Thursday, March 28, 2013


Sometimes the best set is the least.  The simplest.

Simple perfection.

That's all.

A friend of mine recently designed Hamlet for an incredibly successful children's production.  Both the budget and space were modest and fine materials and carpentry skills limited.  Generally, if a designer is going to pull off a minimalist style then what IS on stage has to be exquisite.  Perfect.  But here (as often is the case) perfection was kinda hard to come by.  Still, theater has its tricks:  smooth out lumpy carpentry by stretching fabric over it.  If you still can't get a perfectly smooth wall? then texture/spatter the surface so you can't tell it's not perfect.  Fool the eye.

Whatever the clunky reality of the build, what the audience saw was clean, simple, geometry.

Hamlet at Funhouse Theatre and Film, set design by Joseph Cummings - copyrighted

I love the bold simplicity of this world.

The other remarkable thing about this photo is the use of projections - integral to this production.  Here the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet's Father is enriched by this classic illustration.  (Sorry I don't know the artist's name.)  It was this image, in fact, that was the inspiration for the whole set design.

Below, you see a similar use of Millet's iconic Ophelia to illustrate her off-stage fate.

Hamlet at Funhouse Theatre and Film, set design by Joseph Cummings - copyrighted

Hamlet at Funhouse Theatre and Film, set model by Joseph Cummings - copyrighted

The model gives a better idea of the design: sliding panels plus two rolling raked platforms.  Clever.  Simple.

You can see more of Joseph's work HERE.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Coffee Klatch

Every so often it's really nice to get together with colleagues.

Today it was coffee at the main Half Price Books coffee shop with a couple other set design enthusiasts.  Between us we had a variety of design backgrounds and experience levels - stage, architecture, interior design, graphics, student, professional, part-time, and full-time.

Some of the stories were pretty funny.

It's a great way to shop talk, swap ideas and helpful hints, complain to someone who'll understand, and just generally kick our (paint-y) shoes off.  The best and most hilarious story had to be cleaning-up-a-spilled-gallon-of-paint-ten-minutes-before-the-audience-is-seated.*

Plus I got some good technical suggestions for pulling off my next design.

My suggestion for you, Dear Reader?  Find some friendly colleagues you can coffee klatch with.

I've used this image before... pretty sure it's public domain.

*  Hint: it takes 2 pieces of 2x4 and a bucket of saw dust.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dallas Theater is Varied

...Is what it is.

Within three days I saw The Odd Couple, A Brand New Boise, and The Ultimate Easter Experience.

The first, by Neil Simon is, of course funny, with wit well polished by a brilliant writer and decades of performance, plus Broadway principals, distinguished regional actors, and a nice pricey set.  The second, by Samuel D. Hunter, is occasionally funny (wit is not what that playwright is really aiming for), also with good regional adult actors, and (I like to think) a good set of moderate means.  (At Circle Theatre.)  The third, by Jeff Swearingen, is funny, witty, politically pointed, too recently written to have such a Simon-ize polish yet, but hilariously performed by mostly kids on a fun Easter-egg colored set of no budget to notice.  (By my buddy Joseph.)

Nuts-fun is what it is.

There is the Easter Bunny, but there is also Uncle Sam, Robert Oppenheimer, Marilyn Monroe,  a pair of slacker soldiers who become... well, ya gotta see 'em, and (my favorite) the comic stylings of Joseph Stalin.

I couldn't even begin to type the crazy plot... wouldn't want to spoil it anyway.

Of all these disparate shows - each well done in its own way - I was surprised into laughter most by the kids.  Really funny stuff: sophisticated references for the adults, ridiculous (and howlingly funny) shtick for the youngsters.

I've been hearing about Jeff's shows at Funhouse Theatre and Film for a while now - glad I got to experience one.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Brand New Boise Opens!

Last night was the Opening for my latest show: A Brand New Boise.  Check it out - a very good conversation-after-the-show production.  Circle Theatre, Fort Worth.

I made the day of it visiting around Dallas and in Fort Worth.

First was the ribbon cutting, here in Dallas, of the new addition to Woodrow Wilson High School.  I liked the new architecture - modern, yet sympathetic with the historic Elizabethan-Revival original.  (Well, loosely Eliz-Revival, I'd say the gorgeous auditorium leans a bit more Classical.)  There's a particularly interesting new glass entry/linkage piece where old building meets new.  And the restoration of parts of the old fabric is welcome and respectful, like restoring the handsome Art Deco-ish chandeliers in that auditorium.  Nice job!

After that, drive to Fort Worth and spend some time in the Kimbell Art Museum's Bernini exhibit.  It's particularly interesting because it focuses on Bernini's clay "sketch" models for his marble final works... with many, many sketches and both small study models and larger modelos. The sketches are beautiful, often in red chalk on gray/beige paper.  The clay sculpture are terracotta and often breathtaking.  Full of vigor and personality.

Bernini's terracotta model for the "Moor" Fountain in Rome - Kimbell Art Museum

The evidence of the great artist as craftsman and human are fascinating and sometimes touching - as when,  more than two hundred years later, you see his fingerprint in the clay.

You can also see where Bernini was thrifty with paper: there's often another sketch on the back of  the sheet or sharing it.  The sketches themselves are clearly working drawings and studies.  One rather beautiful drawing of a saint's legs shares its paper higgle-piggle with what are almost on-the-telephone-doodles of different ways to treat an architectural detail.  Bernini's drawings are sometimes formal presentation renderings in ink and wash, but are most often fast chalk sketches of fragments or of the whole composition, made as he thought his way through the design.

On the terracotta models you can still see the marks of measuring (in order to increase the size of the next sculpture) or of inscribed lines (as Bernini figures out how to divide the stone version into individual blocks) or where one sculpture was actually sawed into pieces in order to mock up that process.  Like the sketches, there are even a fragmentary models: the surprising and beautiful study model of just the hind end of a horse.

There are saints, whole rafts of angels, fabulous fountains, (love the River Gods!), and a gorgeous lion.

Gathered from museums all over the world, this one of a kind exhibit is a Must See.

(Be sure to visit Clodion's terracotta  study, The River Rhine Separating the Waters, downstairs too... made about a hundred years later.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Not a Review: The Odd Couple

I got to watch one of the previews for the Dallas Theater Center's new production of The Odd Couple.

This Neil Simon play is still funny and (once the actors warmed up a little) still engaging.  I particularly liked these takes on the Felix and Pidgeon Sisters characters.

But for me, the star of this production is the set.

Designed by Timothy R. Mackabee, these apartment walls are high and lavishly detailed with a built-in shelving unit and miles of moldings, more miles of crown-moldings, and an elaborate two-level wood parquet floor.  Crisply built.  As you'd expect at DTC, the furniture is good, including a period chandelier and great a '50s Modern style audio console.

The play doesn't actually require much: it's the realistic living / dining room of a NYC apartment with an operable window, an entry door, a door to the kitchen, and door(s) off to the bathroom and the rest of the apartment.

Of course, it's good practice to include realistic views through those doors and windows, to see a bit of the apartment building hall, a hint of kitchen, enough view of the rest of the apartment to make the place feel real.  But this set goes faaaar beyond this.  Through the windows you see a next door apartment that shares the light well - complete with drapes and lamps.  Through the kitchen door and its windows you see the kitchen... can watch Felix or Oscar open the refrigerator.  Or throw spaghetti linguine at it.  Very nicely realized.

VERY rough sketch, from memory, of  DTC's The Odd Couple set.

Now, I have to admit to a certain amount of pure envy here for the obvious size of the set budget: because all this cost a lot.  Not just the high level of finish (molding gets expensive and the floor is small pieces of real wood not scenic paint), but also for sheer quantity - there is as much set behind the set as there is on the audience side of the proscenium.  Kinda amazing, once you start mentally appraising all this real estate...

Part of me was thrilled to spot that view into the next apartment.

Part of me whispered that some of this excess budget might have been better spent on internships or  man-hours to continue DTC's former generosity of allowing poorer theaters to borrow props... like that great '50s audio console.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Auto Repair as Archeology

Picking up my car from the shop, it occurred to me that oil-change guys probably dread getting my car.

I did move enough junk so the driver's seat could roll back - so that wasn't it.

No.  It was what remained in the Scenic Ride that might have worried them:

Most of a gilded, carved wooden Chinese restaurant dragon,
A mattress (on its way to be given to a theater for stock),
A Coke TM can (set dressing, not mess, I swear),
A museum flier for a Bernini show,
A red-white-n-blue painted drop cloth,
One (only one) English walnut - underfoot,
A sweater (it's Spring, the weather's variable),
A car jack and tire inflator gadget (flats happen),
A box of picture frames, tools, and straw beach mats.

That's a random and representative sample of the kind of crud this set designer at least carries around most of the time.


Monday, March 18, 2013

US versions of UK stories

Why do we insist on translating English stuff for us American-English speakers?

Drives me nuts.

Or as a BBC Brit might say, "It drives one mad!"

Public domain image by Anne Pratt HERE

This "translating" happens all the time with books.  The title of the first Harry Potter book was changed from HP and the Philosopher's Stone to HP and the Sorcerer's Stone; presumably because we colonials weren't up on our alchemy.  Or one of my recent discoveries - really good urban fantasy / police proceedural novels - had the first in the series retitled from The Rivers of London (with intriguing cartographic style cover) to Midnight Riot (with suggesting-violence-but-downplaying-ethnicity cover).  The second book kept its UK title, Moon Over SOHO, but again switched an edgy for a cerebral cover.

A little insulting.

And the number of TV shows "reimagined" for the American Market is staggering.  The Office is one example.  Some rewrites work, many fail because something essential is lost in translation.

The latest straw for me yesterday was watching the US remake of Being Human, a terrific Brit vampire/werewolf/ghost flat-share dramedy (you know the trope, mismatched roommates a la The Odd Couple, but with more gore).

The UK version is terrific.  And I think perfectly cast.  The werewolf character, in what you might call "plain clothes," is wonderfully quirky in looks and behavior.  The ghost is charming and ditzy.  While the vampire, Michell, is a version of that rock-n-roll classic the edgy lead singer, all leather-jacketed swagger and sex appeal.  As a bonus, the guy is also funny/scary/puppy-dog-eyes on cue and has Irish Charm TM.

Whereas the US version...

I'm sure these are all good actors, but casting succumbed to that American tendency to pick Breck-Hair people.  The werewolf looks quirky... only to the extent of a bad haircut (or messy hair); in behavior, he's more whiny than endearingly odd.  The ghost seems bland too, but that may be just losing the accent.  As for the Homecoming King, er, vampire...  Contrast between US and UK versions couldn't be greater: the US actor must be six feet taller than the UK's; instead of dark curls and a mercurial face, he has Eagle Scout hair and a chin Mt. Rushmore can't match.  More heroic high school quarterback than transgressive rock star.  Prince Charming with an iron deficiency.  Fangs?  Probably caps.

That classic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starred vamps of exactly these two types in rock-star Spike and quarterbackish Angel, but the former was the secret good guy and the latter had the charming Irish accent and a wide swath of dark-side.

I much prefer the UK version of Being Human.   (Compare for yourself on Netflix.)

I guess the tipping point annoyance for me was realizing that the US vamp was given the name "Aidan" - which is the UK actor's.  (Aiden Turner, now playing one of the "boy band" dwarves in The Hobbit.)  As if the name alone would translate the charm:

O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...

Or vice versa?  Or not.  

I do wish we'd stop "translating" English into American. Next it'll be Downton Abbey as Biltmore, all among them rural land-owning Vanderbilts or something.

BTW That verse is by Shakespeare.  You'd think us Americans would trust those Brits to write by now, wouldn't you?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Tech Details

It's a lovely thing to have a set pretty well finished for Tech.

This does not always happen.

But today I was onstage doing the sort of little but vital details I always hope to be able to do forTech. Instead of painting huge - belated - items or hauling heavy - belated - furniture, I got to haul wonderfully light thumbtacks!

These tacks have become - for me at least - a bit of an in-joke.  They read so oddly in a Rehearsal Report but turn out to be an important safety issue: an actor is slammed up against the cork board.  Obviously push pins would hurt and pop loose while nice flat Safety Thumbtacks will not.  See?

Details are important.  

public domain photos - messed with

Among the other details I worked on today for this set's imaginary Break Room:

1)   A few more signs.
2)  A clutter of mop, mop bucket, etc. in the hall outside the door.  (A dozen people may see this.)
3)  Covering table tops with plastic.
4)  Adding faux "store" labels on shopping carts.
5) Dressing the inside of a cabinet so that, when opened, it looks lived in too.  I raided the prop room for misc. coffee mugs, glasses, a Girl Scout cookie box, and misc. hot chocolate, tea, and other hot-drink boxes... some filched from the theater's  real break room.

Each detail (which the audience will hardly notice) adds noticeably to the success of the set by making it safer, better under theatrical lights (those dark tables), or simply more realistic.

Adding a mere mop bucket outside a door can make a whole theatrical world deeper.

Earlier post on thumbtacks HERE.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Kickstarter is Kickin'!

I've written about Kickstarter before, when a friend used this crowd-finance site to fund his short film Perfectly Normal.

Yesterday Kickstarter made big news - and big numbers of fans very very happy - when the campaign to film a Veronica Mars movie reached its two (2) million (2,000,000!) dollar goal in eleven (11) hours.  (I myself kicked in enough to get a film T-shirt.)

In case you missed it on TV or DVD, Veronica Mars is a witty, noire, teen-detective show that was canceled about five (5) years ago... but remains loved.  Now revived from the dead by pure fan-love.

Crowd-funding.  What a great idea!

HERE's the Veronica Mars campaign - with a fun video plea.  And HERE is the page for my buddy's much smaller budget short film - also worth investing in.

ADDENDUM:  And HERE's an interesting LA Times article about the Veronica Mars film funding "...the economics of love."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Architectural Martyr

There aren't so very many architects who qualify as saints or martyrs... but perhaps this brave woman in Karachi should be nominated:

On this morning's NPR I was touched by the story of Parveen Rehman.

Recently assassinated by motorcycle-gunmen, she was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project, a non-profit organization trying to bring basic services and improved conditions to the poor of Karachi, many many of whom live as squatters in unsafe, illegal, and in every way sub-standard housing.  Her organization helped communities learn to maintain their own environments, including sanitation, health, housing and critical micro-financing.

Ms. Reman had studied architecture and worked for a famous architect on the design of a luxury hotel... until, one day, she asked herself, "Who is this serving?"  She walked out the door without her paycheck.  Found a job helping the poor.

For this she is gunned down?

Parveen Rehman - believed public domain photo

According to a BBC article, it is presumed that, in investigating land speculation, she learned too much about local criminal groups' real estate activities - they silenced her.

NPR audio clip HERE.  BBC news article HERE.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Details, Details, Details

If you design theater sets for a while, you'll run into that set builder who seems absolutely unable to ever, ever, ever finish a set early.

Sometimes this is because the sets are too ambitious, sometimes because the builder is that kind of time-manager, and sometimes... sometimes this is Strategy.

Because I have also, after designing enough sets, run into the odd reality that, if the director and producers are given enough time to stare at a (nearly) finished set, they will start to get pickier, start to micro-note it.


Notes are the remarks, questions, and requests under the "Set" part of each day's Rehearsal Report.  The normal sort of scenic notes tend to read like:

"Stage right door sticks / need coat hook SL / can we darken chair? it's washing out under lights / need glo-tape at exit."

What I'd call micro-notes are more like:

"Fix faint blue drip / need thumb tacks not push pins / more bird poop."  (That last is my favorite-ever director's note!)

Image is of a vinyl sticker that I think you can buy HERE
if the owner objects to its reproduction, please let me know.

Savvy set builders learn that the longer everyone stares at a finished set, the pickier they all get.  So... some builders make sure the set is never finished till the last instant.  Saving them many hours of fiddly little revisions.

This strategy drives me crazy (because I want to be picky too), but sometimes I do understand the temptation!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Research Libraries

For those of you in Texas, I just discovered a new way to get your hands on research books in libraries you normally can't borrow from.

Maybe you're already familiar with the Interlibrary Loan system, which allows any public library patron to request a book; your local librarian will then track it down somewhere in the country and have it mailed to your local library so that you can borrow it.  One time - no renewals.  I've only used this method one or twice for hard to find books when I didn't want to (or couldn't afford to) buy them.  I remember though that the book through the Loan System took a few weeks to arrive... from Wyoming!  And was exactly what I needed.

My usual number of books at check-out - public domain image

But I've discovered another way: the Texshare card is a three-week-long library card that lets you walk up to the check-out desk of member libraries and Check-Out! Books.  A limited number.  Today I did not actually end up checking out the book I was interested in - because I could take fast enough notes - but my spiffy crisp-new little Texshare card gave me the confidence to walz into SMU's Fondren library and demand to know where, just exactly Where! my book might be.  (I needed the help, it's a maze of a library spread over several buildings.)


Research.  Easier than you think.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Faux Stone

Building believable fake stone is an art and a science.

This month's LiveDesign Magazine has an interesting article by Libby Slate on the building of Disney's new California Adventure Park's Cars Land (sadly, not available online), but I found some great photos HERE at

According to LiveDesign, the basic structure for the faux stone tail fins of the 125 ft. tall Cadillac Range needed 4,000 pounds of steel as a framework.  Cement plaster was sprayed on this frame, then each fresh section was hand-sculpted for two hours while the cement was setting up.  Its carving characteristics changed, as you might imagine, during that time.

Layers of paint were later sprayed on, then tweaked by hand: first three basic colors - brown, gray, yellow - then up to 25 others in 4-6 washes.  Plus some silver leaf to reflect light.  The work took 25-30 artisans from all over the world.  I'm not sure for how long, but just experimenting with materials and techniques took two months.  (Wish I got that kind of time when I need to make faux stone!)

Carving faux stone - no idea where this photo comes from originally... 
if its creator objects to its use here, please let me know and I'll remove it.

Fake rock.  Real vegetation.

(Although Agentinian saguaros stand in for the endangered and protected regular ol' saguaros.)

Pretty spectacular scenery!

New Architecture Critic

A piece of good news in this morning's Dallas Morning News: a new architecture critic starts in April.

Finally!  Someone - Mark Lamster - to step into shoes left empty by the late, long-time Dallas critic David Dillon.  He seems like a distinguished critic... I'll be curious to read what Mr. Lamster has to say.

Talking about architecture is a good thing.

HERE's a link to his webpage.  (Photo from his profile at Architizer.)  An earlier post on criticism HERE.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Lotso touristy goodness going on with me lately:

1)  A beach vacation in Galveston, Texas, a city with a fascinating history that includes Spanish explorer shipwrecks (Cabeza de Vaca); French explorer shipwrecks (La Salle); cannibals; pirates; early Texas troublemakers; numerous hurricanes; bootleggers, rum-runners, and illegal gambling; oil riggers; doctors; artists; Spring Break college kid troublemakers; and, nowadays, Caribbean cruise-goers.  Also delicious oyster po'boys.  And don't forget the Gumbo Bar's gumbo!

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science - believed public domain image.

2)  The new Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

A very interesting building - a sort of geological-metaphor of a structure.

 Architecturally I thought it had a beautifully clear design parti and well executed pre-cast concrete panels that suggest rock strata...  not so convinced by the west-facing plaza which will, I believe, be a broiler pan for afternoon visitors in the summer.  (Plus facing nothing-much instead of the main street, making the street-facing school bus entry look like the main door.)  Also problematic, for me, are all the one-material-just-slides-past-another gaps that recur in the building's detailing.  A cleaning crew nightmare: already little kids are dropping candy wrappers down these slots.  As often happens with such complex geometries, a few intersections of materials and planes are unresolved.  But traveling up and through the vertical circulation path is a kick.  The main ticket hall is a great space.  And I love all the glimpses of the city outside.  It's a very urban building.  

Some terrific displays (visit the dinosaurs and gem hall!).   My favorite detail is probably the giant amethyst geode that the visitor can crank a mechanism to open and reveal its crystalline beauty... a perfect microcosm of the building itself.

Amethyst geode from Wikimedia

Friday, March 1, 2013


Any aspect of a set that works as in real life onstage is called "practical."

Doors and windows of a set can be mere illusion or "practical."  So can be any new-built cabinet door or drawer: it's "practical" if it actually opens and has insides to it, but many such cabinetry pieces are dummies  because that's cheaper and easier to build.  Any sink that runs water is "practical" (as in The Beauty Queen of Leenane) as would be any telephone, radio, TV, or other appliance that actually operates, rather than being faked.

A Bright New Boise will have practical cabinets, a sink, a microwave (well, maybe), and a Coke machine.

This will be "practical."  It'll spit Cokes.  But we're going to unscrew its light bulbs so it won't glow during blackouts.

ADDENDUM:  Well... maybe it won't be practical.  There's some concern about the hum of its compressor!