A Tale of Two Carousels

Posted in Design and Production on April 2, 2015 by stevenjmclean

2004 Carousel Plan & Elevation

In 2004 I designed a production of Carousel for the Music department at Simpson College.  The director wanted realistic scenery depicting the signature scenic element. Since the carousel only appears in the prologue to the play, it needed to be  constructed in such a way as to strike easily following the first 8 minutes.  I conceived of a 5-part turntable. One of the parts was a 3′ square that housed the center pivot and 4 castors.  The other 4 were pie-slice segments on swivel castors that roto-locked around the pivot.  Each segment carried 1/4 of the carousel including a horse, a decorative central flat that formed the central column of the carousel, and 1/4 of the  canopy element.  Although it is not optimal to construct a revolve on swivel castors, they were necessary in order to permit the units, once disconnected, to roll offstage into our small backstage storage space.

We were hoping to locate realistic carousel horses, naively thinking that there might be some real ones in the area that we could borrow.  We were disabused of this notion after exhausting all local leads.  So, I turned to the trusty Stagecraft Mailing List for some suggestions.  We got several leads for companies that had done Carousel.  Most were stylistically incompatible with our plans and most would have required prohibitively expensive shipping.  However, John Gibilisco of the Omaha Playhouse contacted me with the information that the company had done a production of the musical a few years before and still had  some of the horses.  As it turned out, only 2 remained, but I was able to rent them for a reasonable sum.  Since Omaha is only a couple-hour drive from Indianola, Iowa (and Simpson College) I picked them up in my Jeep and little 6′ trailer.  That left us two horses shy.

Another contact from the Stagecraft mailing list directed me to: Rotronics Plastic Products of 2807 Stephen F Austin Dr, Brownwood, Texas 76801-6454.  I was able to order two “stander” style horses from them.  My notes indicate that we may have paid as much as $325 each  and also around $200 in shipping.  When they arrived, they were bright white plastic and hollow and made of  thickly formed rotational moulded plastic (not unlike those plastic kayaks, which,by-the-way, Rotronics also fabricated). The horses arrived needing to be trimmed of the mold “flashing” and painted.  The Omaha Playhouse horses were slightly different models (a “jumper & a prancer) of a similar size and style, so we painted our new ones to match the rented ones and nobody was the wiser.


Carousel Horses from Theatre Simpson Storage

Over the years, one or the other of our horses appeared in various productions.  One was used for  a Theatre Simpson production of Into the Woods.  However, for the most part, our two horses just sat in storage and collected dust.


When plans were laid for a joint Theatre & Music department production of Carousel  to kick off the 2014-15 season I expected that the carousel horses would be the least of my worries.  I already had two of them and I knew where to find another two…I thought.  Unfortunately, time had not been as kind to the Omaha horses.  It seems they only had one remaining, and photos of that one suggested that the legs had been chopped off!  In any event, I needed to procure two more horses.  I pulled out my records and tried to contact Rotronics.  However, the phone numbers didn’t work and when I tried to log onto their website, I kept getting redirected to various other companies.  Turns out, Rotronics went out of business a couple of years before.  What’s more, their assets were divided up between at least 3 different companies.  After getting directed and redirected to several people from several companies, Dawn Whitney of Armeria LLC (one of the companies that appear to have acquired some Rotronics assets) directed me to a company called “Meese Inc” who according to her “has the carousel horses”.  A little Google-foo got me information on Meese, Orbitron, Dunne company at 4920 State Road, Ashtabula, OH 44004, (800) 772-7659
A visit to the web site (http://www.modroto.com) was not promising since there was nothing to be found on their site at the time concerning carousel horses even though they did appear to fabricate a vast array of containers and decorative elements like columns and balusters.


Unpainted Stander Horse

Meanwhile, I had also searched the internet and kept running into carousel horses, both painted and unpainted available for purchase.  The painted ones all seemed to cost around $1300 or more and unpainted ones started at $450.  Shipping for either version was going to add to the final cost. I contacted one of the companies that advertised unpainted horses on a “buy now” basis on E-bay and came to understand that they were not the manufacturers.  Rather,  with sufficient lead time this company could order them from someone else and sell them to me.  Since I was pressed for time and guessed that going directly to a fabricator, rather than through a middle-man, would be more convenient and cheaper, I pursued the Meese Orbitron Dunne lead.

MODCarousel Horse Large Painted.JPG

MOD Carousel Horse

My first contact there, Kelley Thomas,  connected me with Kendall Jarrell the Custom Account Manager at Meese Orbitron Dunne (aka MOD).  He verified that MOD had, indeed, secured the moulds for certain of the Rotronics horses and sent me a photo of a painted display model from their lobby that matched the pair of standers that I already had in stock.  The pricing was  reasonable and his firm arranged the shipping for me.  The cost included a $150 mold setup fee (suspended if we had ordered 5 or more)  and a unit cost of around $150 per horse.  Another $100 or so per horse covered the shipping.

Carousel2014 SKETCH AIs1 8-6.jpg

Preliminary Designer’s Sketch of 2014 Prologue


Plan of 2014 Carousel


With a new production came a new director and a new  visual “look” for this new Carousel.  The set design for the new iteration relied on more theatrical settings than that for the 2004 production.  The carousel itself, was to be an open affair featuring each of the 4 horses mounted on small castered bases and connected to a detachable central pivot.  The top of the carousel was represented by an oversized carnival sign advertising the “Mullins’ Carousel”  as seen in the preliminary sketch above and as seen in an earlier post.


Elevations of 2014 Carousel


Students Painting Horses in THTR Simpson Scene Shop

When the new horses arrived, they featured a thick mould flashing. A few student labor-hours using a variety of saws, rasps and an electric angle-grinder with a sanding wheel cleaned that right up.  I also enlisted an enthusiastic student labor pool to apply a personalized color scheme to each horse.  The new paint motif involved decorating each horse with metallic gold or silver paint on major elements and each sported its own unique color personality.


Four Horses of the Carousel


The Closing Moments of the 2014 Prologue

uring production each horse was guided by a “pusher” who provided the locomotion and attended to the “rider”.  At the end of the prologue Billy detached his horse from the pivot and led it with Julie astride to center stage while the other horses and riders were detached and peeled off into the SR wing by “pushers” of their own.  This solution proved to be far less literal and more poetic than the 2004 production.

One of the horses now decorates the entryway into our PAC (at least for the duration of the school year) while the other three horses  stand silently in storage, again collecting  dust and awaiting future usefulness.

Meanwhile, thanks for listening.  Have fun!  But be safe!



Projection Techniques For Copying and Enlarging Scenery

Posted in Design and Production on December 21, 2014 by stevenjmclean

Ever since I began designing scenery I have employed a number of tricks as a designer for copying and enlarging my drawings from the relatively small 1/2″ =1′-0″ scale that most scenic and paint elevations are produced in.  One of the simplest tricks is to superimposed a 12″x 12″ in-scale grid over the drawing.  There is nothing tricky about this.  This is a technique known to artist since at least the Renaissance and described in most text books on the subject of scene design and construction.  Using this technique, an actual 12″ x 12″ grid is drawn on the surface on which the drawing is to be reproduced full-scale while a scale 12″ x 12″ grid is drawn over the scale elevation.  If the scale elevation is in 1/2″ = 1′-0″ scale, then the grid is an actual 1/2″ x 1/2″.   By examining how the lines on the scale original intersect the scale grid, those intersections can be plotted on the full-scale drawing relative to the full-scale grid.  Once the intersections are plotted, the drawing can be reproduced with remarkable accuracy.

CarouselGroundrowThis is the technique used to transfer the scale drawing  onto lauan in order to create the 36′ x 6′ ground row for the Fall 2014 production of Carousel. This scenic CarouselJulie_6961element remained onstage throughout the production and served to create a visual transition between the 3-dimensional scenic elements on the stage and the background sky cloth.


Overhead ProjectorAnother technique that I have long employed ever since copy machines and printers have been able to print on acetate is to print or copy the original scale drawing onto a clear acetate sheet and to use an overhead projector to transfer the line-work directly to the target surface. The acetate is laid on the transparent table of the projector.  A lamp shines light through the acetate and lens.  A mirror configuration overhead of the “table” redirects the light and shadow of the line-work forward and out of the projector   Originally designed and used in darkened classrooms for the pre-computer era version of a power-point presentation, an overhead projector is a relatively dim apparatus.  Therefore, the work space must be kept fairly dark.  This is never more true than when trying to enlarge a large image. This technique works at its best when the shapes to be enlarged are no larger than about 12′ x 12′.  this, because of the nature of the projection device.

Overhead projectors normally have a fixed focal length.  In order to achieve the proper enlargement I usually make a mark of known dimension on the target surface and then move the projector backward or forward until the representative element on the projected image exactly matches the mark on the target.  In order to achieve the desired enlargement, one must have available the necessary space to place the projector far enough away from the target surface.  I find that a 1/2″ scale drawing usually requires a distance of about 25′ to achieve the right scale.  The process of finding the right placement for the projector is further complicated by the fact that the movement of a few inches  toward or away from the target can take the image out of focus, yielding a fuzzy and indistinct projection.  Focusing the apparatus changes the size of the projected image slighty, so the whole thing is process of back and forth adjustment.

Meanwhile, it is also critical to get the projector at exactly 90 degrees to the projection surface.  Horizontally, this means moving the projector side-to-side so as to minimize any horizontal keystoning and distortion of the projection.  Vertically, this means that the mirror/lens should be exactly at the vertical center of the projection.  If the target image is 12′ high, then that mirror/lens should centered on a 6′ elevation, providing the target surface is standing vertically.  If the target is leaning forward or backward toward or away from the projector, then the elevation of the projector must be adjusted accordingly.

LysistrataJonesBachanalBannerProjection_0897For the production of Lysistrata Jones in Fall 2013 we transferred individual letters onto paper using an overhead projector.  Note the distance at which it was necessary to plBachanalBannerTransfer_0904ace the projector in order to enlarge the 1/2″ = 1′-0″ scale drawing into the proper scale and the need to darken the stage to make the process possible.  Following this, we transferred the individual letters to the banner fabric by cutting the letters out of the paper and placing and tracing the letter toms onto the fabric of the banner. A student then reinforced the linework BachanalBannerInProductionwith a colored marker (as illustrated above).  The letters were filled in with a thin wash of brightly colored paint to finish the lettering.  Suspended overhead and flown in at the right moment, the finished scenic element was critical to the finale of the production.


Similar to the overhead projector is the use of a video projector in conjunction with a computer.  Using this technique, the computer video output is mirrored to a video projector in the same way that one might share a power-point presentation to a classroom of students.   The drawing on the computer is then projected on the target surface.  While prone to some of the same limitations as the overhead projector, a video projector of a digital image has several advantages.  Modern video projectors appear much brighter than the standard overhead projector.  Meanwhile, the video projectors often feature controls to allow the operator to compensate for keystoning with the adjustment of settings on the projector controls.  Since the image is projected directly from the computer, it is unnecessary to print the image, eliminating steps, supplies and one step of digital to analog conversion. Meanwhile, the digital drawing or image can be zoomed to take full advantage of the entire screen area, allowing more flexibility with respect to projection distance.  Furthermore, the image can be moved slightly on the screen to simplify the process of alignment.

NightOfTheSoulProjectionTransfer_1507This is the technique that I used to transfer images of English graveyards to the flats forming the back walls of the setting for The Night of the Soul  produced by Theatre Simpson in February of 2014. The scenic elements are shown on Pote stage where they were projected.  Because of the simplicity of the images the layers of paint were painted directly onto the muslin-covered flats over the projection.

MullinsCarouselSign_2431The image can even be rotated as illustrated in the photo of the transfer of the lettering to the “Mullins Carousel” sign for a fall 2014 production of Theatre Simpson and Music at Simpson’s co-production of Carousel.  The sign was hung immediately following construction and well before it could be “cartooned”.  The paint elevations were created in Photoshop.  I de-selected layers of color to reveal the lifework and rotated the image in Photoshop to match the angle at which the sign hung.

Meanwhile, thanks for listening.  Have fun!  But be safe!







Three Openings in Two Months

Posted in Design and Production on March 15, 2014 by stevenjmclean

Spring break is almost over; mid-terms for the Spring semester at Simpson College have passed; The past two months are a blur. In addition to teaching 2 courses this semester, pinch-hitting as department chair while my colleague is on sabbatical, chairing a major committee requiring weekly two-hour meetings with significant “homework” between meetings and running Stage Crew Showdown during the week-long KCACTF festival in Lincoln Nebraska, I opened 3 shows in 2 months.

The First Production

It began with the opening of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris for Stage West here in Des Moines at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner theatre.  It opened January 10.  The play is a sort of prequel/sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  The first act explains how the house in Clybourne Park came to be affordable to Leana and follows  Karl Linder’s attempt to prevent homeowners ActIClybourneParkRuss and Bev from selling to Leana and her family.  The setting for the first act is the living room of an older (but still respectable) row home in a middle-class Chicago suburb as Russ and Bev finish packing up their belongings.  The action occurs shortly after Linder’s visit to Leana’s apartment in A Raisin in the Sun, making the time circa 1959. ActIIClybourneParkThe second act occurs in the present, over 50 years later in the run-down shell of that same row house.  The neighborhood has undergone a complete change of character and has fallen on hard times.  A yuppie couple has bought the place and has plans to raze it and put up an urban version of a McMansion in its place.  Neighbors and a lawyer from the community meet with the homeowners to try to dissuade them from their plans as they struggle with the inevitable gentrification of the neighborhood.

The shallow, wide thrust and unusually low-ceilinged upstage area of the Stoner theatre made it a challenge to satisfy the script’s requirements.  The setting  used the voms for the main entrance to the house and to the kitchen and featured a stairway appearing to lead to the 2nd floor, a china cabinet, a fireplace and a basement door arranged on the back wall.  The architecture featured turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts details.  Furnishings were mis-matched items acquired by Russ and Bev throughout their lives in this home.  We chose to take the decline of the home in the 2nd act to the extreme, imagining it as the shell of a home after all the architectural mouldings and fixtures had ben salvaged and it had become derelict, perhaps as a hangout for drug addicts or street gangs.  The solution for the transformation from Act I to Act II was to create the Act II setting as the foundation of the scenery.  We built  a cosmetic “skin” of  flats representing the Act I Arts & Crafts setting that attached over the Act II scenery to represent the interior of the 1959 room. At intermission, those flats were removed to reveal the crumbling

Clybourne Park, Finale: Flashback

Clybourne Park, Finale: Flashback

plaster-over lath and the grafitti-stained walls of the 2014 ruin.  The final scene of the play flashes back to the events that occurred a year or so before the action of Act I when Russ and Bev’s son, returned broken from the Korean war last spoke with Bev, hours before taking his own life.

The Second Production

Night of the Soul by David Farr opened in Blank Performing Arts Center’s Barnum Theatre on February 11, seventeen days after returning from KCACTF .  I designed sets and props and technical directed, assisted by two students  (assistant prop designer Caitlin Featherston-Preister and assistant set designer Josh Zieman) and by the Theatre Simpson Scene Shop Supervisor/Assistant T.D Rick Goetz.  The play features the stranded spirit of Joanne, a victim of the Bubonic Plague circa 1350 who died unrepentant and has been fated to remain tethered to her burial-place until she has the opportunity to redeem a living person.  This state of affairs continued some 660 years until a hotel was built on the site.   There she impersonates a chambermaid while observing the patrons unseen and awaiting her chance for release.  Enter Francis who is the first person to be able to see her in all this time and is in  need of redemption having permitted his father to die without making amends for a long-time-ago transgression . Most of the action takes place in  present in the  hotel room, the hotel elevator,  the hotel lobby, and the unfinished basement of  the hotel where human remains of the 12th century plague pit halted further basement  construction, in the living room of Francis’ mom’s flat and in flashbacks to a 10 year-ago confrontation between Francis and his father which created an irreconcilable rift between them, and in 1350 as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Joanna’s village and friends.

NightOfTheSoul1523PreshowBThe Barnum Stage is a flexible space with a low 14′ ceiling and grid.  We configured the stage as a shallow-thrust with a central vom and seating for 120 patrons in a shallow V-shape on either side, forming a wide stage with multiple small simultaneous settings (set under preshow seen above)

Night of the Soul: the hotel room

The central and largest playing area was the hotel room  with a full-sized bed, side-tables with lamps & alarm clock, a low minibar complete with glasses and ice bucket, a desk with room phone and hotel writing-paper, a door to the bathroom and a room door.

Night of the Soul: the lobby

Stage Left was a 10’x 10′ raked platform representing the Hotel Lobby with a registration desk complete with monitor, keyboard and phone.  Between the two is an area representing the inside of the elevator linking the 3rd floor room, the lobby and the basement.  Stage right on another

Night of the Soul: the flat

10’x10′ raked platform is the flat where Francis grew up It features two mis-matched stuffed chairs, a beat-up end table and an old shaded standing lamp.  Downstage of the hotel room and 20″ lower is an area that represents the basement of the hotel.  NightOfTheSoul1617BasementBThe dirt floor is littered in the corners with the larger bones of the half-disentered plague victims. This area (used at times in conjunction with portions of the other spaces) represents the 1350s village, a train station, and a street NightOfThSoul1597Joanna1350Bat other times during the play.  Beneath the platforms, representing the plague pit is a jumble of long bones and skulls.  The skulls came from a local theatrical costume shop (purchased last year for a prop that never was for Winter’s Tale) and from Amazon.com.  Josh Zieman created the long-bones from newspaper, tape, and newspaper paper mache.

The Third Production

The third production Street Scene by Kurt Weil opened on February 28.  The play originally premiered in 1947.  It has regularly been produced by opera companies and I designed it for the Simpson Music Department which produces an annual Spring opera.  This one was somewhat a departure for that company which regularly stick to the more mainstream Operas such as Die Fledermaus, Merry Widow, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro, and the like.  Music Director Bernard MacDonald brought in Tyro talent director Mo Zhou a young but already established opera director to direct.

My longtime stage design hero Ming Cho Lee often reminds us that it is a disservice to think that a play presents a problem.  Thinking like that does a disservice to the play.  It is our reactions to and preconception of the Play  that create the problems that it is then up to us to solve.  Therefore, we solve the problems that our ideas and concepts about the play create.  I tried to bear this in mind in approaching this production.  If Street Scene has a challenge, it is in the fact that the play is usually produced on a set that represents a totally realistic front of a brick New York City “brownstone”.  It seems to require at least two stories, 10 or more windows, a large stoop leading to a main entrance and another basement door.  To recreate such  a realistic street front on Pote stage would not be all that difficult, except for the 1 1/2  week build between the closing of Night of the Soul and tech of Street Scene, a budget that makes 2-story highly detailed sets a real stretch, a labor force of undergraduate theatre majors most of whom would rather act than build and paint scenery, and a scene shop that is a sixth the size of the proscenium stage.  I was also not excited to design another realistic brownstone just like all of the other realistic productions of the play that I have come across.


While researching New York “brownstone” houses I  found photos of several building fronts under reconstruction.  The intriguing feature of the buildings was the scaffolding obscuring all or part of their faces.  That got me thinking about turning the architecture inside out, making a multi-story structure of scaffold and hanging detailed window frames, sills & sashes and doors on the scaffold.   I presented the idea to Mo and she immediately connected my idea with another productions that she was familiar with (perhaps the Dresden Semperoper production or maybe on from the Young Vic)



Street Scene: unit under work light


Street Scene: unit under scene light

I presented my research and a rough sketch  to Mo Zhou at a meeting on October 12.  She seemed to like them, especially the fact that instead of sitting the street front parallel to the proscenium, we could angle it between 5 and 10 degrees.  I posted the Vectorworks/ Renderworks rendering  and an accompanying floor plan to the Dropbox that Mo established for that purpose and received positive response again from both Mo and Bernard. The drawings were done by mid-November, but construction didn’t start until February 16 (The day that  “tech week” of Night of the Soul began). Three 9:00-5:00 Saturday work calls with the Music Students and ten 12:00-5:00 afternoon work sessions with work-study and service learning students later, we began tech.  I was pleased with the result.  It was interesting, functional, doable with our labor force and affordable.

I realize that someone who relies on freelance design work for a living, or works full-time as a designer would not find this pace unusual.  Many educational institutions involved in professional training might open 3 productions withing a 2-month span.  However, considering the other institutional demands upon my time, this schedule was grueling.  Simpson’s ATD/Shop Supervisor Rick Goetz and I calculated that we had one day off ( a day on defined as no less than 4 hours and often as many as 20 hours on-the-job) between Saturday January 17 (we left for KCACTF the next day) and March 8 (the first day of spring break).  The day off: February 2 (Superbowl Sunday).  That’s working 47 out of 48 days straight!

Oh, well, enough of my bellyaching.  I just turned down a gig with Stage West for June.  I tell my students that they need to have a darn good reason for turning down work, because busy and fed is better than idle and hungry.  My son will be graduating from high school during the days leading up to tech for that show and I must be present for family coming from out-of-state for the series of events leading up to and following that occasion.   Perhaps that is reason enough for turning it down.  Still, that leaves me without an actual design assignment in the forseeable future and I may be suffering from withdrawal.

Better get on with nailing down Theatre Simpson’s next season!  As acting chair, it is my responsibility to see that this is done in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, thanks for listening.  Have fun!  But be safe!



Vectorworks Tips: Emphasizing Light Symbols and Information in Lightplots Part 2

Posted in Lighting, Vectorworks Tips on February 28, 2014 by stevenjmclean

A few weeks ago I promised to continue explaining how a Lighting Designer can override the default symbols and label legend formats to increase the emphasis of the fixtures and associated labels on a Vectorworks light plot.  Below is an example of 2 lights on a light plot. The LightPlotExcerptAugmenttedSymbolinstrument on the left features a bolder outline and larger labels and label containers.  the fixture on the right appears as it would if a designer were to use the default symbols available in the symbol library and the default containers (circle & octagon) and the default label size.   In the last post I explained how to edit the 2-D portion of the symbols to create the bolder outline. This has no effect upon the size of the lettering or the size of the containers.  In order to change these elements, you will need to edit the Label Legend



If you are working with a pre-existing file, your Vectorworks file may already have one or more Label Legends in existence.  If you are working with a new file, you will need to create one.  In order to edit an old legend or create a new one choose Spotlight/Label Legend/Label Legend Menu from the drop-down menu as shown above.  This will open new Label Legend Manager window.


If your file has Label Legends already defined, they will appear in this window.  If it does not, you can create a new Label Legend by selecting “Add”  This will open another window with the title “Add New Legend”


Fill out this form. Start by giving your new Legend a name (such as “New Legend”).  Select each attribute that you wish to display in your new legend.  Click in the column to the left  in the row that you wish to activate. The excerpt of the plot above uses the following attributes: Unit Number, Color, Dimmer, Channel, and Focus (scroll most of the way down the window to activate the Focus attribute)  Note that you can change the container type for each attribute.  do this by clicking on the container type description opposite the attribute that you wish to change. Each click toggles the container type to the next on the list: None, Circle, Rectangle, Octagon, Triangle and back to None, etc…  The default example above only uses containers for the Dimmer (circle) and for the Channel (octagon).  When you are satisfied that you have chosen all of the attributes that you desire (and you can come back  to edit any label LabelLeggendManagerAddMenuFilledOutlegend at a later point in time) continue by selecting the Lighting Instrument Layout Symbol.  If you have imported or otherwise used lighting instrument symbols in your plot before you open the label legend manager, Vectorworks will supply one of them.  Use the “Choose” button to select an alternate if more than one lighting instrument symbols are part of your plot.  Also check the box beside Non-Rotating.  This will cause the labels to always readLabelLegendMenuNewLegend from the bottom of the page.  The example above uses Non-Rotating text. Select OK to return to the earlier Label Legend Manager screen.  Now the Label Legend Manager screen should show the newly created legend. You can return to the previous screen by choosing “Edit Fields”.

Select the newly created legend  in the menu and click the Edit Layout buttons in order to chose where Vectorworks will display the information (Attributes) relating to each instrument using this legend. This will open yet another window showing a list of the attributes that you included in the previous “Edit Fields” screen displayed in a column along the left side.

Edit Layout Window

Edit Layout Window

To the right/center  is a plan view of the instrument that was selected in the “Edit Fields” screen.  Drag the attributes from the column at left and place them on the symbol where you want them to appear.  The text is in scale, so you get a pretty accurate idea of how the text will look on your plot.   Most of the text that will display on the plot will be one to three-digit

Edit Layout Screen with Attributes Moved

Edit Layout Screen with Attributes Moved

numbers instead of the  four to eleven-character words of the attributes.  Unfortunately, the containers do NOT show on this window, so placement of the dimmer and channel attributes can be a little hit-or-miss.

While this menu is opened, remember that one of the issues that needs to be corrected is the diminutive size of the text.  Select all of the text in this menu.  The object information Palate is still active and you should be able to learn from it what font is in use and what size and style and color that font is.  You can change all of these characteristics of the fonts for your labels in this screen.   The font used in these examples is “Tekton Bold.”  Yours may default to “Times”, “Ariel”, or some other font.

Edit Layout Menu with Font Changed to 9

Edit Layout Menu with Font Changed to 9

Change the font to your preferred font for the Label Legend now.  This font size will probably be set at  6  points by default.  The size of individual font types varies somewhat, so depending upon the font you choose, you may need to adjust the following advice. Change the font size to  9. In my experience this approximates  the 1/4″ high lettering standard that those of us who began in this industry drafting by hand were taught to letter and trained to read.  You may  need to adjust the placement of the attribute labels taking into account their now-enlarged size. Don’t spend too much time on this.  You can come back at any time and rearrange fields and change fonts and font sizes.  Click “Exit Symbol” in the upper right corner of the menu to return to your drawing.  If you wish to return to the “Edit Fields” menu or otherwise return to the Label Legend Manager, you need to choose Spotlight/Label Legend/Label Legend menu again from the drop-down menu.


VWXTopMenuAssignLegendToInst Return to the plot ChooseLegendNewLegendSelectedand select an instrument.  Choose Spotlight/Label Legend/Assign Legend to Insts this time.  You will be presented with the “Chose Legend” window.  Select your desired legend.  In this example the only choice is our newly created “New Legend”.  Click OK to make the new assignment.  The screen should return to your light plot and you should see the results of your choice.  Any fields that have information already assigned to the instrument 50DegS4wNewLegend&9PointFontSelectedthat appear in the legend should appear printed on the plot in the locations that you set in the Edit Layout sub-menu of the Label Legend Manager.  If one or more fields seem to be missing, it is likely that there is no data assigned to that field.  In this event a small blue “handle” should represent the middle of the text, should there have been text data to display.

The image to the right illustrates an instrument with the “New Legend” assigned.  Note that when the instrument is selected, bounding boxes of amber surround the instrument, itself as well as all of the data and bounding boxes. This is a choice that is made in the Vectorworks/Preferences window, so if your Vectorworks is not set up this way, your results may vary. Note that even though no data shows immediately in front of the barrel, the blue “handle” represents where the missing data would display.

You probably also notice two additional things.  First, the “Containers” for the channel and the dimmer are not of sufficient size to contain the numbers.  And, second, the numbers in the bounding boxes are not centered in the bounding boxes.  This latter problem is caused by the font.  For whatever reason, the “Enview Bold” font used in this example displays uncentered to the top of the text box (defined by the amber outline).  The former problem stems from the fact that “Container” are “Resource Symbols” of defined size.  They do not fluctuate in size based upon the size of the font.  Both issues can be corrected for by editing the “Containers” found in the Container Folder” in the Resource Browser.


ContainersFolderSelectedInBrowserWindowFind the Containers folder in the Resource Browser.  Drill into it by double-clicking on the Container folder icon.  This will open the folder and you should see all of the pre-defined containers (circle, rectangle, hexagon, triangle) that were available as containers in the Label Legend Manager. Select one of them (the circle for instance) and click on the little downward arrow to the right of the word “Resources” near the top of the menu. ContainersWithCircleSelected&DropDownEditMenu A drop down menu will let you choose to “Duplicate” that container shape.  Name the duplicate Circle-BOLD just as you did earlier when creating BOLD versions of the lighting symbols. Once you have generated the new symbol, choose that symbol and click on that down-arrow again, this time choosing “Edit”.

This will open up the Edit Symbol menu where you will have the option of editing the 2D or the 3D components of the symbol,Select 2D  Component and click  “Edit Symbol” to open the Edit Symbol window.  Insert text into the symbol using your preferred font style and size type a typical number into the symbol temporarily.  This will give you a base-line to judge how much to enlarge the symbol.  Center the text over the x/y cross-hairs .  Note, that in the example, using the Enview Bold font the text is off-center of the container just as we saw in the  instrument symbol with the “New Legend” assigned as it’s Label Legend.  If your text is set to solid background, it will also obscure or mostly obscure the circle symbol at this point.  With the text selected, set the attributes palate for the text to”None”.


Select the symbol and enlarge it using the Modify/Scale Objects menu.  Use your eye to judge how much to enlarge the circle.  In this EditSymbol2DComponentSelectedexample,  1.4 is the scale factor.  Don’t enlarge the symbol too much or it will take up too much space on your plot and become more prominent than the instrument symbol.  If your text appears off-center in the symbol even though the text box is centered as it appears above, movet the symbol slightly to center it on the text.  Next, with the symbol selected, change the Line Thickness of the symbol from the default .05 to .25.  This may be too bold for your taste, so adjust the thickness to suit you aesthetic sensibilities.  Leave the circle solid.  This is important, since it will overlay the other data on the page and make it easiest to read the numbers.

.EditingCircleContainer78Enlarge1.4xCircleSelectedEditingCircleContainer78Enlarge1.4xMovedCircleSelectedEditingCircleContainerEnlargeMovedBOLDCircleSelected  Remember to delete the numbers that you typed in as the first stage of editing or they will appear in every instance of that symbol. Click “Exit Symbol” to return to the drawing.


Repeat the process for each container that you intend to use.

When you finally return to the drawing, you will notice that the containers have not changed size.  This is because the Label Legend is still using the original version of each container. LabelLegndManagerEditLayoutWhtBkgrnd4Focus&Color  You will have to revisit the Label Legend Manager in order to change the container for “Circuit” to the newly created “Circle-BIG” and the container for “Channel” to a newly created “Hexagon-BIG.   Click OK to return to the Label Legend Manager.

Next, select Edit Layout.  Select the Attributes “Focus” and “Color”.  Change the backgrounds of these Attributes from “None” to “Solid” and leave the color White.  Exit Symbol when finished.  This will return you to the drawing.  The instrument symbol might update with the new Label Legend.  If it does not, select the instrument and choose Spotlight/Refresh Instruments from the top drop-down menu. InstrumentWithNewLegendEnlargedContainers When the instrument does refresh you may notice that the enlarged containers and text is slightly overlapping.  Another visit to the Label Legend Manager (Spotlight/Label Legend Manager/Edit Layout) will allow you to nudge the Attribute names around until you get them to display the way you wish for them to.  This is a trial-by-error process and might require several attempts to arrange the Attribute fields to your liking.  InstrumentWithNewLegendBoleWhen the Label Legend that you have created is applied to an instrument symbol that is oriented in any other way than that which the symbol was oriented when the Label Legend was created, the legend will not display as intended.  This is illustrated when we apply the same legend to the second instrument from our original example.  Notice that even though the instrument is angled at about a 45° angle, the labels and containers remain oriented as if the instrument was oriented vertically.  Had we not selected “Non Rotating” earlier in the Label Legend/Edit Fields menu, they would have oriented in line with the angle of the instrument.  However the text would also be oriented at and angle.  When many instruments are at different angles on a plot, this can be extremely hard to read.  Before moving on, notice that the opaque background for the Focus and Color attributes are solid, obscuring the lines behind. This is the effect of making the Attributes Color and Focus have solid background during the last trip to the Label Legend/Edit Layout menu. This will be of value if the background is busy with lines from the setting.

InstrumentWithNewLegendBoldRearrangedCorrect the problem with disarranged Attribute fields by making Label Legends for each orientation of light that you are likely to place.  This can be time-consuming and could require quite a number of different iterations.  Another way that you can handle this is to create a few legends designed to accommodate the majority of the orientations that you are likely to encounter.  When the attribute fields do not display as you desire,   fine-tune the placement of the attribute fields by grabbing the handles on the fields in the selected instruments and moving them to a more satisfying placement.

The process of enhancing the symbols, Label Legends and Containers may seem like a lot of work.  However, the point of this exercise is to make the finished light plot easy to find for anyone needing to gather information from the plot.   Furthermore, while the process may SEEM time-consuming, the execution of the steps from this and the previous blog should be the work of just a few minutes once you have worked with Vectorworks for a little while.

Meanwhile, that’s enough for now! Have fun!  But be safe!



Vectorworks Tips: Emphasizing Light Symbols and Information in Lightplots

Posted in Lighting, Vectorworks Tips on January 26, 2014 by stevenjmclean

I  just returned from KCACTF Region 5’s festival in Lincoln NE.  Many schools from across our 8-state region (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota & South Dakota) met for a week in celebration of theatre during the third week of January.  I have written of this event here in past years, so I won’t spend too much time explaining the entire festival again.  One major event is the Design/Tech Expo where student designers share their design work and process in a poster-display format.  These display/presentations are judged based on creativity and adherence to industry standards by respondents who are professionals in the various areas and one entry from each category is offered the opportunity to display their projects on the national level at the National KCACTF Festival at the Washington Kennedy Center in March or April.  As great as this may be, all student entrants receive feedback from those professional during a day-long feedback session.  I had two students entered in the Lighting Design category and when not listening in on responses from my other students I followed the respondents Steve Shelly (USA Designer, Author of A Practical Guide to Stage Lighting, second edition & patent holder of the Field Template and the Vectorworks theatrical lighting toolkit SoftSymbols) and William Kenyon (USA Designer, Associate Professor of Lighting Design & Head of Penn State’s BFA Program in Design and Technology) around the Expo floor and listened in on their helpful commentary on many student projects.

One of the several themes that recurred in their responses was that important information such as lighting position, instrument symbol and critical labels, which should have been the most prominent elements of the drawing, failed to command the necessary prominence on the Light Plots that were displayed.  They gave several tips as to how this information might be emphasised.  The following instructions should be adaptable to earlier and later versions of Vectorworks, but apply directly to the 2013 version.

SpotlightNonEmphasisPlotThe light plots under discussion featured symbols and the information drawn in the thinnest of lines and with a non-prominent font.  Often extraneous elements from the set are too prominent and the lighting elements sometimes in the wrong stacking order.  The sample at left illustrates all of these deficiencies.

SpotlightEmphasisPlotBy greying out the extraneous background elements, editing the symbol so that it utilizes bolder graphic elements, by editing the “Label Legend” to use new, larger and bolder containers for Channels and Dimmers, new “containers” behind the color and focus notation and utilizing a more prominent and larger font, and also, by making sure that the instruments are “stacked’ above the batten symbols (which are also edited to utilize more bold graphic elements in the 2-D view) the Vectorworks Spotlight Light Plot can become much easier to “read”.  The difference can be seen at right.



To do this, first locate the symbol of the instrument in the Resource Browser palate.  If you are modifying a document that already has instruments in it, you will find those symbols by navigating to the  file name under the files drop-down menu at the top of the “Resource Browser” palate window and selecting “top level” in the “Resources” drop-down menu.  Scroll down the window at the bottom of the palate until you find a symbol that you want to edit.   The ETC Source 4  90° Symbol Plug-In is selected in the window above.

ResourceBrowser90DegDuplicateBefore you edit the instrument symbol, it is safest to make a duplicate of it so that you can edit the copy and leave the original symbol in place.  Do this by clicking on the “arrow down” icon opposite the label “Resources” and another drop-down menu launches.  Choose “Duplicate” in order to make a copy of it.  Rename the symbol.  In this example, I chose to rename it “Etc Source 4 90° BOLD”.

ResourceBrowser90DegBOLDEditOnce you have the duplicate renamed, select it and click on the arrow down symbol opposite the label “Resources” again.  This time choose “Edit”. This action opens the Edit Symbol radio-button window.  The default radio-button selection is “Select a part to edit: 2D Component”.  Select “Edit” to continue.


This opens the Edit Symbol Window. This window shows the editable portions on the 2-D part of the instrument symbol.  Select the symbol and examine the Attributes Palate.  It shows important information about the symbol:  the fill type and color   (probably Solid White), the line color (Probably solid black).  In the example, EditSymbolWindowWithExit AttributesPalatte.03below that it  indicates that the lines in this drawing are drawn with a line weight of .03.  This is a very fine line.  Select .25  for a much bolder line.  If you have “Zoom line Thickness” selected in Vectorworks/ Preferences/ Display you will see the immediate results of your changes.

If  instead of selecting the 90° symbol, you had selected the ETC Source 4 50° symbol (or 36°, or 26°, or 19°) instead, you might be surprised that this process does NOT work.  Although you change the line thickness, and it appears to have changed in the “Attributes” window, the line thickness does not appear to change.  This is because these instrument symbols all use another symbol, the “ETC Source 4 Body” symbol nested within.   The “ETC Source 4 Body” symbol will also be found in the “Resource Browser”.  In order to change The 50 °, 36°, or 26°, or 19° symbols (and, perhaps others), you must change the “ETC Source 4 Body” symbol.  The “safest” way to do this, again, is to duplicate the “ETC Source 4 Body” symbol, renaming the duplicate.  I use “ETC Source 4 Body BOLD” and edit that as described above.  Then you need to open  the 50°, 36°,  26°, and 19° symbols, deleting the ‘ETC Source 4 Body” symbol from those files and substituting the “ETC Source 4 Body BOLD”

ObjectInfoPalatteOld90SymbolUse this same process to embolden any other lighting symbols that you intend to use in the light plot.  Remember to use the “BOLD” versions of the symbols when placing new symbols on the light plot.  Symbols that are already on the plot can be changed by selecting them and typing the new symbol name into the “Symbol Name” box in the “Object Info” palette.  If you do not get the new symbol name precisely right, the symbol is likely to not be visible on the plot, while the fixture remains and invisible entity on the drawing, tracking through as a fixture on the paperwork.ReplaceInstruments90With90BOLD  A more sure way to change an existing symbol to a new, bold one is to  use the Spotlight/ Replace Instrument command.   Exchange all the original instrument symbols of a certain type for your newly created bold versions. In the example to the left all ‘Etc Source 4 90°’ symbols will be exchanged for the “Etc Sources 4 90° BOLD” symbols.  Alternatively, you could select any symbol on the plot that you wish to embolden and use the same Spotlight/ Replace instrument command selecting the “Replace Selected Instruments” radio button and “clicking” “OK”.

Next time maybe we will continue by editing “Containers” and creating a couple new ones, and by using the “Lable Legend Manager” and creating some custom “Label Legends”.

Meanwhile, that’s enough for now! Have fun!  But be safe!



Revival of a Production of Amahl and the Night Visitors

Posted in Design and Production on December 14, 2013 by stevenjmclean

My son and I spent an enjoyable hour in Des Moines’ Hoyt Sherman Place auditorium this past Saturday afternoon watching the Des Moines Metro Opera’s revival of their Amahl and the Night Visitors.  Of all of the traditional holiday Christmas fare (ranging from Nutcrackers to Christmas Carols) this is one of my favorite seasonal offerings.  I should probably admit that I am biased.  In 2003 the  Des Moines Metro Opera contracted me to design the setting of what was then conceived to be their semi-annual production of the 1-hour opera for the newly remodeled Hoyt Sherman Place theatre venue.  While this weekend was only the 3rd staging of the  production, 10 years has passed since I designed it and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the set itself has held up.  It was almost like visiting an old friend.

2003 DMMO Production Photo of Amahal and the Night Visitors

2003 DMMO Production Photo of Amahl and the Night Visitors

That visit actually began the Thursday before when DMMO production manager Chris Brusburg contacted me for help in dressing the set.  The tapestries draped on the rear and stage left walls of the set require some care to get them to appear aesthetically casual.  Using the image above, it took me a little over the hour (requiring working from an 8′ and a 12′ stepladder) to recreate the look from the fabric elements stored with the set.

For those who are not familiar with the Menotti opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors tells the story of the Magi’s visit to a humble cottage on the way to visit the Christ child.  At the end of their overnight visit a miracle  occurs when a crippled boy (the title character) offers to give the baby Jesus his crutch after his mother is tempted to steal a small portion of the gold that Melchior was bringing for the Savior.

Watching the production got me thinking about the 2003 process of designing that set.  Director and then-DMMO Artistic Director Robert Larsen contacted me the summer before (5 months or so in advance of the Decemeber production).

Detail: Adoration of the Magi, Bosch

Detail: Adoration of the Magi, Bosch

The Adoration of the Magi 1501-2, Durer


He was incredibly enthusiastic about it and we quickly chose to base the scenery on shapes and forms found in paintings and woodcuts by Renaissance artists Hieronymus Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. You can probably recognize many of the shapes and architectural forms in the photo of the set in the accompanying illustrations of the research.

Adoration of the Magi 1470, Bosch

Adoration of the Magi 1470, Bosch

Woodcut: Nativity 1504, Durer

Woodcut: Nativity 1504, Durer


While reviewing the design materials when current DMMO Artistic Director Michael Egel asked me if I still had any artwork of the setting for publicity purposes (I think that most was all lost when sent to the scene shop that built the set), I ran across some of the process materials.

AmahalPrelimDesignNotesbThe first item is a preliminary sketch on gridded paper with notes.  This is a little more sophisticated than a “napkin” drawing and was probably drawn at or before a 2nd or 3rd design meeting after conducting the research.


To the left is a simple CADD “white model” of the setting created in VectorWorks.

AmahalLineDrawingPerspectiveVectorWorks permits the creation of fully textured and colored CADD models; I  often prefer to switch to analog methods for later design steps. I use a light box to “trace up” from the CADD “white model” and create a more artistic representation of the setting.


The most complete extant artwork from the production is a shaded sketch that would have been preliminary to the color rendering that seems to have been lost.

Next post will address one of the scenic elements that DMMO borrowed from Theatre Simpson for the latest production.

Meanwhile, that’s enough for now! Have fun!  But be safe!



Quick Shifting Hingeless Doors For Lysistrata Jones Set

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2013 by stevenjmclean

In continuing my posts on the recently closed Theatre Simpson production of Lysistrata Jones, I wanted to share a simple solution to what might have been a daunting challenge.  I shared our solution for creating a large neon sign element to shift the location of the action of the play from the Athens University campus to a local brothel known in the play as the “Eros Motor Lodge.”  The action of the play shifts to this local several times.  The first time, the girls visit the brothel seeking advice on how to get their boyfriends hot and bothered as a step in their effort to incentivize the boys to win a basketball game.  This strategy backfires when some of the boys, angry at the girls for attempting to manipulate them in this manner, instead of winning a basketball game to gain their (now very hot) girlfriend’s favors, dump them instead.  In order to satiate their now inflamed desires, some of the boys visit the local whore-house and are introduced to three hookers from the stable of girls at the brothel.  One of the boys flees with the discovery that he cares too much for his girlfriend, while a second becomes discouraged when he senses that his hooker is not really interested in him.  The third goes off into a hotel room with his new companion.

LysistratErosSign2This second appearance of the Eros Motor Lodge, then, requires (or at least benefits from) having at least one door.  The other Eros Motor Lodge scenes don’t benefit from having doors;  In fact, no other scene in the play requires  doors. This presents the challenge that these doors probably wouldn’t be permanent fixtures of the stage and would need to shift in and out for just the one scene.

When I designed the scene, I Mardi-GrasMotelNightExteriorCconceived of three doors under the band platform that could be used to suggest the doors of the hotel.  The research image of the Mardi Gras motel was my inspiration for the repetition of the rectangular shape and for  color.

With this in mind, I constructed the band platform the exact height of a standard door (6′-9″) so that stock sized doors could fit and swing underneath.  My vision was for simple frameless doors. Since standard doors hang and swing from a door frame and have large butt hinges along one edge.  Another challenge was that the shift into and out of this scene needed to be fluid and quick. This meant that we had to envision doors that hinged in a non-standard manner and that could be installed easily and that would not embarrass us by malfunctioning catastrophically.


Bottom pivot pin

The solution came from the observation of how the hinge on bi-fold doors (such as are used for closets in some modern domestic construction) is constructed. The hinge on such a door consists of a pin set in holes on the top and bottom of the door and fractions of inches from the “hinged” edge.  These pins fit into sockets or brackets in the floor and in the top edge track.  The door swings from these pins.  With this as inspiration,


Top bracket of perforated steel angle,

I constructed pins of short lengths of 1/4″ pipes.  I welded these to short lengths of steel strap with pre-drilled and countersunk holes in them  to permit attaching them to the top and bottom edges of the door(s).


Top pin slips into upper bracket.

The lower pin was just long enough to rest in a 1/4″ masonite “socket” screwed to the floor and to lift the door up to permit it to swing.  The top pin was long enough to engage a socket created of scrap perforated steel angle attached to the overhead structure in such a way as to be invisible to the audience.  In performance the cast members carried

Bottom pin dropped into Masonite "socket."

Bottom pin dropped into Masonite “socket.”

the doors in at a slight angle, inserted the top pin in the bracket, lifted the door upright, sliding the top pin securely into the bracket and dropped the doorso that the bottom pin rested securely in the socket.  With practice, the procedure was smooth and appeared effortless.  The doors functioned flawlessly.

Aside from painting the doors in vivid chromatic jewel tones to reflect the research, we added dummy handles to the front and room numbers (65, 67 and, of course, 69)


Meanwhile, that’s enough for now! Have fun!  But be safe!




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