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.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Scenic Master Class Speakers: David Gallo and Ben Heller

Tony-winning scenic designer David Gallo (Drowsy Chaperone) and production manager Ben Heller of Aurora Productions spoke about the collaboration between their two roles; how this works on Broadway and off, and for union and non-union productions.  Their recent show together, Stickfly, was used as an example... which gave us, the audience, great photos and stories of how-things-really-get-done.

This was particularly interesting to me, because the conditions are so different from what I'm used to in my own design practice.  For instance, David Gallo was pleased to get the chance to lay a Pergo floor and to create a faux sand dune for this show actually in the theater (rare to do on Broadway) with just a handy carpenter, some canvas tarp, sand, and faux weeds to plant.  The carpenter, he said, had a good eye for things like "weeding".  I, on the other hand, would have had exactly the same thrill - it IS fun - but would have gotten to (AKA would have had to) plant those weeds myself... plus probably the added thrill of lugging the sand.

(Earlier post on "Weeding" HERE.)

There was a fascinating discussion of the show Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King's last night, for which Gallo recreated the hotel room where King stayed.  Talk about research (more fun!) and of mechanizing the "trick" this set performs late in the show.  I don't want to Spoil this, so let's just say it takes a Big Honkin' Motor to create this effect.  A famous piece of stage machinery, actually, used for a big scenic effect in Sunset Boulevard and therefore called "the mansion lift."  Such machinery, I learned, is not bought as the scenery is, but is only rented to a production and goes back to that shop after the show closes.  (In my experience, such things usually get borrowed: I once borrowed a small scissor lift to raise Desdemona's deathbed.)  The full effect with all the built scenery was teched at the scene shop before it was loaded into the venue.  A wild video!  Like roller-coaster building.

The two speakers carefully explained the who's-who and what's-what of Broadway: the unions and free-lancers, the work-forces of the venue and the production, the house crew and running crew etc.  More complex than in even big regional houses and with different players and responsibilities.  For instance, the TD or Technical Director - the set designer's bestest buddy ever (or they need to be!) - the vital TD who is in every other kind of theater... doesn't exist on Broadway.  The production manager takes over some of that role, while doing many other things.

All the roles seem different on Broadway.

This is just a quick look at the many topics covered.  I enjoyed the nuts-and-bolt quality of this talk and the insight into decision making for both design and construction issues.

That evening, David Gallo kindly invited us all to a cocktail party at his studio.

Sketch plan of David Gallo's Scenic Design Studio

This was just a block off Broadway.  A very pleasant, high, almost cubic room with a couple tall windows and a cool custom-designed glass and steel table.  For NYC it was pretty spacious - certainly a well laid-out studio, though it must get crowded when several assistants start model building.  (A messy, space-filling business, model making.)

Talking with one of Gallo's assistants, I got the impression that some out of town seminar folks find it small, but since his studio was at least four times bigger than my studio, I liked it.  I didn't envy it - I like my wall of glass and bit of greenhouse roof too well - but I will admit to a little envy of those framed posters of Broadway shows he's designed, hung up high near the chandelier... with room for more.  Sigh.  Glad to see the same max-storage attitude in it however: shelves, files, flat files for drawings, Tupperwares TM for misc. crud, though all the usual studio clutter was beautifully tamed in honor of the party.

He had a real old-fashioned oak drafting table! with a computer on it - which says everything about the current state of the art in theater set design, doesn't it?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dumpster Diving!

Well, okay, just curb-trawling.  But I'm so happy!  I finally found that life-saving pool-safety life-ring that I've needed as set dressing so many times for so many shows... but have never been able to find!

Sittin' out on the curb for the garbage truck.

Waitin' for me.

  © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons - I believe this is used correctly - found HERE.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rule of Three

One last bit of wisdom from Tony Award-winning scenic designer Rob Howell...

If you want to make a scene change "magic," want to confuse the audience as to exactly how it happened, then remember The Rule of Three: the human eye and brain can easily follow one movement and can pretty well follow two movements, but loses track when three things happen at once.  So, to make a set change mysterious, make sure that three or more movements happen at once!

Believed public domain image.

In other news: I've started designing [title of show] for San Francisco (just sent off the first sketches); Miracle on South Division Street opened successfully at Circle Theatre last night (a very funny show!); and Se Llama Cristina continues its well-reviewed run at Kitchen Dog, after being a highlight of the National New Play Network and the Theater Communications Group conventions that were here in town.  

I tell you, Dallas is a Theatre Town.  Maybe the country is figuring that out, huh?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Scan It!

Phew!  Just scanned and sent the first sketches for [title of show] in San Francisco.

(Cross fingers.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Scenic Masterclass Speaker: Rob Howell

In the aftermath of his Tony win for Matilda this talk gets even more interesting.  I can't possibly reproduce the whole 1 1/2 hours here, so I'll just highlight a few things that struck me or that can be successfully taken home from Broadway to those humbler theaters (or at least those humbler budgets) that the rest of us designers work with.

(I hope I have my facts straight - I took notes - but I'm sure to have misunderstood something.  Apologies for any errors.)

Rob Howell first designed this award winning musical for a thrust stage in Stratford, England, then adapted his design for London's West End, then adapted it again - with help from Associate Designer Paul Weimer -  for the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.  As you can imagine, changes of venue made for changes in design or in its execution.  What surprised me was that the reverse was so true, that specifics of that first venue so flavored the eventual Broadway incarnation.

For instance, the first venue had no fly capacity so scene changes were accomplished by sliding wing pieces like legs on tracks.  Several iterations of legs stored one behind the other, with "Library" or "School Gates" scenery hidden behind neutral "Alphabet Tile" legs.  In that original theater flying scenery was impossible because the orchestra sat tucked above the stage where the fly loft should have been.  This sliding-rather-than-flying approach remained long after, in fact, flying became possible.  The tradition of cramming in the musicians also remained.  In the West End they sat upstage of the show - it had a very deep stage - while on Broadway they're in the basement - Broadway being notoriously short on upstage and wing space.

Because the first stage was a thrust, the show developed a real interaction with the audience - including using the center aisle as performance space.  When the show relocated to the West End's proscenium, big efforts were made to continue to engage the audience... the center aisle was used again and scenery, which had extended into the thrust's auditorum, was here developed into an extensive proscenium design that creeps out into the house.

Both these get-the-play-out-into-the-audience features remain in the Broadway incarnation.


That's a misleading word... these were huge and expensive priorities!  The proscenium design - hundreds of alphabet tiles - extends way out into the auditorium and wraps onto the theater's existing balconies.  Because this scenic treatment intrudes into where lighting and sound needs equipment, it was carefully coordinated.  Many lights and speakers are camouflaged under "tiles" made of scrim rather than vacu-formed plastic.

(Here my poverty-trained designer-self murmured, "Vacu-formed?  All those hundreds of tiles are vacu-formed!!"  Imagine little cash-register "Ka-ching!" sound effects in my head.  Indeed someone in the production team almost sneered when he admited that all the detailed "books" of the library scenery were just cardboard and cloth and not vacu-formed.  But wait -  this is nothin'.  Wait for the wallet-spasms when we talk about Spiderman.)

But Broadway houses don't have center aisles.

This was a huge concern and much discussed and, in the end, the producers and the venue agreed to remove and re-space seats in the orchestra level - cutting over a hundred chances to sell tickets! - to create a limited center aisle.  All to ensure that close audience-cast engagement remained.

Mr. Howell talked about the process of finding this "alphabet tile" idea - a very interesting peek into the design process.  In fact, the "tiles" were slow in coming to him; earlier designs explored using school desks or blackboards in a similar way, though neither idea quite worked mostly because they discouraged using color.  (Blackboards being, um, black.)  The "tiles" act as a sort of vocabulary and grammar for the entire show, as a logic for all the scenic pieces... giving the entire show a tessellated aesthetic that ties everything together.

I must admit that when the also-tessellated school gates first appeared, I did think for a moment, "Has this design conceit been pushed just a tad too far?" But then the dance number involving that gate began and I realized happily that, Yes!, the design idea had been pushed Too Far and was now into Way Over the Top Wonderful!  If as a designer you're going to do something, then really by golly the heck do it! is the lesson here.

There was much more.  There was a MODEL.  A model maybe 3 1/2 ft. wide and tall and deep.  Handmade.  Gorgeous.  I love show-n-tell.  And Rob Howell was one of the best and most engaging speakers of the Masterclasses.

More on the other speakers later, meanwhile (while you're waiting) here's a rough sketch of the lobby where I sat to wait for the next speaker.

Sketch by Clare Floyd DeVries

The Tisch School was a gust of nostalgia for me, reminding me of architecture school - the same excitement of work-in-progress represented by spaces that work for their living...  The oak floor had clearly had scenery built on it a time or two (see where the saw sliced here, here, and here?), the everything-painted-white walls were marred by careless students carrying projects, and even the piano on its dolly was waiting for its next gig.  Ah!  Creativity.

(This is no criticism.  Other, newer areas of the school were quite classy, all were in good repair, and we were very kindly and generously hosted... it's just that working studio spaces work.  I was glad to see evidence that art was happening.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vicarious Tony Thrill

Gotta say, it was very satisfying to see the terrific scenery for Matilda win the Tony, after meeting (just days before) its designer, Rob Howell.

As soon as I get more than a minute - today's filled with meetings and set dressing - I'll report in on Mr. Howell's talk at the Broadway Masterclass.  For now, I'll only say that he was one of the best speakers.  Engaging and relaxed and obviously at the top of our profession, in the conversation of the Q and A he gave us insight into the process of designing.

So I was  rootin' for him and Matilda!  A really good show... with (officially now) Superior Scenery.

The Tony Award - from the official website HERE

Matilda pulled in several other awards: Featured Actor, Lighting, Book, and The Matildas (a special award to these four talented girls), plus nominations for the absolutely wonderful Headmistress and Miss Honey.  There's strong competition on Broadway - can't win everything.  Awards are funny things: the old consolation that "just being nominated is the real award" is actually true and a lot of very good work never even gets nominated... yet it's still kinda fun to take home that little statue.

Glad Rob Howell gets to.

(I can only imagine trying to explain the award-gizmo to the airport TSA screeners.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Back From NYC

Just moments ago I set foot back in Dallas after a brief trip to New York City to attend Live Design Magazine's Broadway Masterclass on Scenic Design.

Very, very cool.

You'll read all about it in my next few posts.  Today I'll just talk about the setting for this seminar: NYC, Manhattan's Lower East Side, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

I've never spent much time in this part of the city before.  Really liked it.

The sidewalk population includes more students and artists and fewer Park Lane ladies or Fifth Ave. fashionistas.  The Lower East Side is more relaxed and Bohemian than mid-town Manhattan, though I understand that this area, which has always housed immigrants, has been much gentrified in the last couple decades.  Today it has the hustle-bustle of the city with an extra serving of trees and roof gardens.  Its buildings are heavily residential, a mix of high- and mid- and even low-rise, of new towers and old Victorian brownstones and office buildings.  There is even a beautiful neo-classical townhouse, a rich merchant's house unchanged from the 1830s, now a museum.  Among other historic sites/sights: McSorley's Old Ale House, which only went co-ed after a 1970 Supreme Court case.  (Lincoln once drank there - Mrs. Lincoln went thirsty.)   The Strand Bookstore is near Cooper Union and the Tisch School - a great bookstore!  It seems right that there is a big new Whole Foods (specializing in eco-groceries) just down the block from the famous Katz's Deli (great corned beef) and the last, famous Jewish knishery.

I was lucky in the weather: early summer cool (by Texas standards) with only one day of Downpour!  The next morning after that rain and wind, the streets were littered with the sad, fluttering, jutting-bones remains of dead umbrellas like run-over crows and the sidewalks with the remains of paper grocery bags that only made it part way home... only their heavy twine handles recognizable in sodden rectangular puddles of paper pulp.

The first night I watched the Broadway show Matilda.

Matilda - photo from the official site HERE, scenic design by Rob Howell, copyrighted design and photo, of course.  I believe this is Fair Use as this is a review, albeit a brief one.

Excellent!  A funny, touching, wonderfully warped-of-view musical from the book by Roald Dahl.  A wonderfully energetic show with an outstanding "headmistress."  (Nominated for a Tony.)  And with terrific scenery by Rob Howell.  Who was the first speaker the next morning.  More on that talk in the next post...

HERE's the schedule and list of speaker's for this seminar.  The Tony's are tonight; let's see if Matilda's scenery wins!

Sunday, June 2, 2013


There's something exciting going on (besides set dressing like crazy for the next show).  Lots of posts on that soon, but meanwhile I'm going to ruthlessly ignore this blog for a little while.  Canned posts are always boring anyway.

Check back soon!