The Dangers of the Imaginary World

Long ago, I used to work in television, and I used to have great fun looking at the various back drops that were available to rent.   The backdrops could be placed outside the window of a set to create a beautiful sky, exotic cityscape, snow topped mountains etc.   In fact, I had a little joke, when seeing a fantastic vista in the real world, I would ask “What backing number are they using today?”

When working in the entertainment industry, I look at everything I see as if it was a design.   Today walking across campus, I was annoyed with the “costume designer”  — whoever it was, was dressing way to many people in the same costume.  THEN it hit me, this was the real world.   No costume designer was to blame.

I like it when the world is as neat and tidy as it is on stage.   Every character is dressed in a harmonious styles and colors, yet everyone looks unique.  I like a beautiful sky.  I like great lighting.   I like great locations.   Great places, that are harmoniously put together.

And in much of the theatrical design I do, I am able to create these harmonious worlds.  But when reality is called for, I need to remember that too many people wear the same costume, furniture isn’t artfully arranged, and the perfect sky, sometimes isn’t so.

Passing a Class in College

No one ever really asks me how to succeed in a college class. They usually want to know how to “get an A,” as opposed how to learn something. Well, I decided to answer the question I wish students asked me: How do I learn as much as possible in college? Here is my answer (at least my answer at the moment.) Part of getting the “A” is doing well with the minutia of class. The following tips will help you succeed in a class. My college defines success as a “C” or better. More importantly, these tips will help you get the most out of your college class. You will learn more and retain more after you leave.

I always tell students they should question the qualifications of the article they are reading. So, here are mine: I’m a college professor, and I’m grading students. I see what students are successful in my class, and I see which ones are not successful. Some students get a C or better with out doing all of these. Students who earn the As and Bs seem to do all of these.

So here they are, my top ten tips for succeeding in college:

1) Go to class! You are in college, no one is making you go. Sure every class has attendance policies, and you should pay attention to them. But going to class is more important than just those policies! Even if teachers just seem like they are reiterating what is in the text book, the lecture is more focused (and more likely to be on the test.) Unlike a text book, if you are confused you can ask the teacher a question – and they will answer. Also regular attendance can make the difference if you are borderline on a grade. Teachers who see the effort are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt about weather to round up to the “A” or down to the “B”

2) Be on time! Most classrooms are not set up to allow students to sneak into class late. Yes, it happens on occasion: Bad weather, traffic, late bus, etc. But it if happens to you regularly, you need to make some adjustments in your schedule. Professors know who is coming in late. They don’t like it. It will hurt your grade.

3) Participate! Sitting in class like a lump on a log doesn’t help your learning or your grade. Answer questions when the instructor asks. Ask questions when you don’t understand. It isn’t a bad idea to try to force yourself to speak in class at least once each session.

4) Read the syllabus! Most teachers take a lot of time putting important information in the syllabus. Details of assignments, grading systems, lecture topics etc. can usually be found in the syllabus. Take the time to read and understand it. If you don’t understand something, ask! Also, before you ask the teacher a question that might be on the syllabus, check the syllabus. Instructors are annoyed  if you ask a question that could have been found by reading the syllabus.  Oh and if you lost your syllabus, check the class’s web page or blackboard site, it is probably there.   In fact, check to see if your class has a web page, or facebook page or whatever.  There is probably good stuff there.  Take advantage of it!

5) Be prepared! Before you can participate in class, you need to know what is going to be going on. Complete the reading and homework assignments before you come to class. That means more than skimming the chapters five minutes before class. It means reading the material closely, taking notes, and especially discovering what you don’t understand. Write down what confuses you. Things that confuse you make great questions to ask in class (which helps you have something to say when you participate!) On a full length semester class, you are generally expected to put in three hours of work for each unit the class is worth per week! Therefore if you have a three unit class, that meets for three hours a week, you will need to do 6 hours of homework to put in enough time (3 hours in class + 6 hours of homework = 9hours). The school and the teachers expect you are doing that much work. That is what it takes to be prepared. (If the class is offered in a compressed schedule you may be expected to spend even more time out of class)

6) Get a calendar! I love Google calendar because my phone can access it, I can get it on line, and I can print it out if I need a hard copy. You don’t have to use Google. A calendar in your phone, or a free web application, or even an old fashioned paper calendar will help. Write on your calendar every class session you have to attend. Schedule when you are going to do your homework, when study groups are meeting, when you have to work, etc. Write down everything, including (and not unimportantly) when you are going to sleep. You only get a social life around those scheduled events.

7) Find a friend in each class. If you miss class (even for a very good reason), the instructor doesn’t want to repeat everything they said in class in an email to you. Find a good friend who will agree to take notes for you if you aren’t there, and of course you will do the same for them! This is also a great person to study with, and even work on assignments with, and partner up with for that group project every instructor seems to assign.

8) Take advantage of office hours. Most instructors hold 3 to 5 office hours a week. This is when the instructor is sitting in their office waiting for a student to come by and see them. You can get personalized one on one tutoring here. Don’t understand something? Go to the office hour! Want extra help with a concept? Go to the office hour. Showing up to office hours also makes it look like you care, which can give you that extra boost if you are on the cusp. If your class schedule doesn’t work with a professor’s office hours, ask if they can make time for you. They probably will. A quick note: if the professor’s syllabus asks you to make an appointment for the office hour instead of just dropping by, follow the syllabus’ suggestion. Also, check and see if your professor has virtual/on-line office hours, then you don’t have to get yourself to campus.

9) Read the books (even the extra stuff). Instructor’s rarely assign reading that they don’t think you should read. Read it. If you can’t afford the text book, see if it is available used, or as an E-Book, or in the library (many professors put their books on reserve in the library). If all of those fail, talk to the instructor, he or she might let you borrow their copy of the book during office hours. If the instructors list additional, optional, or supplementary texts try to read those as well. While you won’t be tested on it specifically, this material will make the other material easier to understand.

10) Know your instructors. Spend some time trying to find out about your instructor in advance. Ask others who have taken a class with the instructor. What does the instructor expect? How do they run their classroom? Also, do a quick google search. Has the instructor written books or articles about topics that will be covered in class? If so, get your hands on them and read them! Even if the instructor didn’t assign his or her own texts, they will be a valuable resource for the class.

The End of the Semester

Tonight, I’m sitting on my back patio, listening to Christmas music on my phone, my dog laying at my feet, lit by the shimmer of LED stars hanging in my window. What an idyllic view!! I’m contemplating something that I spend time thinking about at the end of every semester: Retention and Success rates — and other measures of educational success.

For those of you not working in higher ed, let me start by defining a bunch of terms.

Capacity: The number of students signed up for the class at census (1/6 of the way into the class) divided by the number of seats allocated to the class.

Retention rates: The percentage of students who were registered for the class when it finished divided by the students at census date (1/6 of the way through the course).

Success Rates: The number of students who earned a C or better in the class divided by the number of students who completed the class

Efficiency: A new (to me) metric involving how many hours students have face to face time with us (for my classes it means 28-35 students for the semester depending on the class)

This semester, my classes were not very efficient. Our department has an issue: the classrooms originally built and assigned to us are not large enough to efficient (my main classroom has 22 seats). The semester still has about a week an half to go, so grades may still change a bit. But my most successful class (by the above metrics) is in the 22 seat room. At census I had 20 students, which was 90% capacity for the class (I had 22 students up until 2 days before census, when 2 students dropped). At the end of the semester I have 17 students on the roll sheet, or 85% retention. Prognosticating, I suspect I will have 13 successful students, or 76% success. Excepting for the efficiency, these are not bad numbers. And honestly is better than the class has done in the past. Some of my other classes are not as good. (one is 68% capacity 66% retention, 80% success).

I consider all of this as I put my syllabi together for the following year. Why was one class more successful than another? Something I had not noticed before until two other instructors pointed it out to me: Tues/Thurs morning classes have better capacity, retention and success. I spent some time looking back through older records, and the pattern does seem to exist. I don’t know why.

My Tuesday Thursday afternoon class has worse stats than it has had in the past (although the class has been dramatically retooled, and the new version is on its first time through).

One of the things I’m frustrated by is the new metrics we are being judged on. I’m not an expert on when to schedule classes so they will be well attended. I’m perfectly willing to teach on whatever schedule the dean wants me to teach on (as long as I’m not booked to teach classes in two different rooms at the same time). I’m willing to attempt to teach “efficient” numbers of students — give me the room and give me some tools to help get students registered.

The big thing I think I can effect is retention. In my 8 years of teaching I have seen a change in the students. The students we have today are less prepared to analyze material then those from 8 years ago. Although I have heard people say that the batch of students we have now are “dumb,” I don’t think they are. They are unprepared. Not only are their analysis skills lacking, they aren’t prepared for college. They don’t know how to budget their time. They also don’t know how to do in depth reading. I think these lack of skills has harmed my retention in my design classes. I have slowly been revising the class each time I teach it, and am making some big changes next semester. Instead of each student doing two different projects, we (as a class) will do one project step by step…. the students’ homework will be to do that same step of the design project on their semester project. I hope this will allow me to do two things: 1) show them how to do more in depth analysis as we look at the group project, 2) force them to budget their time better. I will have much much more homework to grade next semester, but each assignment contributes to their final project which means that it should all be done at the end of the semester when they need to hand in the design project. I will miss the simple and the advanced project that I was able to do when I started teaching, but if I can communicate the analysis and process skills needed, the students should be able to apply them to any design project that gets thrown at them.

I do feel that each semester the syllabus I prepare would be perfect for last group of students. Just when I think I have a course down I have a particularly unsuccessful class and work to adjust to whatever the new reality is.

Me and Reality

I should admit that I haven’t blogged in a while. I haven’t written anything in a while. I’m trying to get back to it in other parts of my life, and I feel the blog has to be updated too.

It’s not about the technical aspects of the show. It’s not about the design of the show. Unless you are lucky enough to be doing a Vegas or Disney spectacular, the work of the folks designing and creating the technical elements of the show are always subservient to something else — the story that the actors are telling.

I’m currently doing a show that is totally about the situation. A situation that is just plausible enough to be realistic. It is set on a single set (a motel room). The action happens continuously. There are no monologues delivered to the audience. It has several of the other halmarks of contemporary realism: drus, alcohol, profanity, actors in states of undress. In short it is contemporary realism.

And, as a designer I’m fighting to keep myself motivated. I just don’t enjoy designing these shows. (With few exceptions I don’t get excited about seeing these type of shows either.) They just aren’t my thing. BUT as anyone who works in the theatre knows, you must excite yourself about your current project. And I’m very lucky, because it is a good show, with a good director and a good cast — people I like working with, and who I also like being with (not always the same thing).

I have two moments of “theatricality” in the show — one of which won’t even register to the audience as anything worthy of note. The light cues are all very slow (30-60 seconds), and lights are shifting up and down 10 to 15 percent — minor subtle changes. The set is as realistic as I could make it given the space and budget constraints (and I think it looks good). My notes to myself tonight were along the lines of: add a peephole in the door, I can see from the worst seat there isn’t really a bathtub in the bathroom — find a way to add one, should a cheap hotel room have a door stop, etc. It isn’t that these aren’t important notes. They are. It’s not that the lights aren’t important. They are. The issue is that it doesn’t have the theatricality that I crave. I want the actors to turn to the audience and talk to them. I want almost indulgent light cues. I want a set that makes a big bold statement.

And I know that this show isn’t that type of show. I also understand that as part of an educational program, we have a responsibility to our students to do all sorts of different shows. This is an important type of show. There is much to learn from it. I have used colors I’ve never used before. I have real carpet on the stage (something I’ve told myself I would continue to try to avoid doing). I have lots of fussy details. I’m out of my comfort zone, and that’s a good thing.

But, oh, I’d trade a chocolate bar for one moment of glorious theatricality.

The Commissioned Play: Good Idea or Bad Idea

Last weekend we saw “Maple and Vine” at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. This isn’t going to be a review of the play. (There is much to admire, there are some things I didn’t like.) This play raised an issue for me, that I now want to think (and write) about.

In the credits at the bottom of the title page of the program it was mentioned that this play was commissioned by a theatre company. Many new works get started that way, and I have worked on a few. Every theatre’s commissioning process is different, and I do not know about the process that led to “Maple and Vine.” Also, many commissioned (and non-commissioned) plays have a few of the problems I see in the creating of new plays that I want to discuss due to “Maple and Vine.” (And I need to say again that while my examples come from “Maple and Vine,” it is part of a much much larger picture.)

Cast Size.
A playwright I know (and many people who read my blog would recognize her name if I mentioned it, but I won’t) complained to me once, “All people ask me is if I have any new three character plays!” Her frustration was that the cast size was the overarching element in play selection. In a professional production a three actor show only requires one stage manager, and probably only 2 understudies (if all the characters are the same type and sex, the union may only require one understudy!). So that makes five or six Equity Members (the union of professional actors and stage managers) required to be on the weekly pay roll. This can lead to anemic casts. “Maple and Vine” was a play set at an experimental community — yet it was a cast of only five. (Due to the racially specificity of the cast, it had 3 understudies). The issue for this play was I really wanted to see the other people in the community (the play actually has seven characters since two actors play two roles each). In my own attempts to write theatre, I have also had the problem of letting the realities of professional casting requirements affect how I structured my play.

While the following is not true of all commissions, it is often true. The theatre is paying the playwright for a play to be delivered on a certain time schedule so the play can be produced. That is a reality of the business, plays need to be produced. While some plays do spring almost fully formed from the playwright’s typewriter, or word processor — Many plays really need to sit in a drawer (or on a hard drive) and stew for a while before the play is ready to be revised and presented to an audience. With a commission, the playwright cannot really say “Hey, it’s not ready yet.” They have to say “Let’s hope I can fix it durring rehearsals.” My example from “Maple and Vine” deals with what story was being told. In many ways, the main plot was (to me) a bit less interesting than what seemed to be the secondary plot. I feel that possibly, had Jordan Harrison (the playwright) had more time he might have either refocussed the story on the main characters, or tightened up the perceived A plot to give more time to the more interesting B plot. (Of course the play may be just what Harrison wanted).

A commissioned play has a financial commitment behind it from the start. And that means that the people that commissioned it are more-than-likely going to actually produce it. (What a waste of money it would be for them to pay for a commission, and then decide not to actually produce the play! — Although I am sure it can and has happened.) The other way a new play gets selected for production is a playwright sending out a completed script and hoping that the theatre wants to do it. (OR sometimes a playwright is able to have produced or self produces a reading or workshop of the script to secure interest for larger producers). In these cases a theatre might opt for several paths — more workshops, development etc. — but won’t actually proceed with a full production until the script is really ready. (Full disclosure — I think that “Maple and Vine” was ready for a full production).

After a first production, playwrights can (and often do) examine what worked and what didn’t — then possibly rewrite. As long as the playwright is still alive, I think plays can be continually reexamined. I worked on two shows in my past where I had read the script before (long before) I had been hired to actually design the show. These shows were at least moderately successful, and had published scripts. After being hired to design them, and being handed the scripts, I discovered that the authors had revised the show since the original publication of the script. Some changes I think were for the better, some were not — but it is the author’s right to do make the script as close as possible to their vision. I fear that plays after their initial commissioned production are treated as “finished.” Here is where I think “Maple and Vine” is at fault. The play feels like a very good script that just needs one or two more passes to make it really great. At the moment it is very good, but in the production we saw, I truly feel with a less stellar cast it would have faltered at several points. And this point is what frustrated me most about the show. . . It was good, it was very good, but it lacked that little edge that would make it fantastic.

So I’ve talked about why commissions can be bad for scripts. Can they be good for theatre? Yes. When a play is being commissioned the commissioning group can request (demand) that the play meet certain criteria — feature a specific performer, deal with certain themes, meet certain production requirements (3 character play), tie in with a certain event etc. Some great plays have come out of this. Some really terrible stuff has emerged as well (and unfortunately gotten on stage). I don’t want to see commissions go away, but after the commission, I hope that writers will take a good hard look at what the wrote, and see if it really is the play they intended to write in the first place.

Dumping of Notes

So, I was at USITT for a week.  I have typed up my notes from the sessions I was in.  Here they are only slightly edited.    This is more of a resource for myself (and others), than an actual post. :

My Notes from an awesome adventure at USITT.   I apologize for any misspelled names, it probably has more to do with my ability to read my own handwriting than my spelling ability.  Class sessions/program names are in bold.


 Backstage at Disney

**World of Color Round table**

From Jason Badger — Process for programing fountains:

1200 DMS controlled fountains.  GrandMA 2* lighting desks were used to program fountains, video*, mist, moving lights, and flame units

Each moving fountain had an LED ring around it, that can project light approximately 60’ im the air.   It took three programmers to make the show happen


*later in the day I learned that 3 Grand MA 2s ran the show, with a spare just in case.  The video was programed via a huge (drool-inducing) rack of Hippotisers — with complete redundancy — all video was being computed by two separate units so the failure of a single unit would not hurt the show.


From Mike Carter — Networks

30 switches, run over fiber form the basic IP network.  This network is not connected to the Disney computer network (dark network).    Subnetworks were developed for each design area (i.e. sound, lighting, video, etc.).   Video data was so intense, each projector required a dedicated pair of fiber.   Certain parts of the network (especially sound) did have some interface with resort wide network.


From Jeremy???? — Sound

The system uses mostly Meyer sound.  The system runs at 96k resolution from the processors all the way to the speakers.   The downside is that the orchestral tracks were only recorded at 48K resolution.   Each audio tower has a network switch to accommodate the data.  A mix down of the show is sent to other areas of the park that are able to see the show to some extant.   This happens through the main park wide audio system.    The shows (amazing) low end reproduction is from 11 subterranean subwoofers.  (did he say in the drainage system???)


Jason Badger again — Video

4 Hippo media servers, 19 live projectors, 6 underwater projectors.  Spider (??) routing system.    Aspect ratio 4200×800 pixels.  12 Terabytes of storage.   Since “Beauty and the Beast”   all animated films have been digitally composited (each layer of hand animation individually scanned into a computer and then stack on top of each other) so any element can be pulled out for use in World of Color, or other show.   Older films may have elements rotoscoped out by the animation department if needed.  (Rotoscoping is a process of hand tracing frame by frame  of reference material).   Since World of Color went on-line, feature animation has been doing special animations of current (forthcoming) films specifically for inclusion in World of Color


From Pete ??? – Floating Docks

The fountains lights, etc submerged in the lagoon are attached to three separate submersible tables.   Each table moves up and down independently, and together they cover most of the lagoon (larger than a foot ball field!).    Each table has a water tight, submersible electrical room underneath it.  (Basically a sizable sea-crate.)  The tables have three positions (from lowest to highest) — Submerged (during the day when guests are in the park), Show Position (for performance, with the deck just below the surface of the water), and Maintenance (the surface of the deck just above the water).   The electrical rooms are accessed by hatches in the deck.    After experimenting with underwater splices for electrical connections, they discovered that underwater connectors are far more effective.  (NOTE:  we learned later, that there are cameras in the underwater electrical rooms to make sure no one is in them during performance).

Bill Slessor (sp?) — Sustaining Show Technical Director

The show was delivered in 570 truck loads.    Disney constructed an onsite shop for the installation (in the area that will soon be the new “Cars” themed land).   More than 1800 people worked on the construction crew.    It took three months of technical rehearsals to perfect the show.   The show is still being regularly updated with new sequences and features.


**Hyperion Theatre and Aladdin**

From Jerry Tomlinson, Tech Manager

The venue has 72 line sets.   The initial idea was that several traditional theatrical venues would be constructed on each Disney property, and shows would be developed in Anaheim and then “tour” through the other Disney properties.   This has not happened yet.  The Hyperion used sound stage techniques to create a dead space audio-wise.    That way every sound the audience hears is specifically intended by the creative team.     The current show (Aladdin) uses about 600 conventional fixtures, and 90 automated fixtures.   Daily a crew of 6 inspects all motors, rigging, lighting etc before the show crew comes in.     The show crew is 15 people, most are trained for positions on multiple shows (or multiple positions on this show).   Show Automation (Chuck Brandt) is controlled form the trap room, although multiple stage managers and crew have enable or dead man or E-stop switches to maintain safety.   (The flying carpet is currently not in the show  until a technical glitch is fully explored.  Kaitlin Bueon (sp?) demonstrated the lighting system.    Two lightboards (Obsession II, and GrandMA) are used to run the show, but they are linked so only one go-button is needed.   Although the show was originally conceived with three follow spots, the show has only used two since shortly after its opening.  Also, see technical specs package distributed during tour.


**Parade Lighting**

Kaitlin Bueon explained the process of float lighting.   Disney developed a system to send a “go” wirelessly.  This done approximately every 2 1/2 minutes so that if a float is “off” from its cue sequence, it will correct it self in about 2 1/2 minutes.   Each float contains a system playing back DMX (it is not really a lightboard), and batteries to power the (usually low voltage, direct current) lights,   Batteries also need to be on-board to power the parade unit.   Each unit has a driver, but the drivers vision is often impaired.    Each float has an escort who walks along it, next to an e-stop (sometimes 2) in case of emergencies.


**Pyro/Fireworks Show** 

Disney uses a air-fired fireworks system to lessen the environmental impact of the fireworks show.  Strict safety proceeders are in place for loading and firing of the show.   Balloons are released from several points to check wind conditions.   There are approximately 190 shells in the current show, fired from 18 locations around the property.  Each location is visually supervised by a crew member.


**Rope Access**

Disney uses a Rope Access program so that technicians can access parts of the park and its structures that do not have traditional methods of accessibility (such as ladders, cat walks, personnel lifts etc.)    Disney trains its staff to international safety practices.   Prior to any Rope Access project, a risk assessment form (several pages) is created to confirm that there is no other way, safety protocols and several levels of management sign of on the Rope Access project.   At all times in a Rope Access project, the rigger has 2 points of safety contact.  With this method they are able to reach many areas that would not otherwise be accessible.   To date, Disney has a very good safety record with this method (actually a better safety record with Rope Access than traditional methods). We watched  a simulated rescue.


Educating the At Risk Student

Discussion led by William Kenyon

Four main reasons making students at risk:  Money, Physical, Mental, Emotional



Reasons: Family problems, loss of Scholarships, Outside Debts

How to help: 

Work-study positions (even in other arts venues on campus)


Guide students with Budgeting skills

Several free budget templates are available on-line

Explain the concept of Value Gained vs. Value Loss


Change in Family Support

Sometimes families withdraw support

A parental “booster club” can be helpful

Especially if run by parents of former students

Encourage students to be aggressive in applying for scholarships


Reasons: Disabilities, Injuries, Drug/Alcohol Binges, Drug/Alcohol Addiction


Students are often very supportive of other students

Encourage students to form a family like structure


For practicum, create a “Hold a Hammer” day

Allowed one time during the semester

No-Questions-Asked, means “I’m impaired” and no dangerous work

Find out Alcohol/Drug referral program at your school



Reasons:  Short Term Stress, Long Term Stress, PTSD, Eating Disorder, Learning Challenges, Suicidal 

Work to create a family environment so students can support each other

Drill professionalism into students

Students need to be focused on their personal reputation




Adjusting to College Life

Peer Pressure

Death of a family member

Couple Breakups




Louis Valdez

“What is the stage”

Theatre of the Sphere — Circle in a Square

The Square is the stage

The circle is unending, embracing the actors & the audience

Theatre is in the Audience, not on the stage

Theatre artists must turn their negatives into positives

Theatre can be non-violent weapon against oppression

Theatre as the language of teh human spirit

Light is an active participant in the theatre

as are all design elements

A community is needed for theatre

Theatre should be developed for a specific community

Technicians/Designers:  givers of mission & movement

The future belongs to those who can imagine it.



Digital Portfolio

Presented by Michael Harvey and Brian Swanson


What is the Goal

Is it to suplement the physical portfolio

Is it to replacement of the physical portfolio







Resolution / storage


Media (not all computers have CD Drives)



Websites should be a content management system

Such as Joomela (sp?)


From Holly Pierce


Hyperlink tool — Allows links to other points in the document

Adobe Accrobat

Can embed hyperlinks

New software (getting better):  Acrobat Portfolio




Don’t s

Non Linear Navigation

Plan (do a flow chart)

Remember Basic Design skills

Showcase your Work

Keep it Simple

Same Format in the whole presentation

Be consistent

Build digital portfolio for a specific audience

Test Test Test Test

Design a nice label for your CD (NO SHARPIE!!)

Make it hard to find your stuff

Take more than 3 clicks from start page to any image

Do more than 5 images / show 


Use more than 2 fonts

embed video needlessly





Presented by Dan Robinson, Scott Ollinger, Matt Allar, Jeremy Hopgood, Shelby Newpart


What is Co-Curricular

Coordinating with curricular elements

Something in addition to the curriculum



Take out the “Co:

Craft flexible syllabi that allow for many opportunities

Create Permanent Topics Courses to use for unusual projects

Use the “Guest Star”

Interview a Guest artist in class over Skype

Think about guest lecturers from other disciplines

Co-produce a show with another theatre company

Get Out of Here

Travel with the students

Tie in events such as USITT, Urta, SETC, NETC, etc.

Overcoming Cost Challenges


Students forming official student groups and requesting funds from student governments

Create a Student USITT official student club


Show Me the Money

Look For

Internal incentives

Faculty Development

Special Campus Funds

Campus Wide Themes or programs

Always try to tie funding requests to current “Buzz Words”

Student Involvement

Clearly define how students are involved

During pre-production, production, and post production

Define the role of the volunteer

Make sure the students understand the requirements and expectations

Make sure there is an evaluation at the end of the project.

Talk the Talk

Develop Interdepartmental projects

Tie into Campus wide initiatives 

Try to work with other programs (on and off campus)


Creative teaching projects for Technical Theatre (Poster Session)

**Model in a Box**

Students (as a group) are given a poem (recommended Poe or Frost)

& a set of materials (each group gets a copy of the same set), and a matching box

With only the addition of glue and color media and scissors, students interpret the poem as a scenic design in the box.  Working entirely within class (2 class sessions)

Teaches Time management, planning (students may plan outside of class), and collaboration


**M&Ms and Primary Colors of Light **

Set up lighting instruments with heavy primary colors

Display a bowl of M&Ms, ask students to separate the M&Ms based on color under each primary

Turn on white light so students can see how they did.

Teaches:   how lighting color affects perceived object color.


**Pick You Season** (NOTE: Have hand out)

Students, work in groups.

Given the parameters of the department’s season

Students create a focussed list of potential plays (2 or 3x the final number)

Analyze each play in terms of Budget, rights, themes, marketing, student participation etc.

Using analysis students select final season, including overall marketing scheme f


Teaches basic lessons in producing


**That’s the Lecture Now Let’s Build!**

Hand out only — needs to be considered for scene shop portion ofTA 23


**Super Hero Project**

(Hand out given to our costume instructor)

Costume design project, could be applied to more!

Teacher generated a number of adjectives about a character, and a number if (silly) Superhero abilities.

Students draw a selection of adjectives, and a super hero ability, and create a super hero based on what they drew.

Students create a back story, and then a costume.


Teaches: Character analysis, filling in gaps in a script, develops drawing skills

NOTE:   If we ever did the CID intro to design class — this could be an over all project — designing the costume for the costume portion, the “lair” for the scenic portion, lighting the space for lighting, and creating a mini radio play about the superhero for sound???  Maybe it could be considered if we are in a place where we are expanding offereings


5D and the future of design

NOTE: This session focused on the work of designers who use multimedia in design.   It was more about philosophy of high budget design than techniques about multi-media.


These designers have a preference of working with people with diverse (non-theatre) backgrounds because it “keeps the blinders off” from everyone

No one know what is and isn’t possible so all ideas are worth exploring


Extensive prototyping of ideas


At smaller scales


Collaboration between the entire design team is essential


Basic Process:

Group Analyzes the Group Mandate (Their word for concept)

THEN:  Each specialist (designer etc.) does their thing (very free form) without knowing what the others are doing

THEN: All ideas are brought back tot he group and critically analyzed

THEN the Group Mandate is reevaluated (does it need to develop more, or be made more flexible?)

More concrete ideas are formed and work moves on in earnest.   Specialists often work very closely developing other areas than there own (a scenic designer on a specific project may get very involved with the costume process — mixing it up is ok so long as all the work is covered, and no one is over burdened.)


Multi-disciplinary  skills are vital


Top qualifications to work in this methodology:  People skills

Even if someone isn’t the best at a task, they probably know someone who is who can come in for a day or two if needed.


New term: Trans-media == Film+Theatre+Video+Themed entertainment

Regardless of training, venue/media does not change the design process.


Video Projection on Scenery

Presented by Koi (sp?) Hopper, Jeff Doughty, Adam Dahl, Kevin Griffin, Robert Miller


LED Framing spot — allows brighter deep colors, multipurpose a single gobo


Presentation on Rollin College Media Projects

Programs like “Media Shout” more adept than Powerpoint for what we do

Other choices: Isadora, Arkaos Media Master Express


Best choice: A media server


1 Media Server + Software + One High end project – Educational discount = approx. $10,000


Places to get quality video content affordably:, istockvideo


BlueKaos –DMX Media Server aprox. $5000 software — inexpensive, limited but powerful — House of Worship site — better prices on projectors than mainstream places



Death of the Incandescent Lamp

presented by Fred Foster, and Howard Brandsten


Read 2008 article titled ????   found at


What will we do without incandescent lamps?

Onstage lights not directly affected by new laws

Once household lights are not incan., cost of production of stage lights will go up


the Lumens/watt formula of efficiency is not actually a good indicator (Incans are far easier to safely dispose of than CFLs, little to no study on safe disposal of LEDs)


LED lamps are not full spectrum (nor are CFLs)


Dangers of CFL:   Mercury, Radio Interference, implanted medical device interference, if broken a HazMat clean up must be performed


Make up rooms,  dressing rooms etc. are affected by new laws


recommended EBook:   ILightBulb


Teaching Technical Theatre to Non-Technical Students

Presented by: David Navalisky, Kat VanKleet, Ashley Bellet, Vincent Lobell, Ross Roushkolb


Goals of projects:

Increase Student Interest

Build Vocabulary

Teach Essential Skills

Meet Curriculum Requirements

Demonstrate connection to their life beyond theatre.


First thing to remember:   They havn’t done this before, they have never been taught


50% Project

Class jointly designs a set for a play (int. realism)

The set is then constructed at 50% (6” = 1’ -0” Scale)

Can usually be done from scrap

Working in small teams the set is divided up for people to build

Then assembled. When things don’t fit right, the group stops to figure out why

No blame


Build a Hero 

A Repeat from the poster session


Design Morgue

Students are given an adjective and asked to create a design board of visual research to represent the adjective.

In class the morgues are discussed and analyzed.

Done on a regular basis through out a semester.


Fake Food

For either  a prop class or general intro to stage craft

Students are assigned to find a play that mentions food.

Students research what the food would like, and research (often internet) how to make a fake version

The students must then build fake food that meets the description.  

Added bonus:   TD & Prop master judge the food.  Anything that is deemed good enough to go into storage for the department earns an “A” on the project.



Other tips to make people more excited about tech:


Foster friendly competition in the projects, makes students try harder

In stage craft class, have everyone who works on a set piece sign the back of it.

Create a grid of all of the essential skills — when a student has mastered the skill, it gets signed off on.


ADA in the technical theatre classroom

Presented by Montana Hisec-Cochran



Section 504 of  the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Organizations that receive federal funds are barred from discrimination

ADA 1990

Extension of the above, but not covers places of public accommodation


FOR Colleges and universities

Law requires accommodations, not modification of curriculum


Higher Ed is not required to:

Substantial alteration of the curriculum

Substantial alteration of the manner in which program is offered

to have an undue burden to the institution


Note:  Undue burden arguments rarely fly in court

However, schools do not need to change (by federal law) the delivery method of a class (traditional or on-line) (STATE laws may be different, work with local ADA office on campus)


Before an ADA student may enter a class, he/she must be otherwise qualified

For example if a student must meet certain proficiencies of a program to be admitted, the ADA does not change that


Brochure available on Universal Design of courses


Dealing with ADA students in technical theatre classes:


Examine the essential elements (in our case SLOs)

These are the requirements for the class

Consider how they can be met with in the students abilities


Communication is key

The students is probably well versed in their disability

If there are additional concerns speak with the camps ADA counselor or coordinator


SUGGESTION: put campus address of ADA office in syllabi


SUGGESTION: if the class has an on-line component, add ASL interpreters to the Blackboard site — this helps them be prepared for what they will be interpreting.


If your class will have an ASL interpreter, think about placement where so the student can “hear” the lecture and watch what needs to be seen.


If you know in advance, ask the ADA office if you can learn some key signs for your class (especially safety)


Guiding principles in making adaptations/accommodations:





SUGGESTED THEATRE READING: “Beyond Victims & Villains, Contemporary plays by handicapped playwrights”

The Week Ahead, and Looking Back

I’m in Los Angeles to participate in the United States Institute for Theatre Technology conference.   I used to attend USITT almost annually, and it seemed like it used to be in Long Beach at least every other year.    It has been a few years (three?) since I was able to attend.  The Long Beach location provided to big points of cost savings:   I could drive there, and I have friends in the area who are letting me sleep in their spare room.

Previous USITTs have been about (for me) job hunting,  product research, connecting with old friends, net working, and occasionally actually working the convention at a booth or table.    This time, while I am doing some product research, and I hope to see old friends, I have two main goals.   One is the classes, workshops, and sessions I am attending to become better at my job, and two is to talk to publishers (or a specific publisher), about the book I’m writing.   

To that end, I brought mostly nice cloths with me.  I remember running around past USITTs in ripped jeans, and old show T-shirts.  Not this time.  I have a suit, I have several kilt/dress shirt/vest ensembles.   

And because of hoping to do the book, I’m really nervous.   I wasn’t this nervous when I was at USITT to interview for jobs.  I wasn’t this nervous when I was representing an organization.

I always thought that once I reached my thirties, going to conventions and trade shows would be no big deal.  I would be cool and nonchalant.   Maybe that never changes.  I aslo figured I wouldn’t be nervous on opening night (or when presenting my design concepts for the first time).  I still am.  

So here I am getting ready for tomorrow.   My workshop/class thing tomorrow starts at 7 am — we were warned to be there, ready to go no later than 6:45.   I can’t get any information on if the convention center parking will be open then.  It had better be.  Tomorrow will also be my first day driving there.  I’m planning to arrive no later than 6:30 (and if google is right, i’ll arrive at 6:03).

I have lots I want to learn this week, and lots I want to do.   What it will be, who knows?   But I hope it will at the very least be a wonderful experience of learning.

And to that note, I may (if I’m awake enough), do daily blog posts about what I have learned that day, or a big wrap up at the end.

Reflection on “Almost, Maine”

Well, I haven’t written in a while, which typically translates to, I’ve been doin’ a show.  In this case, the show was “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani, directed by Janine Christl for Fresno City College.   I designed the lighting and scenery, Deb Shapazian did the fun costumes, and Jeff Barrett the moving sound design.    

Here is what Donald Munro said of my work in his review:

“Christopher R. Boltz’s scenic and lighting design is wonderful. Three tall dark screens, each depicting spindly trees painted in white, can slide from side to side, opening up spaces for scenery to fit in. Whether they’re interiors (a living room, a bar table) or exteriors (an inviting front porch, a field covered with snow), these set pieces offer a unified sense of texture and proportion that gently and effectively insinuates the audience into the look and feel of this small town.The Northern Lights themselves pop up now and then to glorious effect, and Boltz’s lighting design subtly picks up on the image, often bathing a scene from the side with a mild, comforting green glow.”

Well Yippee for me.   I think the set was nice, and I was rather proud of some of my lighting.  This review, however, is much longer, and includes more praise than I typically get from Mr. Munro.   I am certainly not complaining — it is nice to read nice things of oneself.    However nice my work on this show is, it is not better (in my opinion) than many other shows I have done.   (In fact the concept was sort of stolen from two of my other shows.)   

Why did I steal?   Well the original set idea was cool, but too expensive and heavy.   At a production meeting, I developed a new concept, sketched it, and then overnight drafted it.  It was functional. It was pretty.  And it was far from perfect.  Sitting in the audience at the closing performance, I saw at least three things I should have done — each of which would have made the scene changes more elegant, faster, and saved money.

What I think I am most proud of on “Almost, Maine” is my crew.    They had a tough job.   There was a fair amount of set, and a a large amount of props, and oh yes, it snowed.   There was a lot to do durring the show.   The crew stepped up their game.   The worked together, and with very little leadership from the faculty.  The organized additional rehearsals of the scene changes.   The worked out better traffic patterns back stage.   AND if the show had run another 2 weeks, would have made the scene changes truly art.   I would have liked the changes to go smoother and quicker, but what I liked more was that several of my students stepped up and became leaders.    Students that I thought (or feared) were just in the production class to earn 3 units really cared about the show.   They promoted the show, they talked about the show, they took their work on the show very seriously.  And that, in many ways, is what college theatre ought to be about:  How much learning and growth happened within the students, regardless of what any reviewer says.

I’m also proud of the cast.   Janine, our wonderful director, took a large cast (19!) and made a town come to life.    Many of the cast were in their first college show, and had a lot to learn, bad habits to break, performance skills to master.   They did.   Some grew more than others, and maybe some had farther to go than others.   The most amazing thing I saw was the incredible growth I saw between the first run I watched, and final dress.  AND THEN, to my amazement, there was growth between final dress, and the final performance of the show, eight days later.

“Almost, Maine” is a production of which I am hugely proud.   It may be one of the most educational shows we have done since I have been at City College.   And this great work, is work that is hard for an audience to perceive.    Audiences see the finished product (and in this case, the finished product was pretty good), but they can’t (nor should they) see what went into it.   But in educational theatre, what went into is the most important thing.

Higher at American Conservatory Theatre

Last Saturday (Feb 11, 2012), I saw “Higher” by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Unlike the other shows of the season, this play was presented the Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center instead of A.C.T.’s main theatre. The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center is a charming 150 seat proscenium theatre. The only really unusual thing about the venue is this catwalk/ramp over the upstage portion of the stage. On Stage Right it is about 14′ or so above the ground, and across the stage goes up at an approximately 30 degree angle towards Stage Left.

“Higher” is a new play written by A.C.T.’s artistic director. “Higher” is a truly exciting new work. The play concerns itself with two architects (who happen to be dating) who, unbeknownst to the other, enter the same competition to design a memorial to group of people who died in a terrorist attack in Israel. Add to the mix, the Israeli son of one of the victims, and the American wife of another (these two are the co-chairs of the committee of judges for the contest), and the son of one of the architects and you have play that examines the sacrifices artists make for their work (and weather they need to), and a meditation on grief and remembrance.

Perloff’s plot is excellent, and mush of her structure is to be admired. I have three (very minor) quibbles with the play as it currently stands. First, I’m not sure the intermission is in exactly the right spot. The person I attended the performance with seemed to think it belonged one scene earlier. I almost think the play would be strongest without an intermission. Secondly, I feel that a scene is missing. An interesting dynamic is created between the two architects (Michael and Elena), and Michael’s son, Jacob… but the dynamic is never fully explained or explored. Jacob has scenes with his dad, and a scene with Elena, but at no point in the play do we see all three interact together. I would love a scene where the three have to walk the tightrope between polite conversation and the varying likes, dislikes, oppositions and allegiances between the three. My final wish for the script is an over all tightening. There are not scenes that need to be cut — but many of the scenes could have 30 to 90 seconds trimmed from them with no ill-effect, which would make the play fit nicer into a long one-act type of presentation.

The cast was excellent. Rene Augesen, and Andrew Polk as the architects (Elena Constantine, and Michael Friedman) had great chemistry and a great skills at both the comedy and the drama involved in the story. Ben Kahre and Alexander Crowther as the Architect’s Son and the Victim’s Son (respectively) were also wonderful and provided some of the most sensitive moments of the evening. Concette Tomei as the Victim’s Wife was the only person who didn’t seem perfectly cast. She was a fine performer, but I felt the actress’s natural good nature was coming through the “tough-as-nails” character and somewhat diminishing the power of the character. (That said, I have seen Tomei in other plays where she was fabulous, so I do not wish to blame her). Mark Ruker’s direction kept everything moving and believable. Rucker’s direction mixed with Perloff’s script mixed comedic moments with serious moments very skillfully. (The assault with the bagel being a perfect example of the blend of the two.)

To my (highly biased) mind the star of the show was Erik Flatmo’s set. So many of the key ideas of the play were expressed in that deceptively simple set. In the play, the two competing architects have radically different ideas of what the Memorial should be. Michael Freidman’s idea is a soaring glass tower, which is canted at the top, and has the names of the victims etched in such a way that they glow at sunset. Elena Constantine’s idea is a low building in the shape of a grieving praying man. These two ideas, and what they mean becomes the dramatic fodder seperating these two in the contest. Michael thinks architecture should impose its new order on its location, Elena thinks that arhictecture should integrate with its site. On stage, Flatmo uses the competing ideas to create a marvelous tension in the set. Tall steal and glass walls flank the set in an asymmetrical pattern. Between these walls is a graceful sloped wooden wall. The glass connects to Michael’s entry in the contest, the wooden wall, Elena’s. Remember that strange catwalk I mentioned in the theatre. To connect more with Elena’s theory of integrating with the site, the brown wooden wall is at the same angle as the catwalk above it, making a living example of the character’s theory. On this basic set, a few simple items were brought in to suggest every other location. The three offices in the play used the same desk (and in a brave move the desk wasn’t always in the same place even if it was to be the same office). Each office had its own 2 chairs. A bench in a hotel later became a foot board. The Bed was used for thee different hotel rooms. A marvelous simplicity! And in many ways, I loved that visible deck hands came and moved the set. I honestly think any slick automation would have hurt this production. The last thing I loved about the set was the small indent down stage containing “dirt” which allowed the director and actors to make real the feeling of burial and digging so central to the play’s plot.

Gabe Maxon’s lighting was subtle and beautiful. The play of light off of the set made the set (either the wooden wall or the glass towers) come alive. Much like the set, the lighting was kept simple, not drawing attention to itself, but never being less than all it needed to be. The same can be said for David F. Draper’s costumes. They told their part of the story without being intrusive. Will McCandless’ sound design was lovely within the play. I have become more and more disenchanted with “pre show” and “intermission” music. If it is not absolutely completely right it ends up being a distraction to the play rather than an aid. In this case, the music, while lovely, did not mesh well with the play I saw. All of the music during the play itself was wonderful, as were the subtle sound effects.

I recently received word that the play has been extended to Feb 25th, if you are in the San Francisco area, or can get their, I highly recommend it. And I eagerly await its next production. After any first production writers generally take what they have learned about the play and make small (or major) revisions. I would love to see what Perloff does with this play. It should have quite a life.

Why I don’t like props.

The set is (mostly) built.    Parts are painted.   Light plot done.  Color and templates are about to be ordered.   So now comes the props.

I don’t like props.  I have never liked props.   Props were always a frustrating afterthought.   Props are the things the actors hold in their hands during a play.   Closely related (and just about as disliked) is set dressing.  Set dressing is the stuff on stage that isn’t really set, that the actors could hold in their hands, but don’t.

My dislike of Props and Set Dressing are a big part of what I love about lighting design.  Lighting design also has lots of fidley detaily stuff– but it is fidely detaily stuff I actually like.

Finding props and set dressing is often a matter for driving from store to store to store (often thrift stores since most shows want stuff that looks used and budgets require stuff that is cheap).   You never know what you will find, and I’m always afraid to buy something in case I see better at the next place.

One never know what one will get, or what one will be able to find.   Often a designer (or director) has an image of the perfect “whatever” in mind and nothing else will do, even if the perfect “whatever” doesn’t exist.

I also dislike lots of props and set dressing because of what it does to many actors.   Lots of set dressing provides lots of visual interest in which it is easy to loose actors.   In film and television, where the director can control how much set is in shot at any moment, and what if any is in focus, can handle lots of set dressing.  In theatre, we have to work hard to make sure that what is there is either really important, or muted enough to not overpower the scene.   I’ve tinted 100s of books  blue for a show, so that they would fit in better with the overall scene and not over power it.    Books aren’t blue — certainly not a whole wall of them.   BUT the set designer had to have them because it was plot.  And they had to be blue, or else the audience would spend time looking at the books and not the actors.

Props cause many actors problems, but actors (and many directors) love props.  “I need business,” the actor says.  Business is the stuff actors do while saying lines:  setting the table,  winding their watch, packing a suitcase.   It certainly is true that humans very often multitask:  talk to someone while performing another activity, and it would be completely unrealistic if actors on stage didn’t do the same.   The problem the props cause the actors is that playwrights rarely work out how long it takes to set a table, pack a suitcase, or drink a beer.  In fact, the playwrights are usually (rightly) more concerned with the dialogue the actor’s are spitting out.   So props create the problem of “We need to drink 2 beers on stage per night in this 8 minute scene”   So the prop department makes fake beer, in cans as needed.  The poor actors now have to drink all that liquid (and run to the john as soon as they are off stage).

The truth is, there isn’t a solution.  Props are needed.   Actors have to work with them.  They are still a huge pain in my rump.  Some designers and artisans thrive on the prop and set dressing challenges.  I salute those folks.  They aren’t me.   To my mind, any play with more props than Our Town, has too many props.   And even Our Town might be able to be done with less.