Thursday, January 31, 2013

Interns and Apprentices

"Theater is not for wimps."

That's how another designer explained his intern's quitting yesterday.

The subject of students - of one kind or another - kept coming up.   I had just met with my own most recent intern that morning, an actual enrolled college student who will get credit of some kind for hanging out with me.  But I've had others...

One was an intern architect looking for greener pastures, pastures that had more design and fewer toilet partitions to detail in them.  By devious paths, they'd found me as a designer to shadow.  We had fun: we co-designed a show for a small theater company which turned out well.  We shared the design (probably 60%, 40%) plus the work of painting and collaging it with pictures (50%, 50% like the tiny design fee).

Lawrence and Holloman for Second Thought Theatre - a small set, but more work than you'd think.

This intern was a real trouper - cheerful and pleasant while hauling her half of the load.  I think it was a good and typical experience in that the show was excellent and everyone involved nice, but the budget was tiny and the process not entirely smooth - it was our second design that was approved.  Fair enough.  Of course, it was hard work - though only half of it each.

This intern never did a second show!

My guess it that this was due too much "collaboration" (still a client to please), plus way too much work for far too little pay.  Obviously, they discovered they didn't love theater design enough to make it worthwhile for them.  Fair enough.

I do dimly remember another, earlier intern who did very little showing up.  Unmotivated.  But I treasure my only "apprentice." This was someone so motivated, so determined to learn, that, without lure of grades, credit, of even half a pathetic fee, just came to help with my work and ask questions.  We looked at drawings, theirs and mine, critiqued each others' designs, shared books and opinions, I'm sure I lectured a bit too long on architectural history, and - long after this apprentice graduated from any student-hood role - we continue to discuss theater design... now as colleagues.  We meet for coffee.

That's a perfect mentor relationship... morphing from student to colleague and friend.

I never had a formal mentor - I jumped straight from architecture into theater set design, re-inventing the wheel daily until I gained experience - but I did have a fantastic resource in a set designer friend, Wade Giampa.  Very experienced as a designer and scenic painter - he had worked as a painter on Broadway and been chief designer of a big scenic company - Wade knew millions of things I didn't... and graciously shared.  I'm grateful.  I enjoyed a lot of designer-talk coffee klatches with Wade.

Advice to anyone thinking about being mentored:
1)  You only get out as much as you put in.  Put time into this!  Put thought.  Show up, volunteer, work hard, prepare between times, do research, ask a million questions...  Throw yourself into it.
2)  Know what you want to learn.  Understand your own weaknesses and ask for help with them.  Don't be shy or fragile about it either.
3)  Make the experience worth your mentor's time.  They wouldn't agree to mentor if they didn't enjoy teaching or feel public-spirited, but make sure they enjoy mentoring you.

Advice to the potential mentor:
1) Give it thought.  Evaluate your student's needs and try to fill their gaps - this is education, not free labor!
2)  Be reasonable: the intern is juggling other things, balancing their life, trying to find the time for this relationship just as you are.
2)  Don't expect too much.  You can suggest, ask, insist even... but the student will only learn what they're able or willing to learn.  What they learn from you may only be "This isn't right for me."  That's a useful lesson too.

A further note to the mentor: if it sometimes seems like the ratio of talented/dedicated students to clueless/lazy ones is not in the mentor's, favor... Well, it's not really about you, it's about a duty to share the Knowledge, as it was once shared with you.

Besides, the good ones are an absolute joy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Big Day # 2

After yesterday's post HERE on starting the build for The Lucky Chance, today I start painting it - the real challenge!

Color test for The Lucky Chance

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


This is the Big Day.

Today all the pieces for the set of The Lucky Chance will get "loaded-in" to the production's theater venue - in this case, Dallas' Bath House Cultural Center.  This is a great little Art Deco gem of an... old bath house (strangely enough), a place where generations of families changed into bathing suits before swimming in White Rock Lake.  Nowadays half of the building is an art gallery, with changing shows, there's a tiny museum about the lake and its bath house, and the other half of the building is a small thrust theater.  With a VERY low ceiling (bane of designers' lives) but otherwise a nice place to do often excellent theater.

Parts of The Lucky Chance set have been prefabricated - one elaborate doorway in particular - the rest will be carried in as standard flats and platforms or stock lumber.  There will be a bunch of people to hand-carry these from the van or pickup truck, through the ordinary sized door (3'-0" W x 6'-8" H).

Once inside, the flats will be assembled to match my drawings (mostly) and screwed together with drywall screws and cordless electric screw guns.  Then braced.  Standard platforms will be "legged" with cut 2x4 stud table-like legs.

Some sections can't be standard flats or platforms and must be built from raw materials - 2x4s and plywood.    There is a certain amount of trim.  There are four doors to hang.  And there will be a little fuss in faking up a rolling bed unit from a standard 3'x6' platform with added legs, casters, padding, and a headboard.

Here's a loosey-goosey perspective sketch of the set.

Set for Echo Theatre's The Lucky Chance by Aphra Behn - set design by Clare Floyd DeVries

Since we're planning to spend the whole day loading and unloading lumber (and cutting it too) all indoor-outdoor... it is, inevitably, supposed to rain all day.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Not Reviews: Penelope and King Lear

I've been on a seeing-other-peoples'-shows binge!

Penelope by Bourdell at the Kimbell Art Museum

Penelope:  Wednesday night was Undermain Theatre.  Penelope may be a perfect Undermain show...  it has their unique combination of erudition (the story comes from Homer's Odyssey), brilliant acting (all stand-outs in roles with both repartee and long monologues, oh! and tricky Irish accents), social commentary (on male competition mostly), odd comedy (Gone with the Wind and the Grassy Knoll make hilarious cameos), and unexpected, vivid violence.  And the set's cool.

I really enjoyed the play.  It's a thrill to see actors get their teeth into something.  And, as a set designer, I really, really liked the beautifully rendered empty pool in which these bachelors were kept waiting.  Gorgeous scenic painting! (It's hard to paint good aging and wear.)  The pool bottom became almost a character - certainly a landscape with which the characters grappled.  The cool, curtained pool cabana above where Penelope lounged - watching the guys on CCTV - was great contrast.  (Tiny, tiny quibble...  I wish those white classical columns had had faint mortar joints painted on, so they became "stone" instead of Home Depot wood.  But you could also argue they were more pristine without.)  Costumes were also perfect.

Another interesting aspect of Penelope is that this is the very first dramatic performance onstage at Dallas' new Performing Arts Center.  It was, in every sense, ON-stage, because Undermain placed both the two-story set and the audience seating on the stage proper.  (This play could never fit in their basement home.)  The auditorium was hidden behind the grand fire drape, but I took a peek - a beautiful room!  I'll look forward to sitting there some day.

All in all, a great kick-off to this new Dallas venue.

Lear and his Fool - believed public domain image

King Lear:  As usual at the Dallas Theater Center, this was done well, with a dramatic set and a very good cast made up of actors from both the Dallas Theater Center's and Trinity Rep's acting companies.

I have mixed feelings about the show though.  Maybe I'd just heard and read too much for too long about the majesty of this play Lear, about the great cathartic grandeur etc. etc.  I hate to sound like a schlub, but... not so very much.  For me.

In part this un-awedness was the influence of the set in the first act, a high room with a pair of columns and a grandish pair of doors, built of plain, stained-streaky plywood with under-floor construction exposed and a rickety suspended ceiling (that occasionally quivered).  The volume was grand, hinting at palaces, but construction suggested temporary.  No doubt this was All Metaphorical... but also deflating of the King's Dignity even before you met him.  Ditto modern costumes.  (Fine, except for Cordelia's dress, which I hated for its color and its cling.)

Then the King entered...

Now the actor handled his dialogue very well throughout - in a killer part! - but, on his entering, I just didn't sense majesty.  I did pick up conceited self-importance.  But not the C. S-Imp. of a king so much as the C. S-Imp. of that obnoxious guy on the Home Owners' Association board.  You know the one.  The retired guy who gets petulant when his idea to outlaw orange window blinds is rejected.  Him.  The (at this moment) rickety set and everyday dress did not do the actor any favors at this moment.

So, for me, the tragic fall of Lear was lessened by this lack of height to fall from.

Now, the set came into its own in the storm and mad scene.  Terrific!  Dramatic!  Real rain!  (Always cool.)

And again, the King entered, this time with the terrific "Blow, winds!" speech.

Which... I couldn't hear.

Part of this was the loud rain.  (Real rain: always cool, always noisy.)  Maybe, because of the real rain,  actors weren't wearing mikes lest they electrocute themselves.  The result was that Lear's voice - always a trifle light for my taste - was now almost inaudible.  You could feel the audience leaning toward the stage urging their ears to catch his words.

Couldn't a mike be built into that door frame?

Lear and the other characters came onto the stage and into the rain.

All very effective.  Gorgeous.  Mad, splashing water with his hands, Lear was poignant.

The pragmatic stage designer in me and my inner-architect spent the rest of the show worrying about that much water on stage.  I worried about actors' footing on wet surfaces and, in a fight, on the duckboards placed over the wet.  I worried about long-term effects of water on plywood: the swelling, delamination, and splinters that will impede set operation and actors' safety.  I worried about wet, cold actors.  Are they heating the water?  'Cause that helps.

At intermission, stage hands dried everything with towels.  Obviously water had made its way to lower levels of the set and (I'd bet cash money!) will find a way to the stage floor eventually.  Water is insidious.  I've done several "wet" productions and no matter how careful you are in design and construction (and I'm a fanatic), water will do damage.  After last night's performance I dreamed of flooding.  Sad.  True.

Back to the show: some excellent acting.  I particularly liked the triangle of Gloucester and her two sons.  The three daughters of the King.  The Fool and his costume - seersucker - were perfect in the context of this modern dress production.  Really did like the set during the storm scene and afterwards and, to be fair, it "played" beautifully from the first.  Maybe, for me, it just needed a lick of gold paint to go with the plywood. See what you think.

King Lear - worth seeing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Loading Up

Today is a load-up-the-car day.

The Scenic Ride and I are due in Fort Worth with all the set dressing for God of Carnage... starting with a HUGE antique looking globe of the world that opens to reveal that it's really a bar!

The Scenic Ride - public domain images messed with

Monday, January 21, 2013

Film & Book Fest...

Okay, maybe not "Fest."  As in, not so festive...

My latest film and book experiences have developed an unintended theme... Both the book Roots and the film The Impossible are stories of people surviving difficult circumstances that come out of horrifying events beyond their control: in Roots it is being enslaved, in The Impossible it is the devastating wave of the tsunami that hit southeast Asia in 2004.

Who was it that said, "If you haven't read it before, any book is a new book"?

Original cover of Roots - believed fair use, from Wikipedia
Please read the argument for fair use on that (linked) site.

Roots has famously been around for a while - with a mini-series made from it in 1977 - but somehow I missed all that.  (I was heads-down at my drafting board about then.)  I'm glad I finally got around to it.  A very good story.  Memorable characters.  And, of course, an important, painful, and less-romantic view of The American Experience...  A film fest that showed Gone with the Wind followed by Roots and then To Kill a Mockingbird would be fascinating.  (Shown in that order I think.)  And harrowing.

Humans come across rather better in The Impossible, where the evil-circumstance is the inhuman and inarguable Wave that hits a beach resort.  (It cut a swath through a huge territory, but this film concentrates on one resort area in Thailand and mostly one family.)  Filming of the characters' tumbling through the water is absolutely terrifying.  Irresistible power of water, chaos, fear.  Memorable.  As is the struggle of the local medical center to deal with the crisis.  For film-chickens like me, the film's ending is up-beat enough to make the movie watchable.

A few nit-picks:

First issue: I can't help wondering if the local hospital administrator isn't watching this film and blurting, "Hey!  It was never...! That didn't...!" I spent the latter part of the film thinking: "The whole country of Thailand and there's not one mop?"  Things were extremely chaotic and understaffed, of course, but I bet there were a few mops too.  Hollywood has been known to exaggerate for effect.  Just sayin'.

Second issue: part of the appeal of Roots is its presentation as a true family story with a rather miraculous ability to trace a family back to its origins in Africa.  Apparently... this IS too miraculous to be true.  Wikipedia has an account of that story, but, basically...  Read it as a novel.

If you're in the mood for exciting, harrowing, survival-stories, these are Good Picks!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Technological Difficulties

Sorry for the Pause- the internet has been down here, but recommencing blog posts any minute now, aaaannnny minute...

With this recent Media Blackout was occurring, it's been busy-city here, with a lot of driving around and a lot of meetings (including 2-3 today, Saturday).  Some weekends turn into theater work weekends.

Gotta get back to checking three days of email...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

More on Set Design

Just a little reminder that my friend Joseph at Stage Design by Joseph also has a blog on theater set design HERE.  For a different view of life-as-a-theater-designer.

Me?  I've been on a writing jag lately (secret project) but I also have a couple shows a'building.  Later I'll be all about the painting and the wall-covering and the furniture and the set dressing and the...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Wish...

...That I could show you cool photos of my painted model for The Lucky Chance (Echo at the Bath House comin' soon!).  But that would be premature.  Gotta buy a ticket, right?

But I can show a photo of its design-opposite: the recent The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Where Beauty Queen is detailed, realistic, and drably gunge-colored, Lucky Chance will be simple, abstracted, and a Riot of '60s Color!

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Kitchen Dog Theater - finished set.

Kind of interesting to compare this fully set-dressed version (under stage lights) with the progress pics.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Kitchen Dog Theater - under construction

Or the original sketch:

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - design sketch 

Amazing what a little (ha!) scenic painting and set dressing can do isn't it?

(See the '60s colors HERE.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Importance of Critics

Sure I grouse now and then about critics...  Theater people do.

Eventually everyone gets a slighting review and it's no fun when a critic doesn't like a show you've invested a lot of time, thought, work, and blood into.  It's downright maddening when the critic just flat misses the point.  (That sometimes happens.)  Then again, we all enjoy a good review.  But - beyond the tender-ego issues - critics are important.

They keep artists honest.

No one ever intends to be a lazy designer or to phone-in a performance.  No one plans a flop.  Self-respect, honest craftsmanship, and peer pressure all encourage good work.  But there's no motivation quite like public praise or the public pillory!  Bad reviews work like the ol' throw-stones-at-the-miscreant system of justice: if praise is motivating, so is bruising.

For this reason, I wish architects had more critics.

I especially wish local architects had a critic.  The late David Dillon was once on-staff architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, one of the few in the country.  He was especially good at explaining the complex relationships between real estate interests, politics, power, and money that shape large building developments.  He also had a good sense of architectural form and design, I thought.  Perhaps his reviews were a little too often about Important Buildings Elsewhere or Important Out-of-Town Architects (not helping Dallas' inferiority complex any), but he did  hold local architects to higher standards.  He made Architecture (capital A) a topic for discussion.  Which helps.

I'm saddened to say that New York City, the country, indeed the world-wide architecture conversation, has lost a very good critic with the recent death of Ada Loise Huxtable.

Photo of Ada Louise Huxtable from Atlantic Yards Report

Starting in The New York Times in 1963 and writing her last piece for The Wall Street Journal last month, Ada Louise Huxtable helped set the tone of architectural discussion for half a century.  She was an early advocate for historic preservation.  She wrote several books including Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? which I read in school long ago... and which remains wonderfully biting and relevant.    She even received her share of criticism of her own work - including a Pulitzer and a MacArthur "genius" grant, which is not bad.

We need more critics this good.

Read this this article HERE for an interesting discussion of the role of architecture critics today (well, 2006).  Or look in the Set Design Archive  HERE  for my earlier posts on "Critics & Reviews."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Films and Books

It's been holiday film-n-book season here, so I have a few to catch you up on:


Le Miserables, the Movie:  I'm in the possibly unique position of not having seen the stage version of this famous musical first.  (Sad, but true.)  And it's been a hundred years since I read the book.

So I was able to watch and listen without preconceived ideas.

I was impressed with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and with Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  I liked the portrayals of Cosette and Marius... waffled a bit about Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert.  Now, I am no musician, so please take my comments with whole wheelbarrow loads of salt, but it seemed obvious that Crowe is just not the singer the others are.  I did, however, warm up to his Javert as the movie went on.  I really enjoyed Jackman, though I did feel - notably in the song where he prays for Marius to survive the barricade to return to Cosette - that some songs made his voice sound kinda thin and strained - no idea if that's the fault of voice or music.  Fantine's big song, however, just devastated me.

Other roles...  Sacha Baron Cohen was fine, but will someone please take Helena Bonham Carter's fright wig away?  She's played that tousle-haired harridan once too often.

The story of Le Miserables is affecting.  Seen at the end of a gray winter day, my companion found it all too depressing, but I enjoyed the experience.

The Silver Linings Playbook:  This film, which has been out for a while now, played to a packed audience.  Word of mouth is wonderful.  This isn't especially my kind of movie (I was afraid it would turn into a mental-health-issue-of-the-week TV special), but I warmed to the characters and, by the end, really liked the movie.   Parts were funny and all was true to life.  Performances were lovely.

Cover illustration from Wikipedia


I took author Lois McMaster Bujold's recommendation for a good book... and am I ever glad I did!

The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (retitled Midnight Riot in the U.S. for no reason) is a terrific urban-fantasy novel.  It starts as a young London police officer interrogates a ghost... and grows into a great set-piece at the Covent Garden opera.  The author creates a wonderfully quirky mythology for the ancient city that reminds me a little of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.  (I have no higher praise).  But where Gaiman's novel is darkly humorous, Aaronovitch's is humorous and sometimes dark.  The book's hero himself is aware of the J.K. Rowlingness and Terry Pratchettness of his material and - with the reader - has fun with that.

I ran out (well, virtually ran, I actually urgently e-purchased, downloaded, and e-gobbled) both this book's sequel Moon Over Soho and its sequel Whispers Underground.  Both novels are individual (i.e. not copy-cattish of the first), both satisfying.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Production Meeting Weirdness

Last night's meeting was mostly about vomit.


Producing the play The God of Carnage means dealing with the special effect of one actress becoming ill... aaaallll over the set and costumes.  Which means inventing and making fake sick which both looks realistic yet won't cause the entire audience to turn green.  And then cleaning that up.  Twice on Saturdays.  Lots of laundry and clean-up!

I know one local theater (cough-cough) that didn't quite get the clean-up right for the first few performances leading to a Plague of Gnats! in the theater.  The solution required both professional pest control and then steam cleaning every night.


All this is mainly a technical problem for props and stage management - plus an acting challenge - but this special effect also effects the set (carpet? No thanks!) and the costumes (dry cleaning?  Please no!).  Disguising the mechanism for spewing the ick requires collaboration between sets and props and possibly costumes in its camouflage.

So we had a loooong discussion.  Recipes for fake-sick were handed around.  Really.  Kinda the New Year's rebuttal to all those Christmas cookie recipe swaps, huh?

Actually, we laughed quite a lot.

That's us... when we're NOT laughing.  A ridiculously solemn moment... 
as  I suck on my pen thoughtfully, apparently.  Sigh.  Photo courtesy of Circle Theatre

Could be worse: I once worked on a production of Blasted.  (That play, as far as I'm concerned is a sorta dare-ya for how-much-theatrical-ick-can-you-take?)  That production meeting involved a lot of technical discussion about dead babies.  (Fake ones obviously!)  Not ONE joke was cracked.

If you read my how-to set design book Alice Through the Proscenium there's a funny version of me watching the designer run for Blasted while peeking through my fingers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"A Golden Age"

Experts and critics seem to agree: 2012 was a great theatrical year in Dallas.

Congratulations to everyone involved!

I'm pleased to see that many theaters where I work are cited for terrific productions, as were many, many actors I've had the privilege to work with.  And I'm thrilled that five of my shows appeared on critics' various "Best Of " lists: The Whipping Man at Circle Theatre;  The Diary of Anne Frank at WaterTower Theatre; and Ruth, Collapse, AND The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Kitchen Dog Theater.