Drawing Ideas

Donna and I were at one our favorite weekend breakfast places in Berkeley this morning, and, as usual, afterwards walked a few doors down to Builders Booksource, a small bookstore specializing in architectural and design books, as well as building codes and other construction resources. Every time we go there, I find something interesting, and this morning was no exception.

So often I hear set designers or TDs in non-professional theatre start discussing a set in terms of scenery: “What are going to build?” “Can we use stock?” “Can we re-use part of the last set?” and similar questions. I’ve written several posts here about design, inspiration, research, and similar subjects, so this time I’m going to mention a book I found at the store this morning — one of many on a similar subject — that many of us find very useful when designing… well… just about anything. It’s titled Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach for Better Design, by Mark Baskinger and William Bardel. The blurb on the book describes its purpose very well:

A primer for design professionals across all disciplines that helps them create compelling and original concept designs by hand–as opposed to on the computer–in order to foster collaboration and win clients. In today’s design world, technology for expressing ideas is pervasive; CAD models and renderings created with computer software provide an easy option for creating highly rendered pieces. However, the accessibility of this technology means that fewer designers know how to draw by hand, express their ideas spontaneously, and brainstorm effectively.

This book has nothing to do with stage design, but delves into drawing itself as a design technique, which is why I’m writing about it. As the blurb above indicates, computer software nowadays makes it easy to create very detailed designs quickly,  and I’ve written about my use of SketchUp repeatedly. However, the problem is that it’s so easy to draw, say, a flat or a platform, that we can get caught up in drawing a set that consists only of flats and platforms. The creative process of thinking about the space itself, looking at options, sketching spontaneously, and developing an idea into something more interesting, can too easily drop between the cracks. I’ve been using SketchUp for years, and I still can’t use it for initial concepts: I have to figure out where I’m going with a design before I ever turn to the software — and believe me, I’ve tried.  🙂

As I mentioned above, Drawing Ideas is one of many books on basically the same subject: developing a creative design in terms of form and function and space before we start worrying about the materials. They are all very useful in learning how to develop compelling sets that will not only support the story but also greatly enhance the audience experience. It’s definitely worth the price.

BTW, I can hear some of you here in the Bay Area asking, okay, so what’s the place you went to for breakfast?   🙂   It’s Bette’s Ocean View Diner.


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.

The revolve in “Hamilton”

Revolves have been around for a long time and can be very effective, but so often they are used simply to change a setting quickly, or they become construction projects that take on a life of their own and serve mostly as toys for the more engineering-oriented members of the shop crew. This morning I found a great article on the revolves used in Hamilton and how they are used to help tell the story.

Even more interesting, reading between the lines in the article, I started getting ideas for how other pieces of equipment or scenery can also be used to help tell the story. But, as detailed in the article, it takes some serious collaboration between the director and the set designer — and, in the case of Hamilton, the choreographer —  to fully develop the idea. One comment I especially liked was to the effect that the revolves and the action and choreography were so tightly integrated that you could not tell where one left off and the other took over.

The article is in the USITT archives as a publicly-available portion of the Winter 2017 issue of Theatre Design and Technology. I don’t know how long USITT will keep it available to the public at no charge, but here’s the link:



Problem solving: painting faux brick

Every now and then I hear the question (or see it asked in a forum) “What’s a good source for learning to paint a fake brick wall?”

The best answer I can provide to this is “A real brick wall.”

Bricks have been in use for thousands of years in lots of different places, and an online search for “brick” or “brick laying” or “brick coursing” or “mortar joints” will yield hundreds and hundreds of different types of bricks, colors, patterns, and other variables including the mortar lines. The trick, when creating fake brick for a theatrical production, is to be aware of what a real brick wall, in that particular situation, would look like.

For instance, we have all seen brick used on the outside of houses. Generally, it’s a shade of brownish red, and the mortar is nicely recessed in between the bricks. Here’s a sample from a contemporary house:

There are many ways of painting a faux brick surface like this, and here are three of the most common:

Paint the mortar and stamp the bricks

This was the first one we learned in college. You start by painting the entire surface (say a flat) with the mortar color, and, once it’s dry, you paint the brick shapes on top of it, using either a “rubber stamp” method or a stencil with cutouts of the brick shapes. Generally, you need to go over the individual bricks to some degree to get a nice variation in the coloration. This method is described in detail in a number of “how to” books and web sites.

Paint the brick color and line the mortar

This is a reverse of the above: you cover the surface with the brick color and, once it’s dry, paint the mortar lines with a lining brush and straight edge. This is my personal favorite, as it goes fast and still allows for variations in the brick and mortar colors. This one has also been described in detail in books and online. Here’s a sample, where the scenic artist painted the wall units flat on the floor before they were assembled:

The adjacent wall is faux stone; I’ll do a post on that technique at some point.

Paint the brick color and spray the mortar

This one works well too, although it’s a bit messier than lining the mortar with a brush. You paint the brick color, then place a number of individual brick-shaped “cutouts” to mask the brick area, and then use a sprayer to lay the mortar color in between the bricks. I described this method in detail for a trade magazine some years ago, and you can find it on my web site, at Scenic Brick in Three Steps.

All these work well, but they still leave the question: what do the bricks themselves, and the mortar lines, look like?

Again, an online search can yield lots of examples. Although brick is often used nowadays for decorative purposes, at one time it was mostly a structural material, and it was used, and laid, according to the needs of the building and the budget.

For instance, a civic building or church would more than likely have the brick carefully laid, the mortar recessed and clean, and the overall appearance would be very elegant. On the other hand, a brick wall in a storage shed, or a cellar, or a jail cell, would not look as nice because there was no need for it: in many cases the mortar was simply wiped off flush with the face of the brick (aka a “flush joint”):

Or not even that:

In the set with the fireplace above, I wanted the wall to look like a very old structural wall, not a decorative one, so I had the painter line the mortar so it looked flush with the bricks.

And this is where showing the painters exactly what you want the wall to look like is necessary. For instance, when I was discussing the wall above with the painter, he indicated that it would take a long time to do all those shadows. He was just warning me about the cost. But when I showed him a photo of a real wall with flush joints, he understood what I wanted. Apparently, he had been taught to paint “clean” brick, with nice shadow lines, and that’s how he thought all brick was painted. This was a case where a picture was definitely worth several thousand words.

A brick wall can be a nice part of a set and create some interesting images and moods, but the trick is to create just the “right” type of brick wall for the story. An online search, or a nice long walk on a Sunday, can provide lots of ideas.

My “Yorick Theory”

Imagine for a moment… you’re at the supermarket, walking through the produce section. There, in a bin, is a display of coconuts.


Now, imagine someone like the late Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, or maybe Kenneth Branagh or Patrick Stewart, walking up to that bin, picking up a coconut, and launching into the Yorick speech from Hamlet. Just out of the blue.

Are you picturing it?

Now imagine an unskilled, untrained (but well-connected) actor, playing Hamlet, insisting that the production company spend $500.00 — or more — on a custom-made, ultra-realistic, perfectly aged skull, good enough for NCIS, Bones, or a museum.

This actor is on stage, on a beautifully designed and executed professional set, with top-notch costumes and lighting. He checks the skull on the prop table before every  performance, dusts it, makes sure it’s perfect. But his delivery comes across like he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying — he might as well be reciting the phone book (the white pages) while watching paint dry.

Which would you rather watch? Which one would make you feel something for Hamlet (and Yorick), and which one would make you remember that you have to wash the car? Which one would bring down the house?

I can take a guess.

But this blog is about set design and tech, not about acting. So let’s go there.

Sets can work exactly the same way. A very simple set can do wonders to bring the story alive for the audience. I’ve mentioned this one before: back around 1974 the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep over the Summer. The stage was empty — literally empty — all the way to the back wall. No drops, curtains, tabs, flats, or anything else. No castles or forests, no platforms, ramps, or stairs. But when those actors came on stage and started showing us their stories, they grabbed us and shook us and left us shaken.

That staging was not a decision based on lack of funds: it was an artistic decision based on the director’s (and set designer’s) interpretation of the four stories and how best to get them across to the audience in a powerful, compelling manner. The costumes and makeup were awesome, but the real skill was in the acting: in bringing the characters alive and making us care about them.

I’ll never forget that Summer. It was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

On the other hand, I’ve seen sets that upstaged the actors, that made you wonder if you were there to watch a story or admire the set. Sure we designers love to get rave reviews, but really, a set that competes with the story is not doing its job. If the set is awesome but the acting isn’t, a critic will comment on it, and that review will influence other people who may want to see the show.

Competing with the story can take another form: when the set is so poorly executed that the audience keeps finding itself looking at everything that doesn’t look right. Poor construction, poor painting, poor detailing, can all take the audience’s attention away from the actors and the story. Or, when the set is obviously not finished, you often hear people going, “Geez, what happened?”

Good or bad, it’s all part of the audience experience: it’s all part of what they will remember about the show.

Just like the actor in the supermarket with a coconut, a good designer can make a very powerful statement with a very simple set by focusing on what’s really important and avoiding stuff that just sits there for its own sake, or “because we need a set.” Creating the right environment for the story — just like creating a compelling character with a coconut — is part of the creative process that we all live with in theatre.

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.