On Set Design and Stuff

Being a writer, director, and producer of theatrical performances, but yet not coming from a background of formal training, has given me an uneasy relationship with set production design. I do it by default, since there’s really not anyone else at this point to think through and make the design decisions about our production. Luckily, the actual artwork isn’t done by me – if that would be the case, all of my productions would be nothing but black-box theatre.

Here’s a sneak peak at part of the production set design for our show next month.

2015-04-22 15.29.42This awesome backdrop painted on thin plywood were skillfully done by one our of talented art classes.  This is a town scene form 1903. It is difficult to tell from this picture how big these are. They are six feet tall and in the picture sitting on some drama cubes for our photoshoot we did yesterday.

Realism and perspective are important in set design, but how much realism is needed to get the point across? These pieces will be in the background, flanked on either side by some additional black walls to help create depth and perspective. The action will be taking place quite a ways in from of this backdrop, but we are hoping that this will create a pleasing look to back the actors. Of course, we’ll never know for sure until we bump-in to the theatre.

I remember my first dramatic production when I wanted so much realism that the set changes took 5 minutes between scenes. It was ridiculous, and I’ve learned a lot since then.

Sleek, adaptable designs are certainly the way to go. This particular backdrop above will be easily attached and removed from a large wooden structure with a staircase on each side and a walkway above. Actually, we will have angels literally walking above the roofs of those houses. But those houses can be easily removed making the structure usable as a hotel and saloon scene as well. (I’ll need to get some more photos of that once finished.)

Here’s how I now insist on set designs for my production:

1) All pieces must be adaptable to other scenes.

2) Pieces which aren’t adaptable need to be able to be removed within seconds.

3) Scene changes (in most all cases) can occur when other action is taking place somewhere else – either on the side of stage or elsewhere. This ensures proper flow and minimal transition.

4) If a scene can be just as good without a prop of design piece which is a hassle, then don’t use it. Keep everything as simple as possible.

5) But don’t skimp on the essentials!

Lots more coming up about the production of my new show!




When realism made everything unrealistic.

When does trying to be real backfire and become realistic?

I guess this is the journey I’ve been on in the theatre these past seven years. I started out as a director trying to make everything on stage seem as realistic as possible. I remember the first play I wrote, we figured out how to make a mad-scientist labratory for one scene, complete with a shelf with all kinds of stuff on it, to a house and office in the next scenes. The backbreaking work between the scenes was ridiculous and we made the audience have to wait between set changes. But hey, it was realistic.

The next year, I decided to paint backdrops to bring realism into the set, so for the scene with a farmer, we had an elaborately drawn backdrop with a meadow and trees and etc… we tried to be real and we ended up looking rather ridiculous. I’m pretty sure everyone could tell that it was not an actual meadow.

Slowly and surely I began to understand that it is much less about the set and backdrop and much more about the script and actors. Seems obvious, I know, but I’m a slow learner. I’ve really learned this with my drama group The RLT Players. We started performing dramatic sketches three years ago with no or minimal props. I never knew a wooden box for be so many things. And you know what, it works because the audience buys into the realism of the actor’s performance. It’s theatre, after all. It’s not the movies.

And this is one thing I’ve learned to love about the theatre. On stage, you can be standing on a black piece of wood, but you can convince the audience that you are flying through the air, or being attacked by a dragon, or being over-run by an angry mob. In theatre, less really is more.

Of course there are the multi-million dollar productions which can up the ante on realism and dazzle with special effects. But for me, I’ve come to enjoy the simplicity of an empty stage and a talented actor. It allows the audience’s imagination take over and whisk people on journeys they never thought possible.

That is the magic of live theatre.

Everything doesn’t have to be real in order to have realism.

Stage Painting: Day 2 (4 days till showtime!)

After backbreaking painting the day before, we (and I still mean all the real artists who know what they are doing) finished our stage for Boardwalk Melody: An Original Musical. Here’s what we did:

This is where we finished the day before. A light brown paint over the boardwalk.2014-05-19 11.01.20 Then came texture on the boards. (and a really cool starfish)2014-05-19 13.37.04 Working hard to finish.2014-05-19 13.37.29 Starting the final outlining.2014-05-19 14.51.13 And then – the finished product!2014-05-19 16.51.09 From the seating.2014-05-19 16.51.48I’m very excited to get this going. Set goes up on Wed evening, two dress rehearsals on Thursday, and then the show opens Friday night.

Can’t wait!

boardwalk melody flyer 1



Stage Painting: Day 1

Well, I got a crazy idea (and now my back is scolding me for it). Let’s paint the stage for our new show “Boardwalk Melody.” After all, it needs to have a boardwalk, right?

So today we started painting and designing it. Now I must say, I take no artistic credit for anything we are doing. I have a wonderful artist who knows what she is doing. I just follow orders. Here’s what the procedure looked like so far.

The taping is started. That’s my roller there.
2014-05-18 11.00.03 Taking better shape. Isn’t my painting job amazing?2014-05-18 11.51.51Sandy color up front finished. Just put a coat of primer over the boardwalk area.
2014-05-18 14.55.49 Now we get to peel off the tape. It looks fun, but it is tedious because the cheap stuff kept breaking. 2014-05-18 15.43.40The boardwalk taking shape. At least my toe thinks so.
2014-05-18 15.51.59 Those people actually know what they are doing.2014-05-18 16.01.14 Almost done for the day. 2014-05-18 16.06.46We finished by putting a light brown coat over the boardwalk.

Tomorrow we come back with a group of young artists to put the texture and finishing touches on it.

I’ll post the finished product later.

Show opens on Friday @ Penang Performing Arts Centre.

boardwalk melody flyer 1


Ever Try a Readers’ Theatre?

I have now been part of two Readers’ Theatre Productions.

What’s a Readers’ Theatre? It is as it sounds. The actors have scripts in their hands and read the play aloud, using vocal inflections and limited movement to replicate the emotion of a dramatic production.

Or at least that’s how most Readers’ Theatres are described. Not ours. Last year we did “Pillow Talk” and this year “Arsenic & Old Lace”. But our production is not a bunch of stuffy people reading in front of microphones.

We like to go all out. Here’s a picture of our really cool set. We had the audience on two sides. You’ll notice the chairs in the background are actually on the actual stage, which we didn’t use. We set up the stage in the middle of our facility to make a close, intimate production.

2014-03-26 21.00.19

We use costumes and props and the whole works. Whatever a normal dramatic production has, we have it also. The only part that is different is that my actors haven’t memorized their lines. They read them with script in hand.

Why would we do a Readers’ Theatre instead of a regular production? Most of my actors in this show had never acted before. Plus, there wasn’t sufficient time to memorize. And when that is the case, a readers’ theatre is an excellent alternative.

Actually, this entire show was student directed and produced. I was only the executive producer, receiving the fat pay check but doing all of the work. (BTW, the paycheck was me making chocolate cake and bringing it for the after party.

So in our show, the actors do everything they possibly can to fulfill the desires of the playwright – and they do it all with a script in their hands.

You might wonder if the audience is distracted by the script.

Actually, no. Once the story starts flowing, the script becomes just another prop. It fades into the background and is no longer noticed.

A readers’ theatre is an excellent alternative to a traditional theatrical performance. I recommend you give it a try. Last nights audience would concur. We filled all 145 of our seats and a good time was had by all.


Boardwalk Melody: A Musical – Coming May 2014

Busy, busy, busy at work on our new musical set to hit the stage for the first time ever in May 2014 at the Penang Performing Arts Centre. Here are a couple behind the scene shots of my students hard at work, producing the set.

This will eventually be the signboard for Summersville Tours – a shop on the boardwalk.

2014-03-06 15.43.26

Here is Love Rock, a key paper-machete prop. Yes, I work that close to the ocean everyday. Cool, huh?
2014-03-06 15.43.55

Set building requires a lot of painting. Isn’t that a nice color? It’s called Redang.2014-03-06 15.44.39

Production is on schedule. The music is done. The lines are getting memorized. The choreography is partially done. We just got a whole lot of rehearsals and fun before the show begins.

I love the theatre.