big award in the field of Architecture.

Sure there's the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.  But that, as the label says, is purely American (well, U.S.A.), while the Pritzker is world-wide.  Founded in 1979, this award is notably more inclusive in the nationality/religion/skin-color departments and has even, in 2004, started awarding awards to women.  Zaha Hadid was the first female to win, followed by Kazuyo Sejima (who shared that year's prize with Ryue Nishizawa).

The AIA, I'm sorry to say, has never awarded a single gold medal to a single woman.  Ever.  Not in 106 years of existence.

So obviously there have been no women in the practice of architecture in the U.S.

No?  Well, obviously no women who were any good.  Okay, well not until just lately, far too recently to have won medals.   Though...  Julia Morgan?  Early 1900s.  Designed 700 buildings  in California, including Hearst Castle.  Or, jumping to today's crop of wrong-gender American architects, how about Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang? Won a MacArthur "genius" grant.  (Earlier post HERE.)  Or how about that eminent and widely influential architect and theorist Denise Scott Brown?  No gold necklace?

But misogyny is tomorrow's topic.  Today's controversy is another injustice:

In 1991 architect Robert Venturi won the Pritzker Prize.  His architectural partner (of 22 years then, 44 now)  was Denise Scott Brown.  She was co-author with Venturi and Steven Izenour of the seminal book Learning from Las Vegas which put them all on the architectural map.  "Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner,"  Venturi writes in the public petition asking the Pritzker Committee to acknowledge her contribution to the work Venturi alone is credited with.

Photo of Denise Scott Brown and Las Vegas  from the petition page HERE.

Architecture is a collaborative design field.  Just as theater or film is.  It's obviously unfair to single out one member of a partnership and ignore the other.  Co-authors are self-acknowledged equals.  But even when creative contributions are less comparable, credit is due where credit is due.  In film a director gets prominent billing, but gaffers get credits.  Theater programs credit a wide range of contribution and ought - and sometimes do - credit the carpenters.

Scott Brown herself asks, "Let's salute the notion of joint creativity."

Please consider signing the petition asking the Pritzker Prize committee to remedy their omission of two decades ago, giving credit now where it's due.  Read the petition HERE.

I am grateful to Metropolis magazine for bringing this to my attention.  Read the article "Architecture's Lean In Moment" by Alexandra Lange HERE.  (BTW, Metropolis is one of the few architecture rags worth reading.)

ADDENDUM:  The Pritzker last year stiffed another female collaborator, when they failed to recognize Lu Wenyu when honoring her husband Wang Shu.  (He signed the petition.)  Two other partnerships have been recognized however.  At best it's... inconsistent.  Architectural Record article HERE.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Magically Confusing the Audience

Yesterday I had a great time chatting with set design colleagues.  One of them mentioned seeing the show Flashdance when it came through town.  When set changes happened, he said, up to twelve different set pieces would move at once!  (Maybe more, he lost count at twelve.)  This reminded us of my earlier post on The Rule of Three (HERE), about the inability of the human eye and brain to track more than two things at once when you want to confuse the audience.  Fifteen?  Overkill!  Flashdance also had a downstage piece or two - fabric or a couple scenic panels - cross the stage to deliberately catch the audience's eyes, guaranteeing that no one would notice whatever they were hiding.

This is a different  way of covering scene changes than that used, for instance, in La Boheme at the Met, designed by Franco Zeffirelli.  He just dropped the curtain.  This, I must say, interrupted the drive of the story and led to extended stare-at-the-curtain breaks for the audience that were enlivened only by a few mysterious bulges and quiverings of the heavy velvet.  Well and, each time, another curtain call... a series of ovations that began to get more and more amusing; just how much applause can an opera singer stand to listen to anyway?

La Boheme is absolutely gorgeous! with dramatic set changes well worth a little wait... but it was designed in 1981 and, with its curtain drops and highly romantic scenery, it feels a little old-fashioned.  (No artist ever starved in a lovelier Parisian garret.)

This modern trend to never to close a stage curtain, however, relies on sleight-of-hand.


By one of those funny coincidences, as I was driving away from this meeting and thinking about the magic of manipulating the audience's attention, a talk show on my car radio was interviewing the author of the book Fooling Houdini.  This talks about magic and, in part, about the glitches in human perception which make magic work.  I'd read the book!  Unfortunately, it didn't have a chapter titled "These are Things a Set Designer Needs to Know."  When reading the amusing travails of the author, I suppose I should have taken notes.  I enjoyed the book; it turns out, we're all very easy to fool.

Optical illusion - believed public domain, found HERE.

Speaking  of the quirks of human perception...  Seen this video of a classic example of the (embarrassing) gaps in human perception?  Have fun with "The Selective Attention Test":  HERE.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Alice on Sale

A summertime sale on books at my printers!  Here's your chance to stock up on my theater set design how-to Alice Through the Proscenium.

I'm happy to say that I recently got more fan mail on Alice.  This time it's from this area.  (In the past one thrilling email actually came from Kuala Lumpur.  No kiddin'.)  I've redacted the "where" from the comment until I get permission to identify the writer:

"It's a really fantastic guide to scenic design, simple, thought-out and funny. As the Assistant Technical Director at [hum, hum hum], I am going to suggest our set design professor read and think about including it as a text book in the Spring Semester when she teaches design. I remember the books I read in undergrad were full of information but often confusing, focusing on the minutia of carrying out the technical aspects and wasn't really written for someone looking to design. I hope everyone is reading your book." 

There you have it - a satisfied customer!

Anyway, HERE's that sale.  Use the secret code Socius to save at checkout.

Green Theater on Squidoo

My blog post the other day on going green in the theater (HERE) gave me the idea to create a Squidoo page on the topic.  And it just won an award - pretty cool!

Check it out: HERE 

Title pic for the Squidoo page "Go Green Onstage"

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Not a Review: Fly!

I recently watched one of the previews for the Dallas Theater Center's new musical, Fly!, a retelling of the Peter Pan story.

Peter Pan and Wendy book cover - public domain image

I liked it.  I found the first meet-Peter scene a little hard to follow (who are all these dancers with drums?), but after I got used to the show's conventions, I began to get into it.  The conventions?  Things like, this story is American not English, present-day not Edwardian, and we're flying with this great big harness so get over it! and the constant presence of who are these dancers with drums?  You just hafta go with it.

The drums, the dancing, clever and well-presented songs and dialogue, all enjoyable.  I absolutely loved the set!  But it was when the pirates and their ship very cleverly appeared that I was (you should pardon the pun) Hooked.

Hook himself was great - as were all the kid actors, most notably Wendy and Peter.  (I was glad to see a friend among the adult pirates, who was terrific.)

The set, by Anna Louizos, is a veritable thicket of bamboo: clever, flexible wagons made of bamboo and concealed steel, that are admirably responsive to action and to light, and just a gee-wiz! fun kids' tree house sort of environment.  Perfect.

The show, I think, needs a bit of polish here and there.  For one thing: why do the pirates leave? For another, the Peter/poison situation just sorta (pun alert) peters out.  But the set is ready for Broadway right now.  Some parts of the show need no tweaking at all - Hook's story about the crocodile is a clever reference to the classic version of the story, the use of modern slang is often amusing and apt, and the swamp woman's scene and especially her disappearance is spectacular!  All in all, Fly! is worth watching.

Speaking of Anna Louizos, she was another speaker at the Broadway Masterclass; I promise I'll write a post on her talk soon.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

No Matter How Well You Think You Understand...

You can think through your design all you like beforehand, think you completely understand every detail, even have sketched it at a small scale, yet when you sit down and start drawing the construction drawings you always find yourself thinking, "Hmmm... How does that actually work?"

Design never stops.

This time the "Hmmm..." moment came in detailing NYC skyline cut-outs for [Title of Show].

The Empire State Building - photo by Bobby Mikul, publicdomainpictures.net

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer Films

Well, half way through the summer almost and I'm burned out on Blockbusters already.

The Lone Ranger this weekend was, for me, the final proof that Hollywood has no idea.  Yet another tent-pole film that starts out okay, with interesting characters and situations etc. but then buries these under a crushing weight of pointless explosions, car (or train) chases, and general smash-'em-up that, frankly, no one can possibly care about.  I mean, that final train chase?  Except for the funny ladder bit, dumb.  And Superman: the Man of Steel disintegrated under a similar load of smashed buildings.  (Earlier post HERE.)  I'm struggling to even remember what the other couple flicks were... I dimly remember more smash-ups, but can't call to mind what the excuse, pardon me, the title of these films were.

Not exactly memorable cinema.

Oh yeah, one was Star Trek: Into Darkness.  This was a better movie, but again good characters were ultimately wasted on a smash-'em star-ship-chase conclusion that managed to completely contradict the pacifist point of the Star Trek universe.  Sigh.  And Iron Man III, which was okay.  (HERE.)

The other trend I've noticed lately comes from the coincidence of seeing in the theater Tom Cruise's Oblivion (a beautiful sci-fi world with silly plot holes HERE) and seeing his Jack Reacher soon after on Netflix.  The Star Vehicle.  Both films had their essential natures warped - sometimes fatally - by the pressures of being driven by The Star.  Another sort of car wreck.  Why did Jack Reacher, about a detective who doesn't even own a car, have a car chase in it?  Naturally Cruise drives like a pro.  Just as his sheer masculinity makes the utterly professional female attorney leave the trailer just to cool down after seeing him shirtless.  Poor girl.  (Whatever they paid the actress she earned every penny just for not giggling.)

Finding the vanity moments has gotten to be a game.  I may check out a few more from Cruise's late oeuvre  - throwing popcorn at the screen and hooting with laughter is fun!

Actual good movies this summer?

Much Ado About Nothing - Shakespeare (and Whedon) - review HERE

So far my favorites are Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing and The Kings of Summer.

Compared to big summer-smash movies these are quiet little low budget films in which not much happens.  I loved them both.

Much Ado About Nothing is a black and white modern-day version of Shakespeare's comedy set at a summer house party and filmed with many favorite actors from Whedon's television work.  Very nicely done.  I think I like it equally - though differently - as Kenneth Branagh's  gorgeous 1993 version.  The compare-and-contrast between the two films is fascinating.

The Kings of Summer is about three teenaged boys who build a secret hideout in the woods.  Lovely.  Worth seeing.  It captures a lot of truth about growing up and about summer...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Fourth...

The Fourth Amendment doesn't just apply on the Fourth of July.

Lately (you've read the papers) evidence has come to light that the United States government - our government has been spying on us, the People.


Secret courts to "approve" this?  Unconscionable!

The Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Please let your political representatives know that you don't want secret courts, secret surveillance of citizens, and  illegal searches and seizures of your phone calls, emails, on-line purchases, on-line searches or visits, cell phone locations... or even that you're reading this blog at this minute.

Shed light on government spying and secret courts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Greening the Stage

Among the kind sponsors of the Live Design Scenic Masterclass (thanks Rose Brand!) was the Broadway Green Alliance.

They have a worthy goal - to make theater less ecologically wasteful.  Green the Stage!

Charm at Kitchen Dog Theater - I couldn't resist using this "green" stage.

Here are some suggestions they made to us as set designers:

1) Run a greener studio: use recycled paper, print on both sides, use inks with less packing materials, and, when possible, view information on a screen and not print it at all.  When building models, up-cycle packing cardboard, choose cardboard instead of foam-core board or pulp-board instead of illustration board.  Use plain ol' white glue instead of fancy sprays and other chemical compounds.  Recycle used paper and cardboard - even old models when you can.

ADDENDUM:  I'd add in general good-green-housekeeping stuff: use LED or fluorescent lighting instead of incandescent; keep your thermostat setting sane; cut back on chemical cleaners and insect sprays etc.; recycle plastic and metal trash too; waste less water; all the good stuff, right?

2) Design green: plan using recycled and upcycled materials in your sets.  Design around material sizes (like 4' x 8' plywood) so there's less cutting and waste.  Research materials - what's the greenest choice?  Many factors come into "greenness", like shipping distance and sustainable sourcing etc., so pace yourself; research as you have time rather than pushing to reform your practice overnight.  Check places like Craig's List for what you need.  

(If you happen to be in the NYC area, they suggest shopping at Build-It-Green, Film Biz Recycling, or Materials-For-The Arts. Around the DFW area, Habitat for Humanity Restores sell "excess" building products.  And building salvage places, of course.)

3) Build green:  use stock pieces and save things from this set for the next one.  Use that recycled and upcycled material!  (As much as possible, I suggest encouraging sustainable paints and building methods.)

4)  Green-cycle old sets!  Don't just trash it - give it away or give the broken-down materials away. Poorer theaters would be glad of a lot of your stuff.  Recycle what can be recycled.  

5)  Talk green.  Reach out to others about sustainable theater.  Let's make "green" the new standard practice!  Join Broadway Green Alliance.

Much of this we (in those poorer theaters) are already doing for reasons of, um, poverty, but it's a good idea to think through your usual practices.  (My studio needs to recycle more paper.)  See where you can be a better global-green steward... right, citizen?

Public domain image

Well, that's today's news.  Last thought...

"We do not get the news from poetry
yet people die everyday for lack of what is found there."
William Carlos Williams

(Thanks to poet John Siddique for this quote.)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Scenic Masterclass Speaker: Donald Holder

It was interesting to hear lighting designer Donald Holder (The Lion King) talk about collaboration (or not) between set designer and lighting designer.  I absolutely loved the title of his talk: "When Did We Add the Mirrored Floor?"

Says it all.

Mirror! - image from HERE

Communication =  Important.

He had a hilarious story about a shouting match in Tech after one very-eminent-set-designer (cough, cough) at the last minute, and without telling the lighting designer, moved scenery into fly space needed for lighting.   The equally-very-eminent director had to physically stand between the two designers before punches flew.

The lesson?  Talk first!

The take-away message was that the set designer needs to respect the lighting designer's needs.  For instance, to "pop" actors off the set with light, the lighting guys absolutely need space to fit lights between the actors and the scenery.  So don't, you know, fill that up.  (As that cough-cough designer did.)

"Give the lighting room!"

Mr.  Holder also suggested, when a set designer talks to a lighting designer, that we "focus on the positive."  (I suspect this translates as, no name calling, swearing, or finger-pointing.  I think it can get ugly.)  Talking to each other - civilly - is vital.

He spoke about his influences and inspirations, which turned out to be similar to what I've heard from lighting designer friends: the inspiration of nature and its lighting effects like sunrises and sets, clouds and shade, plus the great painters of light like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hopper, or Sargeant.  Holder explained the importance of stage lighting as the "lens" through which the audience sees the show.  Perfectly true.  He reminded us of Joe Melzeiner's definition of a set as "a lightable object."  And he described lighting design in practice as a constant balance between a conceptual approach and the practicalities, between the "big gestures" and the nuts and bolts.

In this nuts-n-bolts spirit he recommended against curved cycs - "curved cycs tend to look wrinkled" - and especially against flying them.  Plain ol' straight, framed-in-black cycs work best.

He also discussed the present conversion of stage lighting from the standard of incandescent fixtures to LEDs.  The Lion King saved 30% on its energy bills when it switched to LED for its new UK tour, plus less maintenance.  That advantage is obvious.  The disadvantages of LEDs are more subtle.  For one thing, color mixing is not quite the full rainbow spectrum that the ads suggest - some colors are unavailable.  Skin tones tend to fade under LED light.  And the fading of those lights...  Where an incandescent source keeps its true color right up until that last moment, then gains a golden glow before dying, LED colors shift throughout the fade but miss that "warm" last moment.  He called it a subtle difference, but one with psychological importance after millenia of human association between light and flame.

Holder also talked about the recent trend (thanks largely to LEDs) of building more lighting into the sets themselves.  For Spiderman, with a set budget of (wallet spasm!) $ 8 million, $ 2.5 million of that was spent on in-set lights and electrics.  This kind of scenic installation makes collaboration between lighting and set designers even more important.

That mirror floor?  That was a set designer's surprise.

(No one had told him - but he coped.  A lot of actor-lighting was suddenly bounce light from below.)

Monday, July 1, 2013

They Blew Up One Too Many Things

I watch the new Superman - Man of Steel yesterday.

Superman - in the only public domain version, found HERE

Not completely successful.

It felt like two movies hammered together: a moody character-motivation origin story smashed into an explosive summer-blockbuster crash-fest.  Of those two, the thoughtful moody one was the better... but neither half really won me over.

There were some things I liked, but many more I'm unconvinced by.  For one thing, the film took huge liberties with the classic origin story of the comic books, made a HUGE shift in the Lois Lane / Clark Kent relationship, and an even huger change in Superman's relationship to Krypton.  I'm sure the purists are screaming.  I'm inclined to agree with them: a radical re-working of a myth (and Superman IS mythic) is fine, but only if it works.  I don't think this does.

But all that at least showed thought and willingness to experiment.

What was utterly banal and unthinking was the let's-smash-one-MORE-building boredom of the last half of the film.  Come on!  Smashing stuff is not, in itself, interesting.  This is Superman not the Hulk - smashing is not supposed to be the point.  It was repetitive, too long, and frankly boring.  As we were leaving I overheard a ten year old boy say, "It was kinda annoying."  He was right.  And when a film like this loses the ten year old boy vote, it's in trouble.

The only "smashing" that had any interest or importance was when Clark Kent's farmhouse was damaged.  That mattered.  But even then, his Mom, picking through the wreckage voiced my thought: "It's only stuff."

All that wrecking of Metropolis?  It's only stuff.

When, when, when will blockbuster makers learn that It's The Story That Matters?  The new ease of creating special effects has allowed - pushed even - filmmakers into too many, too facile smashups.  We need to ration these guys: "You can only break ten (10) things - so make 'em count!"

Instead of this flick, go watch the old Christopher Reeve Superman - for the real-deal mythology - or the latest Avengers - for beautifully choreographed smashings and the Hulk.  (Spoiler: Hulk versus Loki illustrates breaking things that matter... in this case, Loki.  Hilarious!)

(BTW - on the film's production design...  Cool - but I kinda think the alien artifact designers stared too long at June bugs.)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

In Brief...

Busy drawing and thinking here: revisions on [title of show] and first sketches on Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

Mostly thinkin'.

The trick for me with Exit, Pursued by a Bear is that it follows another "kitchen" show.  This kitchen needs to look very different from that kitchen... and yet there I am starting with same thrust stage with the same single upstage wall to line up kitchen cabinets and appliances on and the exact same sink/stove/refrigerator.  Even the same counter peninsula is called for!

Hard to make this kitchen look strikingly different.

(Speaking of a kitchen's "look," I was very pleased to hear that playwright Tom Dudzik , who wrote Miracle on South Division Street, saw a photo of my set and said it "looked just like his grandmother's kitchen.")

Photo courtesy of (I think) Circle Theatre

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Copyright Has Never Been This Cute

This morning on BoingBoing (a terrific site BTW) there was this lovely video: created by You Tube to explain copyright to video folks, it also pretty well explains the law as it applies to most visual arts and music.

Best of all, it is explained by puppets.

Wouldn't ALL law be more palatable if explained by puppets?

Maybe that explains those British wigs in court?  And maybe in the U.S. we should insist that all lawyers similarly dress up funny or use puppets or, preferably, mime?  (Having to act out, say, "intestate" would make lawyers simplify their arguments!)

Watch it HERE.

My earlier posts on copyright issues HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Monday, June 24, 2013


A few short catch-up posts:

1)  I've been doing some traveling lately.  New York City (read about it HERE) and - a quite different trip - to San Marcos and San Antonio this last weekend.

I haven't visited the old Aquarena Springs in San Marcos since I was a kid on a field trip.  The mermaids are gone now and so is the diving pig; I'm rather sad about that.  But, having now seen the de-kitsched springs... I have to agree that under the university's new management, the natural beauty of these springs and their historic, ecological, and geological importance are better revealed.  Diving pigs do distract even from Spanish gold and Clovis spear points.  Clovis! 12,000 years old, give or take.  This site has seen human habitation for as long as humans have been in North America and is home to several unique animal species.

The water is wonderfully clear.  Glass bottomed boats remain a perfect way to peer down into the depth and see the water weeds, the fish and turtles, and the magically bubbling waters from the Edwards aquifer.  (More info HERE.)

I can't figure out if this photo is public domain or not, it seems to be a city (therefore our tax -dollars-at-work) photo so i believe it is. Found HERE.  Please , dear copyright-holder, let me know if you want this removed.

2)  From San Marcos to San Antonio.  A very relaxed trip with no agenda except to wander the Riverwalk and visit the Market.  I can remember this way back when there were actual farmers at the market - nowadays it's mostly Mexican arts and crafts and blatantly touristy... yet there are some wonderful things if you look.  Every visit is different: the best things this time were gorgeous Talavera pottery and the wooden masks.  Plus Mi Tierra's pralines!

3)  Books:  My favorite reads lately are the latest in Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series - set in 1830s New Orleans, though this book, The Shirt on His Back, travels to the Rockies, and Neil Gaiman's evocative new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Both very good - completely different experiences.  As usual with Gaiman's work, it's indescribable, you simply have to read it.

4)  I'm reading a new play, Detroit.
5)  The strike for Se Llama Cristina was yesterday.  I got to sit under the raised floor and help remove cross-bracing which was kinda fun.  Pizza and painting the stage floor black... the end of another show.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scenic Masterclass speaker: Anna Louizos

I was excited to hear designer Anna Louizos speak.  I've admired several of her sets - the traveling version of Avenue Q and her enormous dollhouse for the Dallas Theater Center's production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Her topic was the importance of the ground plan in developing a scenic design... particularly in making  logistical decisions about scene changes and scenery storage etc.  How scenery arrives onstage is, she explained, very important.  You can "use scenery to tell the story."  Especially in scene changes.  The ground plan creates the flow of movement onstage - for scenery and actors.

Talking about the role of scenery on stage, she listed things it does: helps tell the story; makes the actors "safe" on stage (physically, of course, but also in their performances); locates the setting, naturally; and turns that setting into a character in its own right.  (Both her shows I'd seen did that extremely well.)  But... the set can be a negative, particularly if scene changes are not handled deftly and it ruins the show's pace.

(Very true, very true.  I found myself nodding a lot.)

Ms. Louizos talked about Avenue Q - her Broadway break-out design.  Her first version had assumed that this would track, revolve, open... all sorts of fun.  But a tight budget made her rethink.  The resulting set   became stronger as a design due to budget constraints - a seemingly simple row of city buildings that opened in simpler ways to tell the story.  Charming.  Designs, she reminded us, are "often better after a budget."

(I nodded again: budgets require the designer to simplify, and simpler is almost always better.)

We watched some amazing videos of the workings of her mechanized set for High Fidelity.  Looked like a beautiful show.  It was easy to see that Louizos really enjoyed figuring out the complex choreography of the mechanisms and scene changes.  (This enjoy-the-complexity is something I need to learn.)  But, later in her talk, she admitted that on another show she was actually advocating cutting scenery, especially moving stuff, because this was one of those scripts too common at present, where the playwright thinks they're writing a movie.  Waaaay too many settings and fast, fast scenes and cuts.

The next day, master scenic designer Douglas Schmidt would echo this feeling: his new show at San Francisco's A.C.T. has, I think he told us, 57 scenes and 32 different locations.  (In, what, a bit under two hours?  That's a scene change every two minutes!  Insanity!)

Louizos's session ended with a lively Q & A.  We spent quite a while discussing copyright issues...  but that's a topic too long for today.

(Sorry, no images for this post as I can't find any that aren't obviously copyrighted.  Darn ol' copyright!  But you can see lotso pics on Ms. Louizos's site HERE.)