Archive for Education

Your Failing Faithful Correspondent.

This has been one heck of a semester.   I am Curriculum Chair Elect, teaching 14 units, plus designing scenery and lighting for two shows, and animation for one of them.  My husband is completing his MFA, and my cat was diagnosed with cancer.    All of which means, for a while something in my life had to give.  Unfortunately it was my blog.

Tonight I am overseeing a rehearsal where several of my students are on the crew.  I spent some time uploading new pictures to my portfolio.   Then I thought of all things I haven’t blogged about.

I’m taking a quick moment to post about future posts (in the hopes that I will get to them soon):

1. Old Hats and Testament at A.C.T.

2. Design Process and Collaboration

3. Rethinking my Scenic Design Class

4. Designing a brand new course

5. The place of reviewers/critics in the arts

6. More thoughts on Tik Tok Man Oz (a production that has remained in my thoughts for the past few months)


The above is not an exhaustive list, nor are they in order.  These are my ideas.  Let’s see if I can commit to blogging.  I am hoping to get in the habit before the craziness of next term gets going.

“Tik-Tok Man of Oz”

I took a few days off from my teaching gig at Fresno City College to “present research.”   For many academics this means a fairly dry powerpoint in front of notable “experts.”   I teach design and technical theatre.  My research was a presentation of “Tik-Tok Man of Oz” a light opera written by L. Frank Baum and not seen in a full production since 1914.   My part of the presentation was the lighting designer.  The show was a success and I am thrilled (and really really tired).   Part of me being releaced from Fresno City College duties to do this was me writing a fairly dry report on what happened.   I wanted to blog about this anyway (and I am sure  I will), but here is an overview of my time in Oz.


Last year I applied for (and was granted) permission to attend/present at “Winkie Con:” a group celebrating the works of L. Frank Baum. This is a big year for fans of L. Frank Baum’s work as it is the 50th annual West Coast gathering on Oz fans and experts, the 75th anniversary of the 1939 MGM film of the Wizard of Oz, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Baum’s “Tik-Tok of Oz,” and 100 years since the original production of Baum’s musical “Tik-Tok Man of Oz” closed. According to press reports of the era, Baum began writing the light opera, “Tik-Tok Man of Oz” at a hotel outside of San Diego. Premiering in 1913 in California the production was unfavorably compared to Baum’s mega-hit play “The Wizard of Oz.” “Tik Tok” toured the U.S. and Canada until the beginning of 1914. Through out the tour, Baum and his collaborators were continually making changes to the show in an attempt to get the play ready for New York. “Tik-Tok Man of Oz” would never reach New York. As was not uncommon for the time, the various scripts, songs etc were tossed aside at the end of the production.

Author and illustrator Eric Shanower, along with his partner David Maxine, wanted to present “Tik Tok Man of Oz” in San Diego in 2014 due to the overlap of many important Oz anniversaries. Shanower collected the existing fragments of scripts, published songs, newspaper reviews and programs in an attempt to create a producible version of the play. In the fall, I was invited to be a part of the creative team to present Shanower’s adaptation. I would provide the lighting design for the event.

The play was to be presented in the Regency ballroom at the Town & Country resort in San Diego. This meant that there was no existing theatrical lighting system for me to use. Through out the Spring semester I worked with the venue, the producer and the director to design a system that could be moved into the venue in the limited amount of time we had, was within the budget, and would meet the needs of the show. Over the summer I traveled to San Diego to see rehearsals and meet with the other members of the creative team. At 7:30 AM August 7, 2014, Shanower and I went to the rental house to pick up the equipment we would need to create the lighting for the show. We returned to the Town & Country where myself and a handful of volunteers began creating a theatrical lighting rig in a small ballroom. By early afternoon the system was in and working. We began focusing the lighting and adjusting/updating the prewritten light cues in the lighting control desk. While I was working, Shanower and Maxine installed most of the scenery. At 7:30 PM the cast arrived for their first rehearsal on the stage. The rehearsal went very well despite two actors who were unable to be in attendance.

Friday morning was spent making adjustments to the lighting cues and the to lights themselves. I worked until early afternoon. In the evening, the official Welcome Celebration was scheduled in the ballroom as well as several presentations. I was asked to be on hand to turn on lights for that event. Two presentations were especially note worthy: Atticus Gannaway presented a 45 minute power point about L. Frank Baum’s connections to Coronado (the area outside of San Diego where Baum began work on “Tik Tok Man of Oz” among other works), and author Aljean Harmetz spoke for about 30 minutes about her research process for her book “The Making of the Wizard of Oz.”

Saturday morning was spent training my follow spot operators for the performance (a student from U.C.S.D. and a student from U.S.C.) prior to the afternoon full run through of the show. The run had an invited audience of friends and family of the cast. This was also our opportunity to put in the two cast members who had been unable to attend the Thursday rehearsal. Final costumes and scenery were incorporated into this rehearsal. Saturday evening was the performance. The ballroom was packed with fans and scholars of L. Frank Baum’s work. The show started a bit late, but was a great success. After the performance, myself and two volunteers packed up the lighting system.

Sunday, after loading the lighting system onto the truck for return to the rental firm, I attended a discussion on the making of the MGM film of the “Wizard of Oz.” Speakers included Aljean Harmetz (mentioned above), Robert Welch (editor of the memoir of the special effects designer of the film), and Priscilla Montgomery (dancer in the film). Following that discussion, myself; designers Eric Shanower and David Maxine; and several cast members were featured in a panel discussion about the process of reviving a lost play.


One final note.   It may not come through in the above, but I was so honored to be a part of this process and this production.  I have a deep love for the early days of what would become musical theatre.  “Tik Tok” was not a hit in its day — and it probably didn’t deserve to be, but there is a lot of fun there, and Eric Shanower and director Chrissy Burns really found the fun and the heart in the show.

What’s On STAGES tonight

I have spent the last two weeks working with an amazing bunch of high school students (and four fabulous faculty members) on a project for Fresno County Office of Education called STAGES.   This is the third year I have worked with them and each year it gets even more amazing.   The way it works (or at least the way it worked this year) is: We take the students to camp for a week.  We teach them things about movement, improv, storytelling, collaboration, performance techniques and more.   We make them write stories, poems, monologues and scenes.   We have them work with fellow students to perform the things they wrote using the things they were taught.  At the end of it, the faculty selects material that seems like it will go together and makes an evening of theatre.    After camp, we return to Fresno City College, re-block material without dirt and tree stumps.  We work out a show order.  And… Abra Cadabra:  Show.

We had our one and only run through last night.  It was beautiful and poignant.  Tonight is the show.

The material is largely improvised, meaning final lines, transitions and stuff are sort of approximate.  For that reason, I’m running my own light board and “calling” cues to a long-suffering, quick-on-his-feet friend and sound op.   We have another wrinkle to add to the show tonight.  One of the performers has had a tragedy strike in her life and may or may not make the show tonight.  One of the things she wrote, and was scheduled to perform, was a beautiful heartfelt song about teen-suicide (the whole play is about youth violence).   We videotaped her performing it last night.  If she is unable to be with us in person, her song will still be their via video.

As an arts educator I experience the tragedy that budget cuts to arts programs bring.  Several of our STAGErs are going back to high schools with no arts programs this academic year.   I see the difference that this program makes in students lives.   I watched students grow up, and become new people over two weeks.  I watched students find their voice and learn to use it.   Some students made great leaps. Others are just starting to take a few tentative steps.

Math, Spelling, Vocabulary (things the SATs test for) are all important life skills, but none of them lead to self discovery and self expression.   As a society, we are sacrificing the things that can make life exciting and rich so that we can test students more on fundamental skills.   These skills are meaningless if the students can’t apply them to something.  They are also pointless if we have terrified students so badly about spelling and vocabulary and math skills that they are afraid to try something the involves those skills for fear of making a mistake.

I hear lots of people complaining about the quality of today’s high school students.  In fact, as a college instructor I often join the chorus of complaints.  They can’t read.  They can’t spell.  They can’t think.    I just spent 2 weeks working with students.  They were not the academic cream of the crop (at least not intentionally as grades and GPA were not factors in accepting students to the program).   What I saw was that many of these students had never been given the opportunity to use their skills.  They had never been given the option of speaking the words in their hearts.  They had never been asked what their story was.

Once they felt like their story was valuable  what came out was an embarrassment of riches.  The show put together the last few years was about half an hour.  This years show is almost an hour.   Stuff we cut from this years show was stronger than stuff that made it into the show in the past.   (We had a slightly different process, and very different end goals this year so it is not truly and apples to apples comparison.)  Our goal this year was to honor their words, their stories.   I feel like we did that.

On top of that, we did it in two weeks.   I wonder what kind of change we could impact on Fresno county if every high school student at an opportunity of self expression and creativity in theatre or music or art or dance for the full academic term.  For some students that isn’t their thing, so we also need to provide opportunities in sports, journalism etc.   High school shouldn’t be just one size fits all.   But as a society we have to get away from the notion that reading, writing and arithmetic are all high schools should offer.    Those skills are the foundations.  But all those things relegated to “extra-curricular” are where the skills are applied.   Students seem to lack the skills because they don’t understand why they need them.   Give the students the skills, and give those skills a use.   That’s what it takes to engage their brains.

The End of the Semester

Tonight, I’m sitting on my back patio, listening to Christmas music on my phone, my dog laying at my feet, lit by the shimmer of LED stars hanging in my window. What an idyllic view!! I’m contemplating something that I spend time thinking about at the end of every semester: Retention and Success rates — and other measures of educational success.

For those of you not working in higher ed, let me start by defining a bunch of terms.

Capacity: The number of students signed up for the class at census (1/6 of the way into the class) divided by the number of seats allocated to the class.

Retention rates: The percentage of students who were registered for the class when it finished divided by the students at census date (1/6 of the way through the course).

Success Rates: The number of students who earned a C or better in the class divided by the number of students who completed the class

Efficiency: A new (to me) metric involving how many hours students have face to face time with us (for my classes it means 28-35 students for the semester depending on the class)

This semester, my classes were not very efficient. Our department has an issue: the classrooms originally built and assigned to us are not large enough to efficient (my main classroom has 22 seats). The semester still has about a week an half to go, so grades may still change a bit. But my most successful class (by the above metrics) is in the 22 seat room. At census I had 20 students, which was 90% capacity for the class (I had 22 students up until 2 days before census, when 2 students dropped). At the end of the semester I have 17 students on the roll sheet, or 85% retention. Prognosticating, I suspect I will have 13 successful students, or 76% success. Excepting for the efficiency, these are not bad numbers. And honestly is better than the class has done in the past. Some of my other classes are not as good. (one is 68% capacity 66% retention, 80% success).

I consider all of this as I put my syllabi together for the following year. Why was one class more successful than another? Something I had not noticed before until two other instructors pointed it out to me: Tues/Thurs morning classes have better capacity, retention and success. I spent some time looking back through older records, and the pattern does seem to exist. I don’t know why.

My Tuesday Thursday afternoon class has worse stats than it has had in the past (although the class has been dramatically retooled, and the new version is on its first time through).

One of the things I’m frustrated by is the new metrics we are being judged on. I’m not an expert on when to schedule classes so they will be well attended. I’m perfectly willing to teach on whatever schedule the dean wants me to teach on (as long as I’m not booked to teach classes in two different rooms at the same time). I’m willing to attempt to teach “efficient” numbers of students — give me the room and give me some tools to help get students registered.

The big thing I think I can effect is retention. In my 8 years of teaching I have seen a change in the students. The students we have today are less prepared to analyze material then those from 8 years ago. Although I have heard people say that the batch of students we have now are “dumb,” I don’t think they are. They are unprepared. Not only are their analysis skills lacking, they aren’t prepared for college. They don’t know how to budget their time. They also don’t know how to do in depth reading. I think these lack of skills has harmed my retention in my design classes. I have slowly been revising the class each time I teach it, and am making some big changes next semester. Instead of each student doing two different projects, we (as a class) will do one project step by step…. the students’ homework will be to do that same step of the design project on their semester project. I hope this will allow me to do two things: 1) show them how to do more in depth analysis as we look at the group project, 2) force them to budget their time better. I will have much much more homework to grade next semester, but each assignment contributes to their final project which means that it should all be done at the end of the semester when they need to hand in the design project. I will miss the simple and the advanced project that I was able to do when I started teaching, but if I can communicate the analysis and process skills needed, the students should be able to apply them to any design project that gets thrown at them.

I do feel that each semester the syllabus I prepare would be perfect for last group of students. Just when I think I have a course down I have a particularly unsuccessful class and work to adjust to whatever the new reality is.

Me and Reality

I should admit that I haven’t blogged in a while. I haven’t written anything in a while. I’m trying to get back to it in other parts of my life, and I feel the blog has to be updated too.

It’s not about the technical aspects of the show. It’s not about the design of the show. Unless you are lucky enough to be doing a Vegas or Disney spectacular, the work of the folks designing and creating the technical elements of the show are always subservient to something else — the story that the actors are telling.

I’m currently doing a show that is totally about the situation. A situation that is just plausible enough to be realistic. It is set on a single set (a motel room). The action happens continuously. There are no monologues delivered to the audience. It has several of the other halmarks of contemporary realism: drus, alcohol, profanity, actors in states of undress. In short it is contemporary realism.

And, as a designer I’m fighting to keep myself motivated. I just don’t enjoy designing these shows. (With few exceptions I don’t get excited about seeing these type of shows either.) They just aren’t my thing. BUT as anyone who works in the theatre knows, you must excite yourself about your current project. And I’m very lucky, because it is a good show, with a good director and a good cast — people I like working with, and who I also like being with (not always the same thing).

I have two moments of “theatricality” in the show — one of which won’t even register to the audience as anything worthy of note. The light cues are all very slow (30-60 seconds), and lights are shifting up and down 10 to 15 percent — minor subtle changes. The set is as realistic as I could make it given the space and budget constraints (and I think it looks good). My notes to myself tonight were along the lines of: add a peephole in the door, I can see from the worst seat there isn’t really a bathtub in the bathroom — find a way to add one, should a cheap hotel room have a door stop, etc. It isn’t that these aren’t important notes. They are. It’s not that the lights aren’t important. They are. The issue is that it doesn’t have the theatricality that I crave. I want the actors to turn to the audience and talk to them. I want almost indulgent light cues. I want a set that makes a big bold statement.

And I know that this show isn’t that type of show. I also understand that as part of an educational program, we have a responsibility to our students to do all sorts of different shows. This is an important type of show. There is much to learn from it. I have used colors I’ve never used before. I have real carpet on the stage (something I’ve told myself I would continue to try to avoid doing). I have lots of fussy details. I’m out of my comfort zone, and that’s a good thing.

But, oh, I’d trade a chocolate bar for one moment of glorious theatricality.

In Praise of Actors

In a blog supposedly dedicated to scenic design and lighting design, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time on actors.   Most theatrical designers and technicians have an assortment of disagreeable nicknames for performers:  meat puppets, light reflectors, moving mannequins etc. but without the actors, there would be little reason for designers to exist.  Additionally, I like (most) actors.   And sometimes there are really special actors.

There are actors who are skilled at comedy, and those skilled at drama.  Some actors make any costume they are given look fabulous.    There are those who can sing, and dance, and sword fight.   Some can effortlessly project.   Some can capture the audiences attention with the smallest of gestures.   Some can speak with different accents.    And all of these skills are needed by the various productions so the the director can blend the skills of the cast, with those of the designers, and the technicians.

The theory on any show is that the director, and the designers, and the actors, and the technicians are all working toward a single unified vision.   Everyone says they do it, but usually the actors act, and directors direct, and designers design, and technicians tech — but there seems to be a firm division of labor.  Actors Act, while inhabiting the designs of the designers, and doing the movements prescribed by the director — and everything seems unified.

Sometimes though you run into a performer who molds with his costume, who connects viscerally with the set, who makes the lighting do his bidding, whose blocking looks completely natural, who seems to intuitively understand the all the technical aspects of  a production, and makes them work to his advantage.   I want to tell a tale of two college actors who did it.

Both actors played the role of the Amanuensis in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion.   Both actors seem as if they have a definitive interpretation of the role(s).   Both actors have a series of challenging cues to coordinate with the design, technical and stage management staff.  And both have studied the design around them to make it seem as if they control the small subtle shifts in design and space.

The first actor was Robert Baker.   Robert performed in the show at USC around a decade ago.   Robert managed to always find a mark on a pitch dark stage so that a single light cut to just the size of his face would light him.  He learned to feel when the “flames” would extinguish so that he could snuff them out with his magic.   After he left U.S.C., he went on the great success in Grey’s Anatomy on TV, and Leatherheads in the movies.

The second actor was Ben McNamara.   Ben will open in the show on Friday night at Fresno City College.   Tonight, durring the second dress, I saw many tiny movements which made it seem as if he controlled the lights.   In one of the magical transitions, his body seemed to move in sync with the lighting and sound effects.  It seemed as if the stole the magic I brought to the moment.   I look forward to finding out what great success he goes on to.

Of course these to actors are not the only ones I have encountered with this skill, but I find it a curious coincidence that I found them both in the same play, in the same role.  Perhaps it is something about the role, but I don’t think so.   The actors are of rather different types, one broad, one lean, one fair haired, one dark.   They approach the character differently, but they both search for the magic.

I don’t know what the term for this skill is.  I don’t know where, when or even if it is taught.  But I admire it.  I know that the audience will credit much of the work of the designers and the directors to actors with this talent, and I’m fine with that.   I suppose the skill does not come in useful in every show — I don’t think it would be advantageous in plays like Mamet’s Oleana, but when a show requires the skill, these actors elevate the whole performance to the next level with their craft.

As much as I enjoy designing, it requires the actors to tell the playwrights story to give my work meaning.   So I want to say thank you to those actors I have been fortunate enough to work with.   And to those who take it all in and make it their own, I will enjoy designing for you that much more.

Remembering Joe Hoffman

It always seems likes great teachers are institutions in and of themselves.  Joe Hoffman was one of those.   I’m thinking of him tonight, because I received word today that he had died.  Joe taught a Tuesday night production design class at U.S.C.’s School of Cinema.   He also, occasionally taught Scenic Art and possibly scenic design with the U.S.C. School of Theatre.

I always felt like Joe was a bit of a mischievous fellow in his professional life.  He designed variety shows for television, beauty pageants, magic shows, musicals and more.   Joe was a bit mischievous in class too.  He gave assignments, and watched students do way more work than they needed to, until they learned the art of design for the camera.   How much of the set will be visibile?  Don’t design and build more than that!   After actually working in television, I learned how true that is.  When I think of Joe teaching, I remember a glint in his eye as if he was waiting for us to discover the great secrets of design.

Joe insisted that we make white models in less than two hours.  A skill that has served me well in my professional life.   The final project in his production design class was a production model (full color, detail), for a brief scenario of our own devising.  Oh, he didn’t grade the model.  When we got to class, we were handed a video camera as promised, and told to film our model with the shot we had planned (at least 30 seconds).   The video was what was critiqued and graded.   I personally worked about 36 to 48 hours, no sleep, very little food to complete the model.  My set had a bookcase in it, I made and painted each 1/4″ scale book individually.   I made furniture, I made trees, I made bricks, I made stained glass windows, I made lit torches.   I got to class tired and hungry.  After making our videos, we were all invited to Joe’s house where his wife made a huge turkey dinner for everyone, and Joe watched the videos, and verbally critiqued our work, and by the time dessert was done we had our grades in the class.   One of the best points he made about my work was that despite the fact my model wasn’t the prettiest in person, I had worked out the shots carefully, and had spent my time working on the pieces that would be in focus and in front on the shots.  (Oddly enough most of the models that were stunning in person photographed very very badly).   Joe made an offhand comment when we started discussing the project about looking at our work through a camera lens occasionally.  I built much of my model looking through a camera lens, and it made such a difference.   I don’t do a lot of design on camera, but I learned that when I do, the world looks very different through that lens.

He taught me about working with new tools.   His was the first time I had used a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) application.  We used MacDraft which was very simple, but useful program, and a great introduction to the concept.   Joe, in class, seemed from an earlier generation, yet he was pushing us to use technology in a way that few if any of my other teachers during undergrad were doing.

Joe also taught me a lot about being a generous colleague.     I helped him on some project or another.   I do not remember what, it was truly nothing.   Joe was forever thankful and gracious.   Small things, like inviting me on a field trip that his class was taking to look at the set of the “West Wing.”   He also invited me on a backstage tour of the Magic Castle.  After doing a project with Richard Sherman (of the Sherman brothers), and knowing that I am a huge fan of classic Disney films, Joe got me an (Autographed!) copy of the Sherman Brothers’ memoir, “Walt’s Time.”

Joe taught me about efficiency, professionalism, and graciousness.   He taught me you don’t have to be stodgy to be a great professor.    I learned that the technology can be used in the creation of art, and there is no shame in that.  I learned that just couse I’m not young, I can still embrace the technology.

We exchanged the odd email over the years.  Always contemplating getting together, and never actually doing so.   I regret that.  A Lot.  Like so many others, I assumed he’d always be around.

Joe, If you read this, You taught me a lot.  Thanks.  A Lot!

What I was going to write…..

I had a bad experience with students and I had planned to write about it.   And that was what I was planning to write about.   I spend a morning each week in a computer lab due to the fact that I have a class that makes heavy  use of computer software.  I’m sitting in the lab and a young lady (and I used that term with dripping sarcasm) comes in walking past the lab monitor.  I was going to write about this young lady’s attitude.  She couldn’t be bothered to give the monitor her ID number.  When the monitor asked, the young lady mumbled her number without even turning around.   Once again the monitor asked, and the young lady, just as quietly, mumbled her number again, but more angrily.   The monitor stopped the young lady, and informed her that the policy was that all students who come to use the lab stop at the monitor, give their number, and then  proceed to a computer.   The young lady countered that the monitor looked busy.  This moment was the one that inspired me to write.

“How could this student act like this?”  I planned to say.   “What have students become?” I thought.  “I would never have done this while I was a student.”   THis was going to be a great post full of anger, resentment and vitriol.

And then the situation changed.   The hardworking students in the lab turned on the young lady.   “Look, she can’t here you.  Walk over there and talk to her.”   “How rude” They said.   The young lady was given the cold shoulder.  Her bravado and arrogance did not earn her the respect and admiration of her peers.

So I was gong to write about our students.  And I still am.   I was going to say, “Can you believe it?”  and I still am.    It is so easy to discount today’s young people.  It is so easy to declare them a waste of good air.   Certainly, some seem to work very hard to fall into that group.   Most of them do not.  Most of the students are like that mass of students in the lab:  resentful of the rotten apples who give them a bad name.   Most of them work really hard.  Most of them want to attend school to learn.

Too often teachers focus on the problems.   They are the ones who disrupt class.   They are the ones who take our time and energy.   They are the ones we worry will find something to complain about to a higher authority.

I was given some sage advice when I started teaching.  “Spend five minutes everyday with the worthwhile students.”    Five minutes didn’t sound like much.   But remembering to do at least that little bit makes a world of difference.   So many teachers are jaded, grumpy curmudgeons.   It is easy to become so.  It is easy to let the rare problems suck all the life and energy out of the teaching.   Five minutes isn’t too much.  In fact, it saves the day.

And so, I was going to write about our miserable students, but really, we don’t have many.   Most are wonderful, and now I have to find something else to blog about.