How to read a script like a set designer

This post was inspired by some recent projects, which in turn made me think about older ones and the people I worked with, and how they approached the process of designing and building a set.

One of the things that has really stood out for me over the years is how so many designer/TDs in non-professional theatre seem to look at a script in terms of “okay, so we need to build a such-and-such.” A few years ago, one of them didn’t seem interested at all in how the scenery units helped tell the story or how they worked in context with other units: he was just focused on the construction of individual pieces. And I found it surprising because he was also a good director and actor who paid close attention to the actors and their characters and motivations in the context of the story.

So how do we look at a script from the viewpoint of a set designer?

Start by understanding the story itself. Stories are about people, three-dimensional people who want something but can’t get it because there are obstacles in the way, so they have to figure out how to get past the obstacles. Whether it’s a play, a musical, an opera, a movie, a sitcom, a “reality show,” an election, or a sporting event, it’s all the same: somebody wants something and has to figure out what to do about it.

A set is nothing more than a physical environment in which the characters in the story show us how they approach getting past those obstacles. So the set not only has to make it physically possible for the story to take place, but hopefully also wants to give us a sense of the overall mood of the story and present us with a logical place for it. Watch your favorite TV show or movie and notice how characters’ homes and workplaces “fit” the characters and the nature of the story. Some years back there were snide comments about the lifeguards on Baywatch all having homes that nobody could afford on a lifeguard’s income. It was probably done to enhance the “glamorous” nature of the characters portrayed, but, still, it was distracting.

Here is where good set designers read the script two or three times before starting to draw anything. The first time is for the story itself and the other times are to understand what the story really requires in terms of the physical space and how it all works together. I covered some of this here in several previous posts.

The danger, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is that by thinking about scenery units (or props and furniture) out of context, they just become generic pieces. I’ve heard it many times: “We don’t have to build a staircase – we have one from last year. It’s about the right size and has a nice railing.” What can be (and often is) missed here is that last year’s staircase was from Willy Loman’s house and this year it’ll be in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

While reading the script, we also look for things like genre and mood. Is it a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a horror story, or something else? Is the mood happy, sad, tense, poignant, scary? These, and the nature of the story itself, are what clue us in as to whether the story wants a “realistic” set or a “non-realistic” set, a.k.a. a representational set or a presentational one.

These are some of the things I discuss at my first meeting with the director because I want to find out how he or she is approaching the story, and why. Too often I’ve seen a new director want a realistic set for something like a musical or a Shakespeare play, where realistic sets can come across as static and unimaginative. On the other hand, plays like Neil Simon comedies or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, can “feel” better in a “realistic” space.

For instance, here’s part of a set I did years ago for David Lindsay-Abaire‘s play Rabbit Hole, which is about a young couple who lost their four-year-old son to a car accident. The director and I decided that we wanted the audience to focus on the sadness of the story, so we would avoid any theatricalism and create a fairly realistic space. The show was done in a black box.

On the other hand, here’s my set (under work lights) for J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which is about an investigation into the suicide of a young factory worker and takes place in England during the Edwardian period. Here we wanted to show the wealth of the family who lived in the house and their isolation from the common people, and also pick up on the story’s sense of things being out of balance.

In both cases the research led to authentic period detailing, but the sets themselves had totally different feelings to jive with their stories and their characters.  You can read more about these sets on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net. And, for a good short intro to how we approach research for a set design, you can read my post here, at Research is an investment, not a luxury.

Once I have a good sense of how we want to approach the story, I can go back to the script to start defining the physical space. Many scripts include detailed stage directions or even floor plans, and there is an ongoing debate as to how much of this was included by the playwright and how much is just a record of the original production. A couple of years ago I contacted a few publishers to get their take on this, and the consensus was that, unless the contract specifically states otherwise, there is no requirement to follow any of it. You can read about this at The script, the set, and stage directions.

So, basically, that’s how we read scripts: start with the story, make sure we understand it and the director’s intent, and then delve into the details that we need to create a compelling physical space. As I mentioned above, several readings are usually necessary to get a really good mental picture of what kind of space will best serve the story. And I often keep referring to the script as I make design choices, looking for hints about the characters’ intentions.

Many times the characters themselves (not the actors, although that’s a separate conversation) will tell us what they need, but we have to be open to listening to them. For instance, in the set above for An Inspector Calls, the head of the household, Arthur Birling, loves to tell people that he used to be Lord Mayor of his town; he considers it just one more symbol of his status and importance. So I decided we would have a formal portrait of him, in full mayoral regalia, hanging over the fireplace. That way, when he tells the Inspector about his former title, he can point to the portrait. The director loved the idea, as it would help show his pompous personality.

If you’d like a little more on the design process itself, please check out one of my original posts here, A set design from start to finish.

 

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The scene shop, part 1: general layout

Now and then I see a post in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) open forum regarding ideas for a new scene shop, or tools, or something related, so I decided to do a few pieces here. This first one is about scene shops in general, the second will be about work areas and storage of tools and equipment, and subsequent ones will be about related subjects.

First off, a scene shop is nothing more than a dedicated place to build custom items which may be made of wood, plastic, metal, or other materials. The process, the tools, the ideal layout, and everything else are pretty much the same as in any other custom shop that specializes in these materials, the main difference being that the scene shop is used to build scenery instead of cabinetry, furniture, or other products. So we’ll look at a scene shop with that perspective in mind.

Workflow and layout

Like in other shops, the workflow in a scene shop is very straightforward: the raw materials come in “at one end” and the finished products go out “at the other end.” In between, the materials get stored temporarily, get cut to size and otherwise worked, get assembled, and get stored temporarily again until they get painted. Then they get painted, and, finally, they move onto the stage to get installed. Later, after the show closes, the pieces may come back and get disassembled.

And there are usually two or more projects (individual pieces of scenery) going on at once.

So, ideally, the shop layout should reflect the workflow: the raw material comes in at the loading dock end and the finished pieces go out the other end onto the stage. This suggests a long skinny room, but of course most scene shops aren’t built this way (most of the ones I’ve seen are either square or close to it). The idea, however, can still work with a little planning and/or rearranging of the existing equipment.

If you already have a shop, a good way to see if it is laid out with workflow in mind is to observe the construction crew during a typical show. How often do they have to move materials and piece parts from one place to another and back again? Some movement is of course inevitable, but (for instance) if you have to bring new plywood sheets to the back of the shop for storage and then bring them to the front again because that’s where the table saw is, you may want to consider a little re-arranging. Or if the paint area is at the back of the shop and the stage door is at the front, or if you have to run an obstacle course to get to the panel saw or radial arm, or if the best place for assembly is taken up by a large stationary power tool. But you get the idea. And don’t laugh: I’ve seen all these instances and many more.

One thing to avoid whenever possible is storing scenery, props, or other items in the shop. Unless the room was deliberately planned large enough to have dedicated areas for storage, what often happens is that it becomes a warehouse and leaves very little space for work. I’ve seen a few (large) shops that were so full of stored stuff that there was hardly any place to work; even the work tables were piled with props and other items, so layouts had to be done on the floor — and there was very little of that.

Flexibility

A major factor to consider when planning a shop is flexibility. Some pieces of scenery are fairly small and others may be huge, and sometimes you get some of one and some of the other, plus everything in between. The best way to deal with this is to dedicate a large open space strictly for assembly, and then to put as many of the power tools as possible on casters so they can be moved out of the way if necessary. I’ve seen a few shops where the table saw and other large tools are in the worst possible places, but they can’t be easily moved due to the placement of electrical outlets and dust collection systems. Their placement also cuts down on open space for assembling large pieces.

I’ll go more into this in the next two posts.

Resources

There are lots of resources available on how to set up a wood shop: books, magazines, online articles, and videos, and they are great for generating ideas; some even show actual or suggested floor plans and designs for storage cabinets. I have a workshop in my garage (I don’t build scenery or props at home, but woodworking has been a hobby since high school), and I consistently find great tips and ideas in these resources. Some of my favorite ones are listed in the Resources page of this blog, and there are lots more.  I’ve seen a few pieces on how to set up a scene shop too, mostly in the older books, but unfortunately they were either very specific or are totally outdated.

“Theater” can lead to a lot of careers

This post was inspired by a thread in the Educational Theatre Association’s (EdTA) Open Forum, in which a teacher wanted ideas for a class on possible careers in theater besides the obvious ones of acting, directing, and tech. Two members provided excellent responses, and, with their permission, I’m quoting them below.

This is one of the things I really wish had come up when I was in school (one community college and two university training programs). We were learning theater, we were thinking theater, we were living eating and sleeping theater, and we were looking forward to a career in theater. It never occurred to us that the skills we were learning could be used in other fields too; in my case, I ended up in architecture for fifteen years (mostly doing corporate facilities and courthouses), and, later, worked on numerous theme park projects. Over the years I’ve noticed, repeatedly, how true this is in fields besides theater. Many lawyers (for instance) end up in areas other than law itself: they go into business, politics, public relations, finance, and lots of other fields where they still use their legal training. The same is true for doctors and other professions.

Interestingly enough, all the time we were in school, we were thinking of live theater as “the entertainment industry.” The term “the arts” rarely came up.

So here are the two posts. The first one is from Elizabeth Rand, a lighting designer, high school theater operations coach, author, and owner of PRESETT.org.

High School Theatre Management.

A high school theatre student recently asked me what advice I had for someone who wanted to be able to practice his craft as a lighting designer and who also wanted to eat. My response – go into education or management.

Or – combine the two. High School Theatre Management is an emergent profession. More and more high schools are finding out that – with everyone in the school, the district, and the community wanting to use the theatre – their school theatre is starting to operate as a “road house”, and that highly qualified management and staff is needed in order to set up the operating systems, create a safety program, maximize student learning, and determine building performance and academic outcomes. It’s becoming essential to hire a High School Theatre Manager, along with specialized technicians, to run a high school theatre. For some examples of high school theatres which are well managed by a High School Theatre Manager, please visit the Gold Standard Schools page on my website at: http://www.presett.org/gold-standard-schools.html.

The job of a High School Theatre Manager is a rare hybrid job that combines three specialties – education, management, and a tech theatre background. A High School Theatre Manager does not necessarily have to be a specialist in every technical aspect of the theatre, but they do have to know enough in order to hire and manage people who do. They have to be organized and self-motivated. They have to be good at maintaining stacks of paperwork. They also have to have a good grasp of how a theater operates and what policies and procedures will make it operate more smoothly. (A TM is different than a TD or a technician. A Theatre Manager does not always actually run tech for the shows – just as in a hospital, the administrator does not perform the surgeries – but they must have enough specialized knowledge to manage the facility.) And, because this theatre is on a high school campus, and a High School Theatre Manager will be working with students, so they should also have some sort of background and experience in education.

Unfortunately there are no know universities which have a degree in High School Theatre Management, despite the market for these specialists. The closest I’ve found is the Entertainment Business degrees at Full Sail University in Florida (both BS and MS, offered both on campus and online). These degrees can be viewed at: https://www.fullsail.edu/degrees?business=1

The second one is from Stanley Allan Sherman, a custom theatrical mask maker, actor, director, producer, and owner of Mask Arts Company.

In NYC there was, until a few years ago, The Association of Theater Artists and Craftspeople.    They included people that create props, costumes, do sets  and more for the theater. One of my specialties is I am a Mask Maker, creating custom masks and my line of stock Commedia dell’Arte masks.  Creating custom masks for the entertainment industry around the world.  Just had a young man fly in from over seas  for a custom fitting.  Some of the other unusual specialties, a woman that knits and weaves specifically for the film and theater, she is busy.   Have friend a that makes swords and weapons for the theater.  Sculptures that specialize in paper meche – they also create a lot of the fancy  creatures in window displays around the holiday time.

Have a good friend, that besides acting, his main livelihood is made as a publicist  specialist for the Off Off Broadway and variety of theater companies.  He has developed relationships with all kinds of media that do reviews of shows.  He writes the press releases and take the photographs that go into the press.  For pre-publicity or reviews.  There are people that  do the PR public relations. They get all kinds of PR for a show in unusual ways and do things like get the star or director a spot on a TV Show or interview on a well know local or national talk show.  They can also create some kind of special event or get the cast to march in a parade.

There are photographers that specialize in the theater.  One friend specializes in the world of clowns, variety performers, mimes etc.  There are other specializing in only creating photographs for Broadway.

There are also stage crews that specialize in popular music show. They load in and put up all the rigging for major music festivals and road shows. There is a whole monthly magazine devoted to this line of work and it is interesting reading.

There is a costumer, she sews costumes.  Has a job with a major city theater company and it is a union job IATSE.  That means she has benefits like heath insurance, over time pay and more.  When the theater is dark, her union calls her for other jobs.   This is in a major city in the NW.

Entertainment law – lawyers that specialize in all aspects of the entertainment world.  Putting together the legal paperwork so the producers can raise money.  They deal with union contract law.  Copyright law for plays, films and media.  They can represent a famous actor or performer.  Solo or small companies they have a lawyer to write all the contacts and sometime negotiate.

Theatrical accountant, book keeping for the theater and help put together the budgets.  It is a specialty.  Knowing what you can write off on the taxes and what you cannot.  This is a specialty and the good ones get top dollar.

In the film industry there are caterers and craft services.  Film and TV production companies are very large.  You can compare to an army.  The saying goes, “an army travels on its stomach”.   Meaning everyone needs to eat.    There is competition among film shoot as to who has the best caterers.  These are the people that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Then there is craft services which serve all the snacks between lunch and dinner.  Sometimes on long shoot that go for 16 hour plus. These people are vital.

Stage make-up.  Film make-up.  These are specialties.  They will travel with a film crew.

Hair is an art.  In every television or film studio there are several people all they do is hair.  On film productions they will have their own trailer.  Sometimes sharing it with the make-up people.

There is a non-profit organization that specializes in health and safety in the entertainment industry.  Covering what is toxic and you cannot or should not do, to any kind of safety concern you have.  They are feared and loved in the industry.

Film and television studios are there own small cities.

Then outside the union and established theaters, are people that have solo shows, I did this most of my life, touring all over the US.  There are small companies and solo performers that tour. Actors and musicians that tour with circuses.  People that specialize in party entertainment.   Know one women does balloon twisting.  Creating more things than you can imagine.  One lawyer quit his job as a lawyer and does balloon twisting for parties, mainly law firm parties.  There are birthday party specialist and know several women that are excellent at this.   One friend an excellent actress, her main money comes from face painting.  She is a professional at this.

Do not forget the street performers.  There is a large variety of them and some well known performers got there start in the street.    It was my first paying job on the streets of Paris, France when I studied there at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, it is partly how I was able to eat and pay my rent.

My first performing job in NYC as a mime, clown and juggler; my spot was Wall Street and Nassau in front of the Federal Treasury building, the steps created a natural theater.   Heads of major firms would come to see me.  One left me a note with a photograph of me performing.  It said, “This is on my desk.  It is what helps me get through my day”.

What we know as “theater” involves, and requires, a lot of different skill sets (not to mention mindsets). which can be applied to a lot of different professions. Theater is a perfectly good career field in and of itself, and many people thrive in it, but it’s not a world apart as we sometimes think while in school. Those theater skills can lead to some very interesting alternative careers.

 

 

 

Please help me out with a very brief survey

Now that this blog is entering its third full year of operation (and that I’m getting the hang of blogging), I’d like to learn more about who you are and what topics you find useful and interesting. Therefore, I put together two short surveys in order to get some feedback. Both are similar, but one is tailored specifically for high schools and the other is geared towards community, regional, and other types of theaters.

The high school survey has nine questions and the general survey has ten, and the survey site estimates it “should” only take about three to four minutes to complete each one.

If you’re involved in high school theater, please use this one: High School Survey

Or, if you’re involved in community, regional, or another type of theater, please use this one: General Theater Survey

Or, you can just drop me a note by using the form below.

BTW, this blog had 934 views in ’15 (it was only a partial year), 5,161 in ’16, and 10,941 in ’17. With your interest and your help, those numbers will continue to increase.

Thanks very much.

Don’t put the cart before the horse

Every now and then, at a first production meeting, I hear something that reminds me of this:

I’m sure you’ve heard it too: “Let’s get (or build) a revolve.” “We have a cart we used last year.” “We have that staircase from [name a show].” “We can use periaktoi.” And similar comments.

Granted these ideas are all intended to be helpful, but it’s so easy to home in on one of them and let a piece of scenery drive the set design. I’ve mentioned this one before: a couple of years ago I was at a first meeting for Les Miz at a large community theater, and of course the barricade came up right away. Someone immediately suggested borrowing a 12′ revolve from another company, and several heads nodded in agreement. At which point I brought up two things: one, a 12′ barricade on a 40′ wide stage would not have looked very impressive, and, two, we didn’t need a revolve just because the barricade turns around. So they looked at me and asked what I would do instead, to which I replied “I don’t know yet; this is our first meeting and I haven’t started on the design.” Not what they wanted to hear at that moment, but it had to be my answer.

In the end, they had a much more impressive barricade that turned just fine, and they didn’t have to deal with a revolve. You can read about here, at The barricade in Les Miz.

It’s fine to keep stock pieces in mind, and they can certainly help with the budget or the schedule. However, it’s so much better — in terms of the audience experience — to create a solid, compelling design first, thinking about the story and the characters, and then (and only then) look for stock pieces that fit into the design. A staircase, for instance, built for one show may not work for another show due to size, style, or some other consideration. Ditto for doors, windows, and lots of other items, and the same holds true for furniture and accessories.

By the same token, popular and frequently built scenery pieces — like periaktoi — are not always the best solution to a design problem. What I’ve seen happen often (too often) is that these items become a construction project that drives everything else. You can end up deciding to build three or four periaktoi right up front, before considering the overall set, and then find yourself painted into a corner: “Okay we have them, now what do we do with them?”

If you want to consider periaktoi as problem-solvers (which they are), and not as short-cuts to designing a set (which they are not), you may want to check out my post on them, at Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works.

Take your time. Study the script, the characters, the period, and all those other things that make up the story, and come up with a physical environment that supports it in the most creative, theatrical manner possible. Then feel free to see what pieces you have that fit in perfectly or that can be modified.


I love that photo above, BTW. It’s like the horse is breaking the fourth wall to ask us, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

When a pencil meets technology

Back in 2007 I designed a production of To Kill a Mockingbird for a local theatre. At our first meeting, the director and I agreed that it would be really simple to just say, okay, we need a few houses and a tree, and call it a day — and immediately decided that that was exactly what we didn’t want to do. After some discussion, we agreed to borrow an idea from the novel, and that’s how I came to combine a pencil, a scanner, and SketchUp.

In the novel, the narration is pretty much provided by a grown-up Scout (Jean Louise Finch), based on her recollections of “the old days.” So the director and I said, what if Jean Louise had done some pencil sketches of her old town and we saw the play through those sketches. We liked that, so the houses, the tree, and other elements would all be large pencil sketches. We deviated from this for the trial scene, but that’s a different story.

The first step here was to research period houses in Alabama, and there was plenty of material available online. I also bought a book, A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester, which was great not just for the photos but for the drawings and descriptions. It was a huge help.

As usual for me, I then did a number of rough pencil sketches sketches to get an idea of what the set would look like. This was also how I sold the concept to the director:

Mockingbird 1

Once we were in agreement, I fired up SketchUp. Another set designer had been trying to talk me into using it, and this time I decided to give it a go and see whether I liked it. I already had an idea as to what the houses might look like, so now I developed them some more, in 3D, based on each character’s personality. The houses were mostly facades and roofs, since that’s all I would need. Here are four of them:

Mockingbird 3

Then, going back to my original concept sketch, I turned each house (in SketchUp) to get just the angle and view I wanted:

Mockingbird 1

Now I printed each one out, placed a sheet of colored tracing paper over it, and traced it in pencil to get a “pencil sketch” look:

Mockingbird 4

This took a few tries, since I was also working on the drawing style I thought Jean Louise would have used. I could have sketched out the houses in pencil to begin with, but SketchUp gave me the ability to turn them until they were “just so,” instead of having to re-draw them several times.

Once I was happy, I scanned each sketch, did a bit of work on it with Paint Shop Pro (a product similar to Photoshop), and imported them into SketchUp for the final “assembly” into the town:

Mockingbird 5

Two of the houses needed a real porch, so we added them while still keeping to the pencil-sketch look.

The tree worked out the same way. I looked at numerous live oaks online, found one I liked, modified it some, sketched it, and imported it into SketchUp. I was also careful to place the knot hole at just the right height for Scout and her brother:

Mockingbird 6

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of the set, but here’s one under work lights:

Mockingbird 7

To create the actual scenery units, I printed out each house for the scenic artists, and they then gridded the printouts and transferred the designs to the full-size pieces. They also mixed a background paint exactly the color of aged newsprint (from an actual sample) and then a lining color that looked just like pencil graphite.

You can see a few photos of this project on my web site, at To Kill a Mockingbird, and more on how I use SketchUp right here on the blog at I love SketchUp and A set design from start to finish.

I’ve used this same technique a number of times by now, and I really like it. It gives me the ability to draw something freehand just the way I want it and then import it into SketchUp to develop the set design and the renderings. Once the designs are in the computer, I can transfer them directly into the shop drawings and even home in on some of the details, since they’re already there. It’s a creative solution and a time-saver at the same time.

 

Revolves don’t have to be round

My first year in junior college we built a revolve for a show. It was a huge affair with three different scenes, one of which had folding panels to change the setting quickly. In the center of this revolve was what we called the “delta unit,” which was a triangular space that led to each of the three scenes. I kid you not: it was easy (and known) for people to get lost in the thing.

That was my first revolve, and of course it was round. And, of course, going by the textbooks, we built up the floor around it so the whole surface would be at one level and the turntable wouldn’t be visible. It worked beautifully, but, being the first revolve most of us worked on, it also gave us the impression that revolves have to be round.

Not so.

Your typical revolve, out of a textbook, is a round turntable in the middle of a built-up area. The backs and sides of the set, and the structure on it — and of course the dimensions — can be anything, but the basic idea is the same:

Revolve 1

Now and then we see a revolve without the built-up area around it, which looks like a round platform:

Revolve 2

Nothing wrong with this, as long as it fits visually into the overall design.

But it doesn’t have to be round. Years ago I designed a small, non-round revolve for Equus, which was about six feet on a side:

revolve-3.jpg

But it wasn’t square: the edges were ragged, so it looked like a rough wooden platform:

Revolve 4

We can also take this idea a bit further and stack several levels on it, creating a sort of revolving hill or rock formation:

Revolve 5

And here’s another way to look at a revolve, from a set I did for Shrek:

Revolve 6

For this one, we used half of an existing 12′-diameter round revolve and built a square piece on the other side to create a tilted stand for a huge book:

Shrek book

So the revolve had the fairy-tale book on one side and Fiona’s bedroom on the other. You can see more on this on my web site, at Shrek.

Then, of course, there are those pieces that we think need a revolve, but really don’t. The barricade I designed for Les Miz, for instance, was a free-standing structure that turned all the way around but didn’t sit on a “typical” revolve. This photo shows half of it, from the “rebel” side. The complete unit was twenty feet across:

Barricade 2

You can read more about this unit at Problem solving: the barricade in Les Miz.

Revolves can be wonderful tools to help tell a story, but the real trick is to think in terms of what the story needs to say, instead of what the physical piece of scenery “should” be.