Remembering Joe Hoffman

It always seems likes great teachers are institutions in and of themselves.  Joe Hoffman was one of those.   I’m thinking of him tonight, because I received word today that he had died.  Joe taught a Tuesday night production design class at U.S.C.’s School of Cinema.   He also, occasionally taught Scenic Art and possibly scenic design with the U.S.C. School of Theatre.

I always felt like Joe was a bit of a mischievous fellow in his professional life.  He designed variety shows for television, beauty pageants, magic shows, musicals and more.   Joe was a bit mischievous in class too.  He gave assignments, and watched students do way more work than they needed to, until they learned the art of design for the camera.   How much of the set will be visibile?  Don’t design and build more than that!   After actually working in television, I learned how true that is.  When I think of Joe teaching, I remember a glint in his eye as if he was waiting for us to discover the great secrets of design.

Joe insisted that we make white models in less than two hours.  A skill that has served me well in my professional life.   The final project in his production design class was a production model (full color, detail), for a brief scenario of our own devising.  Oh, he didn’t grade the model.  When we got to class, we were handed a video camera as promised, and told to film our model with the shot we had planned (at least 30 seconds).   The video was what was critiqued and graded.   I personally worked about 36 to 48 hours, no sleep, very little food to complete the model.  My set had a bookcase in it, I made and painted each 1/4″ scale book individually.   I made furniture, I made trees, I made bricks, I made stained glass windows, I made lit torches.   I got to class tired and hungry.  After making our videos, we were all invited to Joe’s house where his wife made a huge turkey dinner for everyone, and Joe watched the videos, and verbally critiqued our work, and by the time dessert was done we had our grades in the class.   One of the best points he made about my work was that despite the fact my model wasn’t the prettiest in person, I had worked out the shots carefully, and had spent my time working on the pieces that would be in focus and in front on the shots.  (Oddly enough most of the models that were stunning in person photographed very very badly).   Joe made an offhand comment when we started discussing the project about looking at our work through a camera lens occasionally.  I built much of my model looking through a camera lens, and it made such a difference.   I don’t do a lot of design on camera, but I learned that when I do, the world looks very different through that lens.

He taught me about working with new tools.   His was the first time I had used a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) application.  We used MacDraft which was very simple, but useful program, and a great introduction to the concept.   Joe, in class, seemed from an earlier generation, yet he was pushing us to use technology in a way that few if any of my other teachers during undergrad were doing.

Joe also taught me a lot about being a generous colleague.     I helped him on some project or another.   I do not remember what, it was truly nothing.   Joe was forever thankful and gracious.   Small things, like inviting me on a field trip that his class was taking to look at the set of the “West Wing.”   He also invited me on a backstage tour of the Magic Castle.  After doing a project with Richard Sherman (of the Sherman brothers), and knowing that I am a huge fan of classic Disney films, Joe got me an (Autographed!) copy of the Sherman Brothers’ memoir, “Walt’s Time.”

Joe taught me about efficiency, professionalism, and graciousness.   He taught me you don’t have to be stodgy to be a great professor.    I learned that the technology can be used in the creation of art, and there is no shame in that.  I learned that just couse I’m not young, I can still embrace the technology.

We exchanged the odd email over the years.  Always contemplating getting together, and never actually doing so.   I regret that.  A Lot.  Like so many others, I assumed he’d always be around.

Joe, If you read this, You taught me a lot.  Thanks.  A Lot!

What I was going to write…..

I had a bad experience with students and I had planned to write about it.   And that was what I was planning to write about.   I spend a morning each week in a computer lab due to the fact that I have a class that makes heavy  use of computer software.  I’m sitting in the lab and a young lady (and I used that term with dripping sarcasm) comes in walking past the lab monitor.  I was going to write about this young lady’s attitude.  She couldn’t be bothered to give the monitor her ID number.  When the monitor asked, the young lady mumbled her number without even turning around.   Once again the monitor asked, and the young lady, just as quietly, mumbled her number again, but more angrily.   The monitor stopped the young lady, and informed her that the policy was that all students who come to use the lab stop at the monitor, give their number, and then  proceed to a computer.   The young lady countered that the monitor looked busy.  This moment was the one that inspired me to write.

“How could this student act like this?”  I planned to say.   “What have students become?” I thought.  “I would never have done this while I was a student.”   THis was going to be a great post full of anger, resentment and vitriol.

And then the situation changed.   The hardworking students in the lab turned on the young lady.   “Look, she can’t here you.  Walk over there and talk to her.”   “How rude” They said.   The young lady was given the cold shoulder.  Her bravado and arrogance did not earn her the respect and admiration of her peers.

So I was gong to write about our students.  And I still am.   I was going to say, “Can you believe it?”  and I still am.    It is so easy to discount today’s young people.  It is so easy to declare them a waste of good air.   Certainly, some seem to work very hard to fall into that group.   Most of them do not.  Most of the students are like that mass of students in the lab:  resentful of the rotten apples who give them a bad name.   Most of them work really hard.  Most of them want to attend school to learn.

Too often teachers focus on the problems.   They are the ones who disrupt class.   They are the ones who take our time and energy.   They are the ones we worry will find something to complain about to a higher authority.

I was given some sage advice when I started teaching.  “Spend five minutes everyday with the worthwhile students.”    Five minutes didn’t sound like much.   But remembering to do at least that little bit makes a world of difference.   So many teachers are jaded, grumpy curmudgeons.   It is easy to become so.  It is easy to let the rare problems suck all the life and energy out of the teaching.   Five minutes isn’t too much.  In fact, it saves the day.

And so, I was going to write about our miserable students, but really, we don’t have many.   Most are wonderful, and now I have to find something else to blog about.

The Right Place for the Story

My reflections today are drawn from two recent experiences.  I have been reading Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat.  In the book he analyzes his lyrics and shows.  He can be a fairly harsh critic of both his own work and others.  In Sondheim’s analysis of his musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, he postulates that the reason for the show’s failure was that the source material had no need of musicalization.  He felt that the underlying play was perfect as a straight play, and there was nothing to be gained by adding music.

Several plays that I have encountered do not seem to be best suited to the stage.   Sometimes the plays are feel like the author wanted to write a screen play but couldn’t get it produced.    Some plays read like television episodes.  And then comes the joy of a play that is written to take full advantages of the theatre.   Tonight I saw a first run through of The Illusion.  It was a first run through, and was (not surprisingly) rough in some places.  However, the play takes advantage of the world of the theatre in a way that so many plays do not.

The play takes advantage of the live audience experience… the actors do not ignore the fact that they are being watched.   The play uses the theatricality, that heightened non-realistic presentation that in today’s film and television is described as cheesey or campy.

Books can span such great time and locations.   Films show  us the most amazing things that seem so real, Television comes into our homes, but the theatre is unique.

The best theatre is not realistic.  The best theatre does takes its limited production possibilities and pairs it with the willingness of the audience to add their imagination to the proceedings.    The best theatre deals with a complete story in a mere two hours of time.  The best theatre is written as a mere skeleton that each production’s director, actors and designers will hang their ideas.   The best theatre speaks to audiences in different times and places.

Not all plays succeed in being the best theatre has to offer.   Just like not all books movies or television are fantastic.   However I wish I could ask every writer why they chose that specific media for telling their story.    If they answer wrongly, I don’t want to do their play (or read their book or…..).   I want to work on plays, like The Illusion, that embrace their medium.   They are joyous.  I have worked on the play where the author was hoping to turn it into a film or into a television series.    Every bit of theatre I try to bring to the play is repulsed by the author.   And the joy and excitement is sucked out of the experience.

Text Books

One of the duties of a tenured professor is to review potential textbooks.   Publishers send review copies to instructors hoping that the instructors will assign the text, forcing the students to purchase it, and generating revenue for the publisher.  On top of the free copies I’m sent, when I’m revising a course or developing a new course, I troll online book sellers looking for  potential texts and read them.  This is a task that I (and I suspect most teachers) take very seriously.

I’ve read a lot of text books.  Some good, some bad, some useful, some useless.   I find they generally fall into three categories.  For reasons, explained later, I’m thinking a lot about text books at the moment.  The three different styles of textbook seem to emanate from the type of person who sat down to write the book.

Publish or Perish.  The first type text book I want to talk about is the from the author who has to write a book as a condition of their job.  Many universities require their faculty to publish  books or articles on a regular basis.  The doctoral thesis that has been published also falls into this category.    These books tend to be excellent for the more advanced students, but for intro students they are challenging.  Often they are full of esoteric ideas and pre-suppose a great deal of knowledge of the subject before you begin reading.    As I teach beginning students, most of these books get read, enjoyed, and then filed on my shelf.

The Guru Remembers.  This book is written by an expert in the field, not by a teacher.  It is full of remembrances and sage advice.   In my first level lighting class as an undergraduate (when I had lots of grandiose thoughts, and no idea what I’m doing) I was assigned David Hays Light on the Subject.   At the  the time I found the book useless.  I also am ashamed to admit I bad mouthed the book for years.  The book told me a great deal about how to talk about lighting, but very little about how to actually light a show.  It was full of vaguely amusing antidotes, and sage advise.  A few years ago I agreed to proctor a test for a colleague who was away at a conference.  Deciding that I wanted to have something to read, I grabbed Hays’ book.  Now that I’m an experienced lighting designer I find Hays book an excellent read — but it is not a good introduction to young lighting students.

The Frustrated Teacher. This book is also written by a teacher.  However, in this case the instructor is frustrated with trying to teach a class.  The instructor has been trying to teach this class with another (several other) book(s), and none of them are reaching the students.  These books tend to carefully define every vocab word.  They  also tend to be presented in an excellent order for teaching (or in the case of John Holloway’s The Illustrated Theatre Production Guide carefully written so they can be taught in any order).  These teachers put a lot of time and effort into writing the textbook so that is organized in such a way that fits very nicely within the teaching semester.

So why am I thinking about text books?   I’m a frustrated teacher.   After teaching scenic design for the past six years, I have been unhappy with the three textbooks I have used in that time.   The first (the one I inherited) was of the the Publish or Perish variety.  The second was a rather technical book, that while very good, wasn’t actually about scenic design.   The third was of the Frustrated Teacher  variety, but it still didn’t really work for my students (although I’m sure it works for his students — and it is better than anything else I found).

I’m going through tenure review at the moment, and decided to submit the first third of the text to my review committee as demonstration of the work i’m doing.   Before submission, I had my husband (who also studied theatre, although not the technical side) review what I wrote.   This has given me so much respect for the good text book authors.   Aside from usual commas, and spelling errors the biggest (oft repeated) comments dealt with “You haven’t explained this concept yet.”   Design is a complete process.  It is so hard to explain the concept to people who don’t already understand the process (which is really really unhelpful).   Based on these notes, I added almost 1000 more words to this text (and I suspect after the next round of reviews, there will be more).   Most of these words were a few words to a sentence or two to clarify ideas.  In some cases paragraphs had to be added.  Sometimes sections had to be rewritten for the sake of clarity.  One of my toughest fixes boiled down to moving the topic sentence of the paragraph from the first sentence to the last  (It took 20 minutes of working on it to see that simple solution).

When will the book be done?  Who knows.  I hope the text is done by mid-february.   Of course in a design textbook, the text is only part of the story.  The book will need illustrations — lots of illustrations.   Some illustrations are being referenced in the text, plus other pictures.  Design is so visual, and the illustrations are as important as the text.  I don’t know how long the illustrations will take.

Some day soon, I’ll have a text book, my own text book.   Then I will start teaching with it, and I’m sure I’ll need to re-write.