The Technical Director

The job title “Technical Director” can have any number of different job descriptions, depending on the production company. Some TDs are in charge of all technical aspects of a production, and others handle just one or two. I’ve seen cases where the TD was primarily in charge of lighting or sound, and others where his or her real function was to run the scene shop.

Some companies don’t even use this job title, preferring something like “Production Manager” or something similar. Back in grad school, the theatre department didn’t believe in TDs; they had a Production Manager to supervise and coordinate the productions, plus a full-time Shop Foreman and a full-time Master Carpenter, but each designer had an assistant designer to prepare the construction drawings and handle some of the work normally done by a TD.

In contrast, in college, there was a full-time Shop Foreman, but the TD position was filled by a student for each show, and his or her job consisted of coordinating and supervising the scenery construction, installation, and strike. Often, it also included preparing the construction drawings from the designer’s elevations or model.

To make life even more interesting, the term Technical Director is also used in fields outside of theatre, such as software development, engineering, and film and television, where the duties may be totally different.

Confusing? Sure, but it doesn’t have to be.

As I mentioned in other posts, the important thing is for the production company to define the specific duties up front. Then you can find someone who is qualified and wants to fulfill those duties. Like set designers, TDs don’t all come from the same background or have the same interests.

Whatever the title and job description, the position is an important one, and unfortunately it’s too often neglected. The best TDs I’ve seen functioned like architectural project managers, making sure things happened on schedule and on budget, that everyone had what they needed, and that people communicated during the process. They anticipated needs and problems and kept them to a minimum.

In my own case, I learned far more about being a TD (or production manager) during my years in the architectural field than I ever did in theatre school. That’s where I learned that “it takes far less time to prevent a fire than to put it out,” something that I keep in mind all the time.

Here’s a sample list of duties I’ve seen TDs have in different companies, which you can pick and choose from to develop your own job description. In some cases, of course, the TD will need to coordinate closely with the producer, director, or other people. The list assumes that the production company already has a producer and/or production manager to handle the artistic and business end of things:

  • Develop the production schedule, including auditions, rehearsals, design deadlines, construction and installation dates, and a strike plan. Coordination with other folks is critical here. You can refer to The project schedule for ideas on the design and construction phases, and for how to set up a schedule on a spreadsheet.
  • Schedule, attend, and run production and/or design meetings.
  • Attend and coordinate all technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals, working closely with the Stage Manager.
  • Attend the Paper Tech with the Director, Stage Manager, and designers as needed.
  • Hire scene shop staff as needed, including carpenters, painters, riggers and prop builders.
  • Hire additional (temporary) technical staff as needed, including the hanging and focusing crew, sound technicians, and costume shop staff. Coordination with the various designers and the producer is critical here.
  • Supervise and maintain the scene shop itself, including tools and equipment, inventory, and safety equipment.
  • Train any new hires as to the proper operation of power and hand tools, as well as safety procedures.
  • Supervise scenery construction, painting, installation, and strike.
  • Serve as the Shop Foreman for the company, which can include taking care of the shop’s equipment as mentioned above.
  • Serve as the Master Carpenter for the production, which sometimes includes preparing the construction drawings from the set designer’s elevations.
  • Purchase materials and supplies. Some of these can be picked up at the vendor’s place and some can be delivered to the theatre by the vendor. Some companies require that a TD have a current driver’s license and clean driving record as a condition of employment.
  • Review all designers’ drawings to make sure the work can be accomplished on time and within budget, given the company’s resources.

There will always be other duties, of course, but the list above will give you a good place to start — to understand and define what your own company needs from a TD.

One thing to consider carefully up front is whether your own TD should be a management position or a supervisory position, and how the position will fit into the current structure. Then you can pick and choose duties, and then, given those duties, you can decide how much of a solid background the TD will need to carry out the job. Knowing all this will help you put together a solid and very clear job description.

 

 

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Same blog, new look!

This blog has been doing so well over the past few months (followers as well as visits from all over the world) that I decided to make it a little more interesting-looking and user friendly. You’ll also notice the new Book Store and Resources links in the menu above.

The photos in the header image are from my web site, at http://www.georgefledo.net.

Enjoy!

A shelf full of (fake) books

Now and then we need to create a shelf (or a bookcase) full of books, and the question becomes, how to best do this?

The problem lies in that real books look real, but are heavy and take up lots and lots of space in a storage room. Fake books, on the other hand, can be lightweight and take up little space, but often look fake. Also, unfortunately, fake books often look so fake that they call attention to themselves, which is something we don’t want. But there are ways to deal with this, and here are a few examples.

Spines on plywood

A lot of theatres have boxes and boxes of old books taking up space: books which are neither useful anymore nor valuable, but are kept for use as set dressing. These are prime candidates for a two-tiered recycling program. First, you carefully cut off the spines (the printed part you see when the book is upright on a shelf) and glue several of them securely, side by side, to a wide piece of ply, creating the impression of several books lined up in a row. Then you can send the books themselves to a recycling center.

Fake books

I like two things about this approach. One, it’s modular. You can make up sections, say, ten or twelve inches wide, and line them up on the shelf to fill up the amount of space you need. Two, you can sort out the books by time period, i.e., very old books together and newer ones together. This way you can create a very old library, a newer one, or anything in between. The illustration shows six spines mounted on a piece of ply ten inches across by ten inches high.

A large number of these panels can be stored safely in a relatively small area and help you reclaim some storage space. To keep these from getting crushed or otherwise damaged, I would store them upright in banker’s boxes or plastic bins.

Before you go this way, and especially before you set a crew on doing it, you’ll want to go through all your books to catch any you don’t want to process.

Cut books on plywood

I saw this one in a book or magazine many years ago. It’s similar to the above, but, instead of cutting off just the spines, you put each book on a band saw and cut off about an inch of the spine edge, including the covers and pages. Then you glue those to a piece of ply. Same effect, a little more work, and the tops are a little more durable because there’s more material there. Here again you can send what’s left of the books to a recycling center.

Photos of books on a shelf

I used this one a few years ago for a production of Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The set had a fake French secretary with glass doors, and I wanted to show books inside it. So I took photos of our book shelves at home, had them enlarged to full size at Costco, cut them as needed, and applied the prints to a panel just behind the glass. From a couple of feet away, they looked like the real thing.

Bookcase 1

The secretary actually opened up to reveal a bar (the characters spent a lot of time drinking during the show), but that’s a different story.

Bookcase 2

Painted books

This one is very time-consuming if they are to look right, and too often they don’t. You simply paint the book spines onto a sheet of ply or something similar and place it on the book shelf. But, unless you’re doing a whole row of the same type of book (say, encyclopedias or law books, which tend to have simple spines), you actually have to paint every book spine down to the last detail.

Rigid plastic foam books

I’ve seen this one used a few times, and I’ve never liked it. Besides the fact that the rigid foam (sometimes referred to as Styrofoam) is fragile, the surface texture and finish tends to make it hard to paint. The material is also flammable, so you need to protect it.

Other ideas

Fake books are available at decorating shops and similar places, and a wide variety is available online. Just do a search for “fake books” and you’ll see lots of examples. Although some of these are expensive, they can give you lots of ideas for how to create your own fake library.

 

Hiring a set designer

Over the last few days I’ve been putting together slides for a workshop on set design I’ll be presenting at a conference in September, and it occurred to me that a few thoughts on how to hire a set designer might be useful here in the blog

I’ve already discussed the set designer’s usual scope of work, as well as how we’re trained, in other posts, so I’ll go right into the interview process. It can be very straightforward and painless and let you make sure you’re hiring the right designer for your needs.

Ask about background and education

Generally, you want to know if the designer has formal university training in theatrical set design, or if he or she just picked it up on the go. It’s also possible that he or she was trained in something else, such as architecture, engineering, interior design, industrial design, studio art, or graphic design, and decided to branch out into set design. There’s no specific “right or wrong” about any of these, but you want to know where the designer is coming from, because it does affect his or her approach to designing sets, as well as to working with a director and production company.

Ask to see a portfolio of recent work

This is a must, and too often falls between the cracks. You need to see what type of work the designer has done elsewhere, because what you end up with will fit right in with what you saw. The portfolio should include drawings and renderings, of course, but also photos of completed productions. If you’re interviewing somebody right out of design school, you may not see much in the way of produced work, but the portfolio will still give you a very good idea of the type of work you will receive.

Personally, I like to show a few samples of how the design developed (i.e., research, preliminary sketches, developed sketches, and maybe a 3D model on a computer), right along with the finished design rendering or model, to help explain how I work. I try to keep this very brief, but often find that the producer and director are fascinated by the process.

As you review the portfolio, feel free to ask questions: Why did you choose this approach? What did the director want to do with the show? Who built it? Who painted it? How did the set work out for the show? And so forth.

Nowadays, most of us have our portfolios on our own web sites, so it’s really easy to look through several and decide who you want to invite for an interview. The web site will not only show you the designer’s work, but also tell you a lot about him or her. Mine, for instance, is at www.georgefledo.net.

Ask to see some design documents

These are the “blueprints” the designer will produce after the final design is approved. They can take the form of designer’s elevations, which show what the pieces look like (in scale and with dimensions and notes), or they can be full construction drawings, which show how the pieces are built. In general, these all look like architectural or engineering drawings. In addition, there will be painter’s elevations showing how the pieces are painted. Asking to see these is important, since these are what the set will be built and painted from, and they need to be very clear.

In general, professional shops and those with a technical director or master scenic carpenter tend to prefer designer’s elevations, as they have lots of experience in building scenery and can make good choices. They just need to know exactly what the designer wants the pieces to look like. On the other hand, community theaters and high schools sometimes tend to prefer construction drawings, since they may not be all that familiar with scenic construction.

Ask lots of questions

This is your chance to get to know the prospective designer, not only from the professional and creative standpoints, but also from the personal standpoint.

One question I would ask a prospect is, “Once you’ve been hired, how do you approach your first meeting with the director?” My own answer to that, which has been the same for years, is to ask the director, “Why do you want to do this show, and what’s your vision for it?” That tells me immediately where the director is coming from. This gets the conversation rolling in a direction where we can focus on the story, the characters, the conflicts, the physical action, and so forth, instead of on the set itself. It also tells me, as we continue the conversation, what the director finds important.

Discuss the scope of work

As I said in other posts, some designers (as in professional theatre) just do the design, while those in academic or community theatre sometimes also do the actual construction drawings, help build, help paint, and so forth, and you want to be very clear on this right up front. You also want to be very clear as to the format of the design documents: either designer’s elevations or full construction drawings. There are many options here, but you want to make sure that you and the prospective designer are on the same page on this. Don’t assume anything. If necessary, make a list as you talk, or have a list of exactly what you need before the interview, and be ready to negotiate.

Once you have agreed on the scope of work, including the design time frame, scenic budget, construction schedule, and resources, you can discuss the designer’s fee. You may want to check out my posts on the project schedule here, along with How long does it really take? for ideas.

Have the correct people at the interview

One thing I’ve seen  over and over, which I can’t understand, is that so many theatre companies interview prospective designers with only the director and producer (or business manager) in the room. If you have a technical director, shop foreman, or master carpenter on staff (even if it’s a part-time position), he or she should be at the interview also. This is the person who’s going to work with the designer and the construction documents, and he or she will have some very good questions and comments from the technical side. Ideally the prospective designer will also get a tour of the scene shop or construction area to become familiar with the tools and resources; this will reduce the possibility that the designer will create something that the shop can’t build.

Check references

This is always a good idea, although it totally depends on who the designer is and how you feel about what you saw and heard during the interview. If you want to check references, ask for a couple of directors and tech directors the designer has worked with recently, and give them a call.

Now… how long should this interview take? In my experience, a good solid interview like this can take an hour, or even less. So, if you interview, say, three prospective designers before making a decision, that’s three good hours you will have invested in the production.