Archive for Process – Page 2

Why I don’t like props.

The set is (mostly) built.    Parts are painted.   Light plot done.  Color and templates are about to be ordered.   So now comes the props.

I don’t like props.  I have never liked props.   Props were always a frustrating afterthought.   Props are the things the actors hold in their hands during a play.   Closely related (and just about as disliked) is set dressing.  Set dressing is the stuff on stage that isn’t really set, that the actors could hold in their hands, but don’t.

My dislike of Props and Set Dressing are a big part of what I love about lighting design.  Lighting design also has lots of fidley detaily stuff– but it is fidely detaily stuff I actually like.

Finding props and set dressing is often a matter for driving from store to store to store (often thrift stores since most shows want stuff that looks used and budgets require stuff that is cheap).   You never know what you will find, and I’m always afraid to buy something in case I see better at the next place.

One never know what one will get, or what one will be able to find.   Often a designer (or director) has an image of the perfect “whatever” in mind and nothing else will do, even if the perfect “whatever” doesn’t exist.

I also dislike lots of props and set dressing because of what it does to many actors.   Lots of set dressing provides lots of visual interest in which it is easy to loose actors.   In film and television, where the director can control how much set is in shot at any moment, and what if any is in focus, can handle lots of set dressing.  In theatre, we have to work hard to make sure that what is there is either really important, or muted enough to not overpower the scene.   I’ve tinted 100s of books  blue for a show, so that they would fit in better with the overall scene and not over power it.    Books aren’t blue — certainly not a whole wall of them.   BUT the set designer had to have them because it was plot.  And they had to be blue, or else the audience would spend time looking at the books and not the actors.

Props cause many actors problems, but actors (and many directors) love props.  “I need business,” the actor says.  Business is the stuff actors do while saying lines:  setting the table,  winding their watch, packing a suitcase.   It certainly is true that humans very often multitask:  talk to someone while performing another activity, and it would be completely unrealistic if actors on stage didn’t do the same.   The problem the props cause the actors is that playwrights rarely work out how long it takes to set a table, pack a suitcase, or drink a beer.  In fact, the playwrights are usually (rightly) more concerned with the dialogue the actor’s are spitting out.   So props create the problem of “We need to drink 2 beers on stage per night in this 8 minute scene”   So the prop department makes fake beer, in cans as needed.  The poor actors now have to drink all that liquid (and run to the john as soon as they are off stage).

The truth is, there isn’t a solution.  Props are needed.   Actors have to work with them.  They are still a huge pain in my rump.  Some designers and artisans thrive on the prop and set dressing challenges.  I salute those folks.  They aren’t me.   To my mind, any play with more props than Our Town, has too many props.   And even Our Town might be able to be done with less.


Monday is light hang day.  That means I have to see the entire play before I draw the plot (hopefully tomorrow).    The director hasn’t scheduled a run through until next week, so I’m spending this week (well Monday through Wednesday) in the rehearsal room.   Designers don’t usually see much rehearsal process.   I’m enjoying myself a lot.   This also happens to be the week they get to move in to the actual theatre  (I love that about college theatre, you get the space much earlier than in the pro world).

Watching the actors adjust to having some (but not all) the set pieces, and being in the real space is energizing.  They are so excited!     It is always my goal to do the best work I can for the the cast (after the performance I attended last Friday, I am utterly disgusted with audiences!), but being in a regular rehearsal with the cast makes this imperative even stronger.

Almost Maine is in many 11 small play-letts rather than a full play.   The scenic design has, I think, done a lot to unify them visually.   The upshot of this is that I am considering doing 11 light plots.   11 little tiny light plots.   And then trying to cram them all in one theatre.    In the end the realities of the number of dimmers, and the number of lighting instruments at my disposal will probably negate that idea — I’m already thinking that all the “exterior” scenes will have to share a light plot, leaving maybe the interiors each with a unique look.  But each scene is special.   I have radically different ideas for each one, and with the set, and the play as a whole, that might be ok.

I see the last three tonight, and then I have to figure out the lighting.

The disadvantage to seeing the show not all at once is that I can only have half formed ideas at the moment.  When I see the show all together, my brain very neatly breaks everything down.   At the moment, my mind is saying:  what if this, what if that, will that work here, or there, or ….   And its distracting.

That said, I’ve so enjoyed the experience of being in that sacred space: the rehearsal.  The cast, and management and direction teams have all been very welcoming of a stranger in their midst when the show isn’t ready yet.   Some scenes didn’t have the blocking fully completed.   The actors are still exploring moments.  And for many shows, I could put the light plot off one more week, wait until the run through and not have a problem.   The downside on this show is that some of the lighting requirements will take some time to arrive, and I won’t know what I need until I see the show, and every day of delay risks the equipment not arriving by tech.

So this week is dedicated to lighting…. I’m still getting the last 2 major set pieces constructed.   Then painting and decorating….  The prop list is getting under control.

This should be a beautiful show.

Perseverance wins the day

Well, since my last posting, I’ve been through 3 major revisions and a few minor ones…. and the set is, I think, looking pretty cool.  The first one worked, and I think could have been cool, but I think it might have been a bit avant guarde for the play Almost Maine.   The second was cool, but too expensive, and too heavy…. and ultimately a bit too restrictive .   The scene changes would have been awesome, but some of the sets would not have been.

Then I had my Mickey and Judy moment.  We were sitting in a production meeting where I was presenting the “hot off the printer” new design.   No one had scene it yet, not the director, not the TD, not my fellow designers.   And the director liked it.   The TD liked it, but had to burst my bubble — it was too heavy, too expencive etc.   BUT a set had to be had…. like today.

Cue the epic underscore music.   “What if…”  I said.  “What if…” the director said.   “What if…” the TD said.   I had done my research, I had analyzed the play.  I knew the show.   Ideas where flying around the room fast and furious.   This idea from this version of the set… that idea from that version…. “What if…”   I was sketching like mad.

And I came up with a set….. that we couldn’t build.   It didn’t quite fit in the theatre.  It was dreadful.  (This is the part they never show in the old Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn movies).   BUT….



The idea was good.  More than good, the idea was pretty great!

So all night I drafted.  I considered building materials. I sketched on every scrap of paper that was near me.  I narrowed all my research down to three images for inspiration.  I googled a few things to refresh my memory on just what they looked like.

I had a set.   It had one major thing bugging my, but I had a set.  It was good.  It worked.

I showed the set to the director. . . It was good, it worked.

Budget and weight, I didn’t need to show to the TD, because it was light, it was small it worked.

Just one thing…..   A decision based on the size of the material I want to build it out of.

NO problem, I call my suppliers.   I want a fabric, that is like scrim, but not so fragil…  And comes in at least 6′ wide.   I get a suggestions … at 8′ wide.  It’s in the budget.  One last redesign to take this fabric width into account.

We have a set!   WE have color thumbnails.  We have steel ordered and start building (well cleaning steel is the first step to building) today.

I have a set.   It was fairly easy to get here.   Something from the previous versions always survived.  I have two revisions to draft today (Make one wall shorter, make one platform higher)….. And then we’re done.

Well, not done.   We need to build, to paint, to decorate, to find props and to light….. but I know where I’m going.  And that’s an achievement.

Brilliant Design or Just Stubborn

I’m hacking away at the design of my next show.  Once again, I am doing scenery and lighting.    It is a beautiful show that I can’t wait to light.   Unfortunately, before I can light the show, I have to design the scenery.   This show has a bit of an identity crisis for the set. . .   Each scene is small an intimate — two or three characters, often limited movement; but the transitions ask to see the “big sky,”  the whole world — or even the whole galaxy.     Quite a challenge.

I was planning on writing about my process of designing this show as my first post of the new year (and in over a month).    BUT that would imply that I had solved the challenge.    At the moment, I have an idea, and not a fully formed one.    This brings me to my topic today.

One of the things I have learned is that brilliant design rarely arrives fully formed like Athena popping out of Zeus’ head.   In fact, the first draft of most design is usually fairly sucky.  Good design is achieved through constant revision.   In my own work, my initial sketches come in two varieties:  Too much crap, and Too little stuff.   I like sets where each item on the set is terribly important,and if it isn’t terribly important it is eliminated.  That means that initial sets are either cluttered, or I have taken my maxim to a ridiculous extreme.

Initial ideas can be too expensive.  Initial ideas can defy the laws of physics.  Initial ideas can, and often are, in short, BAD IDEAS.   Perhaps other designers don’t have this problem, but I bet they do.   I don’t want to imply that these bad ideas are worthless — they aren’t —- they are the raw material from which genius is (eventually, hopefully) created.   Once I have a sketch I can start designing.  Ideally, I have several sketchs (or as I called them earlier, Bad Ideas).   I examine the ideas:  What works?  What doesn’t?  What is theatrical?  What isn’t?    What is affordable?  What is physically possible?

I look at what I have an analyze what makes the good bits good and the bad bits bad.   Drawing on the analysis, I try to refine a couple of these ideas:  Make them physically possible, affordable, theatrical.   If I can I like to have two solid (though not done) ideas to take with me when I meet with the director the first time.  (I also take all my Bad Idea sketches with me, in case durring the meeting, one of them seems better now than at the moment of creation)

A good director has also thought about the set.   They know what the play means, and why it was chosen to be done at this time for this audience.  They know what touchstone they need to communicate with the audience.  They know some of the mechanics like how many doors and chairs.

Then the ideas come together.   Even if, as a designer, your work is 180 degrees opposite from the director, the work is not wasted.  On many sets, the mechanics of getting location one on and location two off are crucial work of the set designer that the director doesn’t care about.   The mechanisms and flow of the set may remain even if all the stuff the audience sees is very different.  Conversely, the designer may have nailed the visual style, but has made the show unblockable for the director.   It doesn’t matter.   The set doesn’t arrive fully formed.    Its time for more revisions.

After meeting with the director (and hopefully other well prepared designers as well), the scenic designer can take the initial ideas, all the input from collaborators and revise some more.   At this point, all the bad ideas and slightly less bad ideas, and all the comments, and all the direction should inspire the designer to move into the world of good ideas.   New designers may get frustrated that there is a lot of work to get to the start of the good idea — and we aren’t at the great ideas yet!

Meeting again with the director to present, what is hopefully a pretty good idea, is very exciting.   Both designer and director have had a chance to let the discussions and ideas continue to develop in their minds.   The pretty good idea is examined and dissected.   I used to be afraid to criticize  my own work when looking at  it with the director, but a designer shouldn’t be afraid.  Many things I don’t like are things I added because I thought the director would like them (or need them)  — Often I’m wrong.  Sometimes I’m right but the director might see what I don’t like and offer suggestions.

Some might think after this meeting, the set can be drafted, sent to the shop, and the designer can sit back and relax.    That is rarely the case.   So much about the play, and therefor the set, is discovered in rehearsal.    The actor can’t make the cross fast enough, or it is too easy for the murderer to catch his victim, or….. whatever.     More revisions lay ahead.    The costume designer shows the hoop skirts, and the doors need to be made wider.  The lighting designer needs somewhere to hang a light for the great monologue, and another small change may be made in the set.

Every time I see a great set for a play, I stop and wonder what it looked like in the beginning.   I love looking through my sketch pads — seeing the various elements that came together to create a pretty good set.    Sometimes I see the abandoned ideas, and wonder what if I had went in that direction?   “Come to think of it, that wasn’t a bad idea — hmmmm, If I get a chance to design this play again….”

Good design isn’t a matter of being brilliant.  Good design comes from working and working and working on a design until it is everything it ought to be.

The Director’s Smile

I frequently find myself telling people outside of the entertainment or art business that artists, designers entertainers, may like their job, bu they need to be paid for it.  I enjoy designing.   BUT I earn my living from it.   When people ask me to design, I start by quoting a price.   Most folks come back with , “but you love it, you’ll do it for the love.”  No I won’t.  I’ll do it for being paid —  That’s how I pay my bills.

However, there are things that make my day, beyond the pay check.   Soon I will be writing a blog post about shows where the special effects are more important than the design.   I’m doing a show like this at the moment.  Their is a special effect in this show, and it begins technical rehearsals tomorrow.   On tuesday night, the Technical Director and I did a pre-try with the actors and the big special effect.    I was nervous — this special effect cost more than 2/3s the cost of the set design.   If this didn’t work, I was in trouble.  — No I wouldn’t loose my job (I’m resident designer), and yes the director would still talk to me in the morning.

BUT one of my greatest joys as a designer is the director’s smile.   At the end of the rehearsal the director had a large grin  (It seems to be much like the grin I had when my husband bought me a 12″ dewalt compound miter saw — but then you would have to know me to know what that probably looked like).    Tuesday night after the rehearsal, after seeing the director’s smile, I felt great.    I felt like a hero!  I felt like I could walk on the clouds!    I felt like I had my own theme music.

The director’s smile won’t pay my bills, but it is a great incentive.

In praise of the design team

I watch very little television … and most of what I do watch is via Netflix, Hulu or similar.    I have been so disappointed by so many shows, that I can’t get excited by some new show that everyone is talking about.   My husband bullied me into watching a new show on ABC called “Once Upon a Time.”   I hate to tell the world, that the show won’t last — I like it, and anything I like is canceled.

But I’m not hear to talk about the show, in particular, but what it demonstrates.  The show concerns fairy tale characters trapped in present day Maine.    One (of many) thing(s) I loved about the show last night was the way the design team came together to offer up some little clues, cheeky character tags, etc relating the present-day characters to their fairy-tale counterparts:   A red scarf for goth-girl Little Red Riding Hood, A bowl of apples cheekily placed on the coffee table of the Evil Queens modern residence, etc.

In “Once Upon a Time,”  these touches were present with all the characters but never over the top.   I’m sure several winks and nods went by me completely — as they should (little touches are fabulous but they should not be the focus of the story).   All of this work, the coordinating of cheeky details, making sure it doesn’t go over the top is the work of a lot of talented individuals working closely together.

The magic of a good design team is that each individual or department takes part of the story, takes a cheeky detail, a bit of plot and character revelation.  Then, when the show  is all complete we have the a story revealed through action, dialogue, camera work, and design.

I have been blessed with lots of great teammates as a designer.

The Right Place for the Story

My reflections today are drawn from two recent experiences.  I have been reading Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat.  In the book he analyzes his lyrics and shows.  He can be a fairly harsh critic of both his own work and others.  In Sondheim’s analysis of his musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, he postulates that the reason for the show’s failure was that the source material had no need of musicalization.  He felt that the underlying play was perfect as a straight play, and there was nothing to be gained by adding music.

Several plays that I have encountered do not seem to be best suited to the stage.   Sometimes the plays are feel like the author wanted to write a screen play but couldn’t get it produced.    Some plays read like television episodes.  And then comes the joy of a play that is written to take full advantages of the theatre.   Tonight I saw a first run through of The Illusion.  It was a first run through, and was (not surprisingly) rough in some places.  However, the play takes advantage of the world of the theatre in a way that so many plays do not.

The play takes advantage of the live audience experience… the actors do not ignore the fact that they are being watched.   The play uses the theatricality, that heightened non-realistic presentation that in today’s film and television is described as cheesey or campy.

Books can span such great time and locations.   Films show  us the most amazing things that seem so real, Television comes into our homes, but the theatre is unique.

The best theatre is not realistic.  The best theatre does takes its limited production possibilities and pairs it with the willingness of the audience to add their imagination to the proceedings.    The best theatre deals with a complete story in a mere two hours of time.  The best theatre is written as a mere skeleton that each production’s director, actors and designers will hang their ideas.   The best theatre speaks to audiences in different times and places.

Not all plays succeed in being the best theatre has to offer.   Just like not all books movies or television are fantastic.   However I wish I could ask every writer why they chose that specific media for telling their story.    If they answer wrongly, I don’t want to do their play (or read their book or…..).   I want to work on plays, like The Illusion, that embrace their medium.   They are joyous.  I have worked on the play where the author was hoping to turn it into a film or into a television series.    Every bit of theatre I try to bring to the play is repulsed by the author.   And the joy and excitement is sucked out of the experience.


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.