Thursday, May 30, 2013

Findin' Stuff

Darn when you go to the store where you know they have the particular thing you need as set dressing...

And they don't carry it anymore.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Art Museum Visits

Lately I've been popping into museums.

The Dallas Museum of Art has instituted a new free-entry policy which I think is wonderful... and probably good business too.  Until recently there was a charge to just stick your head in any of the galleries of the permanent collection, plus an extra charge to see any traveling exhibits.  Now those traveling shows still require a ticket: a hefty $16 to view three, I think, shows... one of them of Greek statues from the British Museum however, so cheaper than the usual plane ticket to see the Discobolus.

But now the permanent collection is FREE.  A price anyone can afford.  Museums, supported as they are by civic money and centers of civic pride, really should be accessible to all citizens.

There did now seem to be more people in the museum than has been true.  (Once inside the door, I bet more end up paying for the traveling exhibits too.)

I took my intern 'round a few weeks back to see the DMA's furniture and decorative arts.  The DMA really is a great teaching aid!  Their furniture collection got a serious start with the Bybee Collection of early American furniture and for years they've been adding pieces from other periods and places.  Recently they revamped a room of Craftsman and Arts and Crafts objects that includes a spectacular Tiffany stained glass door and sidelights (almost) looted from Greene and Greene's Blacker House.

Now that these collections are free, folks like me or my student can afford to visit and revisit to really study these objects.  This past weekend - having a little extra time - I visited the Dallas Museum of Art just for fun and said hello to all my favorites.

Love, love, love the new free entry policy.

The most exciting traveling exhibit I've seen lately - for free yet - was yesterday at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum of American Art.  This museum has had an interesting development too, from its start with a collection of excellent Western art (The Old West, like cowboys), adding/building a serious photography collection, to its present impressive collection of American art (like N. American).  The permanent collection is well worth a visit.  And always free.

The traveling exhibit?

Poseidon by Romare Bearden - believed fair use as this is a review 
and for educational purposes, image found HERE.  Copyright, of course, Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey.  Now I have to admit to a shameful ignorance of Mr. Bearden until almost ten years ago when the DMA had a show of his collages.  Since I make collages myself, I was absolutely fascinated with his work.  The colors!  The shapes!  The meticulous craftsmanship.

He goes about his art differently...  Where I use "found" pictures to create my narratives, he sometimes does that - usually to create human figures - but mainly uses cut/shaped colored paper in a Matisse-like, mosaic-like way.  One technique that intrigued me was that he sometimes sands the glued down papers to abrade and soften colors and edges.  The work in that show concentrates on the history and experience of African-American life, often with an urban flavor, and always with an emotional sound-track of jazz and blues... music which the artist said inspired his collage technique.

The show at the Amon Carter featured Bearden's ink drawings inspired by Homer's The Illiad and his images, both collage and later watercolor, for The Odyssey.  These are not exactly illustrations of Homer's story so much as a retelling of the legend, emphasizing and underlining elements that spoke personally to Bearden, who had long studied the story.  The first, most obvious, difference in interpretation is that Bearden has made the characters black and often specifically African, like his impressive Poseidon.  (All kinds of societal/historical commentary with that choice... also much bolder graphics, having crisp black cut-outs instead of wimpy pinky-tan ones.)  The Odyssey becomes here a metaphor for the African diaspora.  Another striking re-emphasis is the strength of all his female characters.

There is little use of found images, instead Bearden uses those strongly Matisse-like fragments of paper but in colors even Matisse might not have dared.  Gorgeous!

There's a quote in the explanatory film about use of color in Bearden's career: "He wouldn't let himself use color until he could use color 'that would walk around like the big men.'"

There are big men and women in his Odyssey.

The Smithsonian's explanatory film is a You Tube video HERE.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Lots of stuff going on:

Se Llama Cristina is open at Kitchen Dog and starting to get good reviews.  (Go see it!)  I'm very happy with the way the set and  lighting and sound interact, especially when the walls I painted become screens for lights, projections, and shadows.

Miracle on South Division Street is a'building.  I delivered paint chips and answers to the carpenters last week; today I go back to Fort Worth to help find furniture and to attend a production meeting.  I hope to find fabric for kitchen curtains to bring along.  Oh!  and my one and only Polish folk art coffee mug.  I really like this script.

MOVIES:  Summer blockbusters are starting.  The latest Star Trek was both fun and disappointing: on the one hand, the actors and writers have the classic characters down and it was a real pleasure to watch 'em, on the other... the movie slid into generic chase-n-crash mode.  (Star ships, cars, transformers, whatever, it zooms till it booms, you've seen it before.)  Afterwards I read a good review that I can't find now which articulated my dissatisfaction - the film has the elements of Star Trek, but misses the point of Star Trek, the peaceful explorers and ambassadors philosophy.  Instead, every dilemma was solved by violence just like in every other space/western/Rambo/whatever summer shoot 'em up.  Someone needs to get a committed pacifist into the writers' room!

See the new Star Trek... but then go home and watch Galaxy Quest.

(Someone unexpected - David Mamet I think? - called Galaxy Quest a perfect movie.)

I've picked up a couple shows to design in San Francisco.  Isn't that cool?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Copyright on the Internet

I've recently exchanged emails with a very nice photographer about the use of photos on the internet.  Raised a lot of issues.  This particular photographer - and I think most others - is having a very big problem with people snatching their work without permission or credit.

The idea of copyright on a photo by its photographer is something the public - especially on-line - just doesn't understand.

The confusion is natural: a photo, at least a documentary life-as-it-is sort of photograph... well, it just doesn't seem created to an ordinary person.  People can, generally, understand that a drawing requires an artist or that a clay bowl has a potter, but a photo...?  Isn't that just life (almost by definition Public Domain) caught as anyone can with their camera-phone?  (Anyone but me, I'm a terrible photographer!)  Most people do not look at an unposed, unmanipulated, documentary photo and even think Photographer.  They see only the subject.  Which might well be in the public domain.

Actually, I kinda lean this way myself.

I tend to agree with Wikimedia and others' theory that a straightforward documentary photo that reproduces a public domain subject should, itself, be public domain. I mean, the Mona Lisa is loooong out of copyright; why should an ordinary just-the-facts-ma'am photo of her be copyrighted?  The next 100 pro or amateur photos will be identical to it.  And how else can the Public of the public domain interact with Mona without some photo?  Not like the Louvre's going to let anyone take her home on loan.

Or like paying to use that generic photo will help Da Vinci pay rent.  The point of copyright is to help support the people - artist or engineer etc. - who make a New Thing.  Copyright is intended to encourage innovation.

Now Andy Warhol's version of Mona Lisa?  THAT obviously deserves copyright because it is unique to Warhol and his experience of the painting.  Likewise, if a photographer took a non-documentary version of Da Vinci's painting... strangely and uniquely lit, perhaps, or manipulated  in the lab or digitally into some personal vision, then that too would be copyrighted.  (Please remember these are my personal musings here, not actual copyright Law, which is weird and sometimes deeply stupid.)

Likewise, to my way of thinking, most what I'll call Travel Photography ought, I think, to be uncopyrightable.    The pyramids, for instance...  It'd take an awfully special photo to see those in a unique way after humans have been staring at them for millenia and photographing them for more than a century.  Still possible though.

Photographers are in a similar position now to where portrait painters were when photography was invented: the mere recording of fact is suddenly possible for anyone and therefore devalued; what IS still valuable is a unique artistic viewpoint.  Sargeant's painted portraits do not just record facts about his sitters.  Ansel Adams' photos of Yosemite do not just record the shapes of rocks.

I dare all the camera-phone folks to match their insights.

Meanwhile, here's a reminder of actual copyright law online or off - as I understand it.  (I do try to obey copyright law.)  All those pretty pictures out there, a click away, were taken by someone.  And those someones have the only right to use the image unless you get permission or they have given it a Creative Commons license (read that fine print) or declared it Public Domain OR (and this is a big, messy, legal-and-artistic OR) you use it in a Fair Use way.

Fair Use is a whole 'nother post!

Anyway, in the process of my emailing on this topic, I created a little sketch to replace a photo so that I would have no copyright questions hanging.  Here's that sketch:

Sketch of alphabet blocks by Clare Floyd DeVries - gifted to the Public Domain

In the spirit of... neighborliness or something, I want to just hand this sketch out to anyone -  do what you want with it.  As much as the law allows I gift it to the Public Domain.  Fly!  Be free.  If you want to credit me, that's kind; if you find a way to make a gadjillion dollars off it and want to send me some bucks, thank you very much, but you don't need to.  It's all yours.

ADDENDUM x 2: For a fascinating legal discussion of copyright, fair use, and photography read this article at Art in America HERE about the recent court decision in the Richard Prince case, which finds in favor of "transforming" photos by others into new works.  And HERE is another court decision that is chilling to claims of photographers for the "transformative" nature of photography itself.  In this case the photo was of copyrighted art by someone else.  (My gut feeling about documentary versus unique view-point manipulated photos may actually hold some legal water.)

Anyway, photographers and photography are clearly under siege today... And the front line may be the internet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


One of the nice things about theater is that it IS a real community.

A recent long and talky visit with a set designer friend reminded me just how connected everyone is: news from one theater; career prospects for a particular playwright; exciting opportunities for various designers; actor news; successes and occasional disappointments...   You find yourself rootin' for peoplelike they're on your local team, ya know?

Mind you, there can be a dark side - the gossip can get ill-natured.  Jealousy and feuds are not unknown in this little world.  But maybe that just makes it more, um, sincere?  People care.

It's an odd contrast to the modern detachment most of us feel to out physical neighbors - the folks who live in the next apartment or on the next lot, but with whom we may have nothing in common.  What with the invention of air conditioning and the automatic garage door opener, we may hardly see the guy next door, but these theater people I have actually sweated and bled with (when I staple myself, usually).  They are the folks I feel concerned about in a day-to-day way.

Theater seems to be my real neighborhood.

Public domain image of Levittown - found HERE at an interesting article on housing

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Improvising Techniques

There are rich traditions to scenic painting and more-or-less formal training and apprenticeship.  To watch a talented and well-trained scenic painter at work is a lesson in economy of motion and effect - nothing is rushed or sloppy, yet every movement is quick and the acreage of scenery fills fast!  Every line and drop of paint is purposeful and perfectly placed.

It's daunting.

For those of us who scrabbled into the role of scenic painter by default - because there was no one else to do it - we have little of that awe-inspiring artistic ability and a whole lot less elegance of motion... but you do learn to be fast and effective.  Sadly, I'm of this lower order of painters.  (A "shmearer" not a "painter" as a NYC scenic painter friend termed it.)  Still, to all but the eye of a trained scenic painter, my sets look okay; they work under stage lights, which is the main thing.

Painting Se Llama Christina's set was a fairly simple business - dirty the walls and take the shine off the floor.  The walls were a matter of swiping some much diluted almost-the-color-of-the-walls paint on the fabric covered walls and spattering "dirt" here and there.  This sort of thing requires an "eye" for effect, but no particular skill with a brush.

Taking the shine off the nasty stick 'em tile floor required adding a thin, messy looking coat of watered down paint as a top coat, but letting the nasty stick 'em tile pattern show through.  The trick was to not let the paint look like paint - no brush strokes!  So, after some experimenting, I ended up applying thin paint, then  wrapping rags round my shoes and sort of shuffle-walking through this and shmearing it around.  Add spatter.  Voila!

A totally faked-up photo because I forgot to actually take a photo.

Fun.  And effective.

I probably looked very silly in the rag overshoes... but my paintin' shoes have seen worse days.

Se Llama Christina opens this Friday at Kitchen Dog Theater.  (Gotta get my ticket...)  Also One: Man. Show. (for which I painted a coolo giant circle) opens the 29th.  Both are part of the Dog's 2013 New Works Festival   Come see!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Film and Book Fest

Films recently watched:

Iron Man III - I liked this one slightly more than Iron Man II and less than the first one.  Ben Kingsley was great.  (I liked the Spoiler-can't-tell-you bit, though I know purists who didn't.)  And I liked seeing Tony Stark cope without the suit and seeing Pepper Potts cope with it.  Fun.

The Angels' Share - previously discussed HERE, stands up to later consideration and, what's more, is still remembered.  Most movies being immediately forgettable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I've started the trek through this classic TV series again.  I've just reached the point in the second season when Angelus reappears, for those of you who know it.)  It's nice to revisit these characters and now I'm catching all the jokes.  In the interests of pure research into cultural phenomena I have previously forced myself to watch a bunch o' vampire stuff (research report HERE ) and long-form fiction (HERE), and I still enjoy the Buffy Experience.  Fun and stealthily serious.  I mean, there are scholars no-kiddin' actively analyzing this oeuvre.

Books beside my chair:

Cover for New Orleans Mon Amour, by Andre Codrescu

New Orleans Mon Amour, by Andre Codrescu.  I'm familiar with this author mostly through his talks on NPR.  So far I'm loving his collection of short pieces - essays? - on the city of New Orleans.  Wonderfully atmospheric and well-observed.  Often quirky.  My favorite so far is his "Nouveau Pirates."  Following his recommendation in a later piece in the book (which the Dallas City Council ought to be made to read, as it discusses city-self-confidence), I see that I'm going to have to finally read A Confederacy of Dunces.  It sounds terrific.

I love this daisy-chain of recommendations that link one author to another.  In similar fashion, Codrescu has also made me more eager to listen to the CDs of Don Quixote that I got to listen to in the car.

Otherwise I'm just sort of dipping into old favorite books as the mood strikes me.

But I have discovered a neat thing over at Barnes and Noble: for those of us with NOOK eReaders: on Fridays the NOOK Blog gives away free ebooks!  I've only just discovered this perk, so haven't sampled many or had a chance to discover an unknown gem yet, but I look forward to that.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sitting and Looking

I've discovered that some of the most important minutes I spend in a theater are those 15-20 when I sit in an empty audience seat and just stare.

Just look.

Public domain image - seating in the Prince Charles

Staring at my almost finished set, I discover the small important details that need to be added, finished, or revised.  This is when I judge whether the color scheme is working as I planned, whether the whole design feels balanced, whether this or that change works or not.  When I make To-Do Lists.  When I Prioritize and Quality-Control.

When I think.

This takes time.

In the last-minute rush of any show, it's all too easy not to find this sliver of time.  But, I swear, twenty minutes of pure sitting and staring can make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kindle Editions

At long last, my how-to set design book Alice Through the Proscenium is e-available on Kindle!

Cover for Alice Through the Proscenium - copyrighted

You can find it (and its paperback version too) at Amazon HERE.

For the other about 27% of you e-readers, it's still available in ePub format for NOOK and other gizmos.  And, of course, for all us dead-tree fetishists, it comes in paper from the printer Lulu HERE.  I still tend to recommend the paper version because the pictures are bigger and the glossary works better, but the e-versions are much improved lately.  (I finally downloaded it myself.)

In other publishing news...  I recently did some little illustrations for favorite John Donne love poems.  (Couldn't find a cheap/free e-version I liked, so made my own.  Isn't e-publishing cool?)  Anyway, this is now available at both Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble NOOK.  There are wonderful things inside, including Donne's Greatest Hit, "Go and catch a falling star..."  

Cover for John Donne: selected love poems - illustrations copyrighted

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Matilda on Broadway

I just got the online email version of Live Design magazine - with a lot of coverage of the award-winning musical Matilda, now on Broadway.  Since I'm going to get to see this fairly soon, I read the lot.

Very interesting.  Take a look:

A photo gallery HERE
About the set design HERE
Costume Sketches HERE
And a discussion with the lighting designer HERE.

Monday, May 13, 2013


I have a lot of projects in progress right  now.

Miracle on South Division Street at Circle Theatre is just starting to be built and only requires a few telephone answers from me so far; meanwhile, Se Llama Christina at Kitchen Dog Theater - which I've helped build for the last couple weekends - is now pretty well finished construction, just waiting for me to start adding paint...

But I'm waiting on tile guys and plumbers and, in the mean time, finishing up some writing/publishing projects...

Meanwhile, as those writing projects up-load, I'm negotiating fees for a couple new shows at an exciting new remote location...

And waiting on plumbers...

No immediate resolution of any of this, just Work in Progress...

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Today the anonymous-apartment-levitating-limbo set for Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Se Llama Christina is getting closer to finished...  streeeeetching the fabric "wallpaper" over the flats and frames.  The fabric is necessary partly for texture, but mostly because it hides secrets...

As soon as we get this fabric stapled in place, we'll cut away enough muslin to reveal the windows on the stage left (or SL) wall.  And eventually I'll add paint, remains of wallpaper, and years of landlord-neglect.

Here are the Dogs at work (I'm the one behind the levitating baby's crib, almost under the ladder, pulling on the far DS SL corner.)

Kitchen Dog Theater Se Llama Christina - photo courtesy of Sarah Duc

Come see this world premier new play by Octavio Solis!

Thursday, May 9, 2013


In my files I just happened across this image of a gouache rendering by the late Wade Giampa of his set design for Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby.


Wingspan Theatre Company's production of The Play About the Baby.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Theatrical Sketches

I just discovered over at The Public Domain Review sketches by the famous theater director Stanislavski for Othello.  Including a couple of little thumbnail sketches for blocking.  HERE.

A sketch by Stanislavski for Othello, Wikimedia / Public Domain Review

Fun.  Free.  Check out the rest of the site for many wonders: fantastic historic maps, illustrations for Robinson Crusoe, a pictorial history of Santa Claus, Charles Babbage's brain...

Monday, May 6, 2013

Not a Review: Diana Krall and The Angels' Share

Lots of going out lately...

Diana Krall:
Singer Diana Krall's "Glad Rag Doll" tour came through DFW and I got to hear her Friday night: a very good concert.  Good music, a warm relaxed stage presence, and an entertaining staging.  I'm not musical enough to pretend to critique the music... I can only say I really enjoyed it.

The theme of the tour comes from music of the 1920s (although she included fan favorites too).  I thought the set design - reminiscent of theatrical drapes and cinema-sign lights - worked well as an environment for her music.  Period cartoons like Betty Boop were played pre-show, film clips were wonderfully integrated with songs, and the intro was a short film where Ms. Krall interacted with an on-screen Steve Buscemi.  Kinda trippy.  Wonderfully well done.

The Angels' Share:
Playing at the Dallas Angelika, this film started out a bit raw and developed into a really appealing, feel-good movie.  I really liked the sad-sack minor-criminal characters - with Glasgow accents so thick that their English was subtitled in English.  Quite funny.  This film will really appeal to anyone interested in fine liquor or wine-tasting (or general foody tasteyness), since the plot revolves around the discovery of a rare cask of Scotch whiskey.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Not a Review: Fly by Night

I caught a preview of the Dallas Theater Center's new musical Fly by Night last night.

[Caution: trying hard not to Spoiler here, but it's tough.]

Some wonderful things onstage!  Wit and stagecraft and strong songs with really great lines.  Beautifully acted and produced.  My impression by intermission was of a fresh, clever, and very theatrical show.

A wee bit too clever?  Conventions like rapid flips from location to location (accommodated by a clever set) and use of a narrator (wonderful!) tend to set the audience at a distance from story and characters.   Framing it this way added style, but made me so aware I was watching it was hard to emotionally  participate.  It took a while to warm to the main characters - a love triangle which, we were told explicitly, were the real story.

Unfortunately, the show - for me - unraveled in Act II.  The broad comedy earlier was largely replaced by broad gestures toward tragedy in Act II.  Shifting gear from the hilarious crystal ball scene, to the touching bath tub scene and then the (I think misfiring) accident-in-the-blackout moment.  Serious or touching moments in the first Act work fine alongside comedy - I think there's a good balance there - the second Act didn't feel well balanced.

That blackout!

Beautiful to look at, it's obvious symbolic importance was played too heavy-handedly.  By this time, the Themes and Big Thoughts of the show were being over-explained and repeated.  (Really? The show-in-the-show is 'The Human Condition'?  That was funny until I realized you meant it.)  Music was repeated too until the clever sandwich song, for instance, grew tiresome.  Pace slowed.  The show began to seem too long.  Too didactic.

Characters?  Loved the main guy with the guitar.  Both sisters were well acted, though the actress sister hardly rounded out from a cliche'.  Strangely, one third of this explicitly-once-more-explained-to-us main three characters did nothing for much of the second half!  Less central characters got too much stage time.  The father is good and well acted, but it was a mistake to let him tell his story; that was stronger imagined.  The deli-man's traffic bit was satisfying; but...!  What that set up?

Hated it.

Partly because I'm on the side of young love etc. etc., mostly because it wimped out on the adult real-drama between the triangle that could have happened.  There was a scene I'd have liked to see!  The show lost me at that moment.  The plot event felt too pat... substituting mechanical tidiness for the messy reality of life.  A cheat.

In retrospect, for all the repartee, there were few real clashes of character.  It's a  solo show for each one.  For all the over-explicit stress on making decisions, decisions were few, solo, dreaded, and long procrastinated.  I realize that was the point.  But when the main character plans to sleep for fifteen hours in the middle of Act II...  dramatic movement is kinda, you know, slowed.

Hard to write an active, engaging show about depression and indecision.  Admitted.  This is a brave and nearly successful attempt.  The Turtle Song tackled it brilliantly!

The big problem (if anyone wants my opinion) is that the two halves of the show just don't match.

Personally, I'd go for the sparkle of Act I throughout.  You can still have, underneath, all the depression, alienation, indecision, and loneliness you want; as Woody Allen's best films prove, it's possible to wrap a bleak message in a sparkling wrapper.  The show already does this with the Turtle Song.

I was impressed with the show as it stands now.  Well worth seeing.  Huge promise.  Another production is planned for next year: go be the best Turtle you can be!

ADDENDUM:  Reading the "real" reviews, it seems that all the critics love the show - which goes to show something-or-other.  I didn't like August: Osage County  when I saw it in Chicago either!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


My intern's graduating.  Cool!

It's kind of fun to work with a student and - depending on your point of view - to either a) enlighten them or b) brainwash 'em.  Not that I have any opinions, of course.

As the end-of-semester Ta-Da! my student presented three solutions to me today: set designs for the classic play The Glass Menagerie.  Ranging from realistic to completely stylized, I thought they all embodied interesting ideas worth developing further.  These will turn into portfolio pieces, the kind of thing designers show to convince theaters and directors that they can pull off their show.

I'm happy with the progress made this semester.  Fun and, I hope, educational.  We'll be meeting for (unofficial) coffee hereafter.

Just for fun, here are photos from my own version of The Glass Menagerie:

The Glass Menagerie, WaterTower Theater
Photos by Mark Oristano and Scott Guenther