Start by asking why

A friend loaned me a copy of Start With Why by Simon Sinek a few years ago and created a monster. The book is about leadership, but more to the point it’s about how people and companies have inspired legions of followers by simply and clearly letting them know why they do what they do. Businesses examined in the book include Apple and Nike, as well as others which haven’t been so successful. I liked the book so much I ordered my own copy.

Chapter 3 starts with a simple diagram that makes total sense to me. It’s three concentric circles; the outer one represents “what,” the middle one “how,” and the inner one “why.” The author then goes on to argue that so very often, when trying to sell a product or a concept, we focus on the “what” and the “how,” but tend to ignore the “why.” In fact, “how” sometimes takes over to the point that the process becomes an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

I see this all the time in theater companies as well as various online forums. Someone will ask “How do I do this or that?” and the answer, frequently, is “You do it this way or that way.” But so often I want to ask — or I do ask — “Why do you want to do that?” Which is just a way of asking, “Do you know why you’re doing it?”

For instance, take Man of La Mancha. The original set, designed by Howard Bay, had a staircase that lowered from above whenever someone entered or exited the dungeon. That staircase was there for a reason: to show, visually and dramatically, the isolation and helplessness of the prisoners and the power the inquisitors had over them. But how many productions of this show include that staircase “just because it’s there?” We end up with staircases, all right, but not with ones that make the powerful statement of the original one. I especially find it amusing when the show is done on a stage with a low ceiling (like many high school auditoriums) and the staircase ends up being too small to say anything.

Another example is The Nutcracker, where the Christmas tree “grows.” And so often it grows “just because it grows.” If we look at that scene in the context of the story, we realize that the tree doesn’t grow: Clara shrinks down to the size of the Nutcracker doll, which is what makes the dream sequence make sense. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the tree growing that it turns into a technical project instead of a means to advance the story. I remember watching a performance of the ballet and hearing a mother telling her young daughter, “Look, sweetie, the tree is growing!” I wanted to reach over and ask her why the tree is growing.

Okay, let’s do this in threes. A third example is a production of The Woman in Black I designed a few years ago. The story takes place on the stage of a theater that the protagonist has rented to rehearse a play he wants to do for his family and friends. The only scenery and props used are what’s already there on the rented stage, including a table and chairs and a large trunk which becomes a desk, a horse cart, and a bed. We had a large old road trunk on casters which I thought would be perfect for the show; it was moved around several times, so the casters were great. But the technical director wanted to build a skirt around the bottom of the trunk to hide the casters, because “that’s what you do with scenery pieces.” I finally convinced him the casters were totally in character, but it took some doing.

So what to do? In the first two cases, asking “why” before “what” and “how” could have resulted in very creative and theatrical choices. In the first case, asking why that staircase was there in the original production could have resulted in a design solution that worked better for the space and still added a highly dramatic visual impact to the story. In the second case, knowing that the tree doesn’t really grow (in the context of the story) could have resulted in a lighting scheme that focused on Clara’s dream — better advancing the story — and not on the tree.

In the third case… well… why would a theatrical road trunk need a skirt to hide the casters?

At the risk of indulging in shameless promotion, I’m going to suggest that Start With Why should be read by designers, tech directors, and directors. It’s a short book, reads fast, and gets right to the point, unlike so many others that pad the pages with words just to increase the page count. It’s available at bookstores or at Amazon, and you can also order it through my SD&T Bookstore.

Research is an investment, not a luxury

Over the past thirty-odd years in theatre, I’ve heard the same lament any number of times in non-professional companies: We wanted to do some research, but just didn’t have the time.

So here’s a pitch for making the time.  🙂

Many professionals in creative fields find research to be just as much a part of their work as actually creating something. Architects study other architects, graphic designers study other graphic designers, musicians study other musicians, dancers study other dancers, painters… you get the idea. Not just people in their own fields, but often in other areas too. Theatrical designers and art directors in the film and TV industry are no different: we study other designers, historical periods, art history, industrial design, and many other fields. It not only provides inspiration, but also helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel.

There have been a number of books written on how the designs for specific films (and a few musicals) were developed, and these can be wonderful sources of creative energy in addition to showing us how designers think. One series of books I particularly enjoyed was on the art of Star Wars, which showed how some of the characters, vehicles, costumes, and locations were developed. Those guys did their homework.

Fiction writers do their homework too. Writers of science fiction, detective stories, medical thrillers, spy stories, historical fiction, and other subjects often spend weeks or months researching their subject to make sure things “sound right” even if they’re not used literally. It often gives them ideas or inspiration, and makes a huge difference in how readers respond to the books.

But what exactly is research? What do you spend your time looking for, and how do you use it? Here are some thoughts based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with other designers.

The historical period

Say you’re doing the set for Hamlet, and the director wants to stage it in an 11th century castle. A search for castles will reveal how they developed, how different they were from period to period, and how they varied from country to country. It will also reveal how different real castles are from what we usually imagine as “a castle.” We don’t have to (and generally don’t want to) copy what we see exactly, but having a good idea of what the real things looked like (and why) can give us a good idea of where to start.

The same goes for The Odd Couple and many other plays that take place in an apartment. Photos and floor plans of real apartments from the period (and the location) will help create a set that evokes an apartment instead of just looking like a collection of flats. It makes a huge difference in the audience’s experience.

The cultural and economic reality of the times

Looking at The Odd Couple again, some research into real living spaces in New York City will give us an idea of what Oscar’s apartment might have looked like. The director can help define Oscar’s finances (so to speak), and there’s a huge difference in staging the play in a tenement, in a controlled-rent development, in The Dakota or a similar structure, in a drab building from the 60s, or in a modern luxury high-rise on Park Avenue. It can tell us a lot about Oscar, both before his wife left and afterwards, even before the play begins.

The visual style

This is where spending some quality time looking through art history materials really pays off. In two different ways.

First, if the director says, for instance, “I want to set it in 15th-century France,” a close look at 15th-century French art can give us not only an idea of what things (buildings, furniture, accessories, people) looked like, but also of how they were perceived and represented by the artists as a reflection of their times. We can infer colors, textures, materials, fabrics, interior design, lighting, and many other details from paintings and sculpture. We can also see how colors and palettes were used and get some inspiration from them.

Second, and this is something we often do, is refer to a specific painting or artist to illustrate how we imagine the set, or part of it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was explaining how I saw parts of the set for Tony Kushner’s The Illusion to the director and lighting designer by referring to how subjects in Rembrandt’s paintings are often “carved out of the shadows.” In initial discussions for a previous show, we referred to art and architecture from the Works Progress Administration, and it put us all on the same page as to the style and the institutional feel we wanted.

With the internet, and tablets being widely available, it’s really simple to call up something during a meeting and show it around. What I do is collect it all before the meeting to save time: I just cut and paste images into a folder and then open them as needed. Back in the old days we would carry armfuls of books and photocopies to the meetings, but (even though I still use the public library a lot) modern technology helps reduce that.

The reality

Say you’re designing a steam locomotive for a children’s show, and say you and the director have agreed that it’s not going to be a literal locomotive. The best way to start here is to look at lots of photos and paintings of real locomotives and understand why the elements are where they are and what they do. Then you can go on to look at non-literal depictions of locomotives (i.e., cartoons, trains in children’s playgrounds, and such) and see how these machines were imagined by other designers. Then you can start creating your own locomotive. It sure beats working in a vacuum.

Now… how much time to allow for research? For me — for most of us — it’s not a chore that needs to be tightly scheduled: it’s an ongoing process that starts at the beginning of the design phase and ends after the shop drawings are completed. I often do research on architectural details all during the shop drawing phase to make sure I’m keeping true to the style of the show. I don’t necessarily copy the details, but I want to know what the real things looked like so I can decide whether to use them as is or to stylize them.

I’ve written about how I use research in several posts here, including A set design from start to finish, Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?, and Problem solving: painting faux brick. For most of us in creative fields, research is not only an investment in the current project, but is also part of our continuing education towards the mastery of our craft.

 

 

The revolve in “Hamilton”

Revolves have been around for a long time and can be very effective, but so often they are used simply to change a setting quickly, or they become construction projects that take on a life of their own and serve mostly as toys for the more engineering-oriented members of the shop crew. This morning I found a great article on the revolves used in Hamilton and how they are used to help tell the story.

Even more interesting, reading between the lines in the article, I started getting ideas for how other pieces of equipment or scenery can also be used to help tell the story. But, as detailed in the article, it takes some serious collaboration between the director and the set designer — and, in the case of Hamilton, the choreographer —  to fully develop the idea. One comment I especially liked was to the effect that the revolves and the action and choreography were so tightly integrated that you could not tell where one left off and the other took over.

The article is in the USITT archives as a publicly-available portion of the Winter 2017 issue of Theatre Design and Technology. I don’t know how long USITT will keep it available to the public at no charge, but here’s the link:

http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/hickmanbrady/tdt_2017winter_public/index.php

Enjoy!

Get to the root of the problem

When I came up with the idea for this post, I thought maybe I should send it to The Huffington Post instead of placing it here.  🙂

As I’ve said in previous posts, I often find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Case in point: the United Airlines passenger who was dragged off the plane in Chicago some weeks ago. Did United ever go back and take a good look at the real cause for the incident?

Was it a real “doo-doo happens” emergency? Was it a scheduling error? Did somebody drop the ball? Did the software crash? Did somebody misunderstand a supervisor’s instructions? Was it a last-minute knee-jerk reaction by a manager somewhere? Did four crew members get sick at the same time in Louisville?

Obviously, I don’t know if they ever found that first domino. But, putting aside my own personal experience with this airline, I would like to think that they, or anyone else, would want to dig back, if only to learn something from it and try to figure out how to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Now, putting this in the context of set design and tech. I ran into a similar issue years ago when I designed the sets for The Odd Couple and the show immediately following, Play It Again Sam. I wrote about how we used the same set for both shows in Two shows on one set (re-tasking a set) so I won’t repeat it here. But we had a very simple problem right up front — that would have been very simple to solve — which created other problems down the line. Unfortunately, even though we did discuss it afterwards, the real reason for the problem was not addressed: it wouldn’t have been “politically correct” to do so. So similar problems continued to occur.

Briefly, the structure called for a series of platforms to go right up to the back wall of the stage. From there, flats and platforms would angle downstage to form a box set, which would terminate just behind the proscenium wall on both sides of the stage. I designed it that way to simplify the look, as the entire set would be behind the proscenium arch. But, because we were using the same set for the second show (which required several secret panels), the position of the walls relative to the platforms, steps, escapes, and other elements was critical. Plus, of course, there were parts of the theatre building which could not move.

The problem began when the TD left two inexperienced carpenters to begin assembling the platforms while he went to lunch. By the time he came back, a number of platforms were up and connected, but there was about a four-inch gap between the back edge of the platforms and the back wall. This was due to a decision the carpenters made, and by not following the instructions. I pointed out the gap to the TD, but he didn’t want to correct it, as he felt it would take too long and not really create any problems later.

To make a long story short, pushing the set downstage by those four inches created several problems. Because of the angles and steps, the secret panels had to be modified, which meant revising some of the architectural details. But the panels could only be shifted so much, which now meant it was awkward to go through a couple of them. Then, because the set could not now end behind the proscenium arch, I had to re-design the DS termination, which involved building and painting new flats. And of course, that four-inch gap at the back wall had to be closed to avoid anybody stepping in it.

The final score: several new pieces had to be built, painted, and installed, and the gap had to be closed, all of which took longer and cost more than it would have taken to move those platforms when the TD came back from lunch.

We discussed it afterwards — the managing director, the TD, and me — but the message didn’t get through. Nothing was learned from the experience. And yes, similar things happened several times afterwards.

Back in college and grad school, and certainly at a professional scene shop where I worked for six years, the TD or his equivalent would have made those carpenters take the platforms apart and place them per the drawings. That is, after reading them the riot act.

But so often nowadays we don’t seem to be willing to correct errors or even to admit them. Which is too bad, because understanding why mistakes happen is a great way to learn from them and reduce the chances of their happening again.

 

 

The punch list

I know… I know… the first time I heard this term (very soon after I started working in the architectural field)  I had a couple of interesting mental pictures too. And of course they were based on that too-often-asked question, “Whose fault was it?”

But a punch list is nothing more than a list of things that need to be completed before the project is handed over to the client. Generally, when a building contractor tells a client that the job is “substantially complete,” he (or the architect) also provides a list of items that still need to be addressed. Maybe a piece of carpeting keeps pulling up, or a door needs to be plumbed, or an A/C diffuser needs to be moved… or someone hit a wall with a cart and the drywall needs to be repaired. Making these lists is a standard practice in the industry, and what it does is make accounting for these items a formal, expected part of the process instead of a last-minute finger-pointing exercise.

I’ve never seen this term used in theatrical companies (although I’ve tried to introduce it several times, with often limited success), but, in reality, I’ve found that the TD or shop foreman, or designer, often does make up a list before opening. The main difference I’ve noted is that this list, and the response to it, is often seen as a negative (again, “Whose fault was it?”) instead of just being part of the process of building and installing a set.

I don’t know where or how the term “punch list” originated, but an article on it in Wikipedia says that the term probably comes

“from the historical process of punching a hole in the margin of the document, next to one of the items on the list. This indicated that the work was completed for that particular construction task. Two copies of the list were punched at the same time to provide an identical record for the architect and contractor.”

(I mention this in case you want to introduce the concept in your own company but people object to the term “punch”  — which I’ve seen happen.)     🙂

I’ve written here several times that, if a set construction project is managed well and given enough time, the set can be pretty much ready to go by First Tech, which is usually the weekend before opening night. If this happens, then Tech Week, for the shop, becomes just a time to go through the punch list and take care of all those little details that’ll make the set look finished and become a valuable part of the story.

Problem solving: painting faux brick

Every now and then I hear the question (or see it asked in a forum) “What’s a good source for learning to paint a fake brick wall?”

The best answer I can provide to this is “A real brick wall.”

Bricks have been in use for thousands of years in lots of different places, and an online search for “brick” or “brick laying” or “brick coursing” or “mortar joints” will yield hundreds and hundreds of different types of bricks, colors, patterns, and other variables including the mortar lines. The trick, when creating fake brick for a theatrical production, is to be aware of what a real brick wall, in that particular situation, would look like.

For instance, we have all seen brick used on the outside of houses. Generally, it’s a shade of brownish red, and the mortar is nicely recessed in between the bricks. Here’s a sample from a contemporary house:

There are many ways of painting a faux brick surface like this, and here are three of the most common:

Paint the mortar and stamp the bricks

This was the first one we learned in college. You start by painting the entire surface (say a flat) with the mortar color, and, once it’s dry, you paint the brick shapes on top of it, using either a “rubber stamp” method or a stencil with cutouts of the brick shapes. Generally, you need to go over the individual bricks to some degree to get a nice variation in the coloration. This method is described in detail in a number of “how to” books and web sites.

Paint the brick color and line the mortar

This is a reverse of the above: you cover the surface with the brick color and, once it’s dry, paint the mortar lines with a lining brush and straight edge. This is my personal favorite, as it goes fast and still allows for variations in the brick and mortar colors. This one has also been described in detail in books and online. Here’s a sample, where the scenic artist painted the wall units flat on the floor before they were assembled:

The adjacent wall is faux stone; I’ll do a post on that technique at some point.

Paint the brick color and spray the mortar

This one works well too, although it’s a bit messier than lining the mortar with a brush. You paint the brick color, then place a number of individual brick-shaped “cutouts” to mask the brick area, and then use a sprayer to lay the mortar color in between the bricks. I described this method in detail for a trade magazine some years ago, and you can find it on my web site, at Scenic Brick in Three Steps.

All these work well, but they still leave the question: what do the bricks themselves, and the mortar lines, look like?

Again, an online search can yield lots of examples. Although brick is often used nowadays for decorative purposes, at one time it was mostly a structural material, and it was used, and laid, according to the needs of the building and the budget.

For instance, a civic building or church would more than likely have the brick carefully laid, the mortar recessed and clean, and the overall appearance would be very elegant. On the other hand, a brick wall in a storage shed, or a cellar, or a jail cell, would not look as nice because there was no need for it: in many cases the mortar was simply wiped off flush with the face of the brick (aka a “flush joint”):

Or not even that:

In the set with the fireplace above, I wanted the wall to look like a very old structural wall, not a decorative one, so I had the painter line the mortar so it looked flush with the bricks.

And this is where showing the painters exactly what you want the wall to look like is necessary. For instance, when I was discussing the wall above with the painter, he indicated that it would take a long time to do all those shadows. He was just warning me about the cost. But when I showed him a photo of a real wall with flush joints, he understood what I wanted. Apparently, he had been taught to paint “clean” brick, with nice shadow lines, and that’s how he thought all brick was painted. This was a case where a picture was definitely worth several thousand words.

A brick wall can be a nice part of a set and create some interesting images and moods, but the trick is to create just the “right” type of brick wall for the story. An online search, or a nice long walk on a Sunday, can provide lots of ideas.

My “Yorick Theory”

Imagine for a moment… you’re at the supermarket, walking through the produce section. There, in a bin, is a display of coconuts.

Coconut

Now, imagine someone like the late Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, or maybe Kenneth Branagh or Patrick Stewart, walking up to that bin, picking up a coconut, and launching into the Yorick speech from Hamlet. Just out of the blue.

Are you picturing it?

Now imagine an unskilled, untrained (but well-connected) actor, playing Hamlet, insisting that the production company spend $500.00 — or more — on a custom-made, ultra-realistic, perfectly aged skull, good enough for NCIS, Bones, or a museum.

This actor is on stage, on a beautifully designed and executed professional set, with top-notch costumes and lighting. He checks the skull on the prop table before every  performance, dusts it, makes sure it’s perfect. But his delivery comes across like he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying — he might as well be reciting the phone book (the white pages) while watching paint dry.

Which would you rather watch? Which one would make you feel something for Hamlet (and Yorick), and which one would make you remember that you have to wash the car? Which one would bring down the house?

I can take a guess.

But this blog is about set design and tech, not about acting. So let’s go there.

Sets can work exactly the same way. A very simple set can do wonders to bring the story alive for the audience. I’ve mentioned this one before: back around 1974 the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep over the Summer. The stage was empty — literally empty — all the way to the back wall. No drops, curtains, tabs, flats, or anything else. No castles or forests, no platforms, ramps, or stairs. But when those actors came on stage and started showing us their stories, they grabbed us and shook us and left us shaken.

That staging was not a decision based on lack of funds: it was an artistic decision based on the director’s (and set designer’s) interpretation of the four stories and how best to get them across to the audience in a powerful, compelling manner. The costumes and makeup were awesome, but the real skill was in the acting: in bringing the characters alive and making us care about them.

I’ll never forget that Summer. It was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

On the other hand, I’ve seen sets that upstaged the actors, that made you wonder if you were there to watch a story or admire the set. Sure we designers love to get rave reviews, but really, a set that competes with the story is not doing its job. If the set is awesome but the acting isn’t, a critic will comment on it, and that review will influence other people who may want to see the show.

Competing with the story can take another form: when the set is so poorly executed that the audience keeps finding itself looking at everything that doesn’t look right. Poor construction, poor painting, poor detailing, can all take the audience’s attention away from the actors and the story. Or, when the set is obviously not finished, you often hear people going, “Geez, what happened?”

Good or bad, it’s all part of the audience experience: it’s all part of what they will remember about the show.

Just like the actor in the supermarket with a coconut, a good designer can make a very powerful statement with a very simple set by focusing on what’s really important and avoiding stuff that just sits there for its own sake, or “because we need a set.” Creating the right environment for the story — just like creating a compelling character with a coconut — is part of the creative process that we all live with in theatre.