Get to the root of the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The punch list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flats are over-rated

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

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

But they’re not.

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

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

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.

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:

 

door-slam-2

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

door-slam-1

Here are the two pieces in place:

door-slam-3

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

door-slam-4_1

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.

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.

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 is 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 — that 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 three instances I just now found on the web:

They all work well, are easy to see, and are not crowded. Notice that in the last one, a two-tier table, the items on the floor are also labeled. This is a very compact arrangement, but it may not work in every show.

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 as in the third photo, 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 to do it 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 props 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 theatres I worked with emphasized to the actors, right up front, that they (the actors) were responsible for their props during the run of the show, since the theatres 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 theatres 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.

Two hats (designer and builder) and when to switch them

Many years ago, in summer stock, I was asked to mentor one of the high-school interns through the process of designing one of the sets for the season, which was for a children’s play about Alice in Wonderland. As soon as we started working together, I realized his buddies had been making suggestions about the set: put a ramp here and hinge it to a wagon, or put two flats there and do something with them. This was his first set design, and, as a result of all the suggestions, he was getting flustered and frustrated, not knowing who to listen to or where to go.

So I took him aside and told him that they were only trying to help, but that right now he needed to think like a designer and not like a builder. Then I took him to the amphitheater where the show was to be presented, sat him down, and told him to stare at that big empty stage as he thought of the story and the “magical-ness” and the characters and the flow and what would make sense visually for the story. It took a while to get him away from flats and wagons and such, but he finally relaxed and caught on and enjoyed the process and ended up with a very nice set.

I’ve never forgotten that story, because all it took on my part was getting him to realize the difference between design and construction, and getting him to focus on each one at a time. It (almost) reminds me of the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler:” know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. In this case, it’s know when to draw ‘em and know when to build ‘em.

I was a confirmed techie myself in college, and it took me a while (took all of us a while) to get over that initial excitement to start building. But, once my professors had their way and we learned to separate design from construction, and to give each one its proper attention and time, we never went back. Actually, what it did was to get us to realize that some of us were more interested in one than in the other. The same thing happens in medical school, where students rotate among specialties and often discover an interest they never knew they had.

To help keep design and construction separate, I would suggest three things:

1. Start earlier. If right now you schedule (for instance) six weeks for design/build, add a couple of extra weeks and see how that works out. You can always adjust the schedule later as you learn from experience.

2. Treat it as two separate projects. Design is design and construction is construction, and they require different skills and interests. If you have the students get involved in the design process, make sure they focus on design (creating a physical environment for the story) only, and ignore the flats, platforms, doors, hinges, and all the tech stuff. There will be lots of time for that later. Personally, I feel this is one of the most important things a high school can teach students about this part of theatre, since that’s what they will encounter later if they decide to pursue the field and go to a college with a professional training program.

3. Finish the design before you start construction. That’s how you know what you’re building. I covered the project schedule in another post here, and this is where you separate design and construction, on paper, for all to see: design is from here to there, shop drawings are from here to there, and construction, painting, and installation are from here to there.

Keeping design and construction separate, and helping students see the difference, can go a long ways towards a more professional production. It also shows that there’s a process involved, and lets the students experience, and learn about, each part separately.