Flats are over-rated

In September 2016 I presented a Set Design Mini Boot Camp at the Educational Theatre Association’s conference in Las Vegas. The three-hour workshop covered mostly how professional set designers go about creating a set, what the process is, how long it takes, and so forth, with lots of photos of real sets. One of the things I covered was urban legends often believed in theatre (one of my first posts in this blog), and one of those was that “all sets are made of flats.”

In a way, it (sort of) makes sense that this is a common belief. Many tech theatre classes either start out by having the students build a flat, or they do so early in the course. Because of this emphasis, it stands to reason that the students may think this is a very important subject, and therefore may believe that flats are an essential part of any set.

But they’re not.

A flat is a solution to a problem, a device invented many years ago to represent a flat surface, such as a wall, on stage. It’s just not practical to build sets, especially touring sets, like real buildings, and more especially if the scenes change during the show. But flats are light, easy to move and store, can be re-used, and travel well. They can become blank walls, or have openings for doors or windows, or even be cut to represent trees and other objects. They’re versatile, but they’re not always needed.

For instance, here’s my set for Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner, which takes place (according to the script), in a renovated French farmhouse, a structure dating back a few hundred years. It’s the interior of a building, so flats are a good solution.

dinner

Here’s another way to use flats, in a production of Macbeth I did for a high school. The director wanted a non-literal set (no castles) with a little bit of a steampunk feel. I don’t have any good photos, so this is a SketchUp model.

macbeth-5

In this case, the large back wall was a perfect candidate for lots of stock flats. The tapestry was rented, those blocks behind it were painted like rusted metal panels, and the sconces were purchased from a place that sells steampunk lighting fixtures. There was a matching wall opposite this one, but the whole center part (where the blocks are) was a rear-projection screen.

Now here’s another show, Spewak and Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. This one has a lot of locations and usually a lot of scene changes that tend to slow down the action, something the director and I agreed to avoid right up front. The set uses no flats at all, except for a few placed against the back wall to look like… well… flats stored in a theatre. This was the backstage set (under work lights):

kate-2

And this was the onstage set, again under work lights:

kate-1

That drop was lowered in full view of the audience by a cast member dressed as a stagehand. In fact, all the changes, and the few pieces that were carried or rolled in, were handled by cast members playing the crew. Lighting played an important part in this one to separate onstage from backstage, but the show flowed from one scene to another, and it didn’t use a single flat. The back wall of the stage, however, was painted to look like old, grungy, dusty  brick.

Here’s another example, My Way, A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, by David Grapes and Todd Olson. It would have been really easy to stage it in a night club, complete with flats on all three sides. Instead, I designed a back wall that consisted mostly of open space backed by curtains.

my-way

Lighting was important in this one too. The curtains changed color several times, the sconces on either side of the center opening had three different lighting configurations, and a full moon was rear-projected onto the stage-right curtain during one of the numbers.

Flats are a good solution to specific problems, but they are not “the building blocks of a set,” and many very interesting and useful spaces can be created without them.

Problem solving: slam the door, don’t shake the wall

Every now and then a director will want a character to slam a door as he enters or leaves a room. It can be a very dramatic moment, but too often the entire wall shakes when the door gets slammed. Not good.

Fortunately, there’s an old trick to help prevent this, and it consists simply of having the door flat and the framed door be separate units and not attached to each other.

Here’s the back of the door flat. I’m showing a “Broadway” style flat, although this works with “studio flats” too:

 

door-slam-2

And here’s the self-contained door unit, complete with front molding and a brace:

door-slam-1

Here are the two pieces in place:

door-slam-3

And here’s a cross-section thru the door and flat, looking down:

door-slam-4_1

All you really need to allow is about a quarter-inch gap, all around, between the framed door and the door flat, including the molding. Depending on the set design and the sight lines, you can have one or two braces on the door unit, secured to the floor with a sandbag or bracket (although of course you don’t want to create any tripping hazards). The wall flats are then braced as they would normally be in your case.

The same idea can be used for a window or any other framed opening. It’s a simple trick and will help keep the audience focused on the story and not get distracted by a shaking wall.

Hiring a set designer, part 2

In my original post on Hiring a set designer I discussed asking questions, reviewing the portfolio, what to watch for, and similar items. In this post I’m going to cover another way of looking at hiring a set designer, primarily for high schools and colleges.

Too often, hiring a professional designer in non-professional theatre is perceived as an expensive luxury: “We don’t need that,” or “Our audience can’t tell the difference,” or “One of our folks has always done it for free,” or something similar. And then there’s always “They charge too much.” But, especially in educational theatre, you can get a lot of mileage out of the expense by setting up the project so the faculty and students can watch the whole process from start to finish and learn how it’s done in the professional world. In other words, it can be an educational experience all around.

For instance, you can set it up so members of the production staff (assistant directors, stage managers, other designers, and even the head carpenter) attend design meetings to watch and listen to the discussions between the designer and the director. I’ve designed three shows for a local community college, and student members of the production staff have always attended these meetings. They have listened as the director and I discuss the show, the characters, the themes, the visual concept, and other areas, and then watched as I presented the design while it was in progress. This is far different from keeping the process in the closet until the shop drawings are delivered.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, most professional set designers use basically the same process, and most of us would be delighted to have students watch and learn. The one danger I’ve seen in these cases is that the conversation too often goes off on the tangent of how to build the pieces, but I’ve learned how to subtly (and quickly) yank it back in the correct direction. There will be lots of time later to talk about how to build the scenery.

This same college has asked me a couple of times to hang out in the scene shop — now and then — and meet the students, answer questions, and generally show them what a set designer does. I have not built or painted the scenery myself — I feel very strongly about this, as it helps separate the “design” from the “build” instead of lumping them together —  but on occasion had a student, assigned by the professor, work with me on a specialty piece. In one case I showed a student (who had no scenic painting experience) how to paint a faux hardwood floor and left him alone, and two years later they were still talking about what a great job he did. I have always found the experience enjoyable, and I’ve been told many times that they did too.

I very rarely work for high schools, but one of them has asked me several times to come in and talk to the cast and crew (everyone connected with the show) about the design process and show them sketches in progress. I have very deliberately avoided talking about scenery pieces, instead focusing on the story itself and the physical environment I’m creating to support it, and why I designed it this way. This is my way of getting them to separate the design from the build in their minds, and to look at each one as its own process.

Along the same lines, several companies have asked me to come over for the cast’s first read-through and show them the final set design, which is usually a 3D model on my laptop, projected on the wall with a video projector. The actors have generally been very excited to see the space they’ll be working in, especially since the blocking and choreography will make more sense during rehearsals before the set is complete. A carefully-detailed, physical 3D model, which is what a lot of us used before personal computers, can have the same effect.

Another way to do this is to video the production meetings and design presentations. If I were a high school drama teacher, I would probably prefer doing it this way for two reasons. First, it would probably keep the meeting more focused. Second, it would allow me to play it back, stop it, discuss what’s going on, and then resume. In fact, I would even isolate the various parts of the video (directing, design, production schedule, etc.) and focus on those segments in various classes as appropriate. If you go this way, make sure that making the video is okay with all the participants.

If you want to use some of these ideas to leverage your investment in a set designer, be sure to bring it up during the interview and hiring process, as designers often work on more than one project at a time and need to manage their schedules carefully. Depending on travel time and other factors, the designer may find it necessary to adjust his or her fee, and this again is something you want to discuss, and agree on, up front.

Over the years, I’ve often come to the realization that the process of designing a set is a closely-guarded secret, with only a few people privy to it. And there’s probably no reason for this, other than the usual “we’ve always done it this way.” But a set designer can be a great source of useful information, especially in an educational institution.

Do-lists

For many years now I’ve been a maker and user of do-lists, and I think they’re great, especially when I’m working on a complex show or on more than one show at the same time. A professor in grad school introduced me to them, and, after my initial gut-reaction resistance — and thinking that they would take up time to make and that I would be a slave to them — I gave them a try and haven’t looked back since.

A do-list is nothing more than an ongoing reminder of stuff that has to be done. It can be on the back of an envelope or in the computer or smart phone. You can add to it, delete from it, check things off (which feels fantastic), and make a new one whenever needed. You can use it to prioritize and re-prioritize items and even to decide that you don’t need to do “that one item” after all. It’s like the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You have this huge amount of stuff to do, so you break it down into smaller chunks and deal with it one item at a time. This post is about how I used do-lists to greatly simplify several concurrent projects.

Some years back I was asked to take over the front-of-house operation (box office, marketing, and concessions) at a theatre that presented four large shows a year, plus three chorus concerts and three or four other events, all produced in-house. Each show required a given amount of marketing, promotion, and other work, and, because the schedules overlapped, we were often working on different parts of two or more shows at once. My predecessor had done a good job of keeping track of things, but, even so, tasks often fell between the cracks until the last minute.

Once I realized that each show or event required basically the same tasks, and that each task usually had to be completed so many days or weeks before opening night, I decided to get organized. I started by making a detailed list of everything that had to be done for each show, including collecting cast and team bios, designing the program, sending it to the printer, writing press releases, inviting critics, ordering stuff for the concession stand, and so on and on. The first draft had about forty items.

Then I sorted the list, from the earliest tasks to a couple after the show closed. This took some discussion with other staff members and my predecessor, as well as going back over old records, but eventually the list made sense and I had a good idea of how long before opening each task had to be completed. All this time the list was on paper.

Then I created an Excel spreadsheet consisting of five columns: the tasks themselves (from earliest to closest to opening night), when each was due, who was to do it, a column for checking it off when it was completed, and a column for notes. I don’t remember the exact order or dates, but here’s a sample:

schedule-2

Now came the fun part. I went to the earliest item (say Collect cast/team bios, which happens forty-five days before opening in the sample) and wrote a simple formula for calculating that date: cell B6 (the due date) equals cell D2 (opening night) minus 45 days. In Exel-ese, this formula would be entered in cell B6 as =D2-45. Excel then calculates and inserts the actual date as 30-Apr.

I wanted to keep this as simple as possible, so I resisted the temptation to go any farther with Excel. In any case, by entering a similar formula in each “Due” cell, Excel provided the date:

schedule

Once I had all the due dates down, I printed the spreadsheet. Then, because each due date was “always” so many days before opening, I could use the spreadsheet as a template and simply change the name of the show and the opening date, and Excel would take care of the calculations. I printed the lists for several of the upcoming shows and placed the printouts in a clipboard, where we could review them every day, see what tasks were coming up, check them off when completed, and add any notes.

During the first year under this system, we realized a few dates needed to be adjusted, and we ended up adding a few items, but, once the template worked, we kept using it for the rest of my time there. It saved a ton of time and ensured that tasks for the various shows didn’t fall between the cracks.

Incidentally, another staff member brought up the question of what happens if a date falls on a weekend or holiday: should we change the formula for that date?. Nope. We just took care of the task before the weekend or after it. The list was meant as a reminder, not as a dictator.

And here’s a sneaky little tip: from experience, we knew that actors were often late with their bios. If we said they were due on a given day, some showed up a week later or more, even with friendly reminders. This had created a problem with my predecessor, who was often late sending the program to the printer because of it. So, if my real date to finish the program was, say, the 15th, I would tell the cast that I needed their bios by the 1st. Of course, I didn’t tell them about the two-week period: that was my secret.

Along the same lines, some events, like chorus concerts, did not involve cast/team bios or a few other tasks. I could have deleted those lines before printing the list, but we decided to keep it really simple and either ignore those tasks or just cross them off on the printout.

These lists simplified the process of managing several projects at once, but even a simple handwritten list on plain paper (which is what I’ve used for years) can make a huge difference in everyday work. You can change the list as needed, re-prioritize items, delegate them, decide a task doesn’t need to be done after all, and even crumple it up and make a clean new list anytime you want. And checking tasks off when they’re done… rocks!

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.

Lighting design: the process

Last week I asked Elizabeth Rand, who is a lighting designer, theatre manager, and author of several books on lighting and high school technical theatre, if she’d like to do a guest post here. I was delighted when she agreed, and here it is.

Lighting design: the process

Following is roughly the process you would go through as a lighting designer. It’s not always in this order, and it may include other steps, but the process is fairly universal. So, here we go…

Obtain a copy of the script

  • Perform a script analysis: Read the script. Note possible cues, black outs, etc. that dialog and stage directions in the script call for. The script “tells” you how and what to design. For instance, stage directions might indicate that a character turns a light on or off, where the scene is set (a living room, a forest, an office interior, etc), when the scene is set (day time, night time, sunrise, etc), and the mood of the scene (dark and scary, joyous and bright, sad and gloomy, etc).

Meet with the director and the rest of the design team         

  • Meet with the Director to discuss his/her concepts and visions for the play.  Meet with the design team to find out what the set and costumes will look like, and what colors are being used.  The set will also “tell” you what to design, and the set and costume colors will “tell” you what color palette to use.

Watch a run-through rehearsal

  • Make notes in the script (in pencil!) of possible cues and blackouts.
  • While you are watching the run-through, think about:
    • Location: inside, outside, in a living room, in a circus tent, in the forest, on the street?
    • Time(s) of day (what color is the light, from what angle does it come).
    • Do you need specials: where do the actors move, does one or more actors or a part of the set need to be isolated, is there a dream sequence or other motivation for non-realistic lighting? The blocking also “tells” you how to design the show.
    • When do the cues happen, how fast should they happen; a slow fade or a bump.
    • What is the motivation for each cue.
    • How bright should each individual area, special and/or cue be.
    • Where (from what angle) should the light come from; what is the motivating factor?
    • What color should the light be and why: what color is the light in a forest, in a living room, in an office. (Start to notice these things in your daily life.)

Draft the plot

  • Make several copies of your light plot (always keep an original).
  • Think about all the instruments you will need to achieve the above objectives.
  • Make adjustments and compensations for dimmer and circuit capacity and instrument inventory.
  • Make at least two copies of your plot for hang and focus, keep your original elsewhere.

Write up the patch and dimmer schedule

  • Transfer the information on your light plot to your patch schedule and dimmer schedule; area or special, dimmer number, circuit number, number of instruments, gel color, etc.
  • Make at least two copies of your schedules for hang and focus and for your script binder, keep your original elsewhere.

Hang and focus

  • Hang the lights as per your plot, and call the focus.

First tech rehearsal

  • Design each cue as the actors run through the play.
  • This rehearsal is for you, not for the actors, so feel free to stop them at any time in order to get a cue designed and recorded.
  • If it’s done right the first time, it will speed up subsequent techs.
  • The Board Operator records what each cue is on his/her cue sheets or on the computer, and the Stage Manager records when each cue happens on his/her script.
  • Allow about two times the expected length of the play for this first tech rehearsal (sometimes more!).
  • Each cue should be numbered in sequence.

Re-draft and re-hang

  • Sometimes it is necessary to move, add, or delete some instruments.
  • Re-draft your plot, re-write your schedules, re-hang and/or re-focus.

Tech and dress rehearsals

  • Make adjustments to your cues (the look and the timing) as you see fit.
  • The Stage Manager should add Standbys (and Warnings as needed) in his/her script.
  • Have the Stage Manager and crew follow the Pre- and Post-Show checklist for all techs and performances.

Attend opening night

  • Attend the opening night as an audience member to make sure everything is running smoothly.

You can read more about Elizabeth and her work on her website, at www.presett.org, and you can find several of her books right here in my amazon store.

Props and the prop table

A properly placed and laid out prop table is an invaluable help to the cast of a show, as they often need to get on stage quickly and in the dark, and just don’t have the time to go looking for their props. This post will cover some of the elements of a good prop table.

The table (or tables) is generally placed offstage where it will be out of the way of scene shifts and crowd movements, but the important thing is that is be easily and readily accessible by actors in costume, especially if they have to leave the stage and come back quickly with a prop. The table also needs to be accessible on the way out, so the actors can replace their props on it after their scene.

In the case of prop-heavy shows, of course, you may need more than one table, or one table on each side of the stage, or even multiple tables. Several years ago I propped a production of Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, which had so many props — that had to be grabbed quickly — that we all agreed on placing them on shelving units just offstage, instead of on tables.

A prop table can be any size needed, but a 30″ x 6′ folding table seems to be common. It’s large enough to hold multiple items, but small enough to not (usually) get in the way.

Generally, the top of the table is covered with butcher paper and marked off in “blocks,” each one holding one prop. The name of the prop, and sometimes the act and scene, plus the name of the character, are then written clearly inside the block to make sure the prop always goes back in the same place. The blocks can be marked off in masking tape or with a thick marker, but the important thing is that they are clearly visible backstage during the show.

I’ve also seen some prop tables where each prop is outlined with a magic marker. This can work too, although I’ve found that the blocks are more practical and allow more space for labeling the prop in it.

Here are three instances I just now found on the web:

They all work well, are easy to see, and are not crowded. Notice that in the last one, a two-tier table, the items on the floor are also labeled. This is a very compact arrangement, but it may not work in every show.

Rather than hitting you with a step-by-step how-to, here are some notes (in no particular order) from years of seeing prop tables and, in one case, running a props department.

  • Keep in mind that the actors will be preoccupied with their roles, lines, blocking, and other elements, and often moving around quickly in the dark, so make the table as easy to use as possible.
  • One-inch blue painter’s tape works well for marking out the blocks, as it’s a good contrast against the butcher paper. Otherwise a thick black magic marker works well. If you use a magic marker, make sure the ink doesn’t bleed through and mark the table under the paper.
  • When labeling the props inside the blocks, make sure to print clearly, preferably in all caps, and in letters large enough to be visible in a darkened space. Take your time with this: it’ll help the actors a lot.
  • Multiple identical small items used at the same time can go in one block. For instance, in the first photo above, several pieces of silverware are in one space.
  • If something is too big to fit on top of the table (i.e., a suitcase), it can go under the table as in the third photo, and you should still label the edge of the table so it’s clear where the prop goes.
  • Items like spears and flagpoles can go in a bin on the side of the prop table so they’re standing up instead of lying down. You’ll want to label these clearly too and separate them so they’re easy to see and grab.
  • You can lay out the props in any order, but a good way to do it is to lay them out in the order they’re used. Personally, I always laid them out so the smaller props were towards the front of the table and the larger ones towards the back. That way a large prop doesn’t obscure a smaller one, specially in dim light.
  • Another idea I used, which worked very well, was to hold off marking out the prop tables until after First Tech. Then, just before First Tech started, we would ask the actors to please make sure their props were on a prop table on the correct side of the stage before they went home. This way, when the tables were set up and labeled the next day, the props crew knew where the props needed to be placed (or where the actors preferred them) and avoided placing a prop on the “wrong” side of the stage.
  • Along with this, the Stage Manager asked the actors to check the prop tables before each performance to make sure their props were on them, and again after the performance. It’s much easier for an actor to remember where he or she left a prop right after the show than the next day.
  • Several theatres I worked with emphasized to the actors, right up front, that they (the actors) were responsible for their props during the run of the show, since the theatres didn’t have people available to hunt down props left scattered. This made a huge difference all around and avoided a lot of problems. The prop crew and ASMs still occasionally found an item here or there, but it was minimal.
  • Nothing should go on the table that’s not a prop used in the show: no personal items, water bottles, tools, or similar things. You’ll want to make this clear to actors and crew at the very start.
  • A good rule to follow is “Look all you want, but don’t touch.” That means, if the prop isn’t yours, don’t touch it. That avoids losing or breaking things and similar problems.
  • Check the prop tables as soon as possible after the show, or the next morning. This way you’ll notice missing or broken items, or expendables that need to be replenished, and have time to deal with them before the next performance.
  • Items that get used, like cups and glasses, need to be washed before the next performance, and preferably just before showtime.
  • Real food items should be placed on the table just before the show starts, to keep them fresh and safe. If possible, you’ll want to delegate an ASM or one member of the prop crew to take care of all the food for the run of the show. The director or stage manager (or both) should discuss these items with the actors beforehand to make sure there are no allergies or other problems.
  • One of the theatres I worked with had a policy of not placing weapons of any kind on the prop tables, mostly because they are “very attractive toys” even if they’re just plastic. So items like guns, swords, knives and similar pieces were locked away, picked up by a crew member or ASM, handed to the actor just before he went on stage, and then collected right afterwards and returned to storage. This, again, saved a lot of trouble. I’ll do a post on weapons at some point.

A prop table, properly laid out, can be a huge help to the actors, as it will help them feel more confident during the show. A little extra work here will pay off for the actors, the crew, and the audience.