Problem solving: an arched bridge

A few years ago I designed a production of A Tale of Cinderella, by George David Weiss, Will Severin, and W. A. Frankonis, which is a different spin on the classic tale, and set in Venice. Most of the action in the musical takes place in and around a piazza, but there are also interiors, side buildings, and a gondola. And, of course, being Venice, it had to have a bridge.

After doing a lot of research on the city and its bridges, I decided the show needed a bridge that looked and felt like a Venetian bridge, with its long and graceful curves. Since the stage was over forty feet wide, there was lots of room for it, so the bridge ended up having a clear span of just about twenty feet. Now the question became how to build it within our budget and time frame, considering the rest of the set was huge.

Bridge 1

With something like this, the first reaction is usually to look at theatrical scenery textbooks and see how someone else did it. However, in this case, I went back to how the real Venetian bridges were built. Those bridges have been in place for hundreds of years and are still structurally sound, mostly because of the secret: the arch. If anchored properly, an arch is an amazingly strong structure; in fact, some Roman structures built with arches are still standing after two thousand years and counting.

So we started with the design itself…

Cinderella bridge_1

… and broke it down to its basic shapes:

Cinderella bridge_2

The bridge was anchored at one end (near center stage) by the platforms, and at the offstage end by securing it to the stage floor. That little curb in front was there for cosmetic reasons, not structural.

Cinderella bridge_3

The basic structure consisted of three separate arches, each made of two layers of 3/4″ ply screwed together. The shop guys took their time laying out the first arch to make sure it was accurate and true, and then used it as a template for the other two. Between the arches were wood spacers to hold them in place. On top went two four-foot-wide platforms, securely screwed to the arches. The treads and risers went next, and finally the bottom was skinned with 1/8″ lauan. The main concern as it was getting built was to make it into a solid, tight, safe structure, each piece securely attached to something else to avoid any movement.

Once completed, that bridge was a very solid structure and a nice complement to the set. It went up reasonably fast and came down even faster, and we stayed within our budget.

Problem solving: a brick wall with no dutchmen

Back in school, we learned how to “dutchman” two adjoining flats to help conceal the joint: we would tear a strip of scenery muslin about 2″ wide, apply it (with paint) over the joint, and feather out the edges. The idea of using paint instead of glue was that the dutchman would come off readily once the show was over, and the strip was torn, instead of cut, it to create soft edges instead of hard edges. Once painted over, and if done carefully, the joint would be invisible.

Nowadays, the tendency seems to be to use painter’s tape or masking tape instead, although I have seen a few times when duct tape or gaffer tape was used. Personally, I don’t like the heavier tapes, since you’re liable to end up with two visible edges instead of just one.

However, we don’t always have to use dutchmen if we plan ahead.

Some years ago I designed a large brick wall as part of a set for Marc Camoletti‘s comedy Don’t Dress for Dinner. The wall was on the end of a renovated French farm house, and it was about sixteen feet wide by twenty-five high at the apex.

Since painting brick is a time-consuming process, I didn’t want the scenic artist to have to paint the wall vertically after it was assembled, or to have to deal with dutchmen after the fact.

The solution was to plan out the flats (which were built for the show) so they jived with the dimensions of so many courses of bricks plus the mortar lines. Then we went a step further and made the bricks a bit larger than standard modern bricks, in order to save some time (i.e., fewer bricks and mortar lines to paint). So an eight-foot-high flat started out with a course of 3 1/2″ high bricks at the bottom, then a half-inch mortar line, then another course of bricks, and so on until the final mortar line at the top. The flat on top of it then started out with a course of bricks, and the joint at the flats was hidden in plain sight by the joint at the painted mortar line.

The vertical joints were hidden the same way, by sizing the width of the bricks so vertical mortar lines would fall right at the edges of the flats. This meant that every other course of bricks did show a vertical line, but we minimized it with a little extra paint where needed, and the tapestries and other elements helped too.

The end result was that all the brick wall sections could be painted flat on the floor where it was much easier to pay attention to detail and much faster to get those mortar lines right. You can see more photos on my web site, on the Don’t Dress for Dinner page.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we used the same technique with a small concrete block wall for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the mortar lines jived with the horizontal joints on the flats.

Dutchmen are a time-tested and effective technique, but sometimes we can do without them by doing a little pre-planning.

After the show opens: the post-mortem

A post-mortem (in our case) is a meeting of the production team, after the show opens, to go over how things went and what can be learned from it. It’s also a way to formally “close out” the project for the team.

Although the term “post-mortem” is in common use in theatre (just like the term “punch list” in architecture), I’m not sure I agree with it just because of its usual connotation. To most of us who watch TV and movies, a post-mortem is a medical examination to find out why a person died, so we tend to think of it in terms of “what went wrong.” In other words, it’s all about “the past.” The fact that autopsy results are often used in research, to better understand how the body works and what we can do about it, is lost on most of us. In other words, there is also a “future” component to autopsies.

It can work the same way in theatre. A post-mortem can be just a kvetching session, where the focus is on finding out what went wrong and who was responsible. Or it can be a learning experience, where the focus is on what went right (and therefore should be done again), as well as on what didn’t go right, and why, and what we can do about it. We can learn just as much — and sometimes more — from what went right as we can from what went wrong.

I’ve worked with companies that always had a post-mortem and others that didn’t always have them. One or two companies even felt (although they didn’t come out and say so) that post-mortems weren’t “politically correct,” as previous ones had just turned into finger-pointing sessions. Like many other things, having post-mortems or not (and whether they are effective or not) is part of the company culture, which is driven by the company leadership.

Incidentally, I’ve found that most meetings can be more productive, and shorter, if the moderator spends maybe thirty seconds going over the agenda right up front, so everyone knows what’s coming. This is especially useful when new team members (i.e., outside designers or directors) are at the table.

Like I said in A Quick Guide to Production Meetings, the best meetings I’ve attended had three things in common, and post-mortems are no exception. They were the same three things I listed there: they were scheduled, there was an agenda, and they were short and to the point. We can even use the same agenda, with a slightly different focus. For instance:

  • Producer: was the show a success, how were attendance and receipts, what did the critics think, did the show stay on budget.
  • Director: how were the actors, was there sufficient rehearsal time, did the set/lights/costumes/props work out.
  • Technical director: was the budget realistic, was there enough time, was there enough crew, were the facilities and tools adequate, were shop drawings in on time.
  • Set designer: any specific issues.
  • Lighting designer: any specific issues.
  • Costume designer: any specific issues.
  • Prop master: any specific issues.
  • Sound designer: any specific issues.
  • Stage manager: any specific issues.
  • Publicity manager: did the campaign work as expected, did one form of advertising work better than another, were there any interviews or TV spots.
  • Concessions manager: how did concessions do, were the prices adequate, was there a favorite item.
  • Anything else.

Again, a meeting like this can be held to an hour or less, providing someone is moderating it and keeping it on track.

When is the best time to have a post-mortem? Opinions vary. Having it soon after the show opens means everyone is still thinking about the show and it’s all still fresh in their minds, but it tends to remove the “objectivity by distance” component. Having it after the show closes gives everyone a breather and lets them consider the overall response to the show (admissions, ticket sales, concessions, etc.), but by this time a lot of the team members will be off on other projects and focused on them. In either case, scheduling it up front will let everyone plan for it.

A post-mortem can be a wonderful tool for learning and improving a production company’s work; it just needs to be focused and have a clear reason — a clear goal — for having it.

A quick guide to production meetings

Production meetings are an important part of the production process, as they keep everyone focused on the goal, which is to present a cohesive, engaging, entertaining story to the audience. But they can also be long, boring, and unproductive. In my experience, the most useful production meetings have had three things in common:

1. They are scheduled on a regular basis

By setting up your meeting schedule at the beginning of the production period, everyone on the team can plan ahead for them. Whether the meetings occur every week, every two weeks, or less often, they will become part of the regular routine.

I have often seen these schedules set up at the first production meeting: “Can we all meet every Tuesday at 1:00? No? You can’t? Okay, let’s see here… how about every Wednesday at 3:00?” and so forth. There will always someone who can’t make a meeting or two, but these will be minimized.

2. There is a standard agenda

By writing down the agenda and distributing it to everyone at each meeting (or emailing it ahead of time), you will be in a better position to keep the meeting on track and productive. The printed agenda is also a handy place to jot down notes and highlight important dates or issues. Also, if the agenda follows the same format every time, people will get used to the routine and plan to use their allotted time effectively.

Here’s a simple, sample agenda:

  • Producer’s update (schedule, budget, other issues)
  • Director’s update (auditions, callbacks, casting, rehearsals, similar issues)
  • Technical director’s update
  • Set design (progress of design, presentation of research material, sketches, schedule, other issues)
  • Lighting design (same as above)
  • Costume design (same as above)
  • Props (same as above)
  • Sound (same as above)
  • Stage manager (rehearsals, schedule, other issues)
  • Publicity (progress, ideas, deadlines, other issues)
  • Concessions (new products, ideas, other issues)
  • Anything else
  • Confirm date & time of next meeting

Meetings like this, with six or eight people at the table, can easily be kept to an hour or even less, as long as somebody (generally the producer or technical director) is chairing them and keeping them on track. In many cases, there will be nothing new to discuss or report in one or more categories, but at least this way nothing falls between the cracks.

3. They are short and to the point

People do fall asleep at meetings; it’s not just a cartoon joke. One way of keeping meetings short and to the point is to use them to discuss only those items that apply to, or involve, everyone (or almost everyone) present.

For instance, a production meeting would not be a good time for the set designer and technical director to have a lengthy conversation about how to cantilever a platform or whether to use lumber or metal to build a tower. It would also not be a good time for the lighting designer and director to discuss each of ninety-six lighting cues, or for the prop master to go into detail about sixteen props.

What does work is for these parties to bring up the subject and then set up a time to discuss them separately. I have been at many production meetings which have been immediately followed by ad-hoc discussions to go over detailed technical matters: the set designer and technical director head off to the shop, the director and publicist head off to the office, and so forth.

Production meetings, however, should not take the place of ongoing communication on specific issues or even routine matters, whether it be by phone, email, texting, or in person. Since opening night isn’t going to move, you don’t want to wait for a production meeting (often a week or more) to bring up a question or issue.

Regular production meetings can be a very useful way to keep everyone on track and focused on the same goal. They just need a little pre-planning if they are to be effective.

The project schedule

One of the biggest and most common problems I’ve run into over the years is not allowing enough time for creating and building a set. As I said in another post, the process is very straightforward, but each step takes a certain amount of time to do correctly.

Here is a sample schedule, allowing adequate time for the set designer to work with the director and prepare design drawings and shop drawings.

Image5

The first few weeks allow for a kickoff meeting as well as two or more subsequent meetings to review the progress of the designs (set, lights, costumes, and so forth), and develop them into the final form. During this period the director will be thinking about his or her vision for the show and finalizing it as the designs develop, helping to tie the whole production together.

Once the designs have been finalized, the set designer can prepare the construction drawings, painters’ elevations, and other deliverables. Once these are in the shop, the TD can take a few days to review the drawings, ask questions, organize the build, and order materials.

Then the actual construction period starts, which includes fabrication, painting, installation, rigging, and other tasks. I’m showing four weeks in the sample above, but five or six weeks is a more realistic period, especially if the crew is made up of students or volunteers who only work on the show part-time. The worst that can happen by allowing extra time is that the work will be completed earlier (in relation to opening night), which is a great problem to have. You may want to look at How long does it really take? for more on this.

And let’s not forget an immutable fact of life: Murphy’s Law. Since opening night is locked in, it’s always a good idea to allow for things taking longer than we expect. In addition, the designer(s) may be working on more than one production at the same time, which is often the case with professional designers.

I’ve seen cases where the TD prepares a schedule, but then keeps to to himself like it were a secret. This doesn’t help anyone, or the show itself. The production schedule should be posted prominently where everyone can see it, and refer to it, and keep track of the progress.

Getting the most out of volunteers

Community theatres often use volunteers, but do they really get the most out of them?

While working on a number of non-profit productions that utilize volunteers, I have seen both ends of the spectrum and probably everything in between. Sometimes the volunteers are perceived as “great, we couldn’t do it without them,” and other times as “they’re clueless.” Most often, they’re somewhere in between, but what makes them one way or another? Here are a few observations and suggestions.

1. The self-fulfilling prophecy

There’s something about self-fulfilling prophecies: we can make things happen or not happen by how we approach them. If we think volunteers are going to work out great, they will, and if we think they won’t, then they won’t.

2. “They don’t tell us anything.”

How often have I seen volunteer stage crews show up for first tech without any conception of the show itself? Sure they (hopefully) know the name of the show, and may have worked on a different production of it at some point, but are they told anything about this production?

What I’ve seen most of the time is that they get a tour of the stage, then are shown the pieces that need to move and told where to put them, and that’s it. But they don’t have a picture of what the set looks like in each scene, or why it looks that way. It is so simple and cheap to show them the set designer’s renderings, or the model, or the floor plan, and quickly walk them through the show. That way they can visualize the bed in Maria’s bedroom as more than just a scenic element on the spike marks, and the spike marks will make more sense.

The same goes for volunteer building and painting crews, who often show up and are just told to “take this and make that” without so much as a hint of what the piece is for or how it fits in the production. How are they to know or to feel anything about their work, if they see the resident staff being so non-committal?

3. “They spent all day on this one little piece.”

One of my favorites. A volunteer comes in, ready to work. You ask him to put these legs on this bench, and walk away. He has no way to know that you have six other projects for him unless you tell him. Better yet, he has no way to know that the day’s goal is to finish this other unit and that it all has to be completed by next weekend.

Volunteers (people) will do what you ask them to do and will respond to what they see you doing; if you act like there’s no hurry and no deadlines, why should they take it upon themselves to think otherwise? The relatively few times I’ve physically worked with volunteers, I’ve shown them the drawings for whatever they’re building, talked them through the project, and told them what the day’s work plan is and what we need to accomplish — and why. It’s only taken (literally) a minute or two, but it’s made a huge difference. I’ve treated them like valuable employees, and, after a bit, they’ve acted like responsible employees. And had fun doing it.

Here’s where supervision comes into the picture. Now and then, walk over to someone’s project and see how they’re doing, or if they have any questions. If they’re going off on a tangent (say using all that 2×4 you had earmarked for another project), let them know about the other project and bring them back to this one. What I’ve found works for me (when I have a new person working on a project and I don’t know their skills yet), is to check on them every few minutes at first and then let them go at it, with only an occasional “hi, how’s it going?” This way they don’t feel they’re being micro-managed, but still know that you’re there and available in case of questions.

4. “We” vs. “you.”

This is part of what defines a production company’s culture, and has to be actively developed and nurtured by the management team. If volunteers feel that they have no clue what’s going on, and that they are perceived as just bodies, they have no frame of reference in which to develop “ownership” of the project. So they don’t. It’s only when they start asking, “how are we doing?” instead of “what do you want me to do today?” that you know a positive culture is forming.

5. Keep them informed.

Putting together a production schedule, however simple, at the start of the construction phase can do wonders to get volunteers involved. It can be as simple as an email that says, “We will be building the set at the theatre starting on Saturday June 15 and continuing until Saturday July 24, from 10:00am to 4:00pm. A lunch break will be provided from 12:30 to 1:00, so bring your lunch. Please let our volunteer coordinator (Jane Doe) know if you are coming on each of these days so we will know who will be there and can schedule work accordingly. You can reach Jane at janedoe@xmail.com.”

You will always have people saying I can’t make it this day or that day, but at least you will have a fair idea of how many people will be there and what you will be able to accomplish. It’s also a good idea to update them as needed, i.e., “This Saturday we will be completing the upper platform and also painting the lower platform, so please come ready to paint.” This gives your volunteers a sense that things are scheduled and organized, and that you take the work seriously.

6. Volunteers are part of the team

Above all, make the volunteers feel like they are an important part of the production team. In many cases, they are essential, as in it literally couldn’t happen without them. Updates, thank-yous, a free lunch now and then, and maybe an appreciation mini-party after opening will keep them happy and involved and coming back.

In this corner, the designer…

A few weeks ago, browsing through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick. As I was flipping pages, one statement jumped out at me, to the effect that engineers are interested in things in and of themselves, while architects are interested in how people interact with those things. The author did not elaborate, but, for me, he didn’t need to: after my fifteen years in the architectural field working with architects and engineers on a daily basis, I could totally relate to this.

But I could also relate to it from the theatrical viewpoint, where there is often an undercurrent of… shall we say… competition between set designers and technical directors, carpenters, and shop staff. The set designer wants his pieces to “look” and “function” as he intended, while the tech people often want to simplify the construction by using stock pieces and materials. In my experience, this desire for simplification is generally attributed to budgetary reasons such as not enough money or not enough time. And sometimes that’s a valid point.

The sad part, however–and I’ve seen it many many times–is that sometimes simplification is viewed as an “us against them” statement. It gets personal. It becomes a win-lose situation, where either the designer “wins” or the shop “wins.” But one of them, by definition, “loses.”

The solution: a win-win-win

Back when I was working at a major scenic studio and estimating jobs sent in by designers or production companies, we often came up with a price that was higher than what the client had anticipated. Sometimes it was a minimal increase, but other times it was a huge difference. The way we dealt with it was to sit down with the production company (often the technical director and designer) to review the drawings and point out where the problems were. It was totally business. We made suggestions as to where expenses could be reduced, and the tech director and designer responded, often with their own suggestions. In the end, sometimes after two or three hours (or several sessions), we arrived at solutions that served the production itself, the design intent, and the client’s budget.

It was a win-win-win. The production company wanted a gorgeous set and got it; the designer wanted a portfolio piece and got it; and we were able to build it on the client’s budget and schedule and still make a profit, so we too got what we wanted.

But what made it work was that communication process where everyone came to the table with the same goal in mind. We were all on the same page. We all wanted to do our best work and have something to show for it.

In the end, that process would have never worked in an environment where there’s no leadership: no one to say, look, we are all on the same team here. It’s not “In this corner, the designer,” and “In that corner, the techies.”