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.

Running the construction crew

Saturday is right around the corner, you have the set designer’s drawings, and six volunteers are coming to help with construction. Now what?

My post on getting the most out of volunteers has been so popular that I thought I’d share some observations and suggestions from scene shops I’ve encountered. The most efficient and “user friendly” ones have had several things in common:

The crew is treated like a team

Everyone is there to work on the same project: the set for the upcoming show. They may be working on different parts of it, but it all goes towards the same end. This is no different than a football team, a basketball team, or any other sports team where everyone has their own specialty but are working together. There are times when someone will need an extra pair of hands for something, or even just to hold the other end of the tape measure, and the team members should be happy and willing to help out.

Everyone is clear on the goal

The goal, in this case, is to have the set ready for first tech, which is often the weekend before opening night. By making sure that everyone understands the scope of the project, what the deadline is, how much needs to get done, and how many people are on the team, you will go a long way towards getting that set completed on time.

There is a defined work schedule, including breaks

Most shops I’ve seen work on a defined schedule, where everyone starts at the same time, takes breaks at the same time, cleans up at the same time, and leaves at the same time. This not only creates a sense of order, but also helps you organize the day’s work and know that people will be there when you need them. It also helps with the camaraderie (and therefore the team-building), since everyone will be free to chat at the same time and get to know each other.

There is a project list and schedule

By making and posting a list of what needs to be built, painted, rigged, and so forth, you not only have a constant picture of where you are in the process, but so does everyone else. And there is something therapeutic and wonderful about crossing items off a list, especially as opening night gets closer.

The shop drawings are clear and readily available

Shop drawings, renderings, painters’ elevations, and other applicable materials should be right there, visible at all times and easy to reference. The best way to do this is to designate a table for this purpose, which can also serve as the tech director’s desk during work periods. That way everyone knows where the “instructions” belong and where they need to go back to at the end of the work session.

The supervisor is available to supervise

One thing I’ve found over the years is that it’s very hard to be a working supervisor, where you’re trying to work on your own project at the same time as keeping an eye on other workers, especially if it’s a large group. Inevitably one or the other suffers. The best solution is to just accept that you may not be able to work on your own project, and to spend your time making sure that everyone has what they need, answering questions, and providing guidance where necessary.

Safety is important

Needless to say, you want to make sure that anyone who is using a tool (any kind of a tool) has demonstrated that he or she knows how to use it properly and safely. Anyone using a tool for the first time needs to have someone, already skilled in it, show them how to use it and watch them the first few times. Some shops have “checkout” forms that they use to keep track of who can use which tool, and some also have a list of shop procedures and practices that they issue to everyone (and go over) on the first day of work. Safety is one area where you don’t want to take anything for granted.

Along the same lines, keeping a clean work area can help keep everyone safe. Piles of scrap wood or sawdust on the floor, paint cans scattered around, and tools everywhere, will only cause accidents. Several large trash cans in strategic places–and making sure people use them as they work–can be a huge help.

Everyone helps clean up after each work session

Cleaning up is part of the work session, and you want to let everyone know about this at the start of construction. One professional shop I worked with called a ten-minute “clean up” time before lunch, and again before the end of the day. With everyone chipping in, it only takes a few minutes.


Running a construction crew properly takes a bit of work, but the end results will speak for themselves. Often, it’s just a matter of a little pre-planning.

Saving stuff (or not)

I’ve noticed a tendency, mostly among non-professional theatre companies, to save everything from every show: every piece of scenery, prop, and wood cut-off, and every little leftover of paint. Sometimes this comes from wanting to save money in the future and other times from wanting to place the items in the company’s rental inventory, but, from what I’ve seen, most often it’s just “because that’s what you do.” As a result, shops and storage areas frequently turn into attics and/or fire hazards.

There are several ways of dealing with the “what do you save” question, and below are some of the best thoughts and ideas I’ve seen over the past thirty-odd years.

Custom scenery pieces

Generally, scenery pieces built for one specific show will often not be used the same way again. That huge Gothic window from The Sound of Music, for instance, can only be used in a very few shows (like maybe A Man For All Seasons and Becket), but chances are it won’t be used again “as is” or it won’t work with the new design concept.

Rather than storing pieces like this, a lot of companies advertise them on local theatre bulletin boards or networks and either sell them at cost or donate them to another company. Failing that, the piece can be dismantled and the usable raw materials saved, while the rest are discarded or recycled.

Case in point: A few years ago I designed two full-size “opera boxes” for a production of Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black. After the show closed, the TD decided to discard them, and I later heard a bunch of people were sad or disappointed because the units were so beautiful. But I had to agree with the TD: the pieces were huge, fragile (mostly 1×3 pine, 1/8″ lauan, and rigid plastic foam), and, in the case of this theatre and the local area, they would have more than likely not be re-used or rented.

Staircases and balustrades are another example. To save space, a better solution would be to dismantle the piece and save just the components that can be re-used, such as the balusters, newel posts, and long pieces of railing.

Generic pieces (flats, platforms, step units)

So-called “standard” pieces are good for a company’s stock, but, here again, there’s no point in saving more than you can conveniently store and find when you need it. Here’s where we can borrow an idea from architects and builders: if it’s going to cost more to repair the unit (or make it usable again) than it is to build a new one, then toss it. Or, if it’s such an odd size (a flat, two feet two inches by three feet five inches) that it probably won’t be re-used, there’s no point in hanging on to it.

Some companies dismantle odd items and salvage any usable wood, but, here again, it’s a question of time versus storage space versus money saved.

Raw materials

I’ve seen a few shops that hang on to every little scrap of raw material, like plywood or dimensional lumber, until literally every part of the shop is full of them. The problem here is that you sometimes need a short piece but can’t find it in the mass of scraps, so you end up cutting a new one. Having a plan, or “policy,” for this can make things a lot easier for everyone. For instance, and I’m making this up on the fly, you may decide you want to save:

3/4″ ply – square pieces larger than 2′ x 2′, and non-square pieces at least 3′ in one dimension by 6″ in the the other dimension

1/4″ ply – pieces larger than 12″ x 12″ (these can often be used for props)

1×3 or 1×4 – new, clean pieces longer than 18″ (both ends cut square)

plastic tubing – clean pieces longer than 18″

muslin – clean, unpainted pieces larger than 2′ x 2′

and so on. Once the collection gets to the point where you have more than you can conveniently see or use, you can weed some of it out. The result will be a cleaner, more efficient shop.


The biggest problem with keeping every little paint leftover is that eventually it solidifies and becomes just a can taking up space. Sometimes it turns bad, and you open the can to find a biology experiment.

One solution here is to dump small leftovers into a five-gallon bucket and make up a batch of “garbage paint,” which is handy for priming raw wood, or, sometimes, even for base coating a unit. The bucket, of course, wants to be sealed tight to keep as much air as possible out of it. I will cover various types of paints in another post, but, generally, the water-based “house paints” used often in schools and community theatres can be mixed together with no problem. If in doubt, check with a local paint store and see what they say.

Another solution is to donate the leftover paint. Some communities have an arts recycling program that accepts clean, usable scraps of materials and paints and makes them available to non-profits. A place like this can be a good resource for your company too.

If push comes to shove, you can always discard the paint. Many communities will accept dried paint (i.e., a solid mass) as regular garbage, so you can either let it dry naturally or mix enough sawdust into it that it turns solid. I’ve heard of using cat litter for this purpose, although it seems an expensive solution, and there’s also a product available in paint stores that will solidify paint so it can be discarded. Check your local community to see if they have any preference.

Spray paints are a different animal and require their own disposal methods, so the cans will usually give you the instructions. Some communities will accept these cans as regular garbage and others require that they be taken to a recycling center, so be sure to check locally.

Mechanical and specialty pieces

These are often the tough ones: they took a lot of time and/or cost a lot of money to make, so naturally we want to save them. The best way to approach these is to ask two questions: will we ever really use it again, and will it survive storage until it gets used again?

If you really think you won’t use it again, you may be able to donate it to another theatre group, or trade it for something else, or even sell it. Of course, in this day and age, we also need to be concerned about liability, so, for instance, if it’s an electrical piece, you may be better off dismantling it if you’re not going to find a use for it.

Whether it will survive storage is the second question. How will the piece be stored, and how much storage space do you have? If there’s a chance it will get damaged beyond repair, or get in the way, or it has parts that have a limited shelf life, or, for instance, has a pump that needs to be oiled regularly, you may be better off dismantling it and saving only the parts you think you can use another time.


A lot of theatres have a collection of furniture: real antiques, modern pieces, and some items designed for a particular show. A collection of real furniture is always nice if you have the space for it, but the problem occurs when some of these pieces are so old and fragile, or damaged beyond reasonable repair, or just plain unsafe — or so specific to a particular show and design concept — that all they do is take up space. That’s when it may become time to make a decision.

Another case in point: a French secretary I designed for a production of Robin Hawdon’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The characters in the story “drank like fish” for most of the play, so a bar was needed, but the director and I didn’t want just a predictable sideboard or liquor cart. So I designed a secretary that looked “normal” when the doors were closed, but turned into a bar when they were open:

This theatre has a very active rental program, and chances are this piece will never be rented for its double purpose, but I hear it’s been rented a number of times as set dressing (i.e., with the doors closed) when the designer wanted a nice piece of furniture.


Where to begin with props? I have seen prop rooms that are beautifully organized and maintained, often with computerized inventories and photos, and others that are basically just attics, but (so far) they all have one thing in common: they have a lot of items that are just taking up space.

The two questions I mentioned in specialty pieces above can also apply here: will we ever use it again, and will it survive storage? But a third question comes into the mix: is it worth keeping it?

I’ve seen piles of gift-wrapped boxes, complete with ribbons and bows, that cannot be used as is again because the wrapping has become dirty or torn, the bows have been flattened, and the ribbon is pulling off. Or it’s such a specific type of gift wrap (baby shower, or Christmas, or antique) that it’ll need to be replaced anyway even if we re-use the boxes. A good solution here is to discard the wrapping and flatten the boxes for storage.

Fake food items are another example. Years ago I made a highly realistic “Sara Lee” cheesecake with a slice cut off, for a production of Kander and Ebb’s And The World Goes ‘Round, and of course it was saved.

Not too long afterwards, due to being stored in a large box with other fake food items, it was in very sorry shape. Plates of salad and hors d’oeuvres, in the same box, were also coming apart. It would have been so much better to discard these items and make them fresh next time.

Liquids are yet another example. Bottles of liquids should be emptied and the bottles rinsed for storage or, if they’re commonly available, discarded.

Cleaning out a huge collection can be a very scary task if you try to do it all at once, but, if you set up a system and do a little at a time, it can result in a more organized, useful, easier-to-work-in space.


Avoiding blackouts

A recent post in the open forum of the Educational Theatre Association’s web site ( mentioned blackouts and how they are often overused, resulting not only in the audience getting distracted, but also in the performance being longer. Although blackouts can be very effective for dramatic impact (like when Junior discovers the Santa suit in the dresser), their use to simply cover scene changes can be reduced or eliminated by careful design and coordination between the set designer and the director.

To an audience, a scene-change blackout is like a TV commercial: it stops the forward momentum of the show and distracts them from what they’re watching. Also, blackouts are very often not “black,” since a bit of light is needed for the crew and therefore the audience can see what’s going on. Even a thirty-second blackout can feel like half an hour to the audience, and, after five or six of them, they can find themselves looking at their watches — which is deadly for a theatrical performance.

Most directors I’ve worked with have been wide open to eliminating scene-change blackouts wherever possible, as long as the change can be done quickly and smoothly, and ideally by the cast. I’ve also seen crew members, in costume, come on to help with the changes, and this can work very well if done correctly.

For instance, some years ago I designed To Kill a Mockingbird, and the director and I agreed the changes would be done in view of the audience. So, when it came time to go from the town to the courthouse, the entire cast, in costume and in character, rolled away the town itself and rolled on the judge’s bench, the balcony, and the other elements. Then they all sat down in their places and the courtroom scene began. To go back to the town after the trial, the sequence was reversed. Each switchover took maybe — maybe — twenty seconds (they were very carefully choreographed) and was “covered” by a bit of music and a change in the lighting, and we didn’t stop the action or the momentum of the story. We also received lots of compliments.

Two days ago, I started working on a production of The Music Man at a local high school, a show that requires ten to twelve locations, depending on how you count them. Again, the director and I agreed on no blackouts, so I’m going to be focusing on how to use the script and the music to create scene changes that “feel” like part of the show and keep the action moving forward.

The first trick, which we are using here, is to go through the script very carefully and look for places where we can reduce the number of physical sets. Many times, a given location is used only for one or two scenes — and sometimes they’re very short scenes — so playing the scene in a similar location may work. For instance, The Music Man has several scenes in “the center of town,” one of which is immediately followed by a very short scene in “a street,” and then we move on to Paroo’s porch. We eliminated the “street” set and will play the scene in the “center of town.” Likewise, we are cutting the “meeting hall” set and playing that scene in the gym.

A second trick is to go through the script again and see where and how the scenes change, i.e., what happens at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next one. Does a character go from one location to another, or do we go from an intimate setting to a large production number? If it’s a musical, does the score include transition music, and, if so, how long is it? Looking at these transitions carefully can give you lots of ideas.

A third trick, which falls back on the other two, is to design the set carefully to provide for these transitions. Design — any type of design — is really about solving problems, and this is an area where the set designer can be a huge help. For instance, a script may have a scene in a living room, followed by a scene in the dining room, followed by a scene outside on the porch, and then back to the living room. Often we’ll say, well, that’s what the script calls for, so we need a living room set, a dining room set, and a porch set, and a blackout between each scene. But it may be totally possible to have all three locations on stage at the same time by designing a set that evokes a house, with part inside and part outside.

I’ll be writing about design in a future post, and especially about how often we get caught thinking sets have to be “realistic.” And this is really the fourth trick: accepting that we’re doing theatre, not making a movie, and that there are conventions (such as the “fourth wall”) that a theatre audience is familiar with. Theatre — real theatre — was an interactive experience long before computers: in theatre, the audience needs to provide their imagination to get the most out of the story.

My favorite set of all time was created by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon one summer when they were doing Shakespeare’s Henry plays (Henry IV parts I & II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) in rotating rep. The RSC has a beautiful theatre and lots of resources, and could have done anything they wanted, but they chose to do the plays on a bare raked stage: no sets, no curtains, no legs or borders. Nothing except a few pieces of furniture here and there. Sitting in the house, we could see all the way to the back wall of the stage, and to the sides, and to the lighting overhead. But when those actors came on, in gorgeous costumes and makeup, and started to talk, we were caught and shaken and pulled right into the stories: there was no doubt we were at the court, or at the battlefield, or anywhere else. Huge sets, and the resulting scene changes, would have been totally superfluous.

A set is supposed to serve the story, not the other way around. Careful planning and imaginative design can go a long ways towards an enjoyable show and making your audience want to come back.

Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works

A recent post in the Educational Theatre Association’s ( open forum got me thinking about periaktoi. Back in school we thought they were really cool, like revolves, parallels, and a few other scenic solutions, but never used them all that much. The times I’ve seen them used, they’ve pretty much looked the same, so I thought I’d show a few ways of improving the look.

A periaktos (the singular form of periaktoi) is a scenic unit that goes back to the time of the Greek theatres and is mentioned by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture. Their use became fairly common during the Renaissance as a way to quickly change scenes onstage, and we still see them occasionally. Actually, the same principle has been used on large billboards that can change the ads, although they are being replaced by LED screens.

The unit is simply a box, built as an equilateral triangle, which can rotate on a central vertical axis. Sometimes they are used individually, but more often as a set of several, side by side. When you want to change the scene, you simply rotate them. This is what a set of four periaktoi usually looks like, assuming they are each four feet on a side by twelve feet high:

Periaktoi 4

Notice the straight up-and-down sides, which are of course necessary if the units need to meet. But the outer, left and right edges also end up straight up and down. So let’s do something about this.

Starting off with a simple project, suppose you want to have a hedgerow six feet high, based on a periaktos four feet wide. You can hinge two flaps to it so they open out to create the silhouette of a hedgerow (about seven to eight feet wide total), but can fold in when you want to revolve the unit:

Periaktoi 1

Or, let’s say you want to have a Gothic archway, twelve feet high, on a wall approx. fourteen feet wide. You can hinge half of the archway to each of two periaktoi and have the halves meet in the middle. When you want to go from the castle to somewhere else, you fold the halves of the arch in, and then rotate the units:Periaktoi 2

Now let’s go one more step and create a clump of trees, twelve feel high by almost twelve feet wide. Again, each flap is hinged to the periaktos so they fold in:

Periaktoi 3

In this case, because one flap overlaps the other, you would add a hinged strip between the periaktos and the second flap to allow for the thickness of the first flap:

Periaktoi 7.jpg

Needless to say, all these flaps would be secured in both the open and closed positions so they don’t move when we don’t want them to move. There are a number of ways of securing them, one of the simplest being a hook and eye.

These are just three options, and the possibilities are endless.

Before you build a periaktos, please refer to a good book on scenery construction, or, better yet, consult an experienced theatrical scenery carpenter. These units are not hard to build, but they do require careful construction (especially to avoid tipping over) if they are going to be sturdy and safe and do their job.