Anna in the Tropics closed this past weekend at Burien Little Theatre. It was a joint production between BLT and Latino Theatre Projects. I was the scenic and lighting designer for the show and wanted to share some insights into what goes into putting a design together.
Earlier this year, I directed BLT’s production of The Who’s Tommy. I was also the set designer for that production. One reason that sometimes occurs is that I have a very clear picture in my mind on how I want the set to look, and since I design as well as direct, it is frequently easier and faster if I just design my own sets. This isn’t always the case. BLT is fortunate to have the help of a very talented designer and painter – Nathan Rodda. Nathan has designed sets for me on past productions of Dracula, The Rocky Horror Show, Reefer Madness and Frankenstein. I am always grateful when he designs for me.
Back to Tommy – I had the idea, with the challenge of so many locations needed; I would make the stage a “one unit” set. This is a set that is literally “one unit”. The different locations and scenes would be represented with furniture and lighting only. I decided to make the set into the Tommy pinball machine. The stage became the playing area of the game and the backplane became the backing for the band. This meant that I would extend our stage out another 24’ from the apron (the edge of the stage). This led to the decision to orient the audience seating on either side of the stage extension, a form of theater called “alley staging”. I have wanted to do that type of staging for some time, and Tommy was the perfect opportunity for it.
I remember standing on the extension after it was just put into place and thinking that in very few other venues around the region could I actually do this type of stage. Very few other places have that versatility.
That design led to the producers of Latino Theatre Projects to contact me to design Anna in the Tropics. Both Fernando and Robert had done shows with BLT previously and I worked with both of them on Frankenstein, so they knew me and my work, and wanted me to design the set and the lighting. This is no problem; designers frequently overlap like that. You will find set/lighting designers, set/costume designers, etc.
The first step any designer takes is to read the script. This first read gives us answers to basic questions like “where is the action located?”, “what time of day/year is this happening?”, “how many locations, scenes are there?”
The play uses as its primary location a family owned cigar factory in Florida. The time of the play is summer in 1929. There are two other scenes with three different additional locations; a neighborhood cockfight, a dockside waiting for an ocean going ship, and a room in the house of two of the characters. Since the majority of the play takes place in the
factory, that had to be the main focus of the design. This was like Dracula and Reefer Madness – many different locations with one main location to consider. In Dracula, it was the bedrooms of Lucy and the asylum; in Reefer Madness, it was the Reefer Den. These locations were where the large part of the action took place, so had to be the main consideration for the set design. All other locations had to be subordinate to that.
Once the main location is identified, the designer will start the research needed to figure out what the set will look like. Since I had never been in a Cuban cigar factory in 1929 Florida, I went to the Internet. I immediately got lucky and found this image.
One thing particular to cigar factories of this era was the presence of a “lector”. This individual is hired to read to the cigar rollers from novels and news articles. This helps educate and break the monotony of the workers. This lector character also plays a large role in Anna in the Tropics, so the stand that is featured in this picture would also be strong in my set.
There were other features that I liked from this picture. The heavy beams and the brick walls are great features for a set. The windows were also a great look since another aspect of the play was the heat inside the factory. I could use the windows to indicate time of day when I lit the show.
I also found this image:
This also featured the lector and his stand. The one thing I took from this was the elevation of the stand. As a director and a designer, I love using levels on a set. It can be very helpful to have different levels for actors to play on. The heavy beams were also in this picture.
One of the things also driving what a final design will look like is the budget the theater is willing to spend on the set materials. Since neither BLT nor Latino Theatre Projects is rolling in money, we very often try to keep the costs of our sets low, while at the same time trying to keep our production values as high as we can. This is a very thin tightrope to walk.
Many theaters accomplish this by the use of “stock” materials. This means they have a collection of wall units, step units, platforms, and other things that are pre-built and don’t need to be bought and constructed time and time again. BLT had been building its inventory of stock pieces over the last several years and now has a good collection to be used. Theaters were the first to recognize the benefits of recycling…!
Another thing I liked about the two pictures I had found from research, is that they contained things that BLT had currently in stock. We have a good set of wall units, the heavy beams we had build for Frankenstein, and we had the windows as well. The only thing we really needed was paint.
With all this in mind, I set about to putting some of this down on paper. Of course, nowadays when I say “paper” I am being slightly ironic. Most designs are done now on computers. I usually use AutoCad for the set designs I do. I started this design in AutoCad. Here is an example of an initial drawing:
Of course, as you can see, this is only a bird’s eye view of the set. It will provide the location, in scale, of all the various pieces of the set so the designer can determine everything will fit. Further drawings (later given to the master carpenter) will consist of elevation and detail drawings to construct whatever pieces that will need to be built. This drawing shows the locations of the back wall of the set, the beams, the lector stand and cigar rolling tables in the factory. It also shows the physical walls of the theater itself and the location of the
This is more in the nature of what is known as a “thumbnail” design. It is an early drawing that will be used in discussion with the director to make sure the designer is going in the right direction. Once the initial design is approved, the designer is free to develop more detailed drawings for the director’s final approval before transmittal to the shop. In my case, when I design my own shows, this process is shortened considerably!
We had a production meeting with the director Roy Arauz, the producers of Latino Theatre Projects and BLT to discuss the concept of this set design. Roy approved the direction and I was free to develop it further. After finishing the set design, Roy asked me to send him the drawings so he could convert it to a 3d program called SketchUp. This is a drawing program developed by Google that is starting to be used in many theatrical and architectural areas. I had tried to use it before, but didn’t spend enough time with it to become proficient. Since Roy wanted to
see this in SketchUp, I decided to try the program again.
The learning curve is pretty steep; learning to draw in 3d with this program is a little complicated, but I eventually got the hang of it.
Like AutoCad, you start with a blank sheet. You have to draw the theater outline you will be in before you can begin to put the set design in. During a production meeting, Roy mentioned that he wanted this show to be intimate. He wanted the audience to be as close as possible. I again extended the stage, this time about 12’ from the apron, and put the audience in a “modified” alley. You can see the back brick wall, the windows and heavy beams, as well as the lector stand and stools where the cigar rolling tables will be located. I was about halfway through the design process here. I was also still learning to use the program. You can see that one of the windows is missing and the facings on the front of the stage are two different colors. As I said, the learning curve was pretty steep.
Sometime later I “finished” the design. Here is the drawing I sent to everyone:
You can see that I have gotten the window thing figured out. There is also an additional change with the front platforms being 6” lower. This was a request from the director. Since this was where the dock side and the room in the house scenes were going to take place, he wanted an elevation change to also reflect the location change. Easy once I figured out the program.
At this point, a full drawing set would be sent to the master carpenter and the shop, where the actual set would begin to be constructed. As the master carpenter as well as designer, I only needed the one drawing to begin. I put together a list of materials that we needed to pull from BLT’s storage area and we began.
The space we occupy is a shared space. The Hi-Liners use it as well for their DownStage Center series. So the first step was to take down the platforms they used extending our stage out to the sides and “re-leg” them for our use. Then materials started coming in from the storage unit. This picture above is from about noon on our first day of building. The stage extension is in place, the heavy beams are starting to go up and a wall unit is also located.
Several years ago, there were many more programs in this building. We would have to build our set entirely on the last weekend before we opened. This was the cause of much stress and rush. Now that the only groups in the building are BLT and the Hi-Liners, we can build earlier. We usually start our building about two weeks out now. Here is where we ended up at the finish of that first weekend.
Actually, we ended up a bit more finished than that. The walls and window construction was finished, as well as the lector stand. We also finished putting the cross pieces up on the beams. One other addition that you can see is the elevated area right in front of the wall. The director also wanted another level back there (another good example of the necessity of having many stock pieces in inventory – this was an easy and quick addition).
Did I mention that this was a shared space…? Well, in the between week, not much work was done. Some painting on the brick wall was done by Maggie Larrick, (BLT’s Managing Director) but not much more construction was accomplished. By the end of that next Saturday, we had begun to see the end of the tunnel. The image below shows how the set looked like that time.
You can also see some stage lighting being done. The brick hasn’t been finished yet, and the floor still needed its final paint work, but that is usually the case.
During that Saturday, I had to turn over some of the remaining construction jobs to others while I concentrated on the lighting. The next day, Sunday, was scheduled to be our “cue to cue”. This is where the play is run literally from cue to cue. We start with whatever the first lighting and sound cues are then stop. If that has worked to the director’s satisfaction, we jump to the next cue. If not, we go back and run it again until it is right. This gives us designers a chance to finally make sure that what we had envisioned was going to work, and it gives the director the chance to make sure that what we had told him and what he had wanted was going according to plan. If not, there was time to fix it. This is frequently a very long day. Actors hate it, but we designers really need that day. The stage manager usually starts the day with a tour of the set and backstage for the actors to orient themselves.
I was actually a bit ahead of schedule (that also rarely happens) so I spent a good part of Saturday writing the light cues that would be needed for the next day’s cue to cue. In our space, we normally have what is known as a “rep plot”. This is a set standard lighting plot that anyone can use for almost any show that comes in. However, our regular lighting designer, Dave Baldwin, had re-arranged things for Tommy, and other lighting designers (including myself) had just used or moved what lights were needed for their shows. So, the light plot was in a bit of disarray. No matter; I worked it out and got the circuiting all written down, the lighting colored and focused and was able to completely write the show on Saturday. This picture shows us at the beginning of the cue to cue Sunday morning. This day went very well and we were able to do what we had planned. We finished the cue to cue Sunday afternoon and were able to get a run of the show in Sunday evening. We were all set to start tech week on Monday.
Tech week is just what it sounds like. That is the week where all the technical aspects get put finally in place and worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. There are usually some adjustments; an actor is told to be in a position where I just can’t get any light, so the director has to rearrange where the actor is to stand so they can be seen. Hopefully we have caught this during the cue to cue, but I spent tech week making little changes to the lighting cues. I would add a light here and there; I had to completely re-hang new lighting for the cockfight scene since I really didn’t like what I had originally. I knew from the cue to cue that I was going to have to do that, but put if off for a bit. I also added a new light for the dock side scene. That gave me a little more dimension to the actors in that scene.
By Wednesday night, I was just watching the show. Maggie had finished the brick work on the back wall and had gotten good way towards finishing the floor pattern. There was still some work in cleaning and organizing the theater for our final dress/preview night. There were going to be some people in the audience and a couple of reviewers there as well. It had to look as close as possible to what it would on the next night Friday (Opening night).
For comparison, I have reposted the SketchUp drawing I did and put it next to a picture from the preview night. You tell me how close I came to accomplishing what I set out to do.
I hope that this post has given you just a little insight into the job of designer. BLT is always looking for people to help out with the building of the set. There is no requirement for expertise in power tools or construction. All you need to have is an interest in helping out and a positive attitude.
If you have any interest in participating in shows going from the “page to the stage”, contact BLT and get involved.
Afterword by Craig: Even though Steve Cooper wrote this article, I entered it into the blog, because it has some complicated layout issues. A couple of them turned out to be too complicated, so some photos Steve wanted to use to show the set in different lighting are not here. I’m sorry that we’re unable to shows those photos here, but you can check out all of the photos of the cast of Anna In The Tropics at our Flickr site.