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.

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How to read a script like a set designer

This post was inspired by some recent projects, which in turn made me think about older ones and the people I worked with, and how they approached the process of designing and building a set.

One of the things that has really stood out for me over the years is how so many designer/TDs in non-professional theatre seem to look at a script in terms of “okay, so we need to build a such-and-such.” A few years ago, one of them didn’t seem interested at all in how the scenery units helped tell the story or how they worked in context with other units: he was just focused on the construction of individual pieces. And I found it surprising because he was also a good director and actor who paid close attention to the actors and their characters and motivations in the context of the story.

So how do we look at a script from the viewpoint of a set designer?

Start by understanding the story itself. Stories are about people, three-dimensional people who want something but can’t get it because there are obstacles in the way, so they have to figure out how to get past the obstacles. Whether it’s a play, a musical, an opera, a movie, a sitcom, a “reality show,” an election, or a sporting event, it’s all the same: somebody wants something and has to figure out what to do about it.

A set is nothing more than a physical environment in which the characters in the story show us how they approach getting past those obstacles. So the set not only has to make it physically possible for the story to take place, but hopefully also wants to give us a sense of the overall mood of the story and present us with a logical place for it. Watch your favorite TV show or movie and notice how characters’ homes and workplaces “fit” the characters and the nature of the story. Some years back there were snide comments about the lifeguards on Baywatch all having homes that nobody could afford on a lifeguard’s income. It was probably done to enhance the “glamorous” nature of the characters portrayed, but, still, it was distracting.

Here is where good set designers read the script two or three times before starting to draw anything. The first time is for the story itself and the other times are to understand what the story really requires in terms of the physical space and how it all works together. I covered some of this here in several previous posts.

The danger, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is that by thinking about scenery units (or props and furniture) out of context, they just become generic pieces. I’ve heard it many times: “We don’t have to build a staircase – we have one from last year. It’s about the right size and has a nice railing.” What can be (and often is) missed here is that last year’s staircase was from Willy Loman’s house and this year it’ll be in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

While reading the script, we also look for things like genre and mood. Is it a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a horror story, or something else? Is the mood happy, sad, tense, poignant, scary? These, and the nature of the story itself, are what clue us in as to whether the story wants a “realistic” set or a “non-realistic” set, a.k.a. a representational set or a presentational one.

These are some of the things I discuss at my first meeting with the director because I want to find out how he or she is approaching the story, and why. Too often I’ve seen a new director want a realistic set for something like a musical or a Shakespeare play, where realistic sets can come across as static and unimaginative. On the other hand, plays like Neil Simon comedies or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, can “feel” better in a “realistic” space.

For instance, here’s part of a set I did years ago for David Lindsay-Abaire‘s play Rabbit Hole, which is about a young couple who lost their four-year-old son to a car accident. The director and I decided that we wanted the audience to focus on the sadness of the story, so we would avoid any theatricalism and create a fairly realistic space. The show was done in a black box.

On the other hand, here’s my set (under work lights) for J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which is about an investigation into the suicide of a young factory worker and takes place in England during the Edwardian period. Here we wanted to show the wealth of the family who lived in the house and their isolation from the common people, and also pick up on the story’s sense of things being out of balance.

In both cases the research led to authentic period detailing, but the sets themselves had totally different feelings to jive with their stories and their characters.  You can read more about these sets on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net. And, for a good short intro to how we approach research for a set design, you can read my post here, at Research is an investment, not a luxury.

Once I have a good sense of how we want to approach the story, I can go back to the script to start defining the physical space. Many scripts include detailed stage directions or even floor plans, and there is an ongoing debate as to how much of this was included by the playwright and how much is just a record of the original production. A couple of years ago I contacted a few publishers to get their take on this, and the consensus was that, unless the contract specifically states otherwise, there is no requirement to follow any of it. You can read about this at The script, the set, and stage directions.

So, basically, that’s how we read scripts: start with the story, make sure we understand it and the director’s intent, and then delve into the details that we need to create a compelling physical space. As I mentioned above, several readings are usually necessary to get a really good mental picture of what kind of space will best serve the story. And I often keep referring to the script as I make design choices, looking for hints about the characters’ intentions.

Many times the characters themselves (not the actors, although that’s a separate conversation) will tell us what they need, but we have to be open to listening to them. For instance, in the set above for An Inspector Calls, the head of the household, Arthur Birling, loves to tell people that he used to be Lord Mayor of his town; he considers it just one more symbol of his status and importance. So I decided we would have a formal portrait of him, in full mayoral regalia, hanging over the fireplace. That way, when he tells the Inspector about his former title, he can point to the portrait. The director loved the idea, as it would help show Arthur’s pompous personality.

If you’d like a little more on the design process itself, please check out one of my original posts here, A set design from start to finish.

 

“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 PRESETT.org.

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: http://www.presett.org/gold-standard-schools.html.

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: https://www.fullsail.edu/degrees?business=1

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.

 

 

Don’t open the door

I’m continually amazed at how often I find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Just like inspiration, which can come from anywhere, different perspectives on a given idea can be found in lots of places if we’re open to seeing them. In this post I’m going to relate an experience I had a couple of days ago.

I’ve been a horror movie fan since I was a kid, but I’m very picky about them: they need to have a real story, believable characters, and a mostly supernatural element. Ghosts and vampires are okay, but I’ll pass on zombies and werewolves, and most certainly on slasher movies. Actually, an item on my bucket list (along with writing this blog) is to produce a horror movie, and I’m already working on a couple of scripts.

Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which I had read maybe twenty years ago. The book is an overview of the horror genre, focusing mostly on movies and stories in the twentieth century, and one of the chapters is on radio and how effective it was in the 30’s and 40’s. And right there, in that chapter, out of the blue, I found a great message for set designers: Don’t open the door.

King’s point was that radio, along with novels and short stories, were more effective at scaring us than movies, because we had to use our imagination. And, as he says often, what we can imagine, due to our own fears, is probably going to be far more scary than what movie art directors can come up with. When somebody (or something) starts pounding on that door, and we have no idea what’s behind it, we get far more scared than if we open it and find out that it’s not that bad. So one of the tricks is to “not open the door” —  don’t show us the monster, but let our own fears and imaginations create it.

If you ever saw Alien, you’ll remember we didn’t see the grown-up critter until the very end: we knew it was killing the crew, but we had no idea what we were dealing with. In the case of The Haunting (both movie versions), we never saw what was bulging the door in Eleanor’s room. A classic example, from the radio days, was Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1939, which scared millions who never even saw the aliens. But so many movies do show us the monster right up front, and it’s often disappointing. It’s not as bad as we imagined, or — worse — we immediately go “gee, is that real or CGI?”

But I said this was a message for set designers, not creature designers.

A stage set can work the same way: it can suggest a location (and a feeling) without being literal, without showing us everything. It’s very difficult to do a “realistic” set on stage: elements and colors need to be exaggerated so they’re visible from the house, and there’s always those annoying sight lines that force angles that you would never see in real architecture. And, of course, the “fourth wall” that we’re supposed to accept and see right through. I’ve done realistic sets, and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Realistic sets are fine as long as the story itself really wants a literal visual due to the subject matter. Two examples that come to mind are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Odd Couple, in both of which we almost expect to see a “real” location. Even so, both plays have been done non-literally — with varying degrees of success.

But lots of plays — and especially musicals — don’t need literal sets. They need a suggestion of time, place, atmosphere, and mood, and that can so often be far more effective. For instance, here’s a concept sketch for The Diary of Anne Frank, which I suggested to a high school in 2015:

anne-frank-3

I wanted to create a sense of isolation and vulnerability, so I omitted the walls (those ubiquitous flats) and showed mostly the structure of the attic. Everything else was just an empty stage draped in blacks. The window at the back, which was the characters’ only connection to the world, was to be a backlit box which could show us a clear sky, a dark stormy sky, or a night sky depending on the scene. There was no need to show the flats… er… the walls: the audience could fill those in according to their own experiences and create the attic in their own imaginations.

anne-frank-3

By keeping the four spaces small and crowded, bringing the set right down to (and beyond) the apron, and raking the whole thing, it was possible to create that sense of isolation and vulnerability. The effect was almost like the characters were in a fishbowl — an effect of course enhanced by not having any actual walls.

Something like this — showing us just enough and letting us fill in the rest — can be very effective in a wide variety of stories. It can also enhance the theatricality of the piece, create a more interesting visual, and, as a side benefit, greatly simplify construction.