Tuesday, May 8, 2012



I've been thinking about how different designers are in the theater, compared to other people involved - notably the director. No big revelation - we frequently refer to the difference in perspective. But it's another dimension of recognition for me.

First, I've been an actor and director in other lives - before I became a designer. So it's not like I don't get it, the act of directing is very social. The act of designing typically is not - at least for me.

The difference became evident at the retirement tribute for a long-term (40-year) faculty member who directed at least one production a year in the program, and sometimes another off campus. There were many, many testimonials by former students about his guidance and friendship, arising out of the very social nature of the production experience. To be fair, he also had some experience as a gaffer and a little lighting design, but his overwhelming relationships were forged in the process of directing productions. In the academic environment, those relationships also extend to other classes.

I was thinking about what was important to those students. For them the relationship was forged in the collective, informal give and take of the rehearsals, when the director must engage the actor, teasing out the best expression and forging a collective dynamic in an ensemble. With young actors, this engagement is very personal. The engagement is with the personality and psychology of the actor.

In the production experience, my mind is really elsewhere and my connections are less engaged with the actors - or even the technicians. I'm thinking about the mechanics of the stage, certainly, but really about line and mass and color and light and sound. About period and style, context and meaning, nuance and things that will make differences nobody will notice. Along with the director I also think about facilitating the movement of the play and the life of the moment - the impact and experience of the moment.

For technical directors there is the team engagement of the production crew. It is an important collective activity at the beginning level, and there is great pride in achieving Herculean feats of production. But it is intended to be out of sight, known only to those involved, and actually prized for not being evident. The engagement isn't at the same interpersonal level as the director and the actor. It's about shaping the work, doing the job well, and making it happen on time.

At least this is true in the educational environment. In professional work, directors can be more demanding of actors. Actors know how to go about the creative process of the role, and they know the shorthand of directing. Give them goals and they know how to get there. The director can focus on getting the metaphor just right - the expression and timing of it all. Designers and technical directors assign tasks to trained technicians who focus on doing the job.

But the love affair of former students with my colleague was genuine. He had done things that shaped their lives in a good way. That is something to be applauded.

8 May 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Animal Crackers

The end of the academic year is just over the next hill, and those of us who teach are steeling ourselves for the final push.


I had several paragraphs of whining here, which I have deleted. How can I whine about the greatest job in the world!

It is opening night for our final production of the year, and this year it is The Glass Menagerie. It is an unusual choice for a major production in a program such as ours, because there are only four characters. Of course, everybody knows Tennessee Williams' somewhat autobiographical piece. It is heavily taught in classrooms because it has such relevance to personal development and frustration with family constraints and values. There is a huge amount of critical material and curriculum guidance for this piece available online.

Our production is really unusual in an attempt to realize Williams' stated intentions in a technical way. In our production the interior of the apartment is completely behind a white scrim, for which we had to install a separate truss proscenium frame. Text and images are superimposed upon the action in the apartment. Current lighting and projection technology makes it possible to do what it seems Williams had envisioned in writing the work. The action in the apartment appears clear but slightly hazy and distant, as if in memory or a dream, as Tom states. The original production abandoned the scrim and much of the projection because the technology wasn't up to the aesthetic in the 1940s.

For us this means a great deal of light control. There is hallation off the lighting instruments above and behind the scrim that casts a slight haze on it. Even the bright aisle lights are a problem. And there is a really tricky lighting problem in a candelabra scene. How do you light people behind the candelabra and cast their large shadows on the walls, without lighting the candelabra itself and casting its shadow? Our lighting designer did achieve it well.

In addition there are narration scenes on a fire escape outside the apartment, and access to the fire escape is from below, from our orchestra pit. Add the need for powerful equipment for bold enough projection and wireless mics for actors behind the scrim to be heard well in a large hall. It's easy to understand why most productions of this play are more simply realized.


Back to whining.

We always end the year with a major theater production such as this, which means the student work to be graded piles up while I focus on making the show happen well. Sadly, most feedback to the student at this point is moot - it won't be read because it has no future utility - except to argue a poor grade.

Meanwhile, the appeal of large blocks of potentially free time are a magnet for meetings and work groups.

There is little wonder we see commencement come around with mixed feelings.

20 April 2012

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Student Work and Tutorials

On this last day of spring break I'm gathering my resources to return to classes. It's been a busy quarter and I've had less time to post.

Our student-mounted productions transpired well. Lysistrata, Aristophanes' 5th Century BC anti-war comedy, played well. The play is still outrageous with prosthetic phalluses, costume jokes and bawdy gags that predated all Christian modesty. The show alternated with the musical A New Brain, very well sung and played. Each had its accommodations to the small 28'w x 18'd thrust playing space, but they worked, playing in rotating rep for three performances each.

Lysistrata was directed by a graduate student who had not directed before, but she pulled it together and learned a great deal. A busy area director was brought in for New Brain, which is all sung and was heavily rehearsed by the music director. It was good to see new student faces in these shows. A member of the shop staff designed the Acropolis facade for Lysistrata. I put a curtain in front of it for New Brain and the director provided projections.

We move now into Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. A full-auditorium production, although we are limiting seating to the center section. The director is doing the play through a scrim, which means viewing angle is important. I found in researching the design that there is a tremendous amount of material about the play online, probably because it is a standard on many high school reading lists - right up there with Hamlet and MacBeth. I'm sure one analysis I read far exceeds the length of the play. We'll give the show a first-rate production, since with only 4 characters there can be such focus on acting (not that the 20 other acting majors are happy about that cast size). With a couple daytime performances and lots of school tickets, we can afford to pull out the stops.

I spent my break updating tutorials and templates. I have developed them for things that my students need to engage and learn -- most requiring some sophistication with technology. There isn't enrollment or class time routinely to teach them well, but my production students require this background. These include templates for formatting a stage manager's production script, for an Excel lighting hookup and for Vectorworks CAD drawings in our theater, tutorials for common graphics applications and mechanical perspective drawing, and process manuals for stage management and designing lighting. [Find these at http://www.dirksdesigns.com/ddc/ald/tuts/index.html They are all my own copyright, but some rely upon the contributions of others. They are free to use, but please give credit.]

As happens, some of my former students, many who intended only to be actors, have found their way into positions where they need to return to these materials.

When you teach in a largely liberal arts based program, you understand two things (at least): 1) There are so many legitimate program requirements there is little room for both exploration and concentration. 2) Almost everybody is an actor until they learn their opportunities, affinities and limitations. By the time they comprehend them they have missed the chance to develop with depth as a designer and/or technician at the university. Often they find their way later into production work, often in the schools, and too often make it up as they go.

In New England there also is a lot of community theater, much parent-supported high school theater, and numerous people involved who "took a course in college." There also are English (and math) teachers pressed into guiding productions for competition who never had a production course. Beyond that, some former students discover after they leave us that they prefer the opportunities for creative contribution in production work, and they want information and guidance they missed or need to review.

There are books, but they're usually too general, and who goes there any more? I post my materials for all these folks.

11 March 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

Finding the Edge

I have the annual pleasure to work with my theater design and production students at the American College Theater Festival for our region. The ACTF is a 4-day festival of theater work in college and university theater programs held at a university in each of 8 regions. We're fortunate to have a geographically small region in New England, though I sometimes wonder what we trade for such travel convenience. We took a dozen students, supported by institutional grants.

My acting and directing colleagues spent a lot of time watching and coaching performers through their acting competitions while I spent a day in the room of design displays. I listen to critiques of student work - particularly my own students - but otherwise I hang out, talking about the displays and the work with other faculty, while balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a doughnut in the other. It's my time to assess what we're teaching and what my students are achieving in relation to other programs.

My students did well enough for their experience and I hope they will be energized for more opportunities in the design and technical crafts, stage management and other production activities. There was excellent work on the tables and it is such a help for our students to see the character of the programs and the work of other schools. We'll hope for a bit more engagement, a bit more energy toward making their own educations competitive. My design and tech students often come home more focused and energized.

I'm both proud and a little embarrassed to say I was around in the early days of the ACTF, back in the 1970s. In that more precarious time I once slept in my car to attend. I have participated almost annually since, sometimes with a participating production.

The learning at the festival is important. In Kansas and Nebraska things like theater - the academic and serious kind - were a good deal further apart than in more urban parts of the country. A few places, like my University of Kansas and the University of Iowa were consolidating the avant-garde and new scholarship on performance. They participated actively in the national conversation that grew with the work of the National Endowment. But unless you lived right there, it was a long drive. That annual ACTF gathering of theater faculty, students, and guest artists was critical in knitting together the study of the practice of a highly fragmented art form. Typical academic conferences are about anything but practice.

The art of it all is critical, but commercial theater design organizations have a strong orientation toward technology, and that is a continually moving target. They use anything that will make them competitive. They increasingly meld the work of related art forms and incorporate every cost-efficient practice they can. Designers, technicians, and managers are moving among many modes of live and recorded entertainment, all with their own special conditions. The practice of one influences the practice and the artistic perspective of others as artists and technicians move among the modes.

Hand-drawn work documents once had a focus on energy, art, clarity, and acceptable accuracy. Clarity, accuracy, speed and distribution have won out over expressiveness in production communication - it mostly exists in my sketchbooks and quick diagrams. The technology allows greater precision, greater detail, more repetition, more distribution and more capacity for collaboration. I still move a pencil on a page to shape ideas, but it all moves quickly to the computer. Younger designers may make that move earlier than I do. I still decorate my doodles.

The festival work I've seen in the last decade or so seems much less adventurous than it once did. There are times of change - pregnant events, evolving aesthetics and reactions to reactions. This is not that time. We seem to feel we have a handle on it.

After years of edginess, there may be a sense of "that's been done." Today's edges seem calculated and stylish. For our students in today's culture there is great pressure to earn, and that narrows the conversation. Commercial competence and versatility is required. If that's a trend it's a sure sign that the edge has moved on.

I'm always looking for the edge. Of what, I'm not really sure. It's out there, everywhere. Wayne Gretzky had the right idea. I'll just keep trying to skate to where the puck is going to be.

03 Feb 2012