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.

In Praise of Actors

In a blog supposedly dedicated to scenic design and lighting design, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time on actors.   Most theatrical designers and technicians have an assortment of disagreeable nicknames for performers:  meat puppets, light reflectors, moving mannequins etc. but without the actors, there would be little reason for designers to exist.  Additionally, I like (most) actors.   And sometimes there are really special actors.

There are actors who are skilled at comedy, and those skilled at drama.  Some actors make any costume they are given look fabulous.    There are those who can sing, and dance, and sword fight.   Some can effortlessly project.   Some can capture the audiences attention with the smallest of gestures.   Some can speak with different accents.    And all of these skills are needed by the various productions so the the director can blend the skills of the cast, with those of the designers, and the technicians.

The theory on any show is that the director, and the designers, and the actors, and the technicians are all working toward a single unified vision.   Everyone says they do it, but usually the actors act, and directors direct, and designers design, and technicians tech — but there seems to be a firm division of labor.  Actors Act, while inhabiting the designs of the designers, and doing the movements prescribed by the director — and everything seems unified.

Sometimes though you run into a performer who molds with his costume, who connects viscerally with the set, who makes the lighting do his bidding, whose blocking looks completely natural, who seems to intuitively understand the all the technical aspects of  a production, and makes them work to his advantage.   I want to tell a tale of two college actors who did it.

Both actors played the role of the Amanuensis in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion.   Both actors seem as if they have a definitive interpretation of the role(s).   Both actors have a series of challenging cues to coordinate with the design, technical and stage management staff.  And both have studied the design around them to make it seem as if they control the small subtle shifts in design and space.

The first actor was Robert Baker.   Robert performed in the show at USC around a decade ago.   Robert managed to always find a mark on a pitch dark stage so that a single light cut to just the size of his face would light him.  He learned to feel when the “flames” would extinguish so that he could snuff them out with his magic.   After he left U.S.C., he went on the great success in Grey’s Anatomy on TV, and Leatherheads in the movies.

The second actor was Ben McNamara.   Ben will open in the show on Friday night at Fresno City College.   Tonight, durring the second dress, I saw many tiny movements which made it seem as if he controlled the lights.   In one of the magical transitions, his body seemed to move in sync with the lighting and sound effects.  It seemed as if the stole the magic I brought to the moment.   I look forward to finding out what great success he goes on to.

Of course these to actors are not the only ones I have encountered with this skill, but I find it a curious coincidence that I found them both in the same play, in the same role.  Perhaps it is something about the role, but I don’t think so.   The actors are of rather different types, one broad, one lean, one fair haired, one dark.   They approach the character differently, but they both search for the magic.

I don’t know what the term for this skill is.  I don’t know where, when or even if it is taught.  But I admire it.  I know that the audience will credit much of the work of the designers and the directors to actors with this talent, and I’m fine with that.   I suppose the skill does not come in useful in every show — I don’t think it would be advantageous in plays like Mamet’s Oleana, but when a show requires the skill, these actors elevate the whole performance to the next level with their craft.

As much as I enjoy designing, it requires the actors to tell the playwrights story to give my work meaning.   So I want to say thank you to those actors I have been fortunate enough to work with.   And to those who take it all in and make it their own, I will enjoy designing for you that much more.

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.

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.


In my life in the theatre, I have had a few chances to revisit shows I had done before.   Sometimes in the same capacity, sometimes in a different capacity.   I was the lighting designer on Oleana three times, I’ve also worked on Laramie Project three times (once each on Sets, Lights, and Sound); Pippin (actor, master electrician) and several others.  I’ve been asked to design Twelfth Night three times , created three very different designs to go with the directors vision (and none of them were produced).  By the third time I lit Oleana, I was miserable and sick of the show.   Most other shows I’ve revisited, I have revisited in completely different circumstances.   Repeating a show has rarely excited me.

All of that changed recently.   One of the shows I lit in grad school was The Illusion (Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the Corneille classic), and the school I’m teaching at has decided to stage it.   The Illusion was the first I felt like I was lighting “my way” and not mimicking my teachers (and it got the attention of many of the faculty).  The design wasn’t perfect, but it profoundly changed me.   This time around, I am designing both the scenery and the lighting.

When revisiting a show, there is a great temptation to copy what was done before (especially if it was a success).   Knowing this temptation, I worked very hard to create a different set.  Of course there are certain things that will remain similar (it is after all the same play).      The Illusion is set inside of a wizard’s cave.  Our original designer created a cave out of window screen that was beautiful and it took light well.    I also designed a set that was a cave.  The director stopped by my scene shop as I was experimenting with different  types of construction techniques for the  cave texture, she saw a scrap of untreated window screen, and said “that grey one… I think that’s the best.”    I feel slightly guilty stealing the construction technique, but as was pointed out to me, my original designer didn’t invent the technique either.

The other biggest challenge I’m finding is that I’m solving my last production’s problems.   Before anyone involved with the last production says “WHAT PROBLEMS, IT WAS FABULOUS”  Yes it was, but every show has challenges, things that didn’t work as well as those involved with the show had wished.  A few minor points that I “fixed” totally cramped the directors style (and she quite rightly didn’t follow my suggestions.)  Instead this production has its own challenges.

I think part of the reason I’m so excited about this production is that I am once again blessed with great collaborators.  The first time around I thought I had the perfect director, fellow designers, stage manager etc.  This time I have a very different team with very different visions of the show, and they are just as fabulous.

I’m working very hard to keep approaching the show freshly.  I feared it would be so difficult to be fresh, but it hasn’t been.  Finding new visions of a play I enjoyed, is like catching up with an old friend again.   Our past association makes me feel comfortable, but like a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, there is so much catching up to do.  I’m not the same artist who did The Illusion the last time, and The Illusion has changed too.   I find different meaning its pages.  I no longer fancy myself as the heroic young lover,  I now feel much more like the wizard, the cunning old fake who knows how to please his audience.

I hope I have succeeded.

The Levels of Lighting

I teach at a community college.  This semester I teach the rather grandly titled: Introduction to Stage Lighting.   Community college is only the first two years of post-high school education, and at the end of the class, the goal is not to have a whole bunch of little Theron Mussers and Kenneth Posners running around Fresno.  We do light plots (2 of them), we cue, we analyze, we think, we talk — but it is merely a first step on the road to becoming a designer.

Grading “art” is always a challenge (and maybe sometime I’ll write on my methodology), but before going into the class this semester (and this is the last time I’ll teach this version, next year it will be replaced by the state “C-ID” version — which doesn’t change much, but a bit), I want to think about what the steps are from barely acceptable lighting design to  “Oh, wow, you are good.”

1. Visibility:  The base line minimal acceptable level for something to go from a bunch of lights in the air to a design is visibility.   This means even lighting on the face and hands that allows the audience to see and hear the play.  (As one studies light one learns that when the director complains he can’t hear — if you turn up the lights, you may fix the problem — unless the cast mumbles)

2. Sculpture:  The next level of lighting highlights the three-dimensional form.   Classically, this is the warm and cool front light of the McCandles system, but may be achieved in many other ways.   If we only have visibility, it is a lecture hall or sporting match, when we move to this step we start to reveal art.

3. Selective Visibility:  At this step I feel like we move to actually theatrical lighting.   The ability to see what everything is (brought about by our first two steps), is heightened when we begin to take away light where we don’t want it.    Oddly enough, at this level of skill, things may actually be darker than they were at step one.  Imagine a shadowy room where an unknown-to-the-audience murder is about to kill our leading lady, with selective visibility we can see the dark shape but not who it is.

**(And once we get to this point, I feel that students have achieved “C” level lighting design for an introduction class — Note to students reading this, I grade projects on much more than just your design skills, so design alone won’t earn you a “C” in the class)**

4. Sense of Place: The light inside a cubical farm is very different than the light just after sun rise on the beach.   Visually re-enforcing the play as to location is the next step to great design.  In rudimentary design, this is often expressed as the addition of a window or tree pattern,  but in more advanced design is expressed through color choice, angle, and intensity (as well as patterns).  This step also includes lighting (or not lighting) the set as appropriate.

5. Focus:  The lighting designer in theatre is much like the editor in film  The editor chooses the shots that force the audience to look at the important bits of the story.  So does the lighting designer.  It may be subtle compositional tricks that bring the audiences eye to the right place, it may be hard edged obnoxious follow spots, but either way the audience needs be aided in knowing where to look at any one moment.

6. A sense of time or change:  Most environments are not static over the course of a play, or even a scene. Even the cubical farms lighting changes as people come and go, turn on and off computers, adjust task lighting etc.   As designers conceive the lighting, they must understand and provide for the natural changes in light.  These might be earth shatteringly obvious, or profoundly subtle.

**(And in my class, this is where I hope the “A” students will get.)**

7. An overall style:  Too many designers seem to start with the feel or atmosphere of the show, and then try to do everything else, but really that overall style is a high level.   Even as a show’s plot moves through many times, and locations — bright and dark, interior and exterior, etc. the design itself needs to have a unifying feel to it.

8. Storytelling:  Beyond just telling the audience where and when we are, lighting designers (like all the other designers, director, and actors) are charged with helping tell the playwright’s story to the audience.  When I’m working on a play, I try to run through all the cues, in order without any actors on stage.   While doing this, I should be able to see the emotional journey of the play expressed in the lighting.

9. Commenting on the play:   I dread even mentioning this as too many designers think this is their moment to mock the play they are doing.   The term “commenting” is one from my time in school, but it is not the designer expressing his or her opinion.   Instead, commenting is about punching up the greater themes in the play.  This step involves tweaking the lighting that is right for the moment, so that the audience can be made aware of where the story is coming from or where the story is going.  This is where a designer might try to light two moments in a similar manner to emphasize the emotional relationship between the two.   This might also involve mimicking a famous piece of art, or moment from a film to make the audience consider the similarities (or differences) between the two.

10. Breaking the rules:  Selective visibility often breaks the rule of visibility.  Storytelling and commenting may break many of the rules about time and place.  The great designers break the rules as they work to achieve the most clear communication to the audience about the production’s understanding of the play.  Sometimes this means an un-unified style, sometimes this means general rather than specific focus… regardless of what it means it comes from a clear understanding of the script, the analysis, the director’s goals, and the audience’s expectations.  It is always risky, but truly great design cannot be great without it.  (And yes, I think that sometimes sticking to the rules is the most radical thing that can be done — if it supports the show).



Blast from the Past: Words to the Actor

This blog post is from 2009-July-07.  However, what it is about is from 2001, or so.  I had found a scrap of paper with some advice to the actor on it.  These notes are probably from Sabin Epstein.  If so, they are certainly guidance to actors in Tony Kushner’s “Illusion.”  Are there exceptions to these rules?  Of course.  (Honestly can one think of a good rule that doesn’t have some sort of exception some where?  Don’t answer that)   Anyway, I find these to be good for actors and designers of theatre, and probably directors too!

Advice to Actors
I was cleaning out some old theatre records and found a set of notes partially typed from the director, and partially notes I took (I’m sure from the directors speech). Anyway, as I thought the notes were particularly inspiring to those who work in theatre, so I’m reproducing them. I suspect (from other notes I’m not including here) that the director was Sabin Epstein

Typed Notes:
When Speaking on Stage:
1. Stress not the negative. “No” and “not” are almost never operative. The operative word is instead, the word that is being negated. “Go not till you hear from me.” “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.”

2. Verbs of being are never operative. The operative words are the words that explain the kind of quality of being. “I am happy.” “He is my brother.”

3. Avoid stressing pronouns whenever it is possible to do so (“he” “she” “it” etc.). Whenever there is any alternative that makes sense use it. This includes possessive (“His” “Her” etc.)

4. Possessive nouns are never less important than the word the possess (“My father’s house.”)

5. Articles (“a” “an” and “the”) prepositions (“to” “from” “on” “in” etc.) and conjunctions (“and “but” and “or”) are never operative. They contain no images, but serve to show the relationships between images. Find the words with the images.

6. Adjectives and adverbs are treated as part of the noun or the verb they modify. The key operative word is the noun or verb, with the adjective or adverb incorporated in the images as a modifier.

7. An image that is repeated is not operative. What is operative is any new quality that is added in the repetition. This is called repetitive contrast. Stress the new information.

My hand written notes

Follow the text. Every choice made on the production must be based on the text.

Focus on nouns and action verbs.

Find the action

What is reality? What is illusion? That is the nature of the question of theatre.

Love is often both the sickness and the cure.

Pain is always more interesting anger.

Inspiration Spots

One of my pet peeves from student designers is “I didn’t do my assignment because I wasn’t inspired, and you have to be inspired to design.”

I remind them that if they want to make this their profession they either have to be able to design when not inspired, or inspire themselves.  (The muse only really comes to those who hunt her down and capture her themselves).  That said, I do not poo-poo the value of inspiration.  One of the things I have discovered in my life is that, in this world there are inspirational places.   Places where you sit down, and the karma, or feng-shui or whatever magically align all your creative juices.

There was a particular tree I used to sit under during my undergrad years, and under that tree for the first time Shakespeare made sense and for the first time I could sketch design ideas for hours. (They still looked like random squiggles, but they were very meaningful squiggles to me).  By the time I got to grad school I could usually inspire myself without external aids.  (If you read the previous “Blast from the Past” the fear of Ritchie was very inspirational.)

Since my dearest husband completed his design for the back yard, I have found a spot out there that inspires me.   Oddly enough, it currently only seems to work from about sunset until eight or so in the morning.  After that the Fresno heat saps the inspiring characteristics from the spot.

I began to wonder what this, and that marvelous tree in front of the library at USC have in common.  They are outside.  They both have a bit of a breeze.  And although both near high traffic areas, provide one with a sense of solitude.  This feeling eases my emotions.  For me, once my emotions are level, and I am calm, the ideas flow freely.

Will this location work for everyone … or even anyone else?  Probably not. I know designers who have to be stressed out for the muse to awaken.   I know designers who can’t work unless they have a #2 American Naturals pencil in their hand.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  If you are a creative person, you need to find that moment, location, smell. and/or action that frees your mind from everything else and focuses it on the work.  If a designer was successful at acting class (I wasn’t) and mastered emotional recall (I could barely comprehend it, much less do it), so much the better — you have your creative spot with you where ever you go.  If you are like me and don’t have the ability to conjure it anywhere, study it, learn about it, figure out what the key ingredients are.   Then when you need it, you can find it — or a pretty good substitue, and once you have that, you can be inspired when ever you need to.