Running the construction crew

Saturday is right around the corner, you have the set designer’s drawings, and six volunteers are coming to help with construction. Now what?

My post on getting the most out of volunteers has been so popular that I thought I’d share some observations and suggestions from scene shops I’ve encountered. The most efficient and “user friendly” ones have had several things in common:

The crew is treated like a team

Everyone is there to work on the same project: the set for the upcoming show. They may be working on different parts of it, but it all goes towards the same end. This is no different than a football team, a basketball team, or any other sports team where everyone has their own specialty but are working together. There are times when someone will need an extra pair of hands for something, or even just to hold the other end of the tape measure, and the team members should be happy and willing to help out.

Everyone is clear on the goal

The goal, in this case, is to have the set ready for first tech, which is often the weekend before opening night. By making sure that everyone understands the scope of the project, what the deadline is, how much needs to get done, and how many people are on the team, you will go a long way towards getting that set completed on time.

There is a defined work schedule, including breaks

Most shops I’ve seen work on a defined schedule, where everyone starts at the same time, takes breaks at the same time, cleans up at the same time, and leaves at the same time. This not only creates a sense of order, but also helps you organize the day’s work and know that people will be there when you need them. It also helps with the camaraderie (and therefore the team-building), since everyone will be free to chat at the same time and get to know each other.

There is a project list and schedule

By making and posting a list of what needs to be built, painted, rigged, and so forth, you not only have a constant picture of where you are in the process, but so does everyone else. And there is something therapeutic and wonderful about crossing items off a list, especially as opening night gets closer.

The shop drawings are clear and readily available

Shop drawings, renderings, painters’ elevations, and other applicable materials should be right there, visible at all times and easy to reference. The best way to do this is to designate a table for this purpose, which can also serve as the tech director’s desk during work periods. That way everyone knows where the “instructions” belong and where they need to go back to at the end of the work session.

The supervisor is available to supervise

One thing I’ve found over the years is that it’s very hard to be a working supervisor, where you’re trying to work on your own project at the same time as keeping an eye on other workers, especially if it’s a large group. Inevitably one or the other suffers. The best solution is to just accept that you may not be able to work on your own project, and to spend your time making sure that everyone has what they need, answering questions, and providing guidance where necessary.

Safety is important

Needless to say, you want to make sure that anyone who is using a tool (any kind of a tool) has demonstrated that he or she knows how to use it properly and safely. Anyone using a tool for the first time needs to have someone, already skilled in it, show them how to use it and watch them the first few times. Some shops have “checkout” forms that they use to keep track of who can use which tool, and some also have a list of shop procedures and practices that they issue to everyone (and go over) on the first day of work. Safety is one area where you don’t want to take anything for granted.

Along the same lines, keeping a clean work area can help keep everyone safe. Piles of scrap wood or sawdust on the floor, paint cans scattered around, and tools everywhere, will only cause accidents. Several large trash cans in strategic places–and making sure people use them as they work–can be a huge help.

Everyone helps clean up after each work session

Cleaning up is part of the work session, and you want to let everyone know about this at the start of construction. One professional shop I worked with called a ten-minute “clean up” time before lunch, and again before the end of the day. With everyone chipping in, it only takes a few minutes.


Running a construction crew properly takes a bit of work, but the end results will speak for themselves. Often, it’s just a matter of a little pre-planning.

Saving stuff (or not)

I’ve noticed a tendency, mostly among non-professional theatre companies, to save everything from every show: every piece of scenery, prop, and wood cut-off, and every little leftover of paint. Sometimes this comes from wanting to save money in the future and other times from wanting to place the items in the company’s rental inventory, but, from what I’ve seen, most often it’s just “because that’s what you do.” As a result, shops and storage areas frequently turn into attics and/or fire hazards.

There are several ways of dealing with the “what do you save” question, and below are some of the best thoughts and ideas I’ve seen over the past thirty-odd years.

Custom scenery pieces

Generally, scenery pieces built for one specific show will often not be used the same way again. That huge Gothic window from The Sound of Music, for instance, can only be used in a very few shows (like maybe A Man For All Seasons and Becket), but chances are it won’t be used again “as is” or it won’t work with the new design concept.

Rather than storing pieces like this, a lot of companies advertise them on local theatre bulletin boards or networks and either sell them at cost or donate them to another company. Failing that, the piece can be dismantled and the usable raw materials saved, while the rest are discarded or recycled.

Case in point: A few years ago I designed two full-size “opera boxes” for a production of Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black. After the show closed, the TD decided to discard them, and I later heard a bunch of people were sad or disappointed because the units were so beautiful. But I had to agree with the TD: the pieces were huge, fragile (mostly 1×3 pine, 1/8″ lauan, and rigid plastic foam), and, in the case of this theatre and the local area, they would have more than likely not be re-used or rented.

Staircases and balustrades are another example. To save space, a better solution would be to dismantle the piece and save just the components that can be re-used, such as the balusters, newel posts, and long pieces of railing.

Generic pieces (flats, platforms, step units)

So-called “standard” pieces are good for a company’s stock, but, here again, there’s no point in saving more than you can conveniently store and find when you need it. Here’s where we can borrow an idea from architects and builders: if it’s going to cost more to repair the unit (or make it usable again) than it is to build a new one, then toss it. Or, if it’s such an odd size (a flat, two feet two inches by three feet five inches) that it probably won’t be re-used, there’s no point in hanging on to it.

Some companies dismantle odd items and salvage any usable wood, but, here again, it’s a question of time versus storage space versus money saved.

Raw materials

I’ve seen a few shops that hang on to every little scrap of raw material, like plywood or dimensional lumber, until literally every part of the shop is full of them. The problem here is that you sometimes need a short piece but can’t find it in the mass of scraps, so you end up cutting a new one. Having a plan, or “policy,” for this can make things a lot easier for everyone. For instance, and I’m making this up on the fly, you may decide you want to save:

3/4″ ply – square pieces larger than 2′ x 2′, and non-square pieces at least 3′ in one dimension by 6″ in the the other dimension

1/4″ ply – pieces larger than 12″ x 12″ (these can often be used for props)

1×3 or 1×4 – new, clean pieces longer than 18″ (both ends cut square)

plastic tubing – clean pieces longer than 18″

muslin – clean, unpainted pieces larger than 2′ x 2′

and so on. Once the collection gets to the point where you have more than you can conveniently see or use, you can weed some of it out. The result will be a cleaner, more efficient shop.


The biggest problem with keeping every little paint leftover is that eventually it solidifies and becomes just a can taking up space. Sometimes it turns bad, and you open the can to find a biology experiment.

One solution here is to dump small leftovers into a five-gallon bucket and make up a batch of “garbage paint,” which is handy for priming raw wood, or, sometimes, even for base coating a unit. The bucket, of course, wants to be sealed tight to keep as much air as possible out of it. I will cover various types of paints in another post, but, generally, the water-based “house paints” used often in schools and community theatres can be mixed together with no problem. If in doubt, check with a local paint store and see what they say.

Another solution is to donate the leftover paint. Some communities have an arts recycling program that accepts clean, usable scraps of materials and paints and makes them available to non-profits. A place like this can be a good resource for your company too.

If push comes to shove, you can always discard the paint. Many communities will accept dried paint (i.e., a solid mass) as regular garbage, so you can either let it dry naturally or mix enough sawdust into it that it turns solid. I’ve heard of using cat litter for this purpose, although it seems an expensive solution, and there’s also a product available in paint stores that will solidify paint so it can be discarded. Check your local community to see if they have any preference.

Spray paints are a different animal and require their own disposal methods, so the cans will usually give you the instructions. Some communities will accept these cans as regular garbage and others require that they be taken to a recycling center, so be sure to check locally.

Mechanical and specialty pieces

These are often the tough ones: they took a lot of time and/or cost a lot of money to make, so naturally we want to save them. The best way to approach these is to ask two questions: will we ever really use it again, and will it survive storage until it gets used again?

If you really think you won’t use it again, you may be able to donate it to another theatre group, or trade it for something else, or even sell it. Of course, in this day and age, we also need to be concerned about liability, so, for instance, if it’s an electrical piece, you may be better off dismantling it if you’re not going to find a use for it.

Whether it will survive storage is the second question. How will the piece be stored, and how much storage space do you have? If there’s a chance it will get damaged beyond repair, or get in the way, or it has parts that have a limited shelf life, or, for instance, has a pump that needs to be oiled regularly, you may be better off dismantling it and saving only the parts you think you can use another time.


A lot of theatres have a collection of furniture: real antiques, modern pieces, and some items designed for a particular show. A collection of real furniture is always nice if you have the space for it, but the problem occurs when some of these pieces are so old and fragile, or damaged beyond reasonable repair, or just plain unsafe — or so specific to a particular show and design concept — that all they do is take up space. That’s when it may become time to make a decision.

Another case in point: a French secretary I designed for a production of Robin Hawdon’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The characters in the story “drank like fish” for most of the play, so a bar was needed, but the director and I didn’t want just a predictable sideboard or liquor cart. So I designed a secretary that looked “normal” when the doors were closed, but turned into a bar when they were open:

This theatre has a very active rental program, and chances are this piece will never be rented for its double purpose, but I hear it’s been rented a number of times as set dressing (i.e., with the doors closed) when the designer wanted a nice piece of furniture.


Where to begin with props? I have seen prop rooms that are beautifully organized and maintained, often with computerized inventories and photos, and others that are basically just attics, but (so far) they all have one thing in common: they have a lot of items that are just taking up space.

The two questions I mentioned in specialty pieces above can also apply here: will we ever use it again, and will it survive storage? But a third question comes into the mix: is it worth keeping it?

I’ve seen piles of gift-wrapped boxes, complete with ribbons and bows, that cannot be used as is again because the wrapping has become dirty or torn, the bows have been flattened, and the ribbon is pulling off. Or it’s such a specific type of gift wrap (baby shower, or Christmas, or antique) that it’ll need to be replaced anyway even if we re-use the boxes. A good solution here is to discard the wrapping and flatten the boxes for storage.

Fake food items are another example. Years ago I made a highly realistic “Sara Lee” cheesecake with a slice cut off, for a production of Kander and Ebb’s And The World Goes ‘Round, and of course it was saved.

Not too long afterwards, due to being stored in a large box with other fake food items, it was in very sorry shape. Plates of salad and hors d’oeuvres, in the same box, were also coming apart. It would have been so much better to discard these items and make them fresh next time.

Liquids are yet another example. Bottles of liquids should be emptied and the bottles rinsed for storage or, if they’re commonly available, discarded.

Cleaning out a huge collection can be a very scary task if you try to do it all at once, but, if you set up a system and do a little at a time, it can result in a more organized, useful, easier-to-work-in space.


Two shows on one set (re-tasking a set)

A number of years ago a managing director, while thinking about the following year’s season, asked me if I thought it would be possible to do two different shows on the same set. My first reaction was to say, well, Shakespeare and his contemporaries did it all the time, and so did the Greeks. We had a nice chuckle, and then got down to business.

A few minutes later, considering where she was going with the season, we had tossed some ideas on the table. One of them was to do a show, like a Neil Simon comedy, which takes place in an apartment, and follow it with a show that could conceivably take place in the same apartment building, even if the apartments were slightly different. A few days later we met again and she said, how about Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple followed by Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam.

It was an interesting choice. The Odd Couple requires a large apartment, with a living room, dining room, kitchen (which can be offstage), a bathroom, and one or more bedrooms. Although he’s a slob, Oscar’s place was very nice before his wife moved out and took most of the furniture and decor. Play it Again Sam, on the other hand, requires a smaller apartment, since Allan isn’t quite as well off as Oscar. In this one, the kitchen needs to be onstage. The show also needs ways for the characters in Allan’s fantasy scenes to enter and exit, ideally without using the real doors.

Now it was my turn to go away for a couple of days, read the scripts, and get back to her. I’m going to fast-forward here, past the meetings with the directors, research, sketches, and so forth, and get right to the results.

The Odd Couple set turned out as a nice big apartment, although with sparse furniture (the prop crew hadn’t dressed it out at the time of the photo). The entrance alcove, with the front door open, is to your right, then the bathroom, then a hallway to the bedrooms, and finally the kitchen door opening onto the dining room, which featured a card table and folding chairs. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the dining room floor was painted to look like a rug had been removed from it.

The Sam set used the same living room area, but we made a few changes to the layout. Because of the kitchen scenes, we brought the kitchen forward into the old dining room. We also sealed off the bathroom wall and closed off the hallway with a door. In place of the bathroom door, we built in a projection screen for Allan’s movie scene, and of course we changed all the furniture and decor.

Now for the fun part.

During the original design phase, we decided that the characters in Allan’s fantasy scenes (including Humphrey Bogart in his trench coat) would enter through the walls themselves, which meant creating several “secret panels.” So I designed these into the Odd Couple set and we sealed them off until we needed them in Sam. Here are a couple of photos.

This “secret panel” was just stage left of the front door, in the entry alcove:

Another one was stage right of the entry alcove. The second photo shows it under construction:

There were two others, but I don’t have good photos of them.

Building the first set took five weeks (the theatre had a full shop and a permanent staff, so work was Monday through Friday), and the change-over took just about two weeks. The up-front decision to have those secret panels, and to build them into the first set, was what made the whole scheme work.

And the whole experience was a blast and a half. You can see more photos of the two sets on my web site, at