How to read a script like a set designer

This post was inspired by some recent projects, which in turn made me think about older ones and the people I worked with, and how they approached the process of designing and building a set.

One of the things that has really stood out for me over the years is how so many designer/TDs in non-professional theatre seem to look at a script in terms of “okay, so we need to build a such-and-such.” A few years ago, one of them didn’t seem interested at all in how the scenery units helped tell the story or how they worked in context with other units: he was just focused on the construction of individual pieces. And I found it surprising because he was also a good director and actor who paid close attention to the actors and their characters and motivations in the context of the story.

So how do we look at a script from the viewpoint of a set designer?

Start by understanding the story itself. Stories are about people, three-dimensional people who want something but can’t get it because there are obstacles in the way, so they have to figure out how to get past the obstacles. Whether it’s a play, a musical, an opera, a movie, a sitcom, a “reality show,” an election, or a sporting event, it’s all the same: somebody wants something and has to figure out what to do about it.

A set is nothing more than a physical environment in which the characters in the story show us how they approach getting past those obstacles. So the set not only has to make it physically possible for the story to take place, but hopefully also wants to give us a sense of the overall mood of the story and present us with a logical place for it. Watch your favorite TV show or movie and notice how characters’ homes and workplaces “fit” the characters and the nature of the story. Some years back there were snide comments about the lifeguards on Baywatch all having homes that nobody could afford on a lifeguard’s income. It was probably done to enhance the “glamorous” nature of the characters portrayed, but, still, it was distracting.

Here is where good set designers read the script two or three times before starting to draw anything. The first time is for the story itself and the other times are to understand what the story really requires in terms of the physical space and how it all works together. I covered some of this here in several previous posts.

The danger, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is that by thinking about scenery units (or props and furniture) out of context, they just become generic pieces. I’ve heard it many times: “We don’t have to build a staircase – we have one from last year. It’s about the right size and has a nice railing.” What can be (and often is) missed here is that last year’s staircase was from Willy Loman’s house and this year it’ll be in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

While reading the script, we also look for things like genre and mood. Is it a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a horror story, or something else? Is the mood happy, sad, tense, poignant, scary? These, and the nature of the story itself, are what clue us in as to whether the story wants a “realistic” set or a “non-realistic” set, a.k.a. a representational set or a presentational one.

These are some of the things I discuss at my first meeting with the director because I want to find out how he or she is approaching the story, and why. Too often I’ve seen a new director want a realistic set for something like a musical or a Shakespeare play, where realistic sets can come across as static and unimaginative. On the other hand, plays like Neil Simon comedies or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, can “feel” better in a “realistic” space.

For instance, here’s part of a set I did years ago for David Lindsay-Abaire‘s play Rabbit Hole, which is about a young couple who lost their four-year-old son to a car accident. The director and I decided that we wanted the audience to focus on the sadness of the story, so we would avoid any theatricalism and create a fairly realistic space. The show was done in a black box.

On the other hand, here’s my set (under work lights) for J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which is about an investigation into the suicide of a young factory worker and takes place in England during the Edwardian period. Here we wanted to show the wealth of the family who lived in the house and their isolation from the common people, and also pick up on the story’s sense of things being out of balance.

In both cases the research led to authentic period detailing, but the sets themselves had totally different feelings to jive with their stories and their characters.  You can read more about these sets on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net. And, for a good short intro to how we approach research for a set design, you can read my post here, at Research is an investment, not a luxury.

Once I have a good sense of how we want to approach the story, I can go back to the script to start defining the physical space. Many scripts include detailed stage directions or even floor plans, and there is an ongoing debate as to how much of this was included by the playwright and how much is just a record of the original production. A couple of years ago I contacted a few publishers to get their take on this, and the consensus was that, unless the contract specifically states otherwise, there is no requirement to follow any of it. You can read about this at The script, the set, and stage directions.

So, basically, that’s how we read scripts: start with the story, make sure we understand it and the director’s intent, and then delve into the details that we need to create a compelling physical space. As I mentioned above, several readings are usually necessary to get a really good mental picture of what kind of space will best serve the story. And I often keep referring to the script as I make design choices, looking for hints about the characters’ intentions.

Many times the characters themselves (not the actors, although that’s a separate conversation) will tell us what they need, but we have to be open to listening to them. For instance, in the set above for An Inspector Calls, the head of the household, Arthur Birling, loves to tell people that he used to be Lord Mayor of his town; he considers it just one more symbol of his status and importance. So I decided we would have a formal portrait of him, in full mayoral regalia, hanging over the fireplace. That way, when he tells the Inspector about his former title, he can point to the portrait. The director loved the idea, as it would help show his pompous personality.

If you’d like a little more on the design process itself, please check out one of my original posts here, A set design from start to finish.

 

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The scene shop, part 1: general layout

Now and then I see a post in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) open forum regarding ideas for a new scene shop, or tools, or something related, so I decided to do a few pieces here. This first one is about scene shops in general, the second will be about work areas and storage of tools and equipment, and subsequent ones will be about related subjects.

First off, a scene shop is nothing more than a dedicated place to build custom items which may be made of wood, plastic, metal, or other materials. The process, the tools, the ideal layout, and everything else are pretty much the same as in any other custom shop that specializes in these materials, the main difference being that the scene shop is used to build scenery instead of cabinetry, furniture, or other products. So we’ll look at a scene shop with that perspective in mind.

Workflow and layout

Like in other shops, the workflow in a scene shop is very straightforward: the raw materials come in “at one end” and the finished products go out “at the other end.” In between, the materials get stored temporarily, get cut to size and otherwise worked, get assembled, and get stored temporarily again until they get painted. Then they get painted, and, finally, they move onto the stage to get installed. Later, after the show closes, the pieces may come back and get disassembled.

And there are usually two or more projects (individual pieces of scenery) going on at once.

So, ideally, the shop layout should reflect the workflow: the raw material comes in at the loading dock end and the finished pieces go out the other end onto the stage. This suggests a long skinny room, but of course most scene shops aren’t built this way (most of the ones I’ve seen are either square or close to it). The idea, however, can still work with a little planning and/or rearranging of the existing equipment.

If you already have a shop, a good way to see if it is laid out with workflow in mind is to observe the construction crew during a typical show. How often do they have to move materials and piece parts from one place to another and back again? Some movement is of course inevitable, but (for instance) if you have to bring new plywood sheets to the back of the shop for storage and then bring them to the front again because that’s where the table saw is, you may want to consider a little re-arranging. Or if the paint area is at the back of the shop and the stage door is at the front, or if you have to run an obstacle course to get to the panel saw or radial arm, or if the best place for assembly is taken up by a large stationary power tool. But you get the idea. And don’t laugh: I’ve seen all these instances and many more.

One thing to avoid whenever possible is storing scenery, props, or other items in the shop. Unless the room was deliberately planned large enough to have dedicated areas for storage, what often happens is that it becomes a warehouse and leaves very little space for work. I’ve seen a few (large) shops that were so full of stored stuff that there was hardly any place to work; even the work tables were piled with props and other items, so layouts had to be done on the floor — and there was very little of that.

Flexibility

A major factor to consider when planning a shop is flexibility. Some pieces of scenery are fairly small and others may be huge, and sometimes you get some of one and some of the other, plus everything in between. The best way to deal with this is to dedicate a large open space strictly for assembly, and then to put as many of the power tools as possible on casters so they can be moved out of the way if necessary. I’ve seen a few shops where the table saw and other large tools are in the worst possible places, but they can’t be easily moved due to the placement of electrical outlets and dust collection systems. Their placement also cuts down on open space for assembling large pieces.

I’ll go more into this in the next two posts.

Resources

There are lots of resources available on how to set up a wood shop: books, magazines, online articles, and videos, and they are great for generating ideas; some even show actual or suggested floor plans and designs for storage cabinets. I have a workshop in my garage (I don’t build scenery or props at home, but woodworking has been a hobby since high school), and I consistently find great tips and ideas in these resources. Some of my favorite ones are listed in the Resources page of this blog, and there are lots more.  I’ve seen a few pieces on how to set up a scene shop too, mostly in the older books, but unfortunately they were either very specific or are totally outdated.

Revolves don’t have to be round

My first year in junior college we built a revolve for a show. It was a huge affair with three different scenes, one of which had folding panels to change the setting quickly. In the center of this revolve was what we called the “delta unit,” which was a triangular space that led to each of the three scenes. I kid you not: it was easy (and known) for people to get lost in the thing.

That was my first revolve, and of course it was round. And, of course, going by the textbooks, we built up the floor around it so the whole surface would be at one level and the turntable wouldn’t be visible. It worked beautifully, but, being the first revolve most of us worked on, it also gave us the impression that revolves have to be round.

Not so.

Your typical revolve, out of a textbook, is a round turntable in the middle of a built-up area. The backs and sides of the set, and the structure on it — and of course the dimensions — can be anything, but the basic idea is the same:

Revolve 1

Now and then we see a revolve without the built-up area around it, which looks like a round platform:

Revolve 2

Nothing wrong with this, as long as it fits visually into the overall design.

But it doesn’t have to be round. Years ago I designed a small, non-round revolve for Equus, which was about six feet on a side:

revolve-3.jpg

But it wasn’t square: the edges were ragged, so it looked like a rough wooden platform:

Revolve 4

We can also take this idea a bit further and stack several levels on it, creating a sort of revolving hill or rock formation:

Revolve 5

And here’s another way to look at a revolve, from a set I did for Shrek:

Revolve 6

For this one, we used half of an existing 12′-diameter round revolve and built a square piece on the other side to create a tilted stand for a huge book:

Shrek book

So the revolve had the fairy-tale book on one side and Fiona’s bedroom on the other. You can see more on this on my web site, at Shrek.

Then, of course, there are those pieces that we think need a revolve, but really don’t. The barricade I designed for Les Miz, for instance, was a free-standing structure that turned all the way around but didn’t sit on a “typical” revolve. This photo shows half of it, from the “rebel” side. The complete unit was twenty feet across:

Barricade 2

You can read more about this unit at Problem solving: the barricade in Les Miz.

Revolves can be wonderful tools to help tell a story, but the real trick is to think in terms of what the story needs to say, instead of what the physical piece of scenery “should” be.

Theater and sports: an editorial

The other night Donna and I were having dinner at our local sports bar. The place has sixteen or eighteen large flat-screen TVs arranged around the room, and I caught myself watching the Temple-Navy game on the nearest screen.

That’s when a revelation hit me.

Granted both schools have very strong athletic programs and lots of money and so forth, but it really struck me how much support goes into one of these teams: the coaching staffs, the support staffs, the logistics, the public relations — and the business end, since tickets to the games are not free. Then, you have the salaries paid to some of these coaches: http://sports.usatoday.com/ncaa/salaries/

Amazing. So I thought I would write an editorial this time.

Why do so many theatre programs in high schools and colleges have such a hard time getting support to do their jobs? I’m not involved in academic theater, but, from hanging out in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) open forum for the past couple of years, talking with some of the teachers, and designing four productions for a local college, I’ve noticed a few things. Mostly, what I think I’m seeing is one or more perceptions among school administrators: ideas that keep perpetuating themselves because no one seems to be challenging them adequately.

In no particular order:

The perception that theater is not a “real” career path.

“The school play” so often seems to be viewed as just a rite of passage.

Theater is very much a real career path: professional theater is part of the entertainment industry. I can totally understand that some administrators, especially in the smaller cities and towns, may not get much of a chance to see professional live theater, and therefore may not appreciate it for what it is. However, they do see actors on TV and the movies, and, if they care to watch the credits, they also see a large number of technical staff listed. Kids who study acting, directing, design, tech, or any other theater specialty in school can very well go on to a career in entertainment if they choose to do so.

Here’s where I can’t understand people having no problem watching professional sports and realizing that their kids are doing basically the same thing in school, and those same people watching a movie or TV show and not realizing that their kids are doing basically the same thing in “the school play.”

The perception that there’s no money in theater.

This is related to the above. We hear of sports figures making millions and movie starts making millions. Yet the majority of — if not all — sports figures started out playing in grammar or high school, just like many top TV or movie stars began acting in high school or college.

Also, of the many thousands of kids who play sports in school, only a small percentage end up playing professionally, yet the schools often provide huge support to the programs anyway. This is no different than the thousands of kids who are involved in theater in school yet go on to other fields, yet so many schools seem to provide little support.

The perception that theater is not a legitimate academic field.

Theater is a legitimate academic field. Many four-year colleges offer bachelors’ degrees in theater, with a concentration in acting, directing, design, tech, and several other areas. You can also earn an MA or an MFA (a terminal degree) in several theater specialties, or go on to earn a PhD in the subject. In fact, most professional designers have at least a BA or BFA, and more and more have MAs or MFAs.

The perception that theater is “just the arts.”

I always get a chuckle out of this one. What’s the difference between doing, say, Hamlet in a school or community theatre and calling it “the arts,” and doing the same play on Broadway and calling it “the entertainment industry?”

Well, for one thing, tickets to the local production can run maybe $10 to $35 or so, while tickets to the Broadway play, with a top star playing Hamlet, can run well over $100. No different than tickets to a high-school game can run $10 to $25, while tickets to a professional game can run well over $100.

Of course (yeah, no kiddin’, Sherlock) the Broadway performance has professionals working it, and costs more, and so on and on. But let’s face it: in this country the arts are always begging for money, while the entertainment industry is making money hand over fist. So why label theater education as “the arts” (with the usual low-rung-on-the-ladder connotation) instead of as “preparation for the entertainment industry?”

The perception that it costs too much money.

This one is easy: compare the amount of money spent on sports versus the amount of money spent on theater (on all the arts, actually). Sure it’ll vary by school, but it may be an eyebrow-raiser overall. Why is one so important, while the other one isn’t?

The perception that one person can do it all.

I see this all the time in the EdTA open forum, where so many teachers indicate they are a one-person department, teaching several classes in addition to directing the shows and designing the sets, lights, costumes, sound, props, advertising, and so on and on. Yet, again from the forum (and from conversations with some of the teachers), it appears that most of them were trained mainly in how to teach acting or directing, with only minimal exposure to the technical areas. From the viewpoint of a fly on the wall, I feel this is totally unfair to the kids, not to mention the teachers. One person cannot possibly be an expert in all those areas, let alone have the time to do it all properly.

As I mentioned to a college faculty member recently, the problem here appears to be that administrators “see” one person doing it all, and therefore think it’s possible to do so. Yet the idea that the kids may be getting short-changed doesn’t seem to come up.

The perception that “that’s just the way it is.”

A couple of years ago, I was hired by a local high school to design the set for one of their musicals. During conversations with the staff before production started, I learned that their previous set designers had been (and I’m quoting here) “kids right out of school who didn’t know what they were doing.” I also learned that a couple of parents had been very instrumental in previous productions, to the point of pretty much dictating what the set was and how it was built.

This being only the second high school I’ve ever worked for, I figured, okay, we’ll get to know each other and go from there. However, from the first production meeting, it was clear that they, and one parent in particular (a retired engineer), were under the impression that all set designers were the same: clueless. The director and I were very much on the same page, so she was very supportive, but, being a regular director at that school, there was only so far she could go.

I could totally understand the possibility that this one parent may have felt threatened, but I could not understand that he just would not let go the idea that I was clueless, even after the set was up and running on schedule. That behavior was so pronounced that it was very hard to not take it personally, but somehow I managed not to. It was not a pleasant experience for me.

I mention this story only because it’s so easy to fall back on “it’s always been this way” and “we don’t need to do anything about it” — what I call “defending the problem.” If administrators don’t notice, or don’t pay attention to, how things are done, and no one takes an active role in changing their perceptions, nothing will change. And here, again, is where I feel the kids are the ones who are being short-changed.

I don’t know what the answer is (heck, I’m not even sure I know what the question is), but I’ve been reading about, and hearing, the same concerns over the past couple of years. Hopefully, this post will raise a few questions that may lead to some positive solutions at some point.

Okay, enough for editorials. The next post will be back to my subject matter.

 

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.

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.