From The Other Side

I have been silent for almost a year.   There are lots of reasons:  Being chair of the Theatre Arts and Dance Department, designing tough shows, dealing with a husband in Grad School, working on my book and more.   The real reason, I think has more to do with trying to figure out where I see myself in the future.  I spent a good chunk of the last year writing songs.   I spent time writing other things.  I spent time working for my family.   All important things.   I have come out of the year with a few decisions and revelations:

  1. I like being a designer (yes, this was in doubt)
  2. I like teaching students (this was never really in doubt)
  3. I want to do more academicy things (write articles, develop courses, maybe go get my PHD)
  4. I don’t like being even a quasi-administrator
  5. I want to write more theatre (plays and especially musicals)

I stepped down from being department chair (Point #4 taken care of, which gives me more time for #2).  I have just a few chair duties left.   I’m designing more (#1 being advanced), and I’m doing some more academic projects (#3).  I’m working on writing an original musical (#5 — as soon as I can figure out the complications on the second act I’ll be in great shape).

The real point of all of this intro is to talk about what changes I’m going to be making to my life to make #1 and #3 happen more.   I wanted to redesign my on-line portfolio, and I wanted to update the look of this site (and I wanted new business cards — but I’m not discussing that in this post).   To update the look and feel of the portfolio, I hired a web designer.   My old portfolio (still up, but out of date) was coded largely by me, with a bit of help from my husband who helped by creating CSS.   This was eight or nine years ago, which in web-years is a millennium or two.

I’m used to being the designer.  I’m used to working with the client (director, producer, etc.).  I’m not used to being the client.   From the start of this process it has been  a fight of two forces within me.   Force 1 is the “I’m a designer, I know what I want, I should be able to execute it.”  Force 2 is the “I don’t want to be that client (director, producer etc.) who tells me how to do everything even when that isn’t the best way or up to current standards or whatever.”    It is hard for me to relinquish control.

Once I found a designer I thought I wanted to work with, I did some research.  I looked at 30 or so theatrical designers’ websites.   I looked at big famous designers with Tony Awards.  I looked at designers who lit teeny tiny clubs in the middle of nowhere.   I took notes.  I examined trends.  I figured out what I liked and what I didn’t.   I wrote a memo.

You didn’t read that wrong.  I sat down and wrote a memo about what my goals and dreams were for the new design, and what my minimum requirements were for the new design.  I also included 4 or 5 designers’ web address with notes about what I liked and didn’t like.   Despite my fears of looking like the controlling-client-from-hell, I met with my web designer.   She took the time to look at the websites with me.  We talked about what I was looking for.  Then she went away and designed.

I know that design never happens fast enough for a director after we have had our concept meeting.  I also know that it takes time to design.   Not just to do the drawings/renderings (or in this case coding), but time to do the thinking, the experimenting — you know, the design.  I sat around on pins and needles waiting for my site to be created for me.

The great day came, and I looked at it.  I was thrilled.  I was overjoyed.  It was great.  Except for….   I had notes.   Some of the notes were major.  Some were minor.  Some were miscommunication.   I sent them.  And I waited.   Because I did not get a response is .023 nanoseconds I was sure I had offended my designer.  Darn it.  Luckily, she was not offended.  She made the changes.  They are wonderful.   We have a few tiny things to work out, and I have to start loading content.   (And content… And content… And content… And content.)

I’m planning for the website to go live on or about August 1, 2014.   I’m learning that I’d rather be a designer than a client.  And I’m hoping this keeps my writing, designing, and sharing my work with the world.

World Building

I have been trying to do more academic writing.   I’m struggling with it.   Mostly my problem is I like to write short, tight (1500 word) essays on ideas about theatre.  Heck, my blog posts are even shorter than that.  Over the summer I was working on an essay on a concept called Worldbuilding.   I was never able to get it to the length I really needed it to be.  I took about 500 words of it, and shoved it into the longer work I’m working on where it fit nicely.    I had all but abandoned the article, but I needed to reference it for some reason tonight.  I decided I like it too much not to share.  So here it is.


I should start with a confession:  My husband writes Science Fiction.   I don’t mean he writes stories as a hobby, I mean he writes them, and gets people to pay him money to publish them.   Part of the job being a science fiction author is to attend conventions to speak to readers and aspiring writers, and to make a name for oneself to hopefully sell more books.   He was heading to a “con” (as the insiders call the conventions) and was leaving right after I opened a show and in a block of time when I was actually going to be “off” for a weekend.  I decided to tag along.

I could write about lots of things that I saw, and that happened, but one single discussion caught my attention because it applied so much to theatrical design.  Juliette Wade and Deborah J. Ross led a discussion and reading about “Worldbuilding.”   Wade and Ross, aside from being prominent Sci-Fi authors, are experts in the concept of Worldbuilding — and they opened my eyes to a new way to discuss and analyze what theatrical designers do.

Worldbuilding is the art of telling the readers about the world in which the novel (short story, etc.) is going to take place.  Often this world is not our world — instead it is an alien planet with different life forms, or a fantasy version of earth with magic and wizards.   In essence, Worldbuilding is setting the scene of the written world.  Ross and Wade emphasized the art of showing the readers what the world is like not by merely describing it, but building scenes and moments that organically take the reader on the journey through a new and exciting world.

Suddenly in this presentation, I was led to think about the similarities and differences that theatrical designers face when compared with prose writers.   Worldbuilding seems to be a popular topic within the science fiction community, but any play (and I would suspect any book) must engage in a fair amount of Worldbuilding.   Wade shared a rule that she lives by:  If there is technology in a Science Fiction or Fantasy story, you have to tell the reader on the first page, preferably by the end of the second paragraph.   In fact, as Wade shared the opening of her forth-coming novel, she described “electric chandeliers” in the underground cavern/concert hall.  In her experience, if the level of technology isn’t clearly demonstrated up front, readers are shocked by its existence later in the story.  The reason for the shock is that readers take what information they have at the beginning of a story and begin, in their mind, to build the world of the story.   Once they have decided what level of technology is available, any deviation from that shocks them out of the story and forces them to rebuild.

Theatrical designers often have similar challenges.   Plays, and designs, need to set up the rules at the start.  Theatrical designers rely on the audience’s willingness to accept the conventions of the design, but consciously or not, good designers let the audience know what they are in for up front.   Extrapolating Wade’s advice-to-writers to the theatrical designer, we need to tell the audience what is up with our world in the first scene (or certainly by the end of the first scene change.)   Are we in the world of the unit set where every location in the play will happen in this one space with just small property changes, and major lighting changes?   Or are we in a world of ultimate reality?   Whatever world the audience is about to engage with, designers need to let them know up front.   If a production design begins realistically, then suddenly changes to extreme abstraction we will jolt the audience out of play because we broke the rules we established at the start.   Breaking the rules is something that should only be done with extreme deliberateness.

The biggest lesson I learned from Ross was to present the world incidentally through the action of the story.  I don’t want to imply that Ross was Worldbuilding by accident, far from it.   Instead she introduced readers to the complex concepts of an alien world as she was dealing with other writerly stuff such as plot and character.   While Wade’s reading demonstrated rich narrative passages that allowed the reader to see the world, Ross’s reading jumped straight in to the action, but carefully crafted that action and her telling of it to expose the world we were visiting.   Ross’s approach is also one that relates organically to the theatrical designer.    Theatrical designers do not get to give the audience a two minute guided tour of the design so that they can take in what it is and what it means.  Instead, the curtain goes up, the actors enter, and the play is off and running.   The audience has to pick up the world of the play while following the action.  Is this the sort of play where a Styrofoam cup and some string symbolizes a phone? If so, designers show that to the audience.   Whatever the world of the play is, it is important to show it through the action of the play.

Taking Ross and Wade’s ideas together is a major part of theatrical design.  The opening moments of a play — the opening actions must be very carefully conceived to build the world for the audience.   Prior to attending the panel on Worldbuilding, I had an intrinsic understanding that the rules of the play had to be presented up front, but not a clear comprehension as to why.  The rule was drilled into me by several design professors,and I had seen from the audience what happened when the someone  broke the rules, but not reasoning behind the rule.   But following Wade’s ideas must also be tempered by Ross’s diving-in approach.   Although novels have a luxury of time with their audience that theatre lacks, Ross’s approach tries to get the action moving without obvious descriptive sections.   In one sense the theatrical designer does not need the narration since the audience can see the visuals of the design.  But even with the visuals, designers must present what the world is through the actions of the actors.

Worldbuilding, as applied to theatre, is not merely for one designer.   Although my initial thoughts were about scenery, I suddenly remembered a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice that I lit.   In my thoughts of the play, the underworld had no sun (since there is no sun underground).   I attempted to light the scenes in the underworld with an ever changing mix of very low angeles of side light.   When, in key moments,  the sun could penetrate the earth’s surface to get down to this underworld, the light was in tight pools of golden light piercing through the jewel-colored textured lighting from the side.

Designers on every show build the world of the play.    The colors of that world, the rules of how it behaves, how it looks, how it reacts to the actions of the characters — all of this is the Worldbuilding.    Is it a world of blackouts, and corseted figures?  Is it a world of mechanized scenery and melodic sounds?  The designers are not even alone in Worldbuilding.  As most things in theatre are, the world of the play is also guided by the director.

Ross and Wade’s in-depth exploration of Worldbuilding at the conference and on their individual blogs, is not a new concept in either the world of literature or the world of theatrical design.  What these literary concepts and constructs create for designers is a new way to look at an old problem.  How do we tell our audience the rules of the world they are going to interact with for the next few hours?  How do designers collaborate to give the information to the audience in the most effective and efficient manner? And do the audiences care?

Wait, do the audiences care?   About Worldbuilding?  No.  Not as such.   But Worldbuilding is the work, the backstory, the result of the analysis.   Without it, the scenery is just a room, the lighting is just illumination, the sound is just noise, the costumes are just cloths.   With Worldbuilding the room, the illumination, the noise and the cloths transcend their individual natures to become a world — a theatrical design.

For more information:

Bay Con, where I heard this talk:

Deborah J Ross’s blog:

Juliette Wade’s blog:

An Epiphany of …..

My stress level has been growing over the past year.   In some ways, it came to a peak last night and that made me realize something.    Last night I was in tech for a dance version of “Wizard of Oz” featuring over 100 kids between the ages of four and 18.    I am the lighting designer and also calling the show.  Tech was stressful.  The theatre is a rental, and the budgets are (like in all arts) tight — the producer cannot afford overtime.   At one point we were 40 minutes behind schedule. For lots of reasons, I am less prepared on this show than I like to be (although in this case I am as prepared as I can be).  I worked through our first two breaks of the evening (which is not uncommon).   Durring the third break, i decided to get up from the tech table, hit the restroom and water fountain. Those important tasks completed, I returned to the tech table and saw I still had a few minutes left, and decided to check my messages.

The messages had nothing to do with the show I was working on, nor any other show I am working on.  In fact they had nothing to do with my work or art at all.   They did send my already high stress level through the roof.  I quickly realized what was happening, and in trying to de-stress myself from the messages so I could focus on the show, I just sent my stress level even higher.

Well, I made it through the night.  We actually got back on track and finished 5 minutes early.  On the way back to where I’m staying through the Los Angeles traffic I reflected on what happened, and how to make it not happen again.  I came to the following conclusions:

1) Lighting dance (especially with talented dancers and great choreographers) is one the the most joyous exciting things in my life.   Yes it can be stressful, but the rewards are so great it is worth it.

2) A large part of my stress seems to be coming from a lack of releases for my stress.

3) I constantly decide that my time to do art for arts sake, and my time to get physical exercise should be subjugated to other commitments (i.e. they are just for me, and therefore selfish and therefore unimportant).

4) I’ve never been good at saying “no” to requests.   I have gotten better.  I have learned to figure out when I just cannot do a show, and I try to help the producer that wants to hire me to find someone else.   For a long time, I did what ever was asked of me at work regardless of what it meant.  In the last year or so, I’ve gotten much better at saying “no” there as well.   I need to get better at saying “no” in other areas.

5) My “selfish” stress relievers are not selfish, they are actually important.

This whole process got be back to thinking about a time several years ago when I no longer wanted to attend theatre in my free time.   Somehow my involvement and love of theatre resulted in me avoiding going to the theatre.  I found a solution to that — I stopped going to the shows that I “really ought to see,” and started going to the shows I wanted to see.   I’m now going to the theatre more.  (In fact, now the biggest things keeping me away from the theatre I want to see is the 3 hour drive to San Fran or LA, and the cost — not my dislike of theatre).  I’m enjoying going to the theatre more now as well — even when I am attending for professional/work-related reasons.

I found a solution to that problem that made me a happier person and a better artist.  I need to find a solution to the current problem, and I think I can.

I’m very simply going to set goals, and find a way to track them.  The draft version of the goals are three fold:

1) Art for arts sake 5 times per week.   Writing articles for theatre publications counts. Working on my text book counts. Composing music counts.  Painting, other writing, photography, etc.  counts.    Designing shows I’m being paid to design: Does not count.   Painting/building a set/hanging lights/installing theatre gear (paid or not): Does not count.

2) Exercise 5 times a week.  Riding the bike around Woodward Park or to Central Fish, or around down town: Counts.   Riding the bike to/from work: Does Not Count.   Going to the Gym: Counts.    50 Sit ups and 50 push ups at home: counts.  Long walks with the dog: counts (i.e. not just around the neighborhood).  I think the minimum requirement is 30 minutes of exercise per attempt at exercise.

3) Eat healthier.  I’m not sure what that means.  Less cookies.  Less red meat.  More vegetables.  This combined with goal 2 will help me loose 20 pounds by Christmas or 4 inches off my waist measurement.

With these goals, some other things in my life are going to have to give.   One organization that I volunteer a good bit of time with is going to be told “no.”   When my husband and I are on different schedules, if that means exercising without him, then I have to do it.

SO What does all this have to do with theatre design? (Since this is a theatre design blog after all.)

Well, the answer in one simple sense is:  Dying from a stress related heart attack at age 40  is not good for my attempt to become a famous writer about theatre or famous designer.

In the broader sense, every job in the world has its own unique demands and stresses.  Much of the work of the artist has the stress of the job *plus* the stress of the next job.  (If one design sucks, you have a harder time getting the next design gig.)  Forcing myself to have less stress allows me to focus on those things that are most important to me: My shows, my teaching and my family.

Healthy people have less stress.   I would feel better about myself if I weighed 30lbs less and could fit into mediums again.   I am happier and have great feelings of accomplishment when I work on my art and my writing.

Being happy and excited about design makes makes my designs much better than when I’m angry and bitter about designing.  I need to make myself happy.

Darn you Carey Perloff,  I lost my bet

My husband and I had tickets to see “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard at A.C.T. in San Francisco directed by A.C.T.’s artistic director, Carey Perloff.   My husband doesn’t like the play, largely due to its length.   I saw the play in a production by Center Theatre Group while I was in college, and enjoyed it. (I also didn’t find it to be overly long.)  Prior to leaving, I endured taunts about dragging him to a four-hour long play, I responded that it was only two-and-a-half hours long.   Todays production clocked in at four hours and twenty minutes.   I had to eat crow before my husband.  So, I say again, “Darn you Carey Perloff!”

So what happened?   Well part-way through the second scene and actor left the stage and the curtain came down and the house lights came up.   After several minutes the usher came down and there was a technical problem, and to please remain in our seats.   A while later, an announcement was made that a cast member had been taken ill.   A while later we were told the show would resume in twenty minutes.  About an hour after the curtain was prematurely rung down, it went back up, with a new actor on stage.

At the end of my rant, I will specifically state details of my opinion of the production, which we both quite enjoyed.    What comes first is my issue with business as usual in theatre.   On professional contracts, understudies are not usually required to rehearse with the cast, and often do not start learning the show until opening night.   This is a cost saving rule negotiated by the producers.   Additionally, understudies very rarely get rehearsal with the rest of the company.  Instead the stage manager rehearses them separate from the cast on mornings when the stage managers are not otherwise engaged.  Lastly, understudies are not at the theatre once the curtain goes up.  (In fact, if my memory serves on the LORT contract, they are not even required to be at the theatre unless called.)  This is the way it is.   Today was a clear example of why it is a bad idea.

If the understudy was at the theatre, it should have taken no more than thirty minutes to get into costume and make up, and get on stage.    With an hour delay, it is clear our understudy had to get to the theatre before any getting ready could be done.

Our understudy, a very hardworking Robert Parsons did not know the show.   Inauspiciously, he had to call line several times in his first scene.  Thereafter, he carried pages of the script around with him looking when he needed to.   This did not completely eliminate the need of calling line but it dramatically reduced it.  Parsons also did not know his blocking.  Other cast members where giving him hints about where to go, but he still was out of his light for several key moments.

Prior to today, I said repeatedly that i have never been disappointed in an understudy’s performance.   That is still somewhat true, Parsons is a fine actor and with adequate rehearsal would have been outstanding.  I am disappointed in the realities of theatre.  At a professional theatre, I expect the show to go on.   I have seen understudies on tour, on Broadway, and in Los Angeles.  I’d have to look to see if this is totally true, but in my three years as a subscriber to Center Theatre Group, I never saw a show without an understudy appearing on the night we had tickets.  And in all of the cases before today, if I hadn’t known there was an understudy, I wouldn’t have known it was an understudy.   That was not what was experienced at A.C.T. today. Audiences deserve better than today.   The playwright deserves better than today.   I would say the director deserves better than today, but as artistic director of the theatre, as well as the director Perloff was at least partially responsible for these realities.   The union contract does not bar producers from adequately preparing understudies, it just gives producers the option to risk it.  My guess is that usually it is not a problem.   Today, A.C.T. earned a lot of ill-will from an audience.

An unprepared understudy going on hurts the production.   The pacing slowed down.   Ignoring the time we waited for the understudy to arrive at the theatre, get into costume, and the part of the scene they repeated, the play still ran longer than its two hour and forty five minute running time that the house staff informed us of as we had our tickets scanned.

The ushers informed us we could trade our tickets for another day.   I live 210 miles from the theatre, that was not an option for us.   The family in front of us had come from Sacramento to see the show using a bus or train.   They had allowed time for the show, a quick dinner and then back to catch their transportation home.  They asked an usher if they would make it.   He advised they try to skip dinner and try find a cab to meet their transportation.   They left during the curtain call.  I usually consider that an appallingly rude act ,but in this case I understood.   I hope they made it home tonight.

The play ran so long ,that the parking was far more expensive than the woman in front of us at the parking garage had budgeted.  She was shocked, and scrambled in her purse for more money.   Perloff was coming down the stairs in the parking structure as we were going up.   I am not sure what she was saying to her audience, but I doubt it was enough to get immediate forgiveness for what happened.   As pleased as the audience was with the show, and as loudly as they applauded for  Parsons, the audience was greatly annoyed at the extra hour-long intermission in the middle of the first act.

In one sense an actor taking ill is an unforeseen event, and in another sense it is not.  What is unforeseen is which actor will be taken ill and when.  That an actor will be taken ill during a run, is something that can be prepared for, that is why understudies exist.

What went a long way to redeem the whole debacle  for me today was that Perloff put together a damn fine show.  Douglas Schmidt’s set was clean, simple and beautiful.   Robert Wierzel’s tight beautiful lighting told the audience  at every moment when we were, which is especially important on Gus’s final entrance.   With the exception of the fact that the understudies costume did not seem to fit correctly, Alex Jaeger’s costume design was great, especially the period scenes.

Jack Cutmore-Scott had an understated lunacy about his performance of Septimus Hodge that could turn quickly to a heart-rending introspection.   Rebeckah Brockman as Thomasina expertly rode the line between innocent naïvety and ageless wisdom.    Nicholas Pelczar, Anthony Fusco and Nick Gabriel were fun, funny and passionate foils to Hodge’s plans.   Gretchen Egolf as Hannah was less “showy” than other actresses I’ve seen in the role, and her slow burning anger was a joy to watch.

Carey Perloff’s direction really seemed to find the fun, beauty and nuance in Stoppard’s script.  Her production was more understated than others I have seen, and refreshingly so. The period scenes sparkled like New Year’s Eve’s champaign, the modern scenes a deep undercurrents like a fine wine.  The final scene didn’t play up the pathos of death common in other productions I have seen, instead concentrating on the simple beauty of two people finding each other for a brief moment dancing.   My husband wondered if the audience remembered that Thomasina would die within an hour of the curtain falling at the end of the play.   I think they remember.   I think focussing on the death is siding with the neo-classists and the scientists who think that cold truth is the most important thing, instead of siding with the romantics who will take peace and beauty regardless of the cost.    This debate between my husband and I echos the debates had between the characters of the play, which means ultimately Perloff clearly, and cleverly, succeeded in bring Stoppard’s philosophical argument to this audience.

Now, if only it wasn’t four hours and twenty minutes long, start to finish.

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.

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.

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.


Monday is light hang day.  That means I have to see the entire play before I draw the plot (hopefully tomorrow).    The director hasn’t scheduled a run through until next week, so I’m spending this week (well Monday through Wednesday) in the rehearsal room.   Designers don’t usually see much rehearsal process.   I’m enjoying myself a lot.   This also happens to be the week they get to move in to the actual theatre  (I love that about college theatre, you get the space much earlier than in the pro world).

Watching the actors adjust to having some (but not all) the set pieces, and being in the real space is energizing.  They are so excited!     It is always my goal to do the best work I can for the the cast (after the performance I attended last Friday, I am utterly disgusted with audiences!), but being in a regular rehearsal with the cast makes this imperative even stronger.

Almost Maine is in many 11 small play-letts rather than a full play.   The scenic design has, I think, done a lot to unify them visually.   The upshot of this is that I am considering doing 11 light plots.   11 little tiny light plots.   And then trying to cram them all in one theatre.    In the end the realities of the number of dimmers, and the number of lighting instruments at my disposal will probably negate that idea — I’m already thinking that all the “exterior” scenes will have to share a light plot, leaving maybe the interiors each with a unique look.  But each scene is special.   I have radically different ideas for each one, and with the set, and the play as a whole, that might be ok.

I see the last three tonight, and then I have to figure out the lighting.

The disadvantage to seeing the show not all at once is that I can only have half formed ideas at the moment.  When I see the show all together, my brain very neatly breaks everything down.   At the moment, my mind is saying:  what if this, what if that, will that work here, or there, or ….   And its distracting.

That said, I’ve so enjoyed the experience of being in that sacred space: the rehearsal.  The cast, and management and direction teams have all been very welcoming of a stranger in their midst when the show isn’t ready yet.   Some scenes didn’t have the blocking fully completed.   The actors are still exploring moments.  And for many shows, I could put the light plot off one more week, wait until the run through and not have a problem.   The downside on this show is that some of the lighting requirements will take some time to arrive, and I won’t know what I need until I see the show, and every day of delay risks the equipment not arriving by tech.

So this week is dedicated to lighting…. I’m still getting the last 2 major set pieces constructed.   Then painting and decorating….  The prop list is getting under control.

This should be a beautiful show.

Perseverance wins the day

Well, since my last posting, I’ve been through 3 major revisions and a few minor ones…. and the set is, I think, looking pretty cool.  The first one worked, and I think could have been cool, but I think it might have been a bit avant guarde for the play Almost Maine.   The second was cool, but too expensive, and too heavy…. and ultimately a bit too restrictive .   The scene changes would have been awesome, but some of the sets would not have been.

Then I had my Mickey and Judy moment.  We were sitting in a production meeting where I was presenting the “hot off the printer” new design.   No one had scene it yet, not the director, not the TD, not my fellow designers.   And the director liked it.   The TD liked it, but had to burst my bubble — it was too heavy, too expencive etc.   BUT a set had to be had…. like today.

Cue the epic underscore music.   “What if…”  I said.  “What if…” the director said.   “What if…” the TD said.   I had done my research, I had analyzed the play.  I knew the show.   Ideas where flying around the room fast and furious.   This idea from this version of the set… that idea from that version…. “What if…”   I was sketching like mad.

And I came up with a set….. that we couldn’t build.   It didn’t quite fit in the theatre.  It was dreadful.  (This is the part they never show in the old Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn movies).   BUT….



The idea was good.  More than good, the idea was pretty great!

So all night I drafted.  I considered building materials. I sketched on every scrap of paper that was near me.  I narrowed all my research down to three images for inspiration.  I googled a few things to refresh my memory on just what they looked like.

I had a set.   It had one major thing bugging my, but I had a set.  It was good.  It worked.

I showed the set to the director. . . It was good, it worked.

Budget and weight, I didn’t need to show to the TD, because it was light, it was small it worked.

Just one thing…..   A decision based on the size of the material I want to build it out of.

NO problem, I call my suppliers.   I want a fabric, that is like scrim, but not so fragil…  And comes in at least 6′ wide.   I get a suggestions … at 8′ wide.  It’s in the budget.  One last redesign to take this fabric width into account.

We have a set!   WE have color thumbnails.  We have steel ordered and start building (well cleaning steel is the first step to building) today.

I have a set.   It was fairly easy to get here.   Something from the previous versions always survived.  I have two revisions to draft today (Make one wall shorter, make one platform higher)….. And then we’re done.

Well, not done.   We need to build, to paint, to decorate, to find props and to light….. but I know where I’m going.  And that’s an achievement.