Get to the root of the problem

When I came up with the idea for this post, I thought maybe I should send it to The Huffington Post instead of placing it here.  🙂

As I’ve said in previous posts, I often find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Case in point: the United Airlines passenger who was dragged off the plane in Chicago some weeks ago. Did United ever go back and take a good look at the real cause for the incident?

Was it a real “doo-doo happens” emergency? Was it a scheduling error? Did somebody drop the ball? Did the software crash? Did somebody misunderstand a supervisor’s instructions? Was it a last-minute knee-jerk reaction by a manager somewhere? Did four crew members get sick at the same time in Louisville?

Obviously, I don’t know if they ever found that first domino. But, putting aside my own personal experience with this airline, I would like to think that they, or anyone else, would want to dig back, if only to learn something from it and try to figure out how to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Now, putting this in the context of set design and tech. I ran into a similar issue years ago when I designed the sets for The Odd Couple and the show immediately following, Play It Again Sam. I wrote about how we used the same set for both shows in Two shows on one set (re-tasking a set) so I won’t repeat it here. But we had a very simple problem right up front — that would have been very simple to solve — which created other problems down the line. Unfortunately, even though we did discuss it afterwards, the real reason for the problem was not addressed: it wouldn’t have been “politically correct” to do so. So similar problems continued to occur.

Briefly, the structure called for a series of platforms to go right up to the back wall of the stage. From there, flats and platforms would angle downstage to form a box set, which would terminate just behind the proscenium wall on both sides of the stage. I designed it that way to simplify the look, as the entire set would be behind the proscenium arch. But, because we were using the same set for the second show (which required several secret panels), the position of the walls relative to the platforms, steps, escapes, and other elements was critical. Plus, of course, there were parts of the theatre building which could not move.

The problem began when the TD left two inexperienced carpenters to begin assembling the platforms while he went to lunch. By the time he came back, a number of platforms were up and connected, but there was about a four-inch gap between the back edge of the platforms and the back wall. This was due to a decision the carpenters made, and by not following the instructions. I pointed out the gap to the TD, but he didn’t want to correct it, as he felt it would take too long and not really create any problems later.

To make a long story short, pushing the set downstage by those four inches created several problems. Because of the angles and steps, the secret panels had to be modified, which meant revising some of the architectural details. But the panels could only be shifted so much, which now meant it was awkward to go through a couple of them. Then, because the set could not now end behind the proscenium arch, I had to re-design the DS termination, which involved building and painting new flats. And of course, that four-inch gap at the back wall had to be closed to avoid anybody stepping in it.

The final score: several new pieces had to be built, painted, and installed, and the gap had to be closed, all of which took longer and cost more than it would have taken to move those platforms when the TD came back from lunch.

We discussed it afterwards — the managing director, the TD, and me — but the message didn’t get through. Nothing was learned from the experience. And yes, similar things happened several times afterwards.

Back in college and grad school, and certainly at a professional scene shop where I worked for six years, the TD or his equivalent would have made those carpenters take the platforms apart and place them per the drawings. That is, after reading them the riot act.

But so often nowadays we don’t seem to be willing to correct errors or even to admit them. Which is too bad, because understanding why mistakes happen is a great way to learn from them and reduce the chances of their happening again.



The punch list

I know… I know… the first time I heard this term (very soon after I started working in the architectural field)  I had a couple of interesting mental pictures too. And of course they were based on that too-often-asked question, “Whose fault was it?”

But a punch list is nothing more than a list of things that need to be completed before the project is handed over to the client. Generally, when a building contractor tells a client that the job is “substantially complete,” he (or the architect) also provides a list of items that still need to be addressed. Maybe a piece of carpeting keeps pulling up, or a door needs to be plumbed, or an A/C diffuser needs to be moved… or someone hit a wall with a cart and the drywall needs to be repaired. Making these lists is a standard practice in the industry, and what it does is make accounting for these items a formal, expected part of the process instead of a last-minute finger-pointing exercise.

I’ve never seen this term used in theatrical companies (although I’ve tried to introduce it several times, with often limited success), but, in reality, I’ve found that the TD or shop foreman, or designer, often does make up a list before opening. The main difference I’ve noted is that this list, and the response to it, is often seen as a negative (again, “Whose fault was it?”) instead of just being part of the process of building and installing a set.

I don’t know where or how the term “punch list” originated, but an article on it in Wikipedia says that the term probably comes

“from the historical process of punching a hole in the margin of the document, next to one of the items on the list. This indicated that the work was completed for that particular construction task. Two copies of the list were punched at the same time to provide an identical record for the architect and contractor.”

(I mention this in case you want to introduce the concept in your own company but people object to the term “punch”  — which I’ve seen happen.)     🙂

I’ve written here several times that, if a set construction project is managed well and given enough time, the set can be pretty much ready to go by First Tech, which is usually the weekend before opening night. If this happens, then Tech Week, for the shop, becomes just a time to go through the punch list and take care of all those little details that’ll make the set look finished and become a valuable part of the story.

Flats are over-rated

In September 2016 I presented a Set Design Mini Boot Camp at the Educational Theatre Association’s conference in Las Vegas. The three-hour workshop covered mostly how professional set designers go about creating a set, what the process is, how long it takes, and so forth, with lots of photos of real sets. One of the things I covered was urban legends often believed in theatre (one of my first posts in this blog), and one of those was that “all sets are made of flats.”

In a way, it (sort of) makes sense that this is a common belief. Many tech theatre classes either start out by having the students build a flat, or they do so early in the course. Because of this emphasis, it stands to reason that the students may think this is a very important subject, and therefore may believe that flats are an essential part of any set.

But they’re not.

A flat is a solution to a problem, a device invented many years ago to represent a flat surface, such as a wall, on stage. It’s just not practical to build sets, especially touring sets, like real buildings, and more especially if the scenes change during the show. But flats are light, easy to move and store, can be re-used, and travel well. They can become blank walls, or have openings for doors or windows, or even be cut to represent trees and other objects. They’re versatile, but they’re not always needed.

For instance, here’s my set for Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner, which takes place (according to the script), in a renovated French farmhouse, a structure dating back a few hundred years. It’s the interior of a building, so flats are a good solution.


Here’s another way to use flats, in a production of Macbeth I did for a high school. The director wanted a non-literal set (no castles) with a little bit of a steampunk feel. I don’t have any good photos, so this is a SketchUp model.


In this case, the large back wall was a perfect candidate for lots of stock flats. The tapestry was rented, those blocks behind it were painted like rusted metal panels, and the sconces were purchased from a place that sells steampunk lighting fixtures. There was a matching wall opposite this one, but the whole center part (where the blocks are) was a rear-projection screen.

Now here’s another show, Spewak and Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. This one has a lot of locations and usually a lot of scene changes that tend to slow down the action, something the director and I agreed to avoid right up front. The set uses no flats at all, except for a few placed against the back wall to look like… well… flats stored in a theatre. This was the backstage set (under work lights):


And this was the onstage set, again under work lights:


That drop was lowered in full view of the audience by a cast member dressed as a stagehand. In fact, all the changes, and the few pieces that were carried or rolled in, were handled by cast members playing the crew. Lighting played an important part in this one to separate onstage from backstage, but the show flowed from one scene to another, and it didn’t use a single flat. The back wall of the stage, however, was painted to look like old, grungy, dusty  brick.

Here’s another example, My Way, A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, by David Grapes and Todd Olson. It would have been really easy to stage it in a night club, complete with flats on all three sides. Instead, I designed a back wall that consisted mostly of open space backed by curtains.


Lighting was important in this one too. The curtains changed color several times, the sconces on either side of the center opening had three different lighting configurations, and a full moon was rear-projected onto the stage-right curtain during one of the numbers.

Flats are a good solution to specific problems, but they are not “the building blocks of a set,” and many very interesting and useful spaces can be created without them.

Problem solving: slam the door, don’t shake the wall

Every now and then a director will want a character to slam a door as he enters or leaves a room. It can be a very dramatic moment, but too often the entire wall shakes when the door gets slammed. Not good.

Fortunately, there’s an old trick to help prevent this, and it consists simply of having the door flat and the framed door be separate units and not attached to each other.

Here’s the back of the door flat. I’m showing a “Broadway” style flat, although this works with “studio flats” too:



And here’s the self-contained door unit, complete with front molding and a brace:


Here are the two pieces in place:


And here’s a cross-section thru the door and flat, looking down:


All you really need to allow is about a quarter-inch gap, all around, between the framed door and the door flat, including the molding. Depending on the set design and the sight lines, you can have one or two braces on the door unit, secured to the floor with a sandbag or bracket (although of course you don’t want to create any tripping hazards). The wall flats are then braced as they would normally be in your case.

The same idea can be used for a window or any other framed opening. It’s a simple trick and will help keep the audience focused on the story and not get distracted by a shaking wall.

How long does it really take?

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve run into over the past thirty-odd years, mostly in non-professional theatre companies, is that “everything always happens at the last minute.” Although I’ve run into some companies where this idea is so ingrained that you can’t break through it, I’ve also seen a few companies that did change the way they did things and were very successful at it. And all it really took was sitting down and looking at the last few productions and realizing why things happened at the last minute.

For the most part, the problem was just a matter of not allowing enough time for what had to get done in that particular company’s realities.

As I’ve noted in other posts, creating a set is just a process like any other process. There’s nothing magical about it: you do this first, and then you do that, and then something else. Each step takes a certain amount of time, but it also has built-in variables, one of which is Murphy’s Law. Say you schedule five weeks for building the set, but the primary carpenter comes down with the flu up front or has to work elsewhere. Or the painter has to finish another show that’s running late. Or the director requests a major change. That’s where things slow down, but, since opening night doesn’t change, it all comes crashing together near the end.

I worked with a theatre company some years ago that had this ongoing problem, and here’s what we did. This company mounted four to five large productions each year, had a full shop and staff working Monday thru Friday, and hired mostly professional designers.

First, we realized and accepted that the set always did seem to get finished at the last minute, even though the schedule always called for it to be complete by first tech.This is where the ugly specter of “whose fault was it?” comes up so often, and we decided to not go there. We just looked at the reality.

Then we looked at typical production schedules over the past few years and noticed that the production process for each show took three months, from the fist meeting to opening night. So, by the time the director and designers were on the same page, and the basic design was complete, we were down to two months from opening night.

At that point the set designer and TD always got into the argument about when shop drawings would be ready. The designer needed time, since he or she was working on other shows at the same time, and the TD wanted them as soon as possible. So the usual compromise was to agree on when construction would start, and to request the shop drawings on that same date.

But here’s the problem. Construction couldn’t start on the day the drawings arrived, because the TD needed time to go through them, order materials, get the crew and the painters lined up, and so forth. So, when Murphy’s Law expressed itself, which it always did, there was no room to maneuver. Suddenly construction would start a week (or more) late and run well into tech week.

And we noticed that this happened over and over again.

So we looked at each other and asked, “why does the production schedule run three months from first meeting to opening night?” And the only answer we could come up with was, “because that’s the way it’s always been.”

And we decided to change it. We started at opening night and worked backwards: one week for tech, five to six weeks to build and paint, one week for the TD to go through the drawings, three or four weeks for shop drawings, and so forth. I covered this in my post on the project schedule, so I won’t repeat it here. By the time we agreed on all this, the production schedule for each show had expanded to six months instead of three. Because we did several shows a year, the schedules would overlap, but this was not a problem since each show would be at a different stage of production.

It made a huge difference even with the first show on the expanded schedule. Now there was time to do the work properly and to account for Mr. Murphy.

Then came the second part of the solution. Because the designers’ contracts had never specified the dates on which each deliverable was due, there was nothing to fall back on. So we added due dates to the designers’ contracts for each phase of design, based on the particular production schedule. A little negotiation usually had to happen here, but it was resolved by the time the designer signed on, and the dates could be put on the production schedule for all to see. By the way, designers were hired prior to the six-month production period; in fact, they were usually all hired the previous season, during the planning process for the new season.

It took a bit of work to make all this happen, but the results were amazing. Now the production schedule could include dates for everything else, including lights, costumes, props, and sound, and we all went over it at the first production meeting, with everyone around the table at the same time.

The primary — the most important — thing that made this work was realizing and accepting  how long it really took to actually build one of our typical sets (what our audiences had come to expect from us) given our shop and our crews. After some discussion and reminiscing, we agreed that six weeks was adequate for building most of our sets, but smaller ones could possibly be done in five. But we kept it to six weeks throughout, figuring that the worst that could happen is that we would finish early.

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, 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 ones I’ve seen.

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 “as is” or it won’t work with the 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.

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, 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.


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.