Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bob Feller

Once the last show was up and running I had over a week of free time to relax before the final set strike and clean up at the end of the season.
I took a few days and went to my family cabin near Hancock, NY and spent time with the chipmunks sitting in an Adirondack chair by the outside fireplace and just enjoying it all.

I also stopped by a used book store (and let’s hear for used book stores) and looked for something a bit different than my usual mystery or detective novels I read .
I picked up the autobiography of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.

A few days after I returned home from Connecticut I heard on the radio that Bob Feller would be signing autographs at the local minor league ball park and so I decided to go.
I went through my card collection and found one of his cards and went off to the game.
At 76 Bob was still flying his own plane around to ball parks and would sign for hours.
I got my turn and he signed my card with a blunted Sharpie.
I tried to talk with him about his book I had just read but because he was hard of hearing he did not really hold conversations.
He was supposed to sign for an hour before the game but was still there well past the sixth inning.

I still had a few weeks before the new school year would begin again and a new set of adventures were about to begin.
Each year some students graduate or leave and new ones arrive but although I still had some very good students the total number of technical/design majors was falling off.
In the early 1990’s we were able to build large and complex sets because of the staff and large number of skilled students we had.
The start of the 1994-5 school year was the beginning of several years of transition as there would be several staff changes, fewer tech students and building renovations that all effected our productions.

There will still be many well done productions ahead but I still think of the previous few years and a special period and I am proud of what we, the faculty and students, had accomplished.

Up first in the fall of 1994 was The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

* * *

Monday, July 9, 2018

One Big Thorn

I had a great time in Connecticut in the summer of 1994.
I was proud of the work that my staff and I did and enjoyed meeting an interesting mix of people.
Because the actors and tech staff lived together in the dorm we talked and joked in our free time and told a few “War Stories” about our experiences working in Theatre.

From the director of the first play I learned a few things about how Soap Operas are filmed.
She told me that each day of the week had its own director who filmed only the scenes to be shown on that day, so a party scene that goes on for three or four shows is filmed each day by a different director and not all at once.

One of the actresses in Don’t Dress for Dinner, Melissa Hurst, had a recent baby and her husband, Richard Council, was staying at the school to care for the baby and his was seen walking all over the campus with the baby in a stroller.
On occasion the two would stop by the shop for a visit and see what we were doing.
A few months later while watching The Cosby Mysteries I realized that one of the actors on the show was indeed Richard Council.
The company producer had a Fourth of July pool party at his house and from time-to-time there would be special dinners served outside on the Veranda hosted by the company chef.

It was an almost perfect summer except for one thing or should I say one person.
There was one woman working at the Festival that I did not get along with or should I say she did not get along with me.
I will not mention her name or the job she did but will call her Jane as in Jane Doe.
I will note that from what I saw Jane did her job very well.
Our work schedules only overlapped a little bit but from the first day she made it clear that she felt that my crew and I were in her way.
My guys were working with the Genie lift and Jane walks in and said that she needed it now; I told her she could have it as soon as they were finished with the job.

When I left to work in Connecticut I told myself that I was going to have a good time and not let little things bother me so as Jane continued with her curt and rude remarks I just let them go.
I remember my crew telling me; “hey she was just really rude to you” and I just smiled and said yes she was.

Jane would often come into work just as we were finishing up our workday in the shop and I would always ask she needed us to help her with anything before we left.
She would always bark back: “No I don’t need any help!” and I would smile and say goodnight.

One day when Jane was working earlier than normal and as we all went to lunch I asked her if she was coming too and she just barked something I did not understand and walked away.
A few days later she did show up for lunch and I said without really thinking: “Hey just because I invited you to lunch didn’t mean you could come”.
Of course she exploded and went on and on about not needing my permission to eat and all of us just laughed at her.

I did make an effort to figure out what was going on tried to stop it.
I went to two women in the company who knew what was going on to ask them what I was doing wrong and what I could do about it but both said I was doing nothing wrong and that she was just a bitch.
I think it pissed her off that I just responded to her rudeness with “Have a nice day” and smiles.

Near the end of the summer I did lose my cool and yelled back at her.
We were working with a guest dance company and trying to set up the theatre when Jane starting yelling at me from across the theatre about who knows what.
I told her to stop talking and that I had taken enough of her shit and it was unacceptable for her to talk that way in front of our guests and she needed to apologize to them.

I wish the producer had done something to stop her rude conduct but that never happened.

In the months of returning to Brockport one of my former students, and I have them working everywhere, told a story of working at Jane’s home theatre and how she was rude to people there too.
Another former student working at a theatre that was doing a joint production with Jane’s home theatre told of receiving an overly packed package of what most would consider as consumable items marked with the message: “These items are the property of so-in-so Theatre and are expected to be returned in good condition blah, blah, blah”.

As I said earlier, I thought she was good at her job but had some problem that I could not solve.

If I had found the big thorn in her paw I would have gladly pulled it out.

* * *

Friday, July 6, 2018

Statues and a few Odd Bitz

The sets for three plays that summer each offered their own interesting challenges that made the hard work enjoyable.
The last play required a few unique elements, three life-size statues.
With the Greek Theatre theme to the play the statues would be white but in contemporary poses.
It was decided to use plaster bandage wraps used for broken bone casts and cast whole people.
Even back in 1994 plaster casts were becoming less common place but we found a supplier in Hartford.
I let my assistant Rich take the lead on the casting process in which he did a great job.
Who to cast?

Well it is time for a side story.  
The Westminster School where the Theatre Festival was held was a boarding school for rich kids from all over the world.
Some teenage boy was traveling across America that summer and was looking for interesting places to go.
Somebody who knew somebody suggested he make a stop in Simsbury.
The only thing going on at the school in the summer was soccer camps and the Theatre Festival so he came to hang out with us for week or so.

So this boy who nobody knew hung out with us in the scene shop just as we were about to do the body casting so he became our first victim, I mean model.
So on a hot summer day dressed in shorts; wearing a black garbage bag and covered with Vaseline we began to cover him in plaster.

Ken, British Teen and Rich
We learned a few things on the first attempt.
First we tried to cast too much of the body at once and also plaster gives off a lot of heat as it sets.
Look up exothermic reaction online for hours of fun scientific facts to read and enjoy.
For the next two bodies we did only parts of each body and then joined them together after they were set.
We cast Ken, the other shop assistant, and even Ellen, the scene designer, let us cast her.
You can see two of the body casts in the photos I have posted but Ellen’s body double was sitting just out of the camera’s range.

We did not work all the time that summer and did have some time for fun.
I brought my bicycle and we all rode it around the campus and to town from time to time, plus we played some tennis, badly, and used to school pool a few times.
The company had a good chef on staff and fed us three meals a day.
The chef was cool guy who let us know where the key to the freezer was so we had a few midnight ice cream raids.
Early on I remember going into town to check out one of the bars.
It was a typical bar with several T.V.s on each one with something different.

There were baseball games on a few T.Vs but one had a news channel on that was showing an aerial shot of a slow moving SUV.
Of course that was the infamous O.J. slow chase in the white Ford Bronco.

Someone recommended we check out the view from Heublein Tower on Talcott Mountain.
We stopped by and took the very steep path mile or so up to near the tower.

Cliff by Heublein Tower

I was amazed that people were riding mountain bikes on the path and even more shocked that several people were carrying what looked like large beach umbrellas.
When we got to the top the view was great and the umbrellas turned out to be hang gliders.
It is a very steep cliff edge and those who jump have no room for error.
You can see a video of people flying from that spot at the following link:

I had a great time that summer and only had one problem that I tried not let bother me.
More next time . . . . .

* * *

Monday, June 25, 2018

Another Antigone, 1994

Our third and last show of the season was Another Antigone by A. R. Gurney.
The set was designed by Ellen W who had designed the set for the first show and because she also designed the lighting we hired an outside scene painter to help with this show.
More about the scene painter later.
The casts for the first two shows were professional actors who had been auditioned and hired out of New York City.

Another Antigone was prepared at the University of Michigan were the director and leading actor taught.
The director’s wife and brother-in-law were also in the cast along with a recent Michigan graduate.
They all came to Michigan after I had been a student there.
Like the first two plays I thought the set for this show was great.
The play is simple, a student writes a play, an updated version of Antigone, rather than the formal critical paper the teacher required and the fight over it.
There was not a classic box set with walls of the teacher’s office and other locations, but rather a minimal amount of furniture.

The office area, downstage center, was surrounded by tall Greek columns on both sides and amphitheater seating in a skeletal form upstage.
Behind all of that on the far sides and along the upstage of the acting area there were tall burlap panels hanging.
Lightly painted on the panels were buildings representing a large college campus.
By the last show my small crew and I were working well together and were ready to take on the new challenges of the show.
The large columns were not an issue as I had just ordered and used large Sonotubes for a production a few months before and knew what to look for in dealing with them.
Large foam pieces were cut and glued together then placed on top of the columns as capitals.
The burlap panels were just long fabric pieces which we hung with simple sandwich battens that offered just one problem, we had to fireproof them.
Fortunately the weather was on our side as it took several days to lay out all the fabric, spray them with the fireproofing liquid wait for them to dry, test, and then reapply.
The fireproofing liquid even came with a Bic lighter and a simple instruction sheet.
Keep applying liquid until fabric does not burn.
It took three applications.

The amphitheater seating structure gave me some difficulties at first, but after some thought I figured out what to do and we built it without any problems.
If a set does not offer some challenges then it is not enjoyable to build.
As I mentioned above that we needed to hire an outside scene painter and it became my job to find one.
I did not know where to look for scene painters in Connecticut as first but remembered that two former students were working fifty miles away at the Goodspeed Opera House.
I made a call and unfortunately one of the formers students had just left to move to California and the other was not available nor did she have any leads on another painter.

Almost giving up my assistant mentioned that another former student was working at Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, NY which was not too far away.
Another phone call and I had a painter who was happy to come over and paint for a few days and make some extra money.
Over the years the Emelin Theatre is one of those places where I have had several former students end up working.
Although the set had a few tricky elements it ended up looking good and was fun to work on.
There was just one special scenic element that was more challenging than anything else the whole summer and I will talk about that in the next post.

* * *

Don't Dress for Dinner. 1994

Preparations for the Don’t Dress for Dinner, a French sex farce by Marc Camoletti, began even before the first play opened.
The company producer, Dean Adams, both directed and designed the set for the play.
I met with him and discussed his ideas for the set and then drafted the working drawing.
As I worked on the drawings I would occasionally met with him to discuss building methods and materials to be used.

Lumber and other materials needed to be ordered so that we could start to build the set as soon as the first play opened.
There was little to no storage at the theatre so all of the sets were built from scratch.
For this show we had to build a box set that had exposed wooden beams both on the walls and hanging above plus a field stone wall upstage.
Fortunately I had past experiences with these elements and how to achieve the desired look.
The stone was relatively easy to make as we cut Homasote to the shapes required and then split each stone down the middle with wide-bladed putty knives.
Honestly it was a little difficult to split the larger stones but the result was well worth it as the stones looked great when painted.

Five doors were also made using 1x6 planks with two cross members and large rustic hardware.
All of the wood, both the beams and doors, were to be distressed in some manner.
Not looking forward to beating all the boards with a chain for days on end I came up with an easier solution.
When I first came into town I toured some of the local lumber and tool suppliers and I had seen a grinder wheel at a local shop that was just what we needed.
The wheel had about five chain saw type teeth on it and chewed nicely into the wood.
There was a good deal on lumber to distress, it made a big mess and it did take us a while to do.
We found that we could only work about a half an hour before our hands went numb so we had to take turns as we worked on the project.

I thought the hard work was worth it and the finished set looked very good.
At the time I felt the design of all of the sets that summer were very good and as I have recently looked back at these and other designs of the same shows I must say the sets still look good.
I feel that the set for this play and the other two shows that summer were all designed well and not only fit the needs of the plays but worked well the theatre space itself.
Yes I know I am biased, but I looked at over a dozen photos of other productions of the play and I still like this one the best.
Some of the other productions are bigger and more time and money spent on them, but the design for this production really worked for me and the others just look like “sets”.
One of the nice touches that I had forgotten about until I looked again at the photos of the show was the back stone wall.
Because the set is supposed to be an up-dated farm house, the stone pattern on the back wall had sections that were meant to show ghosts of windows that was no longer used and had been filled in.

 * * *

Pump Boys and Dinettes, 1994

Typical of most summer stock theatres, we had very little time to build the shows.
We had about three weeks to build the set for the first show, Pump Boys and Dinettes.
Maybe more of a concert, it was a small musical in which the actors played all off the instruments onstage.
Knowing the space well, the scene designer did a great job fitting the set into the space while working with all of the needs of the play.
As is the case for many good looking sets, it looked deceptively simple but it had some interesting elements and was not too difficult to build.

It was a unit set with four main parts, a small diner and gas station unit on either side of the stage, a forced perspective road running upstage to the painted horizon and a large curved false proscenium covered with 6 inch wooden planks.
Luckily the producer bought, rented or stole most of the props and set dressings form another production of the show.

Because of that we did not have to make the counters, swiveling seats or advertising menu signage for the diner set the build went fast with few problems.
The false proscenium was the only thing that gave me a concern.
As I was not sure how, with a limited crew, that we could put it up but as I continued to work on the construction drawings it came to me how to divide the unit into smaller pieces that could be easily handled.
The pieces of the upper part of the proscenium were joined side-by-side and then the hanging hardware and cables were attached.
After the top section was flown out the two narrower side pieces were stood up and attached.
It is a great feeling when the vision of how to get something done right and safely comes to you, but until it does there can be some moments of anguish.

Fortunately past experiences and learning from earlier mistakes (someone else's, not mine off course) makes each new project a bit easier and less stressful but still there always can be some difficult moments on any production.
The set required some nice touches as we made a "Diner" sign that lit up and hung a big round "Gas" sign on the other side.
The “Gas” did not look quite right and I thought that the pole holding the sign needed a little something at the end.
Of course the something that I thought it needed was back in my shop in Brockport so I called one of my assistants who was back in town to go into my shop and mailed me a 8" pointed metal finial.
It came in time for the show and I think it was the right thing to finish the set.
The set looked great and I think everyone was happy with it.

There was this one little distraction during the run of the show.
As I did not run the shows, I spent most show nights either in my room or drafting working drawings for the next production.
On show just I got back to my room there was a large BANG and the lighting flashed.
Not sure what happened I went back to theatre to find out that the building had been hit by lightning causing a limited power outage.
Although some power and lighting was restored the stage lighting was out.
After an almost hour delay the producer decided to continue the show with just two 1000 watt work lights on the stage.
The audience was offered tickets to another show if they did not want to stay but after arranging for baby sitters and a nice dinner out nobody took the offer.
The audience who stayed had a very interesting evening that must have stories to talk about for a long time after.
The stage lighting was restored the next day and the rest of the run went off without a hitch.

* * *

Monday, June 18, 2018

Getting Started

I had work to do even before I left for Connecticut.
As Technical Director I needed to help hire a shop staff for the summer.
The producer sent me several resumes of people who had applied to work at the theatre.
I was told I could hire two additional staff as there were several others that had already been hired.
I had tried to hire one of my recent students but he told me he already had plans for the summer.

There were not too many great choices in the resumes but one stood out as a promising prospect from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and I offered him a job.
Dickinson College is a very old college with a long history including a former president and the early home of JenniCam a ground-breaking website in the evolution of the internet.

If you do not know about JenniCam you need to Google it as it is not the subject of this blog.

I was having a hard time finding another person for the shop as some of the candidates had taken other jobs but I was lucky that my former student’s summer plans had fallen through and was available and willing to work with me.
Soon after driving to Connecticut and moving in I met the rest of the staff and began work on the summer season.
I  had only two full time shop staff workers but the were both excellent and worked very hard.
They would make a little extra money serving as the run crew for some of the productions.
I will talk about them in more detail and what happened to them in a future Blog post.

Dean Adams, the producer of the festival and director of one of the plays, was a teacher at the host school and had run the festival for several seasons.
An interesting and talented man, he was originally from Seattle and went to high school with Bill Gates.
Dean’s sister-in-law was his assistant and kept the budget in line among other duties.
Like most theatres it seemed that everyone had duties beyond their job description with the goal of putting on a good production.

The scene designer, Ellen Waggett,  was a talented young woman just out of college who had been a student at the Westminster School some years before.
Ellen went on to work in NYC and continues to have an excellent career in  Theatre and Television and has designed for both the Tonight Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Summer Theatre has little extra time and I had to start right away on the first two music events and the first play.
I worked with my staff to set up the shop, order supplies and ready the stage for the first music events by day and did set working drawings at night.
Although I had just started working a bit with CAD I drafted my working drawings by hand.
The opening Gala event was very simple with just a grand piano onstage.

Watching from the back of the house I was shocked when I saw the condition of the piano as it had many small chips in the paint, so much that it looked like it had been hit with birdshot.
Before the next event I spent my free time coloring in as many of the chips as I could with a black sharpie.

It was not a proper fix but it looked a hundred times better the next time it was onstage.
There were a few local recent graduates of the school that worked with us that summer and we would get a bonus worker later in the summer that I will talk about in future Blog posts.

Finally it was time to build the set for  Pump Boys and Dinettes.

 * * *