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.


Props and the prop table

A properly placed and laid out prop table is an invaluable help to the cast of a show, as they often need to get on stage quickly and in the dark, and just don’t have the time to go looking for their props. This post will cover some of the elements of a good prop table.

The table (or tables) is generally placed offstage where it will be out of the way of scene shifts and crowd movements, but the important thing is that it be easily and readily accessible by actors in costume, especially if they have to leave the stage and come back quickly with a prop. The table also needs to be accessible on the way out, so the actors can replace their props on it after their scene.

In the case of prop-heavy shows, of course, you may need more than one table, or one table on each side of the stage, or even multiple tables. Several years ago I propped a production of Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, which had so many props — which had to be grabbed quickly — that we all agreed on placing them on shelving units just offstage, instead of on tables.

A prop table can be any size needed, but a 30″ x 6′ folding table seems to be common. It’s large enough to hold multiple items, but small enough to not (usually) get in the way.

Generally, the top of the table is covered with butcher paper and marked off in “blocks,” each one holding one prop. The name of the prop, and sometimes the act and scene, plus the name of the character, are then written clearly inside the block to make sure the prop always goes back in the same place. The blocks can be marked off in masking tape or with a thick marker, but the important thing is that they are clearly visible backstage during the show.

I’ve also seen some prop tables where each prop is outlined with a magic marker. This can work too, although I’ve found that the blocks are more practical and allow more space for labeling the prop in it.

Here are two instances I just now found on the web:

Both work well, are easy to see, and are not crowded.

Rather than hitting you with a step-by-step how-to, here are some notes (in no particular order) from years of seeing prop tables and, in one case, running a props department.

  • Keep in mind that the actors will be preoccupied with their roles, lines, blocking, and other elements, and often moving around quickly in the dark, so make the table as easy to use as possible.
  • One-inch blue painter’s tape works well for marking out the blocks, as it’s a good contrast against the butcher paper. Otherwise a thick black magic marker works well. If you use a magic marker, make sure the ink doesn’t bleed through and mark the table under the paper.
  • When labeling the props inside the blocks, make sure to print clearly, preferably in all caps, and in letters large enough to be visible in a darkened space. Take your time with this: it’ll help the actors a lot.
  • Multiple identical small items used at the same time can go in one block. For instance, in the first photo above, several pieces of silverware are in one space.
  • If something is too big to fit on top of the table (i.e., a suitcase), it can go under the table, and you should still label the edge of the table so it’s clear where the prop goes.
  • Items like spears and flagpoles can go in a bin on the side of the prop table so they’re standing up instead of lying down. You’ll want to label these clearly too and separate them so they’re easy to see and grab.
  • You can lay out the props in any order, but a good way is to lay them out in the order they’re used. Personally, I always laid them out so the smaller props were towards the front of the table and the larger ones towards the back. That way a large prop doesn’t obscure a smaller one, specially in dim light.
  • Another idea I used, which worked very well, was to hold off marking out the prop tables until after First Tech. Then, just before First Tech started, we would ask the actors to please make sure their props were on a prop table on the correct side of the stage before they went home. This way, when the tables were set up and labeled the next day, the prop crew knew where the props needed to be placed (or where the actors preferred them) and avoided placing a prop on the “wrong” side of the stage.
  • Along with this, the Stage Manager asked the actors to check the prop tables before each performance to make sure their props were on them, and again after the performance. It’s much easier for an actor to remember where he or she left a prop right after the show than the next day.
  • Several theaters I worked with emphasized, right up front, that the actors were responsible for their props during the run of the show, since the theater didn’t have people available to hunt down props left scattered. This made a huge difference all around and avoided a lot of problems. The prop crew and ASMs still occasionally found an item here or there, but it was minimal.
  • Nothing should go on the table that’s not a prop used in the show: no personal items, water bottles, tools, or similar things. You’ll want to make this clear to actors and crew at the very start.
  • A good rule to follow is “Look all you want, but don’t touch.” That means, if the prop isn’t yours, don’t touch it. That avoids losing or breaking things and similar problems.
  • Check the prop tables as soon as possible after the show, or the next morning. This way you’ll notice missing or broken items, or expendables that need to be replenished, and have time to deal with them before the next performance.
  • Items that get used, like cups and glasses, need to be washed before the next performance, and preferably just before showtime.
  • Real food items should be placed on the table just before the show starts, to keep them fresh and safe. If possible, you’ll want to delegate an ASM or one member of the prop crew to take care of all the food for the run of the show. The director or stage manager (or both) should discuss these items with the actors beforehand to make sure there are no allergies or other problems.
  • One of the theaters I worked with had a policy of not placing weapons of any kind on the prop tables, mostly because they are “very attractive toys” even if they’re just plastic. So items like guns, swords, knives and similar pieces were locked away, picked up by a crew member or ASM, handed to the actor just before he went on stage, and then collected right afterwards and returned to storage. This, again, saved a lot of trouble. I’ll do a post on weapons at some point.

A prop table, properly laid out, can be a huge help to the actors, as it will help them feel more confident during the show. A little extra work here will pay off for the actors, the crew, and the audience.

“Let’s make it Victorian”

Now and then I hear a director say, “Let’s make it [such-and-such a period]” as part of the initial concept for the show. I think this is great because it gives us a good insight into the director’s vision and tends to put us on the same page right up front. However, a simple statement like that can have so many ramifications–and so many ways to get sidetracked–that I’d like to discuss the subject here.

Let’s take the Victorian period (or era, if you prefer), which tends to be very popular among theatre companies. Many plays can be set–and are often set–in a Victorian house or building, even if the story itself doesn’t take place during the period. However, the Victorian era lasted for over sixty years, which means that “Victorian” is actually a very loose description. So let’s look at it a bit and see how we can narrow it down.

The Victorian period started with Queen Victoria’s accession to the British throne in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. That’s sixty-four years. During those six decades there were many changes in architecture, design, art, fashion, literature, music, technology, and lots of other fields. For instance, although we often think of Victorian fashion as somber, dark, and funereal, that is only part of the story.

The British did have a very formal manner of mourning loved ones, and it involved wearing black or dark colors for anywhere from weeks to over a year, depending on how close the loved one was. The mourning period started with wearing solid black for so many weeks or months, then partial black with specified acceptable colors for a while, and then, later, other acceptable color combinations, until the end. Since we see so much of these somber colors in the movies and on TV, we often think it was all this way, but it wasn’t.

On the other hand, Queen Victoria herself probably did a lot to create this perception. She was so heartbroken when her husband died in December 1861 that she wore only black until the end of her life forty years later, and so we see her only in black in her later years.

Lots of books have been written on aspects of the Victorian period and the development of things like architecture and fashion, and they are invaluable for research. However, in this day and age, we can get a brief overview of many of these aspects, and narrow things down, right here on the internet. For instance, Wikipedia has a number of fine illustrated articles on this period that are worth reading, and I particularly like them because they often include good sources for further research:

There are also lots of sources for Victorian furniture, graphics, music, art, and other fields, which can further help you narrow down a specific year range.

As I mentioned in What period is it? you don’t need to make everything in the production jive with one specific year, even if the director chooses to stage the play in that year. For instance, a play set in 1865 can include elements from before that year; it just can’t include elements from after that year. This can be a great way to say something about the characters: do they have the latest furniture and accessories (or fashions) in their home, or do they have pieces handed down through the family, or are some of the pieces even antiques?

Although I titled this post “Let’s make it Victorian,” the same thoughts apply to many other historical periods. I could have titled it, “Let’s make it Egyptian” or “Let’s make it medieval” or “Let’s make it Greek” and said a lot of the same things. Understanding the basics about some of these historical periods, and knowing where to find information on them (and specifically on narrowing down the longer periods) can go a long way toward creating a physical environment that really ties the story together.

A shelf full of (fake) books

Now and then we need to create a shelf (or a bookcase) full of books, and the question becomes, how to best do this?

The problem lies in that real books look real, but are heavy and take up lots and lots of space in a storage room. Fake books, on the other hand, can be lightweight and take up little space, but often look fake. Also, unfortunately, fake books often look so fake that they call attention to themselves, which is something we don’t want. But there are ways to deal with this, and here are a few examples.

Spines on plywood

A lot of theatres have boxes and boxes of old books taking up space: books which are neither useful anymore nor valuable, but are kept for use as set dressing. These are prime candidates for a two-tiered recycling program. First, you carefully cut off the spines (the printed part you see when the book is upright on a shelf) and glue several of them securely, side by side, to a wide piece of ply, creating the impression of several books lined up in a row. Then you can send the books themselves to a recycling center.

Fake books

I like two things about this approach. One, it’s modular. You can make up sections, say, ten or twelve inches wide, and line them up on the shelf to fill up the amount of space you need. Two, you can sort out the books by time period, i.e., very old books together and newer ones together. This way you can create a very old library, a newer one, or anything in between. The illustration shows six spines mounted on a piece of ply ten inches across by ten inches high.

A large number of these panels can be stored safely in a relatively small area and help you reclaim some storage space. To keep these from getting crushed or otherwise damaged, I would store them upright in banker’s boxes or plastic bins.

Before you go this way, and especially before you set a crew on doing it, you’ll want to go through all your books to catch any you don’t want to process.

Cut books on plywood

I saw this one in a book or magazine many years ago. It’s similar to the above, but, instead of cutting off just the spines, you put each book on a band saw and cut off about an inch of the spine edge, including the covers and pages. Then you glue those to a piece of ply. Same effect, a little more work, and the tops are a little more durable because there’s more material there. Here again you can send what’s left of the books to a recycling center.

Photos of books on a shelf

I used this one a few years ago for a production of Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The set had a fake French secretary with glass doors, and I wanted to show books inside it. So I took photos of our book shelves at home, had them enlarged to full size at Costco, cut them as needed, and applied the prints to a panel just behind the glass. From a couple of feet away, they looked like the real thing.

Bookcase 1

The secretary actually opened up to reveal a bar (the characters spent a lot of time drinking during the show), but that’s a different story.

Bookcase 2

Painted books

This one is very time-consuming if they are to look right, and too often they don’t. You simply paint the book spines onto a sheet of ply or something similar and place it on the book shelf. But, unless you’re doing a whole row of the same type of book (say, encyclopedias or law books, which tend to have simple spines), you actually have to paint every book spine down to the last detail.

Rigid plastic foam books

I’ve seen this one used a few times, and I’ve never liked it. Besides the fact that the rigid foam (sometimes referred to as Styrofoam) is fragile, the surface texture and finish tends to make it hard to paint. The material is also flammable, so you need to protect it.

Other ideas

Fake books are available at decorating shops and similar places, and a wide variety is available online. Just do a search for “fake books” and you’ll see lots of examples. Although some of these are expensive, they can give you lots of ideas for how to create your own fake library.


Black duvetyne… or not

Black duvetyne has a long and illustrious history in theatre. In has been used in many applications, including curtains and masking, and has even stood in for velvet in some situations. It’s a very versatile fabric.

But there is one application — often seen — which it really doesn’t lend itself to, and that is as a backing for an open door or window. Consider this photo, from my set for The Odd Couple some years back. We are looking at the open front door to the apartment, on the other side of which is the building’s hallway. At first glance, it looks like what you would expect to see in an apartment building:

Duvetyne 2

Now consider the same scene, Photoshopped to simulate a black duvetyne backing instead of the wall and door:

Duvetyne 1

That’s exactly what the audience would see: a black surface behind the door. Granted the door may only be open for a moment to let the characters in or out, but that one moment, and the field of black back there, would be enough to remind the audience that they are in a theatre and distract them from the story.

It would be even worse if the duvetyne were catching the lights, or had rips or tears in it, or was visibly draped on the floor or wrinkled.

One of the interesting things about being a set designer is that, because you’re so focused on the story, sometimes you want to create things that are so correct for the story that the audience won’t even notice them. They just look natural, like they’ve always been there, or like that’s the only way they can be. TV sitcoms are great at this: for the most part, every house or apartment is so well-defined for the character who lives there, that there’s nothing to distract us from the story. It’s where you would expect them to live.

In the set above, I decided to fully render that hallway because I wanted the director to be able to leave the door open for as long as it was natural for the action. In other words, I didn’t want to force him to close it quickly to hide the black field. It gave him a lot more flexibility with the actors. However, I could have omitted the door across the hallway (which didn’t open) and just showed the two-tone wall by itself; it would have been almost the same effect.

In a future post, I will address the technique of using a dark brown or charcoal duvetyne or paint to help create shadows and depth. It’s much more effective than using black for some situations, and fairly easy to do.


What period is it?

When doing a period piece (prehistoric to futuristic and anywhere in between), we want to make sure the set, furniture, costumes, props, and everything else fit visually into the period of the story. That’s when we turn to the internet or the library to find sources on period styles. Sounds pretty straight-forward, but there are a few guidelines that we often use for maximum dramatic effect.

Say I’m doing a show like Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, where we have an American house sometime in the mid third of the 20th century, and say we want to play the show pretty straight instead of stylized. And say the director wants to place the play in, say, 1945.

In these two cases, defining the approximate year is important because of clothing styles, because we want to make sure the costumes reflect the actual period. However, the architecture, furniture, accessories, and so forth don’t necessarily have to fit into that specific year. They just can’t be any later than the year.

Unless George and Willy just bought brand-new houses and purchased brand-new furniture and accessories, chances are that they have at least a few pieces that were inherited, or passed down, or otherwise obtained before 1945. George’s desk, for instance, may have belonged to his father or grandfather, or to Martha’s uncle. That bench by the front door might be a German antique from the 1700s. And the clock on the mantle may be French from the early 1800s. But nothing wants to be post-1945.

This can not only simplify obtaining pieces for the play, but it’s also a great way to further define the characters. Why is George using a desk from the late 1800s? Why is Martha’s easy chair a Stickley piece from the early 1900s?  They have a nice sofa from the late 1930s, but now sit in their own separate chairs. Why?

The same goes for the accessories (aka the set dressing). Does Martha collect teacups, and what does this say about her? George is a history professor. Does he have maps or even a globe somewhere in the room? Or an old military sword on the wall?

This idea can be used in multiple ways. For instance, a poor family might have very old and worn furniture, but the condition of the furniture (neat and clean or beat-up and dirty) can say lots about them. Or a character might have a radio that just came out last month. What does that say about him or her?

The director can be a great source of information on the characters. Actually, some directors I’ve worked with have “discovered” things about the characters while we talked about the furniture and accessories. They told me about the characters and I picked the furniture.

There’s a lot more leeway when doing a play that’s not set in a specific period, or where the period is purposely ambiguous, or where the story is done in a “presentational” style instead of a “representational” style. But here also we want to think of the pieces as helping define who the characters are. The chairs in Waiting for Godot, for instance, can indicate an indefinite period of time or bring the story home to today’s high-tech office.

It’s all a matter of really thinking about the characters who are telling us their story.