Start by asking why

A friend loaned me a copy of Start With Why by Simon Sinek a few years ago and created a monster. The book is about leadership, but more to the point it’s about how people and companies have inspired legions of followers by simply and clearly letting them know why they do what they do. Businesses examined in the book include Apple and Nike, as well as others which haven’t been so successful. I liked the book so much I ordered my own copy.

Chapter 3 starts with a simple diagram that makes total sense to me. It’s three concentric circles; the outer one represents “what,” the middle one “how,” and the inner one “why.” The author then goes on to argue that so very often, when trying to sell a product or a concept, we focus on the “what” and the “how,” but tend to ignore the “why.” In fact, “how” sometimes takes over to the point that the process becomes an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

I see this all the time in theater companies as well as various online forums. Someone will ask “How do I do this or that?” and the answer, frequently, is “You do it this way or that way.” But so often I want to ask — or I do ask — “Why do you want to do that?” Which is just a way of asking, “Do you know why you’re doing it?”

For instance, take Man of La Mancha. The original set, designed by Howard Bay, had a staircase that lowered from above whenever someone entered or exited the dungeon. That staircase was there for a reason: to show, visually and dramatically, the isolation and helplessness of the prisoners and the power the inquisitors had over them. But how many productions of this show include that staircase “just because it’s there?” We end up with staircases, all right, but not with ones that make the powerful statement of the original one. I especially find it amusing when the show is done on a stage with a low ceiling (like many high school auditoriums) and the staircase ends up being too small to say anything.

Another example is The Nutcracker, where the Christmas tree “grows.” And so often it grows “just because it grows.” If we look at that scene in the context of the story, we realize that the tree doesn’t grow: Clara shrinks down to the size of the Nutcracker doll, which is what makes the dream sequence make sense. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the tree growing that it turns into a technical project instead of a means to advance the story. I remember watching a performance of the ballet and hearing a mother telling her young daughter, “Look, sweetie, the tree is growing!” I wanted to reach over and ask her why the tree is growing.

Okay, let’s do this in threes. A third example is a production of The Woman in Black I designed a few years ago. The story takes place on the stage of a theater that the protagonist has rented to rehearse a play he wants to do for his family and friends. The only scenery and props used are what’s already there on the rented stage, including a table and chairs and a large trunk which becomes a desk, a horse cart, and a bed. We had a large old road trunk on casters which I thought would be perfect for the show; it was moved around several times, so the casters were great. But the technical director wanted to build a skirt around the bottom of the trunk to hide the casters, because “that’s what you do with scenery pieces.” I finally convinced him the casters were totally in character, but it took some doing.

So what to do? In the first two cases, asking “why” before “what” and “how” could have resulted in very creative and theatrical choices. In the first case, asking why that staircase was there in the original production could have resulted in a design solution that worked better for the space and still added a highly dramatic visual impact to the story. In the second case, knowing that the tree doesn’t really grow (in the context of the story) could have resulted in a lighting scheme that focused on Clara’s dream — better advancing the story — and not on the tree.

In the third case… well… why would a theatrical road trunk need a skirt to hide the casters?

At the risk of indulging in shameless promotion, I’m going to suggest that Start With Why should be read by designers, tech directors, and directors. It’s a short book, reads fast, and gets right to the point, unlike so many others that pad the pages with words just to increase the page count. It’s available at bookstores or at Amazon, and you can also order it through my SD&T Bookstore.

Research is an investment, not a luxury

Over the past thirty-odd years in theatre, I’ve heard the same lament any number of times in non-professional companies: We wanted to do some research, but just didn’t have the time.

So here’s a pitch for making the time.  🙂

Many professionals in creative fields find research to be just as much a part of their work as actually creating something. Architects study other architects, graphic designers study other graphic designers, musicians study other musicians, dancers study other dancers, painters… you get the idea. Not just people in their own fields, but often in other areas too. Theatrical designers and art directors in the film and TV industry are no different: we study other designers, historical periods, art history, industrial design, and many other fields. It not only provides inspiration, but also helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel.

There have been a number of books written on how the designs for specific films (and a few musicals) were developed, and these can be wonderful sources of creative energy in addition to showing us how designers think. One series of books I particularly enjoyed was on the art of Star Wars, which showed how some of the characters, vehicles, costumes, and locations were developed. Those guys did their homework.

Fiction writers do their homework too. Writers of science fiction, detective stories, medical thrillers, spy stories, historical fiction, and other subjects often spend weeks or months researching their subject to make sure things “sound right” even if they’re not used literally. It often gives them ideas or inspiration, and makes a huge difference in how readers respond to the books.

But what exactly is research? What do you spend your time looking for, and how do you use it? Here are some thoughts based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with other designers.

The historical period

Say you’re doing the set for Hamlet, and the director wants to stage it in an 11th century castle. A search for castles will reveal how they developed, how different they were from period to period, and how they varied from country to country. It will also reveal how different real castles are from what we usually imagine as “a castle.” We don’t have to (and generally don’t want to) copy what we see exactly, but having a good idea of what the real things looked like (and why) can give us a good idea of where to start.

The same goes for The Odd Couple and many other plays that take place in an apartment. Photos and floor plans of real apartments from the period (and the location) will help create a set that evokes an apartment instead of just looking like a collection of flats. It makes a huge difference in the audience’s experience.

The cultural and economic reality of the times

Looking at The Odd Couple again, some research into real living spaces in New York City will give us an idea of what Oscar’s apartment might have looked like. The director can help define Oscar’s finances (so to speak), and there’s a huge difference in staging the play in a tenement, in a controlled-rent development, in The Dakota or a similar structure, in a drab building from the 60s, or in a modern luxury high-rise on Park Avenue. It can tell us a lot about Oscar, both before his wife left and afterwards, even before the play begins.

The visual style

This is where spending some quality time looking through art history materials really pays off. In two different ways.

First, if the director says, for instance, “I want to set it in 15th-century France,” a close look at 15th-century French art can give us not only an idea of what things (buildings, furniture, accessories, people) looked like, but also of how they were perceived and represented by the artists as a reflection of their times. We can infer colors, textures, materials, fabrics, interior design, lighting, and many other details from paintings and sculpture. We can also see how colors and palettes were used and get some inspiration from them.

Second, and this is something we often do, is refer to a specific painting or artist to illustrate how we imagine the set, or part of it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was explaining how I saw parts of the set for Tony Kushner’s The Illusion to the director and lighting designer by referring to how subjects in Rembrandt’s paintings are often “carved out of the shadows.” In initial discussions for a previous show, we referred to art and architecture from the Works Progress Administration, and it put us all on the same page as to the style and the institutional feel we wanted.

With the internet, and tablets being widely available, it’s really simple to call up something during a meeting and show it around. What I do is collect it all before the meeting to save time: I just cut and paste images into a folder and then open them as needed. Back in the old days we would carry armfuls of books and photocopies to the meetings, but (even though I still use the public library a lot) modern technology helps reduce that.

The reality

Say you’re designing a steam locomotive for a children’s show, and say you and the director have agreed that it’s not going to be a literal locomotive. The best way to start here is to look at lots of photos and paintings of real locomotives and understand why the elements are where they are and what they do. Then you can go on to look at non-literal depictions of locomotives (i.e., cartoons, trains in children’s playgrounds, and such) and see how these machines were imagined by other designers. Then you can start creating your own locomotive. It sure beats working in a vacuum.

Now… how much time to allow for research? For me — for most of us — it’s not a chore that needs to be tightly scheduled: it’s an ongoing process that starts at the beginning of the design phase and ends after the shop drawings are completed. I often do research on architectural details all during the shop drawing phase to make sure I’m keeping true to the style of the show. I don’t necessarily copy the details, but I want to know what the real things looked like so I can decide whether to use them as is or to stylize them.

I’ve written about how I use research in several posts here, including A set design from start to finish, Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?, and Problem solving: painting faux brick. For most of us in creative fields, research is not only an investment in the current project, but is also part of our continuing education towards the mastery of our craft.