“Let’s make it Victorian”

Now and then I hear a director say, “Let’s make it [such-and-such a period]” as part of the initial concept for the show. I think this is great because it gives us a good insight into the director’s vision and tends to put us on the same page right up front. However, a simple statement like that can have so many ramifications–and so many ways to get sidetracked–that I’d like to discuss the subject here.

Let’s take the Victorian period (or era, if you prefer), which tends to be very popular among theatre companies. Many plays can be set–and are often set–in a Victorian house or building, even if the story itself doesn’t take place during the period. However, the Victorian era lasted for over sixty years, which means that “Victorian” is actually a very loose description. So let’s look at it a bit and see how we can narrow it down.

The Victorian period started with Queen Victoria’s accession to the British throne in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. That’s sixty-four years. During those six decades there were many changes in architecture, design, art, fashion, literature, music, technology, and lots of other fields. For instance, although we often think of Victorian fashion as somber, dark, and funereal, that is only part of the story.

The British did have a very formal manner of mourning loved ones, and it involved wearing black or dark colors for anywhere from weeks to over a year, depending on how close the loved one was. The mourning period started with wearing solid black for so many weeks or months, then partial black with specified acceptable colors for a while, and then, later, other acceptable color combinations, until the end. Since we see so much of these somber colors in the movies and on TV, we often think it was all this way, but it wasn’t.

On the other hand, Queen Victoria herself probably did a lot to create this perception. She was so heartbroken when her husband died in December 1861 that she wore only black until the end of her life forty years later, and so we see her only in black in her later years.

Lots of books have been written on aspects of the Victorian period and the development of things like architecture and fashion, and they are invaluable for research. However, in this day and age, we can get a brief overview of many of these aspects, and narrow things down, right here on the internet. For instance, Wikipedia has a number of fine illustrated articles on this period that are worth reading, and I particularly like them because they often include good sources for further research:

There are also lots of sources for Victorian furniture, graphics, music, art, and other fields, which can further help you narrow down a specific year range.

As I mentioned in What period is it? you don’t need to make everything in the production jive with one specific year, even if the director chooses to stage the play in that year. For instance, a play set in 1865 can include elements from before that year; it just can’t include elements from after that year. This can be a great way to say something about the characters: do they have the latest furniture and accessories (or fashions) in their home, or do they have pieces handed down through the family, or are some of the pieces even antiques?

Although I titled this post “Let’s make it Victorian,” the same thoughts apply to many other historical periods. I could have titled it, “Let’s make it Egyptian” or “Let’s make it medieval” or “Let’s make it Greek” and said a lot of the same things. Understanding the basics about some of these historical periods, and knowing where to find information on them (and specifically on narrowing down the longer periods) can go a long way toward creating a physical environment that really ties the story together.

Thumbnail sketches: a great design tool

I’ve heard for many years that speaking in public is one of the top things that people in general are afraid of, but I never realized that fear of drawing is also so common. An online search for “fear of drawing” yielded a surprising number of sites where this is discussed, or that give you tips and suggestions on how to overcome it. For designers, it’s a necessary skill, so, in this post, I’m going to discuss a great tool we use all the time, which involves… what else… drawing.

What we call a “thumbnail sketch” is just a very small, very loose, very fast drawing made at the start of the design process, which helps the designer begin to visualize the final product. These sketches are used all the time by architects, engineers, industrial designers, and many other creative people in their work, as they help get concepts on paper quickly and with only a minor investment in time. And, because they are so quick, they are also disposable; in my own case, I often do 20 or 30 of them when I start on a design project, until I’m happy with the direction I’m seeing.

I showed a few thumbnail sketches in  A set design from start to finish, so here I’m going to show you how to do some from Square One. Let’s say I’m designing a set for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’ve already read the script, done some research, met with the director, and agreed to bring the set close to the audience. So I’m ready for some preliminary ideas, and I’m going to do them on scratch paper as I write this post. BTW, the red ink is just a personal thing.

The first sketch just shows the proscenium arch, the thrust, and a couple of figures to provide some scale. Notice how loose it is. The sketch is just over two inches across.

VW 1

The second sketch shows everyone’s first conception for a box set: a box on the stage, with the front door up center. Booo-ring.

VW 2

Sketch #3 changes the angle of the walls. A little more interesting. Now I’m starting to get somewhere, and the sketch is still just over two inches across.

VW 3

For the next sketch, I moved the set downstage so it comes forward of the proscenium opening, onto the thrust. I like it, but it’s too much.

VW 4

In sketch five, I’m playing with the shape of that back wall.

VW 5

Sketch #6 takes that shape from #5 and turns it into an entryway, up a step from the main floor. At this point I’m liking the look, but now I need to get thinking about the furniture. Time for a floor plan.

VW 6

Next is a floor plan, still a couple of inches across. I’m liking the shape, but the furniture needs room too.

VW 7

Sketch 8 pushes the furniture upstage . Now I see what I have to do with the walls.

VW 8

Nine is a mess: I’m adjusting the angles of the walls relative to a large rug I just introduced. The nice thing about these sketches is that they’re for me (or, in this case, for you), so they don’t have to be pretty. They’re just a way to think on paper.

VW 9

Ten is getting somewhere. Now I added an alcove SR for George’s desk and a window alcove SL for additional seating (this is also where I would do a little more research into residential interiors). These give me more usable space and make the walls more interesting. Also, I’m showing two smaller rugs instead of one large one.

VW 10

Next, Sketch 11 shows me, in all its “looseness,” what my primary shapes are. I went over them with a blue ballpoint, just to clean them up a bit.

VW 11

And finally, Sketch 12 is a slightly cleaned-up version of 11, focusing on the geometric shapes of the walls and the overall architecture. It’s still very quick and loose, but it tells me a lot. Now I can begin to develop this as a real floor plan, add another entrance or two, and have something to show the director as a first-pass concept.

VW 12

For this post, I only did twelve sketches, just to keep things (reasonably) brief. But, as I mentioned above, I generally do lots of these, at the level of detail shown in the first three or four, before I go beyond that. Thirty or forty aren’t unusual for me, but they only take a short time, and I can do them in an easy chair with a mug of coffee.

What I also do, often, is to do a few, go away for a while, and then come back and look at them with a fresh eye. That’s when I start asking, is this concept serving the story? Then I can go from there.

Thumbnail sketches are a great way to begin the design process, as you can explore several different approaches in a short time. As you continue doing them, you’ll find they become easier and faster, and you’ll be pleased with the results.


Organizing your prop collection

Many theatres and production companies have a large (and sometimes huge) prop and furniture collection and need quick and efficient access to it, but sometimes the storage conditions aren’t all that great for doing so. In this post, I’ll discuss what I did with a huge prop and furniture collection about ten years ago to help solve that problem

As with so many similar projects, defining the goal and making some decisions up front was very important. Our decisions were:

  • The ultimate goal of the project was to create a web site to expand the existing prop and furniture rental program.
  • The web site would make it easy for designers, prop masters, directors, and other clients to see what we had without having to come over and physically go thru the collection, which was housed in three separate locations. A time-saver all around.
  • Although the web site would require inventory numbers and photos, we did not need to assign a number to, or photograph, every single item like a museum would. A collection of ten identical glasses, for instance, would be treated as a single item. Another time-saver.

Once we had those decisions in place, it was time to begin. The project had three steps:

1. Physically organizing the collection

When I began the project, the bulk of the smaller items had already been stored in large cardboard bankers’ boxes (the ones made for legal files), which were about fourteen inches wide by twelve deep by about two feet long. These were stacked, two or three boxes high, on industrial steel shelves. The boxes were already labeled, but not too clearly, so I created new labels that also had box numbers on them. Then, in preparation for Step 2, I also numbered all the shelves.

Part of this step involved weeding out the collection and throwing out damaged items or anything we knew would never be used again. You may want to refer to my post on Saving stuff (or not) for some ideas.

In the end, we had sort of a department-store setup: books were here, then serving items, then kitchen items, then decor, then small musical instruments, and so on. It was really easy to go to the area you wanted, and there was the stuff.

Furniture and larger items, which were housed in two off-site warehouses, worked the same way. For instance, all the armless chairs were together, then armchairs, then sofas, then small tables, large tables, and so forth. In these areas I also numbered the shelves and the aisles. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

2. Inventorying the collection

Now that the pieces were physically organized, we prepared an inventory. A lesson I learned early was that, although doing this after Step 1 (instead of at the same time) seemed like duplicating the work, it wasn’t. It was much easier to inventory and photograph an organized and pared-down collection than trying to organize it and inventory it at the same time.

For this step, we started with paper forms and then transferred the information manually into an Excel spreadsheet back at the office, but later I set up a spreadsheet on my then-current-but-now-ancient Palm VIIx and entered everything into it as I went. Then, after every work session, I uploaded it to the main spreadsheet back at the office. One more time saver.

The spreadsheet was designed with the web site in mind, and was very straightforward. Each item had the following fields:

  • Location – this could be a shelf or an area in one of the three storage facilities
  • Box number – the number of the box where the item was stored (if it was in a box)
  • Tag number – a sequential inventory number for the item itself
  • Item – what it was (plate, book, lamp, chair, etc.)
  • Quantity – how many of the same exact item there were
  • Category – electric & electronic, housewares, medical items, etc.
  • Sub-category – for instance, under housewares: dishware, glassware, serving items
  • Color – red, blue, reddish brown, gloss black, mixed, etc.
  • Period – modern, medieval, renaissance, Victorian, unknown, and so on
  • Dimensions – width, length, height
  • Notes – any additional description
  • Rentable or not rentable – for instance, we decided not to rent any weapons

Because of the fields, it was really easy (by sorting) to locate, say, all Victorian blue china pieces, or all medieval silver or pewter items, even if they were in different boxes on different shelves, or even in different rooms.

This step was also where we photographed the individual items. As I mentioned above, if, for instance, we had sixteen fairly similar books in the same box, we took a photo of a stack of a few to show what the books looked like, gave them all one tag number, and indicated 16 in the quantity. Or, if we had a dozen small alarm clocks, we put a few in one photo, gave  them all the same number, and listed the quantity as 12. The idea was to make items easy to find, not to account for every one of them.

3. Creating the web site

The actual design of the web site came about because of those decisions we made up front: it was to be easy to use, give customers an accurate description and photo of the items, and — importantly — allow them to submit a list of what they wanted, find out if it was available when they needed it, and get a quote.

The site has been visually re-designed (at least once) since I created it back around 2005, but it still functions approximately the same way, and most of the original photos are still there, although some seem to be missing. You can visit it at www.dmtrentals.org.

Now — without getting into a lot of techno-speak — here are a couple of notes on the (original) web site.

To make the site easy and quick to update, I used Active Server Pages (ASP), which is a programming language used for database-driven online applications. To update the web site as we added items, I just listed the new items in the Excel spreadsheet, saved it as an Access file, and uploaded it, with the new photos, to the server. ASP took care of the rest. I don’t know what was used to re-design the site, so I can’t comment on it.

BTW, I’m not a programmer. I taught myself ASP by reading Active Server Pages for Dummies, which I borrowed from the public library. ASP is probably outdated technology by now, but there are more current ways to do the same thing.

Using sequential inventory numbers made it easier to assign the numbers to the items. I did not create separate lists for props, furniture, and other pieces: everything used the same numbering sequence.

Along the same lines as above, and to the consternation  🙂  of a couple of people at the theatre, I decided to name each photo with the item’s tag number instead of a description. For instance, if I had a red Victorian chair with tag number P2638, I named the photo “P2638.jpg” instead of “ChairVictRedUpholst.jpg.” This made it much easier to manage the database, since I didn’t have to worry about duplicate file names or typing out long names. To display a given photo, the system just read the item’s number (i.e., P2638) off the Tag Number field in the database, then added “.jpg” to it and used the result (P2638.jpg) to call up the photo itself.

A couple of years after this system was up and running, we started adding costumes to it, and it helped the costume rental program grow quite a bit.

Not every theatre company needs (or wants) a rental program, but I’m seeing more and more companies have them. It can be a good source of revenue, but does require some dedicated work. If your company doesn’t need a rental program, of course, you can simplify the inventory system we designed, and still have a very useful tool for keeping track of your collection.