The scene shop, part 2: work areas

Back in college, our shop foreman was a gentleman who had retired from the movie industry after thirty-odd years as a scenic carpenter and prop maker. He ran the shop like a Navy ship (more on this later), but his goal was to get us ready for the professional world, whether in live theater or the movies and TV. One of the things he insisted on was a clean shop, with everything organized “just so.” He made a huge impression on me: ever since then, every time I’ve seen a scene shop that wasn’t working all that well, I’ve thought of our college shop.

Sidebar: This guy was serious. He insisted that every cabinet, sawhorse, tool stand, and similar item be painted a standard color (dubbed “shop gray”) and stenciled with SCENE SHOP in black. So, after spending a good chunk of my first year as a work-study assistant in the shop and getting to know him, I went and bought a gray T-shirt, had SCENE SHOP appliqued to it in black letters, and wore it at my next shift. He knew I was busting on him, so he told me and everyone else that I was now part of the shop equipment and couldn’t leave.

In this post I’ll be covering items, other than tools, that I’ve seen in numerous scene shops and that help make working there a pleasant experience. I’m not including drawings or plans for these just because there are so many available out there  —  and, like me, most people will want to create their own anyway. But I’ll post a photo or two.

Work and layout tables

Reading some of the old scenery construction books, it’s tempting to think a huge table for laying out flats is a necessity. This may be useful in a professional scene shop that builds scenery for different theaters, but it’s not all that necessary elsewhere. A better choice is to have two, three, or more, reasonably-sized work tables that are large enough for a project but small enough to not get in the way.

One shop I worked in had two tables, each about five feet square, which were clamped together when a large layout surface was needed, but were separate otherwise. A few times they were clamped a few feet apart, via 2x4s, to accommodate really tall or long units. The tables had butcher-block tops and metal lockers underneath, so I suspect they came from a vocational school. Casters were added somewhere along the line, as well as woodworking vises. These tables were used constantly and were somewhat similar to this one:


When building new tables or adding casters to old ones, it’s a good idea to make them  the same height as the table saw; that way they can be placed behind the saw to catch long pieces as they get cut.

The size and quantity of these tables will of course depend on your own shop, but it’s important to make sure everyone knows they are work tables and not storage surfaces. To keep things organized, it’s a good idea to dedicate the space underneath to something specific (like the lockers I mentioned above) instead of making it one large open shelf. One possibility here is to build cubbyholes for clean wood cutoffs in different sizes, such as 12″, 24″, 36″, and 48″. As I mentioned in Saving stuff (or not), not every little piece of scrap needs to be saved: they just end up taking space forever.


These are handy for any number of things, primarily creating new layout surfaces by laying a sheet of plywood on top, or working on very long or tall pieces. Ideally they’ll be the same height (once a sheet of ply is laid on top) as the work tables and the table saw. The ones I’ve seen in many scene shops are along the lines of the sketch below, and, because they fold flat, several of them can be stored on a rolling cart that’s the same height as the sawhorses, essentially creating another sawhorse. A word of caution, though: these are not intended for people to stand on them. For safety, a sturdier design is necessary.

Shop stools

Simple shop stools are nice when you want to work on a smaller piece at one of the tables or do some detail work on a long piece laid out across sawhorses. These are often available at large department stores, art suppliers, or online, and you can always build a few in the shop.

The tool crib

Many shops have a dedicated, lockable space for storing tools and supplies. These can be actual rooms, or made of ply sheets or chain-link fence. The internal layout can be as simple as wall-to-wall shelving, or a combination of shelving and cabinets, or a combination of those and pegboard. The biggest issue, however, is to make tools easy to find when you need them and to replace them at the end of the day.

If you’re planning a new tool crib, be sure to think way ahead: tools accumulate over the years and you want to make sure there’s room for them.

Here are some thoughts (in no particular order) from tool cribs I’ve seen:

  • Generally, a combination of shelving, cabinets, drawers, and pegboard works well. Portable power tools can go in dedicated spaces on the shelves, expensive or specialty tools can go in the cabinets, and some hand tools can go in drawers while others can go on pegboard or special racks on the walls. Extension cords can hang on pegs on the wall.
  • Very deep cabinets, in the long run, tend to not be very useful, as things find their way to the back never to be seen again. We had a pantry in our kitchen which was about two feet deep, and, after a while, we felt like Indiana Jones digging around back there and discovering stuff we had forgotten.
  • Broken items should never be placed back in storage; they should be turned over to the TD or master carpenter for repair or replacement. I’ve seen cribs where broken tools, casters, drills, drill bits, and other items were right in there with the good ones, and it was annoying and a waste of time to pick something up and go use it, and then discover it was broken.
  • Generally, shelves should be just far apart vertically to hold whatever goes on them. Otherwise they tend to end up with stuff piled up and hard to access. This is even worse when the shelves are very deep and too far apart.
  • A counter area is very handy for small tasks like changing batteries, sharpening drill bits, and similar things.
  • Cordless drills, batteries, and chargers all want to be in the same dedicated area. If possible, have several chargers and about twice as many batteries as you have cordless tools. And, ideally, the batteries should be interchangeable among all the tools. Here again, batteries that have reached the end of their life should not be put back with the good ones.
  • One drawer can be dedicated to “precision” tools like calipers, compasses, good scissors, and similar items. That way they’re less liable to get lost or damaged.
  • I haven’t seen this in a scene shop, but in my garage shop at home I have an area for “kitchen items” like toothpicks (apply glue or paint in small places), Q-Tips (ditto), resealable sandwich bags (small nuts, bolts, washers, or similar stuff I’m working with), plastic wrap (temporarily closing paint cans or wrapping wet brushes), aluminum foil (pour a bit of glue or paint on a small piece and pick it up with a toothpick or Q-Tip), paper towels, and similar items. Saves having to go to the kitchen every time I need one of these items.
  • Screws, nuts, bolts, and similar fasteners can go in clearly-marked industrial plastic bins, either placed on shelves or hanging on racks on the wall.
  • Clamps can hang on pegs on the wall.
  • Some shops hang hand tools on pegboard or nails on a wood surface, then outline each tool with a thick magic marker so people can see where things belong. This is a good idea, except for one little thing: as tools accumulate, you may have to reorganize that surface several times, which means re-painting it and re-outlining everything. In my experience, it’s just a matter of getting crews to develop the habit of putting things back where they belong.
  • Clean out the crib now and then, maybe once a year or so, and get rid of stuff you no longer use. Otherwise it just takes up space.
  • I am covering shop rules in another post, but a set of tool crib rules, prominently posted, can be a huge help in keeping it neat and organized.

First-Aid kit

Not much to say here, except every shop should have at least one, stocked appropriately and maintained regularly. Since laws and regulations can be so different and change so often, it’s a good idea to talk to someone “in the know” about the kit and what should go in it — as well as where it should be located and how to keep it accessible. A lot of shops also have eye-wash stations and similar items.

Safety gear

Items like disposable gloves, dust masks, respirators, eye protection, hard hats, and similar things should be kept in a dedicated cabinet, clearly marked and readily accessible, and maintained regularly. Who has access to it — the entire crew or just the TD or master carpenter — needs to be established early and clearly, and any applicable rules posted right on it.

This brings up another issue: whether the entire stock is there and available all the time, or whether it’s replenished as necessary. It may be desirable to “put out” just enough gloves and similar disposable items for a week, or a show, or another time period, and keep the rest secured elsewhere. This way you won’t find several boxes of the same item open at once.

If some items (such as eye or hearing protection) are used by different people, you want to include a box of sanitary wipes. You may also require that crew members wipe them down after each use and again before each use. This is another area where talking with a qualified individual can make a huge difference.

Fire extinguishers

These are generally provided and maintained by the facility itself, so I won’t cover them here — except to say that everyone in the shop should be trained in how to use them.

Keeping the shop clean

Two things that can help make a shop far more clean and efficient are a bunch of trash cans spread out in the shop, and a definite place to store brooms, dust pans, and other cleaning tools.

I’ve seen shops that had one large trash can pretty much dedicated to each major stationary power tool (table saw, drill press, panel saw, etc.), and had a few others here and there. They encourage workers to toss small cutoffs and other waste right into them instead of just putting them aside. Some shops also have one or more cans dedicated to wood that can be recycled, such as clean (unpainted) 1×3 and 2×4. Adding casters to the cans, or placing them on small wheeled platforms, makes it easy to take them out to empty.

The brooms, dustpans, and such don’t need a lot of space: often just a small section of wall with hooks and maybe a small shelf is fine.

Future posts will cover tools, the paint area, and related subjects.



Concept art in SketchUp

Over the past few months, I’ve been teaching at a local film school, where one of my classes is in SketchUp — a fantastic visualization tool being used more and more in the entertainment industry. This isn’t a design class (that’s a different one), but a class strictly on how to use the software to visualize film sets. What I’m doing is creating the sets myself, printing them out, and then having the students re-create them in SketchUp, with each set introducing new tools and techniques. Below are a few of the ones I gave them to copy after we covered some of the basics.

First are two views of an Egyptian tomb. For this one, I gave them four views so they could see the set from different angles.

Tomb 1.jpg

Tomb 2.jpg

Once they were comfortable with those techniques and tools, I gave them a spaceship to introduce new ones. Here are several views of the set.

hip 1.jpg

Ship 2.jpg

Ship 10.jpg

And here are a few views of a different spaceship set. The curved green surface is a chroma-key screen used to insert backgrounds (like views of outer space) into the film during post-production.

Ship 5.jpg

That round translucent thing in the middle represents a hologram of the ship’s engine, which would also be added during post-production.

Ship 26.jpg

Ship 7.jpg

Ship 8.jpg

Here’s the drawing (11×17) I gave them for this ship as a sample of what “typical” concept art layouts may look like.


Although, at this point in the class,  the detailing in the three sets above is fairly simple, SketchUp can be used to develop some very complex shapes and details. You can find examples online or on my web site, at


The difference between art and design

Over the years, when I’ve  shown a set design to people who are not working on the show — and sometimes even to those who are — I’ve often heard the comment, “Wow, you’re an artist.” It happened just the other day with a design for a prop. My usual response has been to say, “Thank you, but I’m a designer, not an artist.”

To which the response has very often been two raised eyebrows.

This has happened so much over the past thirty-some years that I thought I would write a post on the difference between art and design. That way, if I’m responding to a post on a chat room or an email, I can just reference it in case they’re interested. Not everyone will be, and that’s fine too.

Okay, so first let’s accept that there’s a lot of overlap between the two: some of the same skill sets and knowledge bases are used in both, and of course the semantics never end. But the biggest difference is in the end product, or, better yet, in the creator’s intention for the end product.

“Art” generally refers to a work that stands on its own and makes its own statement: it doesn’t support something else. A drawing or painting that hangs on the wall, a statue on a pedestal, a decorative item around the house, or even a movie, a play, a musical composition, a novel, or a poem. They could be great, mediocre, bad, or galaxy-class awful, but they’re art. They’re not design.

“Design,” on the other hand, generally refers to a work that solves a problem; in my case, a set solves the problem of providing an environment to help tell the story in a theatrical production. Many of us refer to it as a “design problem” and a “design solution.” To design a bridge is to create a solution to the problem of how to get people and things from one side of, say, a river, to the other side. To design a computer board, a car, a building, or a better mousetrap, are all ways of solving a problem.

Two paragraphs above I said there was lots of overlap and semantics. Sure, lots of designed works are included in art museum collections, and I’ve seen many of them. But they were still originally intended to solve a problem — they just happened to be so aesthetically pleasing, or so skillfully executed, that the directors and curators decided to include them. The Met in New York City has lots of Egyptian coffins and other artifacts on display, but many of them were originally intended to solve a problem or serve a purpose.

I also mentioned that the creator’s intention was involved, and this is where some people want to be artists and some want to be designers. I won’t go into the right-brain-left-brain argument (because, as far as I know, the theory hasn’t been proven), but it’s still a good analogy. Some people want to create things that stand on their own, and some want to create things that solve a problem. The thought process, and the creator’s personality and interests, have  a lot to do with it, even though both artists and designers may in some cases possess the same technical skills.

And they both have a place in the world.

Planning for a new theater

This post was inspired by a recent one in the Educational Theatre Association’s Public Forum, where a member asked for ideas and assistance in planning a new theater space. So thanks, Josh!

Over the past five or so years of hanging out in the Public Forum, I’ve seen the same question come up numerous times, to the effect of “I’m planning a new space; what do I need?” and it is usually followed by the same answers by the same small group, including me. So I thought I would do a post on this subject so, in the future, I can just refer members to it.

But first, here’s a little background, and feel free to skip this section if you must.

I was trained as a set designer in college and grad school and then spent fifteen years in the architectural field, mostly working on large corporate and government projects. One of my primary jobs there was to work closely with clients to understand and help define their real space problems and what they needed to solve them. This involved interviews, site visits, and a lot of listening, and — because some of the projects were huge — often took weeks or months before we ever did a sketch.

Another part of this was making sure that the project would address the client’s needs over the expected lifetime of the building, which was often twenty or thirty years. It was particularly important on civic projects that were paid for with taxes or bond issues, and where the client (elected officials) had to convince the public (voters and taxpayers) to go along with the project.

What it came down to was that these were very expensive projects which the client would have to live with for a long period of time. Not a place to make hasty decisions.

But during these years I also ran into architects, builders, and consultants who seemed to be in a hurry to begin construction based on very little understanding of how the space would be used. One example: courthouses. By asking questions, listening,  and observing, I learned that one serious problem in some old courthouses is that the same elevators are used by the public, the lawyers, the judges, the witnesses, the press, and, in some cases, the criminal defendants, and that the circulation patterns often allowed for these people to cross each other in the hallways. Blocking off the hallways to allow just one of these groups to pass might work in a small courthouse, but would definitely not work in a large, busy one.

One point made by several posters in the Forum was that architects are trained in how to design buildings, but not always (and yes there are exceptions) to pay attention to, or understand, how they are used. I can vouch for this from my years in the business, and it helps explain why so many buildings are designed from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. Once the shell is created, the rooms have to be fit into it, and sometimes the fit doesn’t work. This isn’t so much a problem with “spec” office buildings, but is a huge problem with dedicated-purpose buildings such as courthouses, hospitals, and theaters.

Another problem I ran into was with equipment vendors and consultants. The vendors naturally wanted to sell us their equipment, and often consultants were looking to specify given brands of equipment so they could get a commission.

Enough on background, but the point is that up-front planning pays off in the long run.

BTW, I’m not a theater consultant: that’s a very specialized job which I happily leave to folks who want to do this type of work. But theater consulting is a very valuable service which can save clients a ton of money and help them get just the type of space that will meet their needs for a long time.

Based on the posts I’ve seen in the Forum, the main interest among the members is in creating a producing theater (as opposed to a road house), so the following discussion relates to a producing theater. So, in planning such a venue — new construction or renovation — there are some questions to ask yourself or your group long before hiring a designer or consultant.

I will come back later and discuss why some of the questions are important, but for now here’s a start-up list, in no particular order. Other questions will come up as you proceed and (hopefully) as you work with a consultant.

Warning: some of these questions will appear to have no-brainer, i.e., obvious or d-uhhh answers, but they are probably the most important ones to put some real thought into. And, while some of this may look like you’re creating a business plan (which is a great idea, BTW), it’s all related to designing the theater.

  • Why do I want to build (or renovate) this theater?
  • What do I want to say with it?
  • What do I want to do that other local theaters aren’t doing? Why?
  • Will this be a defined teaching space (performance, music, dance, tech, etc.)?
  • What type of plays and musicals do I want to do? Why these and not something else?
  • Do I want to do concerts, recitals, etc., in addition to plays and musicals?
  • How many shows do I want to do a year, now and later?
  • What audience capacity do I want? Why?
  • Is it a black box, thrust, proscenium, or combination? Why?
  • Who will use it – the local community, the school, outside groups, etc.?
  • Will it be available for rent?
  • Who will staff it – paid staff, volunteers, both, other?
  • Who will manage it — drama teacher, managing director, artistic director, board, etc?
  • Who will maintain the physical space?
  • Who will run and maintain any dedicated theater equipment?
  • Do I want to offer refreshments (a concession stand) now or later?
  • Is the space easy to get to? Parking and loading? Audience access?
  • How long will it be there — five, ten, twenty years — and why?
  • How will I promote it? What will I need to do so?
  • Where will the funding come from, now and later?
  • Do I have a start-up budget?
  • Will it be a 501(c)3, or part of an existing school, or something else?
  • Will the local zoning allow me to do this? Do I need any special permits?
  • Am I prepared to comply with ADA, fire, and similar requirements?
  • Will I be using union labor now or later?

Okay, so what in the world does some of this have to do with designing a theater? Here’s where a good consultant can take several of your answers and put them together. For instance, let’s take just five of the questions above and see what comes out of them:

  • Will this be a defined teaching space (performance, music, dance, tech, etc.)?
  • Do I want to do concerts, recitals, etc., in addition to plays and musicals?
  • How many shows do I want to do a year, now and later?
  • What audience capacity do I want? Why?
  • Is it a black box, thrust, proscenium, or combination? Why?

Putting your answers to the above questions together, a good consultant can get an idea of how much real estate your performance areas will require, not just for performance, but for storage of things like dance floors, choir risers, acoustical screens, musical instruments (a grand piano, maybe?) and so forth. You may want to rent or borrow some of these up front to save money, but should you plan ahead so you don’t end up storing this material in classrooms later? The answer is yes.

I know it’s tough to sell “empty storage space” to some clients, but the space is necessary. We’ve all seen or heard of theaters that just don’t have the space to store stuff they need, and which has accumulated over the years. Scenery, costumes, props, and so on and on are necessary if you’re producing your own shows.

Now, if the consultant’s evaluation of your needs for space add up to too much money or space for you, this might be the time to reconsider some of your answers and scale down, or to ask yourself whether some work or storage space can be off-site.

The same with the issue of whether it’s a black box or something else. Will you need space to store chairs and audience risers, or any platforming and such to create a stage? This is where audience capacity comes in, and also where local regulations may limit the amount of people in a space or require additional means of egress.

How many shows a year, and what kind? Same issue: storage and work space. Since you’re a producing theater, and depending on your anticipated plans and resources, what will you need in terms of a scene and paint shop, costume shop, prop area, dressing and makeup areas, control booths, lighting and sound equipment, and so forth — and who will run these? Again, if it’s too much for you, this may be the time to scale down.

But another issue comes up here: electrical power. Once you know the type of shows you want to do and a few other considerations, you can determine how much power, and what type, you will need. Will your proposed venue be able to provide that much power, or will you need to add to it? Remember, it’s not just for the stage and backstage: the house (audience capacity again) will need lighting, and may also need heat, air conditioning, and other utilities.

Finally, the questions of is it a teaching space, and what kind of shows do you want to do? Let’s say you’re planning a black box with a given (i.e., limited) clear ceiling height. Do you want to lower the clear usable height by installing a lighting catwalk (which may also let you fly stuff in and out), or do you want to have as much height as possible for dramatic effect? And does — or can — your venue support the weight of a catwalk?

So there you go. Just five of the questions in the above list have generated a lot of discussion about the space and its needs, based on your future plans and expectations, and have begun to generate an idea of what the project, as you see it, will cost. This is where a good consultant will be invaluable by understanding your intentions and limitations when helping to design your space. I like to say a good consultant is not an expense: it’s an investment, and you should interview a few before selecting one. But here’s a tip:

If your prospective consultant immediately starts asking you about the rooms or equipment you want, walk away. And if he or she spends more time talking than asking questions, run away.

And, as I’ve said before in the Forum, take the time to visit several theaters and talk with the staff: what works, what doesn’t, what would they do differently? Their staffs will probably be delighted to talk with you. You can get a lot of ideas this way.

New feature: Table of Contents

Now that I have over sixty posts here, it’s getting harder for readers to find posts on specific subjects without digging through the archives. So I added a simple table of contents, which is just a reverse chronological list of all posts, i.e., with the newer ones on top.

Eventually I’ll decide on some way of ordering them by subject (or something else), but, in the meantime, a click on Table of Contents in the menu above will show you the complete list.

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 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.


“Theater” can lead to a lot of careers

This post was inspired by a thread in the Educational Theatre Association’s (EdTA) Open Forum, in which a teacher wanted ideas for a class on possible careers in theater besides the obvious ones of acting, directing, and tech. Two members provided excellent responses, and, with their permission, I’m quoting them below.

This is one of the things I really wish had come up when I was in school (one community college and two university training programs). We were learning theater, we were thinking theater, we were living eating and sleeping theater, and we were looking forward to a career in theater. It never occurred to us that the skills we were learning could be used in other fields too; in my case, I ended up in architecture for fifteen years (mostly doing corporate facilities and courthouses), and, later, worked on numerous theme park projects. Over the years I’ve noticed, repeatedly, how true this is in fields besides theater. Many lawyers (for instance) end up in areas other than law itself: they go into business, politics, public relations, finance, and lots of other fields where they still use their legal training. The same is true for doctors and other professions.

Interestingly enough, all the time we were in school, we were thinking of live theater as “the entertainment industry.” The term “the arts” rarely came up.

So here are the two posts. The first one is from Elizabeth Rand, a lighting designer, high school theater operations coach, author, and owner of

High School Theatre Management.

A high school theatre student recently asked me what advice I had for someone who wanted to be able to practice his craft as a lighting designer and who also wanted to eat. My response – go into education or management.

Or – combine the two. High School Theatre Management is an emergent profession. More and more high schools are finding out that – with everyone in the school, the district, and the community wanting to use the theatre – their school theatre is starting to operate as a “road house”, and that highly qualified management and staff is needed in order to set up the operating systems, create a safety program, maximize student learning, and determine building performance and academic outcomes. It’s becoming essential to hire a High School Theatre Manager, along with specialized technicians, to run a high school theatre. For some examples of high school theatres which are well managed by a High School Theatre Manager, please visit the Gold Standard Schools page on my website at:

The job of a High School Theatre Manager is a rare hybrid job that combines three specialties – education, management, and a tech theatre background. A High School Theatre Manager does not necessarily have to be a specialist in every technical aspect of the theatre, but they do have to know enough in order to hire and manage people who do. They have to be organized and self-motivated. They have to be good at maintaining stacks of paperwork. They also have to have a good grasp of how a theater operates and what policies and procedures will make it operate more smoothly. (A TM is different than a TD or a technician. A Theatre Manager does not always actually run tech for the shows – just as in a hospital, the administrator does not perform the surgeries – but they must have enough specialized knowledge to manage the facility.) And, because this theatre is on a high school campus, and a High School Theatre Manager will be working with students, so they should also have some sort of background and experience in education.

Unfortunately there are no know universities which have a degree in High School Theatre Management, despite the market for these specialists. The closest I’ve found is the Entertainment Business degrees at Full Sail University in Florida (both BS and MS, offered both on campus and online). These degrees can be viewed at:

The second one is from Stanley Allan Sherman, a custom theatrical mask maker, actor, director, producer, and owner of Mask Arts Company.

In NYC there was, until a few years ago, The Association of Theater Artists and Craftspeople.    They included people that create props, costumes, do sets  and more for the theater. One of my specialties is I am a Mask Maker, creating custom masks and my line of stock Commedia dell’Arte masks.  Creating custom masks for the entertainment industry around the world.  Just had a young man fly in from over seas  for a custom fitting.  Some of the other unusual specialties, a woman that knits and weaves specifically for the film and theater, she is busy.   Have friend a that makes swords and weapons for the theater.  Sculptures that specialize in paper meche – they also create a lot of the fancy  creatures in window displays around the holiday time.

Have a good friend, that besides acting, his main livelihood is made as a publicist  specialist for the Off Off Broadway and variety of theater companies.  He has developed relationships with all kinds of media that do reviews of shows.  He writes the press releases and take the photographs that go into the press.  For pre-publicity or reviews.  There are people that  do the PR public relations. They get all kinds of PR for a show in unusual ways and do things like get the star or director a spot on a TV Show or interview on a well know local or national talk show.  They can also create some kind of special event or get the cast to march in a parade.

There are photographers that specialize in the theater.  One friend specializes in the world of clowns, variety performers, mimes etc.  There are other specializing in only creating photographs for Broadway.

There are also stage crews that specialize in popular music show. They load in and put up all the rigging for major music festivals and road shows. There is a whole monthly magazine devoted to this line of work and it is interesting reading.

There is a costumer, she sews costumes.  Has a job with a major city theater company and it is a union job IATSE.  That means she has benefits like heath insurance, over time pay and more.  When the theater is dark, her union calls her for other jobs.   This is in a major city in the NW.

Entertainment law – lawyers that specialize in all aspects of the entertainment world.  Putting together the legal paperwork so the producers can raise money.  They deal with union contract law.  Copyright law for plays, films and media.  They can represent a famous actor or performer.  Solo or small companies they have a lawyer to write all the contacts and sometime negotiate.

Theatrical accountant, book keeping for the theater and help put together the budgets.  It is a specialty.  Knowing what you can write off on the taxes and what you cannot.  This is a specialty and the good ones get top dollar.

In the film industry there are caterers and craft services.  Film and TV production companies are very large.  You can compare to an army.  The saying goes, “an army travels on its stomach”.   Meaning everyone needs to eat.    There is competition among film shoot as to who has the best caterers.  These are the people that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Then there is craft services which serve all the snacks between lunch and dinner.  Sometimes on long shoot that go for 16 hour plus. These people are vital.

Stage make-up.  Film make-up.  These are specialties.  They will travel with a film crew.

Hair is an art.  In every television or film studio there are several people all they do is hair.  On film productions they will have their own trailer.  Sometimes sharing it with the make-up people.

There is a non-profit organization that specializes in health and safety in the entertainment industry.  Covering what is toxic and you cannot or should not do, to any kind of safety concern you have.  They are feared and loved in the industry.

Film and television studios are there own small cities.

Then outside the union and established theaters, are people that have solo shows, I did this most of my life, touring all over the US.  There are small companies and solo performers that tour. Actors and musicians that tour with circuses.  People that specialize in party entertainment.   Know one women does balloon twisting.  Creating more things than you can imagine.  One lawyer quit his job as a lawyer and does balloon twisting for parties, mainly law firm parties.  There are birthday party specialist and know several women that are excellent at this.   One friend an excellent actress, her main money comes from face painting.  She is a professional at this.

Do not forget the street performers.  There is a large variety of them and some well known performers got there start in the street.    It was my first paying job on the streets of Paris, France when I studied there at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, it is partly how I was able to eat and pay my rent.

My first performing job in NYC as a mime, clown and juggler; my spot was Wall Street and Nassau in front of the Federal Treasury building, the steps created a natural theater.   Heads of major firms would come to see me.  One left me a note with a photograph of me performing.  It said, “This is on my desk.  It is what helps me get through my day”.

What we know as “theater” involves, and requires, a lot of different skill sets (not to mention mindsets). which can be applied to a lot of different professions. Theater is a perfectly good career field in and of itself, and many people thrive in it, but it’s not a world apart as we sometimes think while in school. Those theater skills can lead to some very interesting alternative careers.




Please help me out with a very brief survey

Now that this blog is entering its third full year of operation (and that I’m getting the hang of blogging), I’d like to learn more about who you are and what topics you find useful and interesting. Therefore, I put together two short surveys in order to get some feedback. Both are similar, but one is tailored specifically for high schools and the other is geared towards community, regional, and other types of theaters.

The high school survey has nine questions and the general survey has ten, and the survey site estimates it “should” only take about three to four minutes to complete each one.

If you’re involved in high school theater, please use this one: High School Survey

Or, if you’re involved in community, regional, or another type of theater, please use this one: General Theater Survey

Or, you can just drop me a note by using the form below.

BTW, this blog had 934 views in ’15 (it was only a partial year), 5,161 in ’16, and 10,941 in ’17. With your interest and your help, those numbers will continue to increase.

Thanks very much.

Don’t put the cart before the horse

Every now and then, at a first production meeting, I hear something that reminds me of this:

I’m sure you’ve heard it too: “Let’s get (or build) a revolve.” “We have a cart we used last year.” “We have that staircase from [name a show].” “We can use periaktoi.” And similar comments.

Granted these ideas are all intended to be helpful, but it’s so easy to home in on one of them and let a piece of scenery drive the set design. I’ve mentioned this one before: a couple of years ago I was at a first meeting for Les Miz at a large community theater, and of course the barricade came up right away. Someone immediately suggested borrowing a 12′ revolve from another company, and several heads nodded in agreement. At which point I brought up two things: one, a 12′ barricade on a 40′ wide stage would not have looked very impressive, and, two, we didn’t need a revolve just because the barricade turns around. So they looked at me and asked what I would do instead, to which I replied “I don’t know yet; this is our first meeting and I haven’t started on the design.” Not what they wanted to hear at that moment, but it had to be my answer.

In the end, they had a much more impressive barricade that turned just fine, and they didn’t have to deal with a revolve. You can read about here, at The barricade in Les Miz.

It’s fine to keep stock pieces in mind, and they can certainly help with the budget or the schedule. However, it’s so much better — in terms of the audience experience — to create a solid, compelling design first, thinking about the story and the characters, and then (and only then) look for stock pieces that fit into the design. A staircase, for instance, built for one show may not work for another show due to size, style, or some other consideration. Ditto for doors, windows, and lots of other items, and the same holds true for furniture and accessories.

By the same token, popular and frequently built scenery pieces — like periaktoi — are not always the best solution to a design problem. What I’ve seen happen often (too often) is that these items become a construction project that drives everything else. You can end up deciding to build three or four periaktoi right up front, before considering the overall set, and then find yourself painted into a corner: “Okay we have them, now what do we do with them?”

If you want to consider periaktoi as problem-solvers (which they are), and not as short-cuts to designing a set (which they are not), you may want to check out my post on them, at Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works.

Take your time. Study the script, the characters, the period, and all those other things that make up the story, and come up with a physical environment that supports it in the most creative, theatrical manner possible. Then feel free to see what pieces you have that fit in perfectly or that can be modified.

I love that photo above, BTW. It’s like the horse is breaking the fourth wall to ask us, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Research is an investment, not a luxury

Over the past thirty-odd years in theatre, I’ve heard the same lament any number of times in non-professional companies: We wanted to do some research, but just didn’t have the time.

So here’s a pitch for making the time.  🙂

Many professionals in creative fields find research to be just as much a part of their work as actually creating something. Architects study other architects, graphic designers study other graphic designers, musicians study other musicians, dancers study other dancers, painters… you get the idea. Not just people in their own fields, but often in other areas too. Theatrical designers and art directors in the film and TV industry are no different: we study other designers, historical periods, art history, industrial design, and many other fields. It not only provides inspiration, but also helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel.

There have been a number of books written on how the designs for specific films (and a few musicals) were developed, and these can be wonderful sources of creative energy in addition to showing us how designers think. One series of books I particularly enjoyed was on the art of Star Wars, which showed how some of the characters, vehicles, costumes, and locations were developed. Those guys did their homework.

Fiction writers do their homework too. Writers of science fiction, detective stories, medical thrillers, spy stories, historical fiction, and other subjects often spend weeks or months researching their subject to make sure things “sound right” even if they’re not used literally. It often gives them ideas or inspiration, and makes a huge difference in how readers respond to the books.

But what exactly is research? What do you spend your time looking for, and how do you use it? Here are some thoughts based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with other designers.

The historical period

Say you’re doing the set for Hamlet, and the director wants to stage it in an 11th century castle. A search for castles will reveal how they developed, how different they were from period to period, and how they varied from country to country. It will also reveal how different real castles are from what we usually imagine as “a castle.” We don’t have to (and generally don’t want to) copy what we see exactly, but having a good idea of what the real things looked like (and why) can give us a good idea of where to start.

The same goes for The Odd Couple and many other plays that take place in an apartment. Photos and floor plans of real apartments from the period (and the location) will help create a set that evokes an apartment instead of just looking like a collection of flats. It makes a huge difference in the audience’s experience.

The cultural and economic reality of the times

Looking at The Odd Couple again, some research into real living spaces in New York City will give us an idea of what Oscar’s apartment might have looked like. The director can help define Oscar’s finances (so to speak), and there’s a huge difference in staging the play in a tenement, in a controlled-rent development, in The Dakota or a similar structure, in a drab building from the 60s, or in a modern luxury high-rise on Park Avenue. It can tell us a lot about Oscar, both before his wife left and afterwards, even before the play begins.

The visual style

This is where spending some quality time looking through art history materials really pays off. In two different ways.

First, if the director says, for instance, “I want to set it in 15th-century France,” a close look at 15th-century French art can give us not only an idea of what things (buildings, furniture, accessories, people) looked like, but also of how they were perceived and represented by the artists as a reflection of their times. We can infer colors, textures, materials, fabrics, interior design, lighting, and many other details from paintings and sculpture. We can also see how colors and palettes were used and get some inspiration from them.

Second, and this is something we often do, is refer to a specific painting or artist to illustrate how we imagine the set, or part of it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was explaining how I saw parts of the set for Tony Kushner’s The Illusion to the director and lighting designer by referring to how subjects in Rembrandt’s paintings are often “carved out of the shadows.” In initial discussions for a previous show, we referred to art and architecture from the Works Progress Administration, and it put us all on the same page as to the style and the institutional feel we wanted.

With the internet, and tablets being widely available, it’s really simple to call up something during a meeting and show it around. What I do is collect it all before the meeting to save time: I just cut and paste images into a folder and then open them as needed. Back in the old days we would carry armfuls of books and photocopies to the meetings, but (even though I still use the public library a lot) modern technology helps reduce that.

The reality

Say you’re designing a steam locomotive for a children’s show, and say you and the director have agreed that it’s not going to be a literal locomotive. The best way to start here is to look at lots of photos and paintings of real locomotives and understand why the elements are where they are and what they do. Then you can go on to look at non-literal depictions of locomotives (i.e., cartoons, trains in children’s playgrounds, and such) and see how these machines were imagined by other designers. Then you can start creating your own locomotive. It sure beats working in a vacuum.

Now… how much time to allow for research? For me — for most of us — it’s not a chore that needs to be tightly scheduled: it’s an ongoing process that starts at the beginning of the design phase and ends after the shop drawings are completed. I often do research on architectural details all during the shop drawing phase to make sure I’m keeping true to the style of the show. I don’t necessarily copy the details, but I want to know what the real things looked like so I can decide whether to use them as is or to stylize them.

I’ve written about how I use research in several posts here, including A set design from start to finish, Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?, and Problem solving: painting faux brick. For most of us in creative fields, research is not only an investment in the current project, but is also part of our continuing education towards the mastery of our craft.