Archive for Education – Page 2

Text Books

One of the duties of a tenured professor is to review potential textbooks.   Publishers send review copies to instructors hoping that the instructors will assign the text, forcing the students to purchase it, and generating revenue for the publisher.  On top of the free copies I’m sent, when I’m revising a course or developing a new course, I troll online book sellers looking for  potential texts and read them.  This is a task that I (and I suspect most teachers) take very seriously.

I’ve read a lot of text books.  Some good, some bad, some useful, some useless.   I find they generally fall into three categories.  For reasons, explained later, I’m thinking a lot about text books at the moment.  The three different styles of textbook seem to emanate from the type of person who sat down to write the book.

Publish or Perish.  The first type text book I want to talk about is the from the author who has to write a book as a condition of their job.  Many universities require their faculty to publish  books or articles on a regular basis.  The doctoral thesis that has been published also falls into this category.    These books tend to be excellent for the more advanced students, but for intro students they are challenging.  Often they are full of esoteric ideas and pre-suppose a great deal of knowledge of the subject before you begin reading.    As I teach beginning students, most of these books get read, enjoyed, and then filed on my shelf.

The Guru Remembers.  This book is written by an expert in the field, not by a teacher.  It is full of remembrances and sage advice.   In my first level lighting class as an undergraduate (when I had lots of grandiose thoughts, and no idea what I’m doing) I was assigned David Hays Light on the Subject.   At the  the time I found the book useless.  I also am ashamed to admit I bad mouthed the book for years.  The book told me a great deal about how to talk about lighting, but very little about how to actually light a show.  It was full of vaguely amusing antidotes, and sage advise.  A few years ago I agreed to proctor a test for a colleague who was away at a conference.  Deciding that I wanted to have something to read, I grabbed Hays’ book.  Now that I’m an experienced lighting designer I find Hays book an excellent read — but it is not a good introduction to young lighting students.

The Frustrated Teacher. This book is also written by a teacher.  However, in this case the instructor is frustrated with trying to teach a class.  The instructor has been trying to teach this class with another (several other) book(s), and none of them are reaching the students.  These books tend to carefully define every vocab word.  They  also tend to be presented in an excellent order for teaching (or in the case of John Holloway’s The Illustrated Theatre Production Guide carefully written so they can be taught in any order).  These teachers put a lot of time and effort into writing the textbook so that is organized in such a way that fits very nicely within the teaching semester.

So why am I thinking about text books?   I’m a frustrated teacher.   After teaching scenic design for the past six years, I have been unhappy with the three textbooks I have used in that time.   The first (the one I inherited) was of the the Publish or Perish variety.  The second was a rather technical book, that while very good, wasn’t actually about scenic design.   The third was of the Frustrated Teacher  variety, but it still didn’t really work for my students (although I’m sure it works for his students — and it is better than anything else I found).

I’m going through tenure review at the moment, and decided to submit the first third of the text to my review committee as demonstration of the work i’m doing.   Before submission, I had my husband (who also studied theatre, although not the technical side) review what I wrote.   This has given me so much respect for the good text book authors.   Aside from usual commas, and spelling errors the biggest (oft repeated) comments dealt with “You haven’t explained this concept yet.”   Design is a complete process.  It is so hard to explain the concept to people who don’t already understand the process (which is really really unhelpful).   Based on these notes, I added almost 1000 more words to this text (and I suspect after the next round of reviews, there will be more).   Most of these words were a few words to a sentence or two to clarify ideas.  In some cases paragraphs had to be added.  Sometimes sections had to be rewritten for the sake of clarity.  One of my toughest fixes boiled down to moving the topic sentence of the paragraph from the first sentence to the last  (It took 20 minutes of working on it to see that simple solution).

When will the book be done?  Who knows.  I hope the text is done by mid-february.   Of course in a design textbook, the text is only part of the story.  The book will need illustrations — lots of illustrations.   Some illustrations are being referenced in the text, plus other pictures.  Design is so visual, and the illustrations are as important as the text.  I don’t know how long the illustrations will take.

Some day soon, I’ll have a text book, my own text book.   Then I will start teaching with it, and I’m sure I’ll need to re-write.


In my life in the theatre, I have had a few chances to revisit shows I had done before.   Sometimes in the same capacity, sometimes in a different capacity.   I was the lighting designer on Oleana three times, I’ve also worked on Laramie Project three times (once each on Sets, Lights, and Sound); Pippin (actor, master electrician) and several others.  I’ve been asked to design Twelfth Night three times , created three very different designs to go with the directors vision (and none of them were produced).  By the third time I lit Oleana, I was miserable and sick of the show.   Most other shows I’ve revisited, I have revisited in completely different circumstances.   Repeating a show has rarely excited me.

All of that changed recently.   One of the shows I lit in grad school was The Illusion (Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the Corneille classic), and the school I’m teaching at has decided to stage it.   The Illusion was the first I felt like I was lighting “my way” and not mimicking my teachers (and it got the attention of many of the faculty).  The design wasn’t perfect, but it profoundly changed me.   This time around, I am designing both the scenery and the lighting.

When revisiting a show, there is a great temptation to copy what was done before (especially if it was a success).   Knowing this temptation, I worked very hard to create a different set.  Of course there are certain things that will remain similar (it is after all the same play).      The Illusion is set inside of a wizard’s cave.  Our original designer created a cave out of window screen that was beautiful and it took light well.    I also designed a set that was a cave.  The director stopped by my scene shop as I was experimenting with different  types of construction techniques for the  cave texture, she saw a scrap of untreated window screen, and said “that grey one… I think that’s the best.”    I feel slightly guilty stealing the construction technique, but as was pointed out to me, my original designer didn’t invent the technique either.

The other biggest challenge I’m finding is that I’m solving my last production’s problems.   Before anyone involved with the last production says “WHAT PROBLEMS, IT WAS FABULOUS”  Yes it was, but every show has challenges, things that didn’t work as well as those involved with the show had wished.  A few minor points that I “fixed” totally cramped the directors style (and she quite rightly didn’t follow my suggestions.)  Instead this production has its own challenges.

I think part of the reason I’m so excited about this production is that I am once again blessed with great collaborators.  The first time around I thought I had the perfect director, fellow designers, stage manager etc.  This time I have a very different team with very different visions of the show, and they are just as fabulous.

I’m working very hard to keep approaching the show freshly.  I feared it would be so difficult to be fresh, but it hasn’t been.  Finding new visions of a play I enjoyed, is like catching up with an old friend again.   Our past association makes me feel comfortable, but like a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, there is so much catching up to do.  I’m not the same artist who did The Illusion the last time, and The Illusion has changed too.   I find different meaning its pages.  I no longer fancy myself as the heroic young lover,  I now feel much more like the wizard, the cunning old fake who knows how to please his audience.

I hope I have succeeded.

The Levels of Lighting

I teach at a community college.  This semester I teach the rather grandly titled: Introduction to Stage Lighting.   Community college is only the first two years of post-high school education, and at the end of the class, the goal is not to have a whole bunch of little Theron Mussers and Kenneth Posners running around Fresno.  We do light plots (2 of them), we cue, we analyze, we think, we talk — but it is merely a first step on the road to becoming a designer.

Grading “art” is always a challenge (and maybe sometime I’ll write on my methodology), but before going into the class this semester (and this is the last time I’ll teach this version, next year it will be replaced by the state “C-ID” version — which doesn’t change much, but a bit), I want to think about what the steps are from barely acceptable lighting design to  “Oh, wow, you are good.”

1. Visibility:  The base line minimal acceptable level for something to go from a bunch of lights in the air to a design is visibility.   This means even lighting on the face and hands that allows the audience to see and hear the play.  (As one studies light one learns that when the director complains he can’t hear — if you turn up the lights, you may fix the problem — unless the cast mumbles)

2. Sculpture:  The next level of lighting highlights the three-dimensional form.   Classically, this is the warm and cool front light of the McCandles system, but may be achieved in many other ways.   If we only have visibility, it is a lecture hall or sporting match, when we move to this step we start to reveal art.

3. Selective Visibility:  At this step I feel like we move to actually theatrical lighting.   The ability to see what everything is (brought about by our first two steps), is heightened when we begin to take away light where we don’t want it.    Oddly enough, at this level of skill, things may actually be darker than they were at step one.  Imagine a shadowy room where an unknown-to-the-audience murder is about to kill our leading lady, with selective visibility we can see the dark shape but not who it is.

**(And once we get to this point, I feel that students have achieved “C” level lighting design for an introduction class — Note to students reading this, I grade projects on much more than just your design skills, so design alone won’t earn you a “C” in the class)**

4. Sense of Place: The light inside a cubical farm is very different than the light just after sun rise on the beach.   Visually re-enforcing the play as to location is the next step to great design.  In rudimentary design, this is often expressed as the addition of a window or tree pattern,  but in more advanced design is expressed through color choice, angle, and intensity (as well as patterns).  This step also includes lighting (or not lighting) the set as appropriate.

5. Focus:  The lighting designer in theatre is much like the editor in film  The editor chooses the shots that force the audience to look at the important bits of the story.  So does the lighting designer.  It may be subtle compositional tricks that bring the audiences eye to the right place, it may be hard edged obnoxious follow spots, but either way the audience needs be aided in knowing where to look at any one moment.

6. A sense of time or change:  Most environments are not static over the course of a play, or even a scene. Even the cubical farms lighting changes as people come and go, turn on and off computers, adjust task lighting etc.   As designers conceive the lighting, they must understand and provide for the natural changes in light.  These might be earth shatteringly obvious, or profoundly subtle.

**(And in my class, this is where I hope the “A” students will get.)**

7. An overall style:  Too many designers seem to start with the feel or atmosphere of the show, and then try to do everything else, but really that overall style is a high level.   Even as a show’s plot moves through many times, and locations — bright and dark, interior and exterior, etc. the design itself needs to have a unifying feel to it.

8. Storytelling:  Beyond just telling the audience where and when we are, lighting designers (like all the other designers, director, and actors) are charged with helping tell the playwright’s story to the audience.  When I’m working on a play, I try to run through all the cues, in order without any actors on stage.   While doing this, I should be able to see the emotional journey of the play expressed in the lighting.

9. Commenting on the play:   I dread even mentioning this as too many designers think this is their moment to mock the play they are doing.   The term “commenting” is one from my time in school, but it is not the designer expressing his or her opinion.   Instead, commenting is about punching up the greater themes in the play.  This step involves tweaking the lighting that is right for the moment, so that the audience can be made aware of where the story is coming from or where the story is going.  This is where a designer might try to light two moments in a similar manner to emphasize the emotional relationship between the two.   This might also involve mimicking a famous piece of art, or moment from a film to make the audience consider the similarities (or differences) between the two.

10. Breaking the rules:  Selective visibility often breaks the rule of visibility.  Storytelling and commenting may break many of the rules about time and place.  The great designers break the rules as they work to achieve the most clear communication to the audience about the production’s understanding of the play.  Sometimes this means an un-unified style, sometimes this means general rather than specific focus… regardless of what it means it comes from a clear understanding of the script, the analysis, the director’s goals, and the audience’s expectations.  It is always risky, but truly great design cannot be great without it.  (And yes, I think that sometimes sticking to the rules is the most radical thing that can be done — if it supports the show).



Blast from the Past: Words to the Actor

This blog post is from 2009-July-07.  However, what it is about is from 2001, or so.  I had found a scrap of paper with some advice to the actor on it.  These notes are probably from Sabin Epstein.  If so, they are certainly guidance to actors in Tony Kushner’s “Illusion.”  Are there exceptions to these rules?  Of course.  (Honestly can one think of a good rule that doesn’t have some sort of exception some where?  Don’t answer that)   Anyway, I find these to be good for actors and designers of theatre, and probably directors too!

Advice to Actors
I was cleaning out some old theatre records and found a set of notes partially typed from the director, and partially notes I took (I’m sure from the directors speech). Anyway, as I thought the notes were particularly inspiring to those who work in theatre, so I’m reproducing them. I suspect (from other notes I’m not including here) that the director was Sabin Epstein

Typed Notes:
When Speaking on Stage:
1. Stress not the negative. “No” and “not” are almost never operative. The operative word is instead, the word that is being negated. “Go not till you hear from me.” “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.”

2. Verbs of being are never operative. The operative words are the words that explain the kind of quality of being. “I am happy.” “He is my brother.”

3. Avoid stressing pronouns whenever it is possible to do so (“he” “she” “it” etc.). Whenever there is any alternative that makes sense use it. This includes possessive (“His” “Her” etc.)

4. Possessive nouns are never less important than the word the possess (“My father’s house.”)

5. Articles (“a” “an” and “the”) prepositions (“to” “from” “on” “in” etc.) and conjunctions (“and “but” and “or”) are never operative. They contain no images, but serve to show the relationships between images. Find the words with the images.

6. Adjectives and adverbs are treated as part of the noun or the verb they modify. The key operative word is the noun or verb, with the adjective or adverb incorporated in the images as a modifier.

7. An image that is repeated is not operative. What is operative is any new quality that is added in the repetition. This is called repetitive contrast. Stress the new information.

My hand written notes

Follow the text. Every choice made on the production must be based on the text.

Focus on nouns and action verbs.

Find the action

What is reality? What is illusion? That is the nature of the question of theatre.

Love is often both the sickness and the cure.

Pain is always more interesting anger.

Inspiration Spots

One of my pet peeves from student designers is “I didn’t do my assignment because I wasn’t inspired, and you have to be inspired to design.”

I remind them that if they want to make this their profession they either have to be able to design when not inspired, or inspire themselves.  (The muse only really comes to those who hunt her down and capture her themselves).  That said, I do not poo-poo the value of inspiration.  One of the things I have discovered in my life is that, in this world there are inspirational places.   Places where you sit down, and the karma, or feng-shui or whatever magically align all your creative juices.

There was a particular tree I used to sit under during my undergrad years, and under that tree for the first time Shakespeare made sense and for the first time I could sketch design ideas for hours. (They still looked like random squiggles, but they were very meaningful squiggles to me).  By the time I got to grad school I could usually inspire myself without external aids.  (If you read the previous “Blast from the Past” the fear of Ritchie was very inspirational.)

Since my dearest husband completed his design for the back yard, I have found a spot out there that inspires me.   Oddly enough, it currently only seems to work from about sunset until eight or so in the morning.  After that the Fresno heat saps the inspiring characteristics from the spot.

I began to wonder what this, and that marvelous tree in front of the library at USC have in common.  They are outside.  They both have a bit of a breeze.  And although both near high traffic areas, provide one with a sense of solitude.  This feeling eases my emotions.  For me, once my emotions are level, and I am calm, the ideas flow freely.

Will this location work for everyone … or even anyone else?  Probably not. I know designers who have to be stressed out for the muse to awaken.   I know designers who can’t work unless they have a #2 American Naturals pencil in their hand.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  If you are a creative person, you need to find that moment, location, smell. and/or action that frees your mind from everything else and focuses it on the work.  If a designer was successful at acting class (I wasn’t) and mastered emotional recall (I could barely comprehend it, much less do it), so much the better — you have your creative spot with you where ever you go.  If you are like me and don’t have the ability to conjure it anywhere, study it, learn about it, figure out what the key ingredients are.   Then when you need it, you can find it — or a pretty good substitue, and once you have that, you can be inspired when ever you need to.