A paint mixing cart on wheels

A recent post in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) Open Forum about a mobile costume shop workstation was so cool that I decided to do a post here on a paint cart I designed years ago for a local theater.

The shop already had a dedicated space for storing paint stock and accessories, so this cart was intended to provide a place to mix and store all the paint for the current show under construction. It was built from scrap materials, mostly 3/4″ plywood, and had shelves on both sides for various-size paint cans, as well as plastic bins for tape, gloves, masks, chalk, and other small items. It also had a rack at one end for extension poles, straightedges, and similar tools. Because it was on casters, it could be easily moved around the shop, or out onto the stage, as needed. The overall dimensions were about four feet by two feet, by thirty inches high.

The paint-can opener, which always tends to disappear, was tied to a string secured to the cart handle, and it never disappeared after that.

Paint cart 5_2
Paint cart 5_3

Sometime after the cart was built and in use, I added a new feature to it.

A lot of scenic artists use music stands to hold their painters’ elevations while they work on a set. It keeps the documents safe, off the floor or work surfaces, and makes them easy to refer to while painting. So adding one to the cart seemed like a natural.

Rather than cannibalizing a perfectly good music stand, however, I made a simple one out of closet pole and some scrap plywood. It had a simple tilting device on the back, held together by a bolt and a wingnut, and rode in one of the holes on the rack at the end of the cart.

Paint cart 4_2

Visiting scenic artists were delighted with this, as it gave them a safe and convenient place to keep their painters’ elevations and other reference materials.

In future posts I’ll be describing similar shop-made accessories that can make life much simpler and more productive. Stay tuned.

 

 

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 Arthur’s 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.

 

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 and subsequent ones will be about work areas, storage areas, and 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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

The Technical Director

The job title “Technical Director” can have any number of different job descriptions, depending on the production company. Some TDs are in charge of all technical aspects of a production, and others handle just one or two. I’ve seen cases where the TD was primarily in charge of lighting or sound, and others where his or her real function was to run the scene shop.

Some companies don’t even use this job title, preferring something like “Production Manager” or something similar. Back in grad school, the theatre department didn’t believe in TDs; they had a Production Manager to supervise and coordinate the productions, plus a full-time Shop Foreman and a full-time Master Carpenter, but each designer had an assistant designer to prepare the construction drawings and handle some of the work normally done by a TD.

In contrast, in college, there was a full-time Shop Foreman, but the TD position was filled by a student for each show, and his or her job consisted of coordinating and supervising the scenery construction, installation, and strike. Often, it also included preparing the construction drawings from the designer’s elevations or model.

In some cases the TD position may be combined with a Theatre Manager position, although, in my own experience, these two jobs require different skills, interests, and mindsets — and the combination may result in more than a full-time job.

To make life even more interesting, the term Technical Director is also used in fields outside of theatre, such as software development, engineering, and film and television, where the duties may be totally different.

Confusing? Sure, but it doesn’t have to be.

As I mentioned in other posts, the important thing is for the production company to define the specific duties up front. Then you can find someone who is qualified and wants to fulfill those duties. Like set designers, TDs don’t all come from the same background or have the same skill sets or interests.

Whatever the title and job description, the position is an important one, and unfortunately it’s too often neglected. The best TDs I’ve seen functioned like architectural project managers, making sure things happened on schedule and on budget, that everyone had what they needed, and that people communicated during the process. They anticipated needs and problems and kept them to a minimum.

In my own case, I learned far more about being a TD during my years in the architectural field than I ever did in theatre school. That’s where I learned that “it takes far less time to prevent a fire than to put it out,” something that I keep in mind all the time.

Here’s a sample list of duties I’ve seen TDs have in different companies, which you can pick and choose from to develop your own job description (I have not included tasks normally associated with a Theatre Manager). In some cases, of course, the TD will need to coordinate closely with the producer, director, or other people. The list assumes that the production company already has a producer and/or production manager to handle the artistic and business end of things:

  • Develop the production schedule, including auditions, rehearsals, design deadlines, construction and installation dates, and a strike plan. Coordination with other folks is critical here. You can refer to The project schedule for ideas on the design and construction phases, and for how to set up a schedule on a spreadsheet.
  • Schedule, attend, and run production and/or design meetings.
  • Attend and coordinate all technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals, working closely with the Stage Manager.
  • Attend the Paper Tech with the Director, Stage Manager, and designers as needed.
  • Hire scene shop staff as needed, including carpenters, painters, riggers and prop builders.
  • Hire additional (temporary) technical staff as needed, including the hanging and focusing crew, sound technicians, and costume shop staff. Coordination with the various designers and the producer is critical here.
  • Supervise and maintain the scene shop itself, including tools and equipment, inventory, and safety equipment.
  • Train any new hires as to the proper operation of power and hand tools, as well as safety procedures.
  • Supervise scenery construction, painting, installation, and strike.
  • Serve as the Shop Foreman for the company, which can include taking care of the shop’s equipment as mentioned above.
  • Serve as the Master Carpenter for the production, which sometimes includes preparing the construction drawings from the set designer’s elevations.
  • Purchase materials and supplies. Some of these can be picked up at the vendor’s place and some can be delivered to the theatre by the vendor. Some companies require that a TD have a current driver’s license and clean driving record as a condition of employment.
  • Review all designers’ drawings to make sure the work can be accomplished on time and within budget, given the company’s resources.

There will always be other duties, of course, but the list above will give you a good place to start picking and choosing — to understanding and defining what your own company needs from a TD.

One thing to consider carefully up front is whether your own TD should be a management position or a supervisory position, and how the position will fit into the current structure. Then you can pick and choose duties, and then, given those duties, you can decide how much of a solid background the TD will need to carry out the job. Knowing all this will help you put together a solid and very clear job description.

 

 

What is tech theatre?

Like many of us, I was a die-hard techie back in college.

My two years in junior college provided me with a lot of construction and lighting experience, but nothing in the way of design experience besides one class. Later, at Cal State Northridge, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors who really pushed those of us who wanted to learn set design to really learn set design. One of them (Dr. Bellman) spent his summers in Europe hanging out with his set and lighting designer friends out there and would then come back and tell us all about what they were doing. The other one (Prof. Kelleher) quit teaching and went on to become an art director in the movie and TV industry.

As a techie, it took me a while to get used to the idea that design classes taught by these two professors were about design and design alone: no shop work, no painting, and no construction drawings. That was all required too, but it was totally separate from the design classes. For each design project, we had to prepare a scale model, along with a floor plan and a written description of our design concept. The same thing happened with our lighting design class and our scenic projection class.

One thing I will never forget was Dr. Bellman teaching us to think like a director whenever we created a set (i.e., a space to support a story). What did we want to say by telling the story? How do the characters need to move, and why? How much stuff do they really need? Did we want to tell the story in a presentational manner or a representational manner, and why? How did the story feel visually? A couple of semesters of this, and six or eight big projects per semester, finally drove it in: our job as set designers was to support the story, not to create a stand-alone collection of scenery.

And then there was that fateful day Prof. Kelleher asked me how you could tell when a techie designed a set. I knew she was half-joking, but I went through the roof anyway when she said, “All the lines are straight and all the corners are right angles.” By the time I came down to earth again, a few days later, I had realized how right she was, and I’ve never forgotten it.

After two years of this, I had pretty much switched from being a techie to being a designer, and that message was now permanently carved in my brain: we are there to support the story, not to create a self-contained end product.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this message doesn’t seem to be driven home very often. I’ve seen so many cases where the designers and the technical departments just don’t seem to be in the loop with the story, and the results show. Little things, like an actor needs to move this or that piece quickly, or that door needs to stick just so much, or big things, like the actor needs to come down the stairs in five bars of music, while singing. What kind of favorite chair would Willy Loman have at home to read his newspaper, or what kind of a house would George and Martha have in Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf? What type of dress would Marian Paroo wear at the library? Doing the historical research is fine, but the details still have to fit the characters and the story and the director’s vision.

Over the past ten years or so I’ve learned to really enjoy the “making of” documentaries that come on some movie DVDs: interviews with the director, actors, designers, composers, special effects people, builders, model makers, and so on and on. What they did, and what lengths they went to, to make sure the telling of the story would be as effective as possible. The shark in Jaws didn’t work at first, but they kept going and going, trying to make it work, until it did. The smell of clams and other slowly disintegrating sea critters under the hot studio lights, as they were dissecting the face hugger in Alien,  was revolting to everyone present, but they worked with it anyway, because the story needed it. The sets, props, and models in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Terminator, and many other movies were all built by very dedicated techies, most of whom were specialists, and who took serious pride in their work..

Contrary to often-popular belief, lack of money isn’t always the reason why things sometimes don’t work, or don’t look right. In my experience, the real reason is very often taking shortcuts: “the audience will never notice it,” or “it’s good enough for theatre.” One of my favorites is the so-called “Five-foot Rule,” which states that if it looks okay from five feet away, it’ll be fine on stage. I never heard of this “rule” back in high school, or college, or grad school, or at a major scenic studio I worked at for six years. We took pride in our work. It had our individual signatures on it.

Tech theatre can be a lot of fun: sets, lights, costumes, makeup, props, sound, and so forth, but it really needs to focus on supporting what’s going on on the stage. It’s not an end in itself. Come to think of it, if I were to teach a tech theatre class, I’d spend the first session or two just talking about (and discussing) how important our work is to the production and how much in synch we have to be with it. Then, after that’s clear, we’d start in on the tools and the flats and the other fun stuff.