Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ghost in the Theater

Many theaters are reputed to be haunted.

I wouldn't be surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sixty Years of Architectural Drafting

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


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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

David Mamet on Designers

I just finished reading Mamet's book Theater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 15, 2013


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

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


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

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

More Public Domain Images!

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

We're in Gold Rush times Dear Reader.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Computer Games

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

It's like the early days of film.

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

What does a designer do to relax?  More design!

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

Free for your use HERE.

Glitch art - public domain

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

Rietveld Chair - photo by Ellywa at Wikimedia Commons

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