How to Build It (or, Drawing for the Shop You Have)

I found myself staring at a designer drawing of a simple porch column the other day: about 14' tall, with a 3'-tall brick base and a tapered square profile above. I started drawing it, and then stopped. I was stuck--thinking about different views, different construction techniques, different material choices. It was a little frustrating, frankly, but not all that uncommon: I often find myself spending a lot of mental energy thinking about how to build a piece of scenery--even the seemingly simple pieces and small units. I'll draw a few lines of geometry in one view, then a few in another, and then stop and stare, maybe move on to something else.

This seeming procrastination used to drive me crazy. I use to kick myself, trying to figure out what was wrong with my head. Was I tired? Was I suffering a caffeine crash? Did I have a minor stroke to the spatial recognition centers of my brain?

Of course not. My Dad taught me many things, but one of the most important was to always trust my gut. I've learned to trust that when I find myself turning away from a drawing, that's my gut telling me I need to think more about what I'm doing. Sometimes that's because I've missed something--how a unit interfaces with another unit, how I need to rig it to fly, or whatever. Often, I've found, is that what I need to think about is not simply how to build it--but how my shop, the crew of people I have right now with the resources I have available, can build the unit.

For many units--typical walls and decks--there are a small handful of tried-and-true construction methods, and picking one is often a simple matter of considering time and money. But for more complex scenic units, figuring out how to achieve the effect the designer and director are asking for, within the parameters of time and money you have available, with the skill sets you have in the shop, can be...difficult. Consider a ceiling for a recent production of Barefoot in the Park here at Dorset Theatre Festival. The design of the production had two walls which met at an angle of about 80 degrees; the top of one of these walls rose from about 5' off the ground (where the two walls met) to a height of over 14'. Capping these two walls was a ceiling piece.

To have these units--the two walls and ceilings--meet with nice joints at the corners--what a friend of mine would say is with "good fit and finish"--would require some tricky compound mitres and bevels. Our shop is comprised of an experienced ATD, an experienced carpenter, and three interns with (relatively) little experience. This show by far included some of the most complicated scenic construction we'd attempted to date, with beveled flats that had mitered tops--but so far, the interns had not attempted any difficult compound joinery. Given that the intersection of these two walls and this ceiling were center stage--would likely be a big focal point of the visual picture--I was very anxious we not get to load in and have big gaps or overlaps that we would need to account for.

Like the porch column for our current show, I stared at that ceiling piece for a couple of days, trying to figure out why I couldn't figure out how to draw it. The reason, of course, was that I didn't know how to match the complexity of the construction required to meet the level of fit and finish I found acceptable with the level of skill and ability in the shop. I could draw those compound mitres easily. I could draw a collection of three flats that, in the CAD world on my laptop, fit together perfectly--like they were meant to go together. But I didn't have any confidence that, having drawn them, the shop would be able to achieve the level of accuracy and detail required to make those flats meet perfectly in the real world.

Let me be clear: I've got a great shop. But 3/5 of that shop is inexperienced and young. Not *bad*, just young. However, I believe, just like with my students and my son, it's important to set my shop up to succeed. Giving them construction tasks that are way beyond their ability to achieve successfully does nothing other than create frustrated carpenters who have to punt and often rebuild units once we arrive at load in. (For the record: I'm all for challenging my staff--they'll never get better if I don't--but I'm not interested in making more work for them during what is always the most time-intensive part of every show by giving them construction tasks they cannot complete correctly and will only have to fix at load-in.)

Perhaps it's clearer now why my brain sometimes declares a time-out when doing construction drawings for some scenic units: the need to fulfill a designer's vision sometimes collides pretty heavily with the need to draw construction tasks my shop can complete successfully. This usually means a lot more thinking about how to achieve the desires of the designer, because the methods available may be somewhat limited.

For the ceiling unit in Barefoot in the Park, the solution was deceptively simple: build the wall short enough that the ceiling could sit on top, and let the ceiling be wider than the opening and overhang the wall. This prevented the shop from having to struggle--probably unsuccessfully--with compound mitres while still achieving the designer's desired vision.

Sure; my solution seems like an obvious one. But it's easy to get tunneled-in on the designer's drawings--which, in this case, included elevations of the ceiling ending up against the wall, not over it--and lose sight of what your shop can easily accomplish. Being a good technical director, however, means finding achievable solutions to the challenges the designer poses. Often, this means keeping in mind what skills your staff has, and dreaming up creative methods of leveraging those skills to their advantage.

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Comment by Jeffrey Dobbs on October 7, 2013 at 1:11pm

Running parts "wild" that are not seen, I have found easier to built, especially when there are compound angles to deal with. It looks so easy on CAD, so precise, but not in the building process, considering the tools available and the level of experience, modifications are necessary.

I often find my self at a dead end in design. My wife tells me to walk away from it & come back to it later, which always works. Time to think about it without pressure opens-up many ideas.  Sometimes I even conscientiously concentrate on my right-brain!

Great post Rich, I can really relate!

Comment by Larry Vigus on August 26, 2013 at 12:08pm

That's how we always did it in television and film so the ceiling could be "wild" if needed for lighting or other shots.   This gives you flexibility and provides the most opportunities for attachment and adjustment.

Comment by Brian Wolfe on August 26, 2013 at 11:20am


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