Problem solving: chrome on a budget

Many years ago, in Summer stock, I designed a set for Lanford Wilson’s The Hot l Baltimore, which takes place in the lobby of an old run-down hotel. We wanted to give the hotel an Art Deco feel, so I created a stylized, bas-relief train engine design that would become the main decorative piece in the lobby. But, because the show was being done in the round — inside a huge tent — we could not place it behind the counter; it had to go on the front of the counter.

Here’s a cell-phone photo of the model for the bas-relief:


That little stripe that looks white, near the top of the photo, was actually going to be chrome. When I presented the design at a production meeting, the technical director took one look at it, swallowed hard, mentioned the budget, and said he wasn’t sure if we could afford chrome trim. At which point I gave him my best dead-pan look and said, “Well, I don’t know where you guys get your chrome trim, but I get mine at the supermarket. It comes in a long skinny box that says Aluminum Foil.”

The resulting laugh was as much “relief” as it was “just laughing at a joke,” but my point was made: sometimes a simple solution can do wonders.

So, when we built the counter, we left a 3/4″ channel near the top, which was then filled with aluminum foil, carefully cut into strips, and applied with rubber cement. I wanted to use the “shiny” side of the foil in this case, but the other side — the “brushed chrome” side — can also be used, and it creates a different effect.

Here’s a terrible photo of the counter, the only one I can find from that long-ago Summer in South Hadley, Massachusetts. That little strip of chrome made a huge difference to the counter: it really made it pop.


The front of the counter was sponged to create a wood burl look, and the top was also sponged to simulate old leather. They were both then spattered with several shades of brown and rubbed with wet newspapers to give them some age and grit, especially around the edges and corners.

Aluminum foil can be a wonderful fill-in for chrome, but you want to be careful and use it in small amounts to avoid having it call attention to itself.


Two hats (designer and builder) and when to switch them

Many years ago, in summer stock, I was asked to mentor one of the high-school interns through the process of designing one of the sets for the season, which was for a children’s play about Alice in Wonderland. As soon as we started working together, I realized his buddies had been making suggestions about the set: put a ramp here and hinge it to a wagon, or put two flats there and do something with them. This was his first set design, and, as a result of all the suggestions, he was getting flustered and frustrated, not knowing who to listen to or where to go.

So I took him aside and told him that they were only trying to help, but that right now he needed to think like a designer and not like a builder. Then I took him to the amphitheater where the show was to be presented, sat him down, and told him to stare at that big empty stage as he thought of the story and the “magical-ness” and the characters and the flow and what would make sense visually for the story. It took a while to get him away from flats and wagons and such, but he finally relaxed and caught on and enjoyed the process and ended up with a very nice set.

I’ve never forgotten that story, because all it took on my part was getting him to realize the difference between design and construction, and getting him to focus on each one at a time. It (almost) reminds me of the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler:” know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. In this case, it’s know when to draw ‘em and know when to build ‘em.

I was a confirmed techie myself in college, and it took me a while (took all of us a while) to get over that initial excitement to start building. But, once my professors had their way and we learned to separate design from construction, and to give each one its proper attention and time, we never went back. Actually, what it did was to get us to realize that some of us were more interested in one than in the other. The same thing happens in medical school, where students rotate among specialties and often discover an interest they never knew they had.

To help keep design and construction separate, I would suggest three things:

1. Start earlier. If right now you schedule (for instance) six weeks for design/build, add a couple of extra weeks and see how that works out. You can always adjust the schedule later as you learn from experience.

2. Treat it as two separate projects. Design is design and construction is construction, and they require different skills and interests. If you have the students get involved in the design process, make sure they focus on design (creating a physical environment for the story) only, and ignore the flats, platforms, doors, hinges, and all the tech stuff. There will be lots of time for that later. Personally, I feel this is one of the most important things a high school can teach students about this part of theatre, since that’s what they will encounter later if they decide to pursue the field and go to a college with a professional training program.

3. Finish the design before you start construction. That’s how you know what you’re building. I covered the project schedule in another post here, and this is where you separate design and construction, on paper, for all to see: design is from here to there, shop drawings are from here to there, and construction, painting, and installation are from here to there.

Keeping design and construction separate, and helping students see the difference, can go a long ways towards a more professional production. It also shows that there’s a process involved, and lets the students experience, and learn about, each part separately.