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:

http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/hickmanbrady/tdt_2017winter_public/index.php

Enjoy!

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.

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.

Coconut

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.

dinner

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.

macbeth-5

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):

kate-2

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

kate-1

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.

my-way

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.

Hiring a set designer, part 2

In my original post on Hiring a set designer I discussed asking questions, reviewing the portfolio, what to watch for, and similar items. In this post I’m going to cover another way of looking at hiring a set designer, primarily for high schools and colleges.

Too often, hiring a professional designer in non-professional theatre is perceived as an expensive luxury: “We don’t need that,” or “Our audience can’t tell the difference,” or “One of our folks has always done it for free,” or something similar. And then there’s always “They charge too much.” But, especially in educational theatre, you can get a lot of mileage out of the expense by setting up the project so the faculty and students can watch the whole process from start to finish and learn how it’s done in the professional world. In other words, it can be an educational experience all around.

For instance, you can set it up so members of the production staff (assistant directors, stage managers, other designers, and even the head carpenter) attend design meetings to watch and listen to the discussions between the designer and the director. I’ve designed three shows for a local community college, and student members of the production staff have always attended these meetings. They have listened as the director and I discuss the show, the characters, the themes, the visual concept, and other areas, and then watched as I presented the design while it was in progress. This is far different from keeping the process in the closet until the shop drawings are delivered.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, most professional set designers use basically the same process, and most of us would be delighted to have students watch and learn. The one danger I’ve seen in these cases is that the conversation too often goes off on the tangent of how to build the pieces, but I’ve learned how to subtly (and quickly) yank it back in the correct direction. There will be lots of time later to talk about how to build the scenery.

This same college has asked me a couple of times to hang out in the scene shop — now and then — and meet the students, answer questions, and generally show them what a set designer does. I have not built or painted the scenery myself — I feel very strongly about this, as it helps separate the “design” from the “build” instead of lumping them together —  but on occasion had a student, assigned by the professor, work with me on a specialty piece. In one case I showed a student (who had no scenic painting experience) how to paint a faux hardwood floor and left him alone, and two years later they were still talking about what a great job he did. I have always found the experience enjoyable, and I’ve been told many times that they did too.

I very rarely work for high schools, but one of them has asked me several times to come in and talk to the cast and crew (everyone connected with the show) about the design process and show them sketches in progress. I have very deliberately avoided talking about scenery pieces, instead focusing on the story itself and the physical environment I’m creating to support it, and why I designed it this way. This is my way of getting them to separate the design from the build in their minds, and to look at each one as its own process.

Along the same lines, several companies have asked me to come over for the cast’s first read-through and show them the final set design, which is usually a 3D model on my laptop, projected on the wall with a video projector. The actors have generally been very excited to see the space they’ll be working in, especially since the blocking and choreography will make more sense during rehearsals before the set is complete. A carefully-detailed, physical 3D model, which is what a lot of us used before personal computers, can have the same effect.

Another way to do this is to video the production meetings and design presentations. If I were a high school drama teacher, I would probably prefer doing it this way for two reasons. First, it would probably keep the meeting more focused. Second, it would allow me to play it back, stop it, discuss what’s going on, and then resume. In fact, I would even isolate the various parts of the video (directing, design, production schedule, etc.) and focus on those segments in various classes as appropriate. If you go this way, make sure that making the video is okay with all the participants.

If you want to use some of these ideas to leverage your investment in a set designer, be sure to bring it up during the interview and hiring process, as designers often work on more than one project at a time and need to manage their schedules carefully. Depending on travel time and other factors, the designer may find it necessary to adjust his or her fee, and this again is something you want to discuss, and agree on, up front.

Over the years, I’ve often come to the realization that the process of designing a set is a closely-guarded secret, with only a few people privy to it. And there’s probably no reason for this, other than the usual “we’ve always done it this way.” But a set designer can be a great source of useful information, especially in an educational institution.

Form follows function

The concept that “form follows function” has been discussed, debated, and argued for many years, yet it’s often taken out of context. In this post, I’m going to explore what it really means and how it applies to theatrical design.

First, here’s the quote in its original context:

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his light or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds—over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.”
—Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), in The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine #57 (March 1896) pp. 403-09.

Unfortunately, for some reason, that idea is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that the design of an object can either be functional or aesthetic, but not both at the same time. In the case of stage sets, I’ve even seen directors question whether a “functional” set that physically supports the action can be attractive, or the other way around. But Sullivan didn’t mean that they can’t be, and it has been proven many times.

For instance, let’s look at an extreme case of a form following its function — a great white shark:

As Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) said to Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) in Jaws, “…what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.” This animal is all business, yet its form — sleek, graceful, and built for speed — is actually very elegant.

Now let’s look at a bridge, a structure whose only function is to allow people and goods to cross an obstacle such as a body of water. Here’s the Golden Gate Bridge, which totally fulfills its function, yet is very elegant:

Just a few miles away (until it was replaced), was the original eastern portion of the Bay Bridge, going from Yerba Buena Island to Oakland. This structure fulfilled its function too, but it wasn’t very sleek or attractive.

Here’s another example: two airplanes.

Warplanes are designed for one specific purpose, and, like the shark, they’re all business. All the money goes into the machine’s function — there’s no ornamentation in the designs. This plane, a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt (aka a “Warthog”) certainly fulfills its job description, but it’s not very attractive:

Yet this one, a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet (as used by the Navy Blue Angels), is all business too, but is very sleek and elegant:

I think we can safely say that, in the case of three of the photos above, an object can totally fulfill its intended function and still be attractive and elegant. That’s where Sullivan was going: an object’s form has to follow its function, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be attractive too. We’ve all seen products that don’t work as advertised, and I have to believe it’s partially because the designers didn’t really understand what the products were supposed to do.

In the case of a stage set, we can (and should) start by considering the real needs of the story, and by understanding what the characters have to do and why they have to do it. That’s what helps us create a space that supports the story. As Lindsay Price said in The answers are in there, the dialogue (and not necessarily the stage directions) can give us a lot of information about this.

Then, once we have accounted for the physical needs of the story, we can get really creative and focus on the visual elements that help define the space as what it is and clue us in as to who the characters are.

For instance, in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, we can create a very nice, upscale, attractive apartment which has been pretty much trashed by Oscar after his wife moved out and took most of the furniture and artwork. That contrast, between what was once obviously a very nice home and what it is now, can tell us volumes about Oscar even before the play begins.

On the other hand, Simon’s California Suite, which takes place in two adjoining rooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel, wants to start out as two clean, elegant, expensive hotel rooms.  At the start of each segment, the rooms don’t tell us anything personal about the couples who stay there, but they do tell us about their social class, since they can afford to stay at the ritzy hotel.

One final example — here’s an item that has one and only one function, which is to tell time, yet the clockmaker was able to create a truly beautiful piece. In this case, form definitely follows function.