Friday, June 19, 2009

Stage Design and Production Design without Intermission (sorry. it's another 5 acts!)

Hey, just because there weren't any pictures to go with the Sharon Stone Shower Scene Posting.......well, never mind.  The second part of Susie's question involved set decorating and stage design.  I did cover some of this earlier in my blog, but I do have another take on it.

I knew I wanted to be a stage and lighting designer while I was still in high school.  I actually made my first prop when I was 12 and my older sister played the part of a maid in the senior class play.  Our school auditorium was built in 1920 with old lumber and mining money and rivaled any movie palace complete with 1425 seats, intricate plasterwork, huge chandeliers, and a large fly system.  I was always building things like a guillotine for Halloween that scared so many kids away my mom got mad at me.  I had little or no encouragement with these projects until my drama teacher encouraged me to leave for the University of Minnesota--which I did 12 hours after graduating from high school.  My joke was there wasn't an earlier bus.  Basically, there is a path for lighting and set design in the theatre through college.  Learning construction techniques, painting, sewing and even courses in make-up, fencing, history,theory and all sorts of background courses gives a basic and fundamental background for design.  Adding art and architectural history and college is a way to learn the basics.  However, there is no substitute for the actual DOING.

The same is true, of course, in film design.  While I've never actually had a film class, there are obviously film schools--but they are more devoted to the making of films, directing, editing and basic production techniques.  I doubt that there would be a degree in production design or set decorating or being a gaffer or grip.  Film and TV work is more based on "doing" than learning methodology, history, etc.  There is actually a hierarchy in most departments to begin in a lower capacity and work your way up.  I think you will find that most decorators or designers have had some sort of design background training either in the academic or professional world.
Ironically after putting myself through 7 years of college primarily by being an outside designer, no one has ever asked me if I'd graduated from high school.

Personally I think it would be very difficult for someone who hasn't been trained in stage design and certainly in lighting design to function on any higher level of design for the theatre.  Yes there are famous artists like David Hockney doing things like faxing thousands of sheets of paper that are then assembled into "art backdrops" for opera, but this isn't practical for most stage productions.  There is a certain "design vocabulary" that is involved with stage design that doesn't really exist in production design.  A VERY large percentage of film and TV design are based on duplicating a modern (or period) realistic set.  Yes, there is creativity, yes the set can say something about the character, but most of the looks you see are realistic and contemporary or sometimes realistic and period.  Yes, there are exceptions, but they are the minority by far. 

I went to dinner one night here with the production designer of the Flintstone movie.  He had to design the silverware, housing, cars, and basically everything to fit the "prehistoric" look of the movie.  This concept is very rare and unique in the business and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his creativity.  So was "The Madness of King George" that year--and it won the award.  The joke was that all that the "George" designer had to do was take down the rest room signs at Windsor Castle and collect his award!  I'm sure he probably had to do a little more than that, but certainly nowhere near the creativity and uniqueness that went into the Flintstones--which brings me to a somewhat controversial topic.

In general, there is the feeling that theatre "stage sets" are more flimsy, phony, and "artistic" and somewhat looked down on by film/TV designers.  Stage sets are seen from a distance, look fake, are less detailed and are not really taken seriously.  In defense of that misconception, stage sets often have to last for years and certainly for months at a time.  Film/TV sets often only last a matter of hours and can be just as phony--but look "real" and have Will Smith or Jennifer Aniston in front of them. Personally, I always felt that this "competition" or attitude of superiority was ridiculous.  The two art forms are very different and no different than an apple looking down on an orange--yet it is still there and exists.  I referred earlier in a posting  to the "secret society" of theatre people who work within the film industry.  In my observation, a film/TV person would certainly boast of their "famous" background in that industry if working in a theatre environment, but a stage designer would not do the same in the film industry.  Obviously there are exceptions, but I know for a fact that one of the designers on "That Show I Can't Talk About" had his stage background held against him.  I certainly never mentioned mine.  So basically it would be much easier for a stage designer to become a set decorator or production designer than the reverse.  It is much easier for a well connected production designer with little talent to surround themselves with a team of talented art directors, set designers, and assistants along with a talented set decorator and become "famous" for their big features.  I know of this personally.  However, you better know what you are doing when working in the theatre 'cause it's just going to be you for the most part.

As a final note to this PhD thesis, the trend more and more in professional theatre design is toward "engineered design" than the more traditional design forms.  If you have seen any broadway shows or the larger touring productions, it's becoming more about turntables, lifts, cantilevers, mechanics, and special effects that will "wow" and justify your $120 ticket.

Even within my career as a stage designer you can see the range of design in that medium.  The 2nd show I did (and first musical) for the last theatre I worked for as resident designer was for "Follies."  It was a fantasy plot about some old vaudevillians who meet the night before their old theatre was about to be torn down and relive their past lives, loves, and performances.  It was a chance to create the crumbling theatre proscenium of an earlier time and use some traditional design forms like "drop and wings" in "Loveland"  If you look closely that the raised relief design around the proscenium you will notice some clothes hanger shapes.  That's because they ARE decorative clothes hangers that  literally fell off a truck on the freeway.  The truck kept going, but I stopped, risked my life, and picked them up--and there they are!

The last show I did before leaving the theatre to work on "Magnum, P.I." was "Deathtrap."  You can see the difference in design, realism, and details with all of the set pieces.  I personally carved the fireplace and most of the beams in styrofoam, did all of the scene painting, found all of the set dressing items, and was also the lighting designer (and set designer, of course).  To be honest, working on "Magnum" was a big step down in the creative design department, but a major increase in the paycheck department.  That's life.........

Aloha,  Rick

P.S.  The woman in the black pant suit lower right was Sue Gerben, the mother of Kevin McCollum who went on to produce rent and other Broadway hits.  She knew she had cancer and went off to Paris to die.  Kevin was 8 years old.  If I'd never met the guy next to her, Wally White assistant to Buck Henshaw, I would never have worked on Magnum. 


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the paragraphs on this subject. One of things I always loved the best about a live show (professional or an elementary Christmas concert) was the work/creativity that went into the sets.I was going to ask if you found TV/film boring after theatre but since this started as a MPI set blog, I though I better not. So, other than the pay, what was some of the positives about working on the MPI sets? Does theatre bring you closer to the complete project (the acting, directing/storyline) or did TV/film also offer some of that? Or as a set director, do you somewhat work in own world while taking a few directions or requests for each set individually? Do I ask to many questions? Maybe I should start working on my home again. Oh ya, I just did some of that and ran out of money. Oh well, hope all the questions are okay.

Magnum Decorator said...

Susie, not a problem asking your provocative questions--without them it doesn't look like I'd have a blog right now!
Yes, I did miss the creativity when working on Magnum, but it was a different kind of challenge working on a top 10 TV show and juggling all the new /different requirements while putting up with some crew problems that I inherited with the job. However, doing theatre design usually required my doing another outside design job along with my resident design job to make ends meet here in expensive Hawaii and buying a house at 30! As demanding as Magnum could be, when I was done for the day--I was done. No more going home and drafting until midnight or chasing down payments, etc. I already knew many of the sources for things on Magnum--only now I wasn't "begging to borrow," I had Universal Studios money to spend!
Because of my reputation and ability to produce what I created in the theatre, I was pretty much given a free hand in designing 8 shows a year--with usually 6 weeks to deliver the goods. As I already said in an earlier post comparing Magnum to LOST, back then I worked directly with the episode director with minor input from either the art director or producer of the show. They all seemed to trust me and I consistently met or exceeded their demands on a regular basis--at least back then I did. With more controlling and obsessing by production designers today, the job of a decorator has been sometimes more of a shopper / buyer than a creative position.
Minimal contact with actors / performers is the same behind the camera or behind the stage. There was a much greater friendship in and out of the theatre with crew and volunteers, but virtually none with TV/film crews. That hasn't changed even today.
I know I said this before, but I used to describe working on Magnum to my theatre friends as having only one half of the curtain open only part of the way on opening night--thus obscuring 75% of the set behind it. It was not uncommon to only see 75% of the Magnum set on the TV screen!
Can't I just have it all??!!

Anonymous said...

You went to the U of MN - Twin Cities? Me too.

I can remember taking a theater class with Prof Nolte in the Rarig Center. I wish I would have taken more classes over there. Fun stuff.

Love the blog. Even without as many MPI pics. ;-)


Magnum Decorator said...

Yes, I graduated with a B.A. in Theatre and another one in Art and Architectural History from the U of M. I remember a class from Nolte also, I think he outlasted most of the oldtimers. I worked for the Guthrie, Chimera, and taught in a performing arts center before coming to Hawaii for graduate school--and I'm still here! Glad you enjoy the blog--and thanks. Aloha, Rick

iien Solihin said...

cool.. very artistic stage..

Fake Transcript said...

Very nice pics..