Archive for the Design and Production Category

Vectorworks/Renderworks Production Renderings

Posted in Design and Production on April 12, 2018 by stevenjmclean

While I was doing some cleaning in my office recently (the reason for this may well be the subject of another post soon) I was going through my renderings and discovered that I couldn’t find the one that I created for a Winter 2016 production of an original play about Joan of Arc entitled Knowing Joan.  The action of the play was set in a present-day urban hole-in-the-wall coffee shop while flash-back scenes of the life of Joan of Arc also occur in the same space.  I recalled that I had created the rendering of the setting in Vectorworks as a 3-dimensional model and that I had labored to fully texture, color and light it. I had even taken the trouble of modeling all of the furniture that I acutally intended to use (including a coffee bar adapted from an ornate chest of drawers with some industrial pipe and fitting shelves fixed to one side)  I vaguely remember having encountering some sort of problem in rendering and printing it out, but I couldn’t recall what the impediment might have been.

Following is a discussion of some of the Vectorworks/Renderworks rendering modes that I use most frequently for demonstrating how a setting should appear to an audience member using Vectorworks/Renderworks. As a bonus, at the end, I reveal the simple adjustment that I needed to perform to permit the image to render properly.

14x10KnowingJoanG_Plan--no light objectsDashedHiddenLine copy

Wireframe Rendering of Knowing Joan Set

The wireframe mode is the fastest method of rendering in Vectorworks. This mode is almost instantaneous.  This mode doesn’t discriminate between lines that define the front of the scenery and those that should be hidden.

The “Hidden Line” rendering is slower, but  shows objects defined as solid in such a way as to ignore any lines which should be hidden from view by the bulk of an object or by  elements that should appear in front of another element.

14x10KnowingJoanG_HiddenLine4 copy

Hidden Line Rendering of Knowing Joan Setting

This is the rendering mode that I use as a basis for most of the set renderings that I create for productions.  By transferring these Hidden Line drawings onto Bristol board and working over them with watercolor and colored pencils, I achieve  results such as the rendering  for Tartuffe (fall 2017).


Watercolor & Pencil Tartuffe Rendering

14x10KnowingJoanG_WhiteModel2 copy

Virtual “White Model” of Knowing Joan Rendering

The “Renderworks Style/Realistic Colors White” rendering mode (demonstrated in the post on the 2016  production of The Marriage Of Figaro) takes even longer to render.  This rendering of the Knowing Joan set model took my computer approximately 2 hours to render and another 2 hours to save as a JPG.

However, the full color rendering of the setting, showing colors and textures, images of some of the set dressing and including virtual lighting intended to reveal the setting in its most realistic rendering was the intended final result of hours of drawing in Vectorworks.   Once I found the file for the production and tried to render the model in the Final Renderworks rendering mode it took the computer about three hours to render it.  However, once complete, all of the symbols for the virtual lighting elements in the visible frame would overlay the rendering.  The cause of this eluded me at the time and I didn’t remember this problem until it happened at the end of the rendering process.  After trying the same thing a few times with the same results (someone once told me that this is the definition of insanity), it suddenly dawned on me that I had seen something in one of the preference windows that may have a bearing on this matter.  After some investigation I found in the Vectorworks/ Preferences/ Display tab a drop-down setting labeled “Display Light Objects:” and the options: Always, Only in Wireframe,  Never.  It was set to Always.  I do not know if this is the default or if I changed it from one of the other settings at some point in the distant past, but changing it to “Only in Wireframe” or to “Never” solved the problem.

14x10KnowingJoanG_Renderworks copy

Final Renderworks Rendering of Knowing Joan


Knowing Joan Production Photo

Once it rendered for about 3 hours, the image was free of the “Light Objects” and took another 3 or so hours to save as the JPG seen above .



I can’t even begin to estimate the time invested in this rendering considering all of the drawing involved in creating each of the elements and providing them with textures and image maps needed to present the realism that is attained in the image.  Was it worth it? Maybe not.  On the other hand, it is kind of cool!

That’s all for now!
Be safe!  But have fun!  After all, that’s why they call it a play!
All imagery used in this post by Steven J. McLean.


A Boat For Carousel

Posted in Design and Production with tags , , , , on May 19, 2015 by stevenjmclean

Every designer probably has in the back of his mind an idea in want of a project.  For me, the strongest one  stems from my interest in boats and boating.


20′ Highlander

When I was a kid, my father bought a Highlander Inland class sailboat. This is a 20′ boat with a mainsail & jib and which also could carry a spinnaker.  Our boat was solid wood construction with a mahogany hull and a wooden mast & boom.   My family sailed it during summers for a couple of years at the Hoover Yacht Club near Westerville Ohio where I grew up.  Tragically, the boat was holed, the mast and boom destroyed by a careless driver who ran off the road and ended up upside down on top of the boat taking a couple of fence posts with him and ripping the boat off the trailer, sliding atop it across the gravel marina parking area for about 50 feet.  We moved the boat to our backyard under a shed and worked on & off for years trying to restore it. Dad sold it 10 or more years later but she never sailed again for us.


13′-9″ Sunfish

I also took sailing lessons (with my Mom) at the Yacht Club in 1974 (the year that Jaws came out in movie theaters).  We learned to sail on a fleet of little Sunfish,  small 13 3/4′ single person boats (2 could sail without incident if they both knew what they were doing).  Though I never sailed much after that summer (except for a brief session at summer camp a couple of year’s later earning my sailing merit badge)  I trace my love of boats and the water to these experiences.


Ocean Kayak Malibu II

Years later, when my own family was young, I embraced  the sit-on-top kayak like the ones manufactured by Ocean Kayak.  I was introduced to this type of kayak when my family took a paddling tour while vacationing at Las Olas Beach Resort in Satellite Beach Florida in the late 90s and bought our own a few years later. We use it practically every year when we return to Florida to explore the canals and islands of the inland waterways looking to observe manatee and dolphins. Recently, I have embraced the paddle-board craze by purchasing ISUP boards from Tower Paddle Boards.  But I am getting ahead of myself!

Porgy and Bess--Catfish Row--Project

Porgy and Bess–Catfish Row–Project

Over the years, I have often sought to include boats into my set designs.  In graduate school at Penn State University one of my scene design professors assigned us the set design for Porgy and Bess.  Most of the play occurs in Catfish Row (a fictitious

Porgy and Bess--Kittiwah Island--Project

Porgy and Bess–Kittiwah Island–Project

neighborhood of run-down tenements near the Charlestown South Carolina waterfront circa 1920s)  However, smack in the middle of the play, the action moves briefly to Kittiwah Island where the community goes to have a picnic.  I envisioned the island for this project as a low, flat, sandy dune with scraggly growth, a stunted Palmetto tree and an upturned boat.

I also included an upturned boat in the design project for Ah, Wilderness!  that I designed as another grad. school project.  When Richard and Muriel meet for an evening rendezvous at the beach, I thought of them sitting on an upturned skiff.  A couple of years later I was unsuccessful in getting a boat included for a realized production at Allentown College (now De Sales University).

On and off over the years, I  failed repeatedly to integrate boats into the design of several productions where I thought one might be useful (most recently my 2013 design for A Winter’s Tale which saw the 2nd act set in a Texas/Louisiana bayou.)  I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but when I had the opportunity to design Carousel in Fall 2014, I seized on the boat idea for the clambake scene.  As in Porgy and Bess, the community retires at one point in the action to an offshore island for a picnic (characterized in this New England setting as a “clambake”).  I had been unsuccessful in getting a boat into the 2004 production of Carousel , so this time, because I was determined to give each scene an iconic look, I was more-than-ever determined to finally get a boat into the production.


Carousel Act II scene 1 (The Island)

One of the things that always “thwarted” me (pardon the pun) in the past was how complicated that it would be to construct something that actually looked like a boat, while also being able to support the weight of the actors who would inevitably sit, climb and possibly dance on it.  While researching the look of old wooden boats, I  concluded that the standard caravel or lapstrake planking methods of boatbuilding would exceed our available skills, space, time and budget.  I  flirted briefly with the idea of purchasing a boat and searched local Craigslist listings.  I found a couple of possibilities including a 15′ Sirocco daysailer that was going for around $750.  At that price, I strongly considered it (thinking that I might just buy it myself and loan it to the production) but I thought better of the idea, concluding that the work needed to make the fiberglass hull appear to be a late nineteenth-century boat would be overly time consuming and would probably wreck the boat besides.

During my research I ran across a boat-building technique known as “Stitch and Glue”.  This method uses sheets of plywood cut into pre-designed shapes, held together with copper wire as the basis for the boat hull. There are books that detail this technique, but I found a pretty useful free tutorial on Stitch and Glue boatbuilding  online.

OrthographicCarouselBoadI found  free plans online and downloaded several before settling on the 14′ Sunny Skiff rowing boat at  Full-scale templates  for these boats are available  on the web sites (for a fee), but I TemplateCarouselBoatSide&Bottomimported the pdf pages into Vectorworks, scaled them, then traced the parts using the 2D Polygon [drawing] Tool to create the orthographic drawing and the part layouts that are shown on this page.  Using the Viewport feature of Vectorworks, I was able to print out full-scale templates of my own on our HP 24″ DesignJet printer.  That way there was no question about my carpenters reinterpreting the shapes in such a way that the parts would not fit together properly.  Notice that the bottom and the sides of the boat are longer than the standard 8′ length of a TemplateCarouselBoatThwarts&Deckssheet of plywood.  Boat builders get around this issue by joining two lengths of plywood with a tapered “scarf” joint, thus creating one long piece of plywood out of two.  There is even a tool available to accomplish this job.  Since this wasn’t going to be a REAL boat, we scabbed the plywood pieces together, positioning the side joints so that they would be hidden in the “thwart” (the seat that is positioned in roughly the middle of the boat). To maintain the maximum offset between them, the joint on the bottom of the boat was about 12″ astern (behind) the one in the sides.  The original plan was to have the boat upturned anyway, so none of these scabbed joints were expected to show.  The boat bottom and all of the frames and decks from were cut from 5/8″ ply, and the sides from 1/4″ ply.  An authentic boat would be constructed from marine grade plywood, costing a premium, but since this was scenery, we used standard CDX for the 5/8″ & B/C for the 1/4″ ply.  Instead of using the copper wire “stitching” and epoxy resin to construct the hull, we used staples, construction adhesive and adhesive caulk.  We did not take pains to bevel joints where pieces abutted others at non-right angles either, relying on the application of adhesive caulk to cover up the omission.  After completing the hull, we reinforced the gunwales by ripping 1x to 3/4″ widths and bending and gluing them along the top edges of both sides. laminating 3 strips to gain a 2 1/4″ reinforced edge.

CarouselTheIsland#1CROPPED_6890Unfortunately, we did not get any process photos.

After about 1 week of construction, the boat was ready for tech rehearsals. During that process, we made several changes to how the boat was to be used.  While I always thought of it as an “overturned” boat, CarouselTheIsland#2_6893the director Jennifer Nostrala and I realized that as a scenic element, it was more picturesque and more useful in an upright orientation.  Also, although my original intent was to have the boat onstage throughout the scene, Jennifer decided to strike all of the scenery and props following the initial CarouselTheIsland#4CROPPED_6901“Clambake” number, leaving the unit set stark and bare.  Later, she decided to leave the “market umbrella” that we used to dress the stage on stage right, but the boat did not stay.  While the boat did provide seating variety for some couples during the clambake number, its picturesque presence was absent throughout the rest of the scene, meaning that we didn’t get many great production photos of the boat onstage.

Once the production was over, I resisted the persistent requests to take the boat to a local lake and put her in the water to see how she would float.  I have no doubt that the boat would initially float and behave as it should.  However, built as she was of inferior materials using “set construction shortcuts” I am also convinced that she would deteriorate quickly and shortly become unserviceable.  So, we slid her into a storage garage next to the carousel horses.  When next I need a boat (overturned or otherwise) for a production, she will be waiting.  Meanwhile, I now have some experience with boat-building.  Perhaps my next boat will be made of better stuff and will be able to paddle or sail in the water for real!

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



Turning Legs for Jenny Lind Tables: The Memory Of Water

Posted in Design and Production on May 11, 2015 by stevenjmclean

In November 2014 Theatre Simpson opened a production of The Memory of Water.  We produced it in the Simpson College Blank Performing Arts Center’s Barnum Theatre.  Barnum is an unusual shaped Black Box style space.  A “Black Box” space is one that according to J Michael Gillette in his textbook Theatrical Design and Production is ” usually painted black and [has] a simple rectangular shape” and has seating that “is generally located on movable bleacher-like modules that can be arranged in any number of ways around the playing space”.  Our Barnum theatre fits this general description, and director Anne Woldt chose to produce the play in an arena configuration.

The choice of an arena staging configuration with the audience surrounding the acting area on all four sides drives many choices that the set designer will make.  Again, according to J Michael Gillette:

The scenery used on an arena stage is extremely minimal. Because the audience surrounds the stage, designing for the arena theatre provides a challenge to all the designers.  Anything used on an arena stage–sets, costumes, makeup, props — must be carefully selected to clearly specify the period, mood, and feeling of the play.  Additionally, everything must be well constructed, because the audience sits almost on top of the stage and can see every construction detail.

The Memory of Water takes place in the bedroom of the recently deceased Vi and concerns her daughters Mary, Theresa, and Catherine and their coming to grips with their memories of their mother and of growing up together.  There are several scenic requirements demanded or implied by the script:  A full-sized or larger bed, a bedside table and lamp, a dressing table with functioning drawers, storage for clothing and other items that the sisters sort through, the suggestion of a mirror, an entrance from another part of the hours, a casket, and a window through which one person must enter.  The standard arena configuration surrounds the acting area on four sides.  This typically leaves the 4 corners open for entrances.  This also creates the circumstance that the actors can stand on diagonals to one another without blocking one another from large sections of the audience. Entrances along these diagonals help to motivate such blocking.  It is also customary to place items on or near those corners of the acting area  to motivate blocking on non-entrance diagonals.  Large items can sometimes be placed on the diagonals as well to prevent them from creating serious sight-line issues.


Consequently, I chose to place the bed in one corner and the window roughly diagonal to it on the other corner.  We  adjusted the audience seating to accommodate the placement of those items, and placed other items (trunk, mirror and dressing table) on the axis created by the aisles in the seating  sections.  We used one diagonal as the entrance to the room from the rest of the house and although not directly called for in the script, used the opposite corner to represent an exit to an offstage dressing-room or bathroom.

7031MemoryOfWaterSetSMALLEven with its placement in the corner, the headboard of a bed presents a serious challenge in an arena stage. However, while imagining the setting, I came across a wonderful Jenny Lind headboard that should prove to minimize the problem with its open spindle configuration.  In order to maintain a sense of design to the room, I felt that it HeadboardB_2231
was necessary to carry the general design style of spool-style spindles through as much of the rest of the room’s furniture as possible.  This presented quite a challenge since the acquisition of the head-board and bed frame was a bit of a fluke and there was minimal likelihood of acquiring matching bedside table and dressing tables.   Since the arena configuration dictated such a minimal scenic response (a floor, a cornice and a window) in addition to this furniture, I decided that we could build it and decided to design and build the matching dressing and bed-side tables.
TheMemoryOfWaterSide&DressingTablesThe biggest challenge would be the spool-style legs.  After a search through catalogue and online sources for suitable table legs failed to discover anything useful, I determined to turn them myself.  I have some previous experience with turning.  However my skills were rusty.  Though every-place I worked previously had a lathe in the shop, Simpson College did not.

DiagramOfCraftsmanLatheThe first impediment to my plan: the need to secure a lathe. I was hoping to pick up a high-quality lathe from Craigslist.  However, I had to settle for one of the ubiquitous “Craftsman” lathes that Sears flooded the market with between 1960 and 1990. To put it in perspective, of those shops that I worked in that had lathes EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS A CRAFTSMAN!  Thus it was with only a little disappointment and no real other concern that I settled on and purchased one. (I have since seen several Delta, Jet and other manufacturer’s lathes advertised for decent prices on Craigslist, so, your mileage may vary).

A visit to my local Woodsmith Store scored me some 2″ thick Poplar that I could turn the legs from.  In retrospect, I found the Poplar a little brittle and splintery for this purpose.  Had I to do it again, I would look for a “friendlier” wood such as Birch, but the price was right for the Poplar and I didn’t have to do any glue-up to get the turning blanks.

I began the process by ripping the stock to as close to square cross-section as possible without a planer or a joiner.  This allowed me to find the exact center of each end by drawing a diagonal from  opposite corners to find the intersection.

The table legs that I designed included sections that were to remain square.  In order to mark the blanks so that I could round the spool sections while keeping the square sections un-rounded  I created a template or story-board by printing off a full-scale viewport of the leg drawing using Vectorworks.  I spray cemented the full-scale drawing to a strip of 1/8″ Masonite.  After marking the block, I made shallow cuts on all four sides of the blank to separate the surfaces of the square sections from those that were to be rounded.  While I was at it, I scored shallow cuts along each diagonal of the end of the blank that would be held by the lathe headstock spur center.  I removed  the spur center from the headstock spindle and tapped it into the scored end with a woodworking mallet, then mounted the blank between the lathe centers, placing the spur center back in the headstock and aligning the indentations and centering the point of the tailstock cup center on the other end.  I tightened the tailstock to the bed and  tightened the tailstock ram in place with the crank until the blank was held securely between the points.


2384CaliperSMALLI turned the spool sections round (using the gouge tool), then using the the template again (as seen above), marked all of the turned details on the blank.  Using mostly the parting and skew chisel tools (with judicious use of the spindle gouge), I continued to refine the shapes until they matched the design both “by eye” and by using a caliper to verify that diameters were rendered correctly.


The soft and brittle nature of the Poplar resulted in a lot of tear-out.  To make the surface smooth, after an initial sanding, I rubbed joint compound into the turned sections.  Once dry, I sanded again and applied a coating of shellac.  Since it was always my attention to paint the legs so that they would match the rest of the inferior grade woods for the tables, this worked very well.

2394SideTablePartsSMALL 2492BedTable2498DressingTable2395DressingTablePartsSMALL

Not counting the cost of the lathe, these perfectly matching tables ended up costing us less than $100 (mostly in the cost of the Poplar).  With so few elements of scenery visible onstage, it was important that the furnishings coordinate.

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



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 ( 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  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!



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!