Who knew?

By Charles T. Jackson

In the spring of 2009, excited from my success with the Oz Head and Emerald City background, I approached the Youth Theatre directors with a simple question…”what’s next?”. I was given a short list of sets that needed to be done for the spring production of “Pocahontas. Really exited by the prospect of using my new Kreg Jig to make sturdier sets, I went ahead and threw together a design for the whole set that was immediately approved. 010

I made these two flats, and dropped at the house of a very talented “theatre mom” who made them look just like a hut that would have traditionally been used in Pocahantas’s time.


I used three toggles on the six foot flat, and was fairly pleased with the result.


The joints were nice and sturdy, and were visually less messy that the traditional joinery. It also left the profile of the flat 1/4″ slimmer making storage that much easier. Even with the luan covering, there was still a bit of twist in the flat that I did not anticipate, but overall it was better than the Canvas flats. I chose the luan for these due to the shaped nature of the hut, and at this point hadn’t really considered it as a standard covering due to the light weight aspect of the canvas flats.

One thing that I noticed that was going to be a problem was the amount of cracking, and breakage as I screwed together the frame. This weakness left the joint weaker than anticipated, but again, still faster and easier that the traditional alternative. The luan itself on these flats is what really held them together, and stabilized them. Again overall, I liked the outcome, but realized there was something amiss. I also realized at this point that in my excitement to get the set together, I had inadvertently stepped on the toes of some of the other theatre parents, and as a result was thrust into the wacky world a theatre politics full force!! In my next submission I’ll investigate and address the joint weakness issue, and discuss how one can get totally in over ones head with “ideas”.

4 Hyde Rack

A hide drying rack also made for Pocahontas.

4 Prop Stump

Our stump initially built for Pocahontas, has been in at least three or more shows a year since it was made!!

4 Village Fire

Campfire for Pocahantas. Lighted with celophane flames and a fan to make them move. Painted foam footballs as stones!! Very belivable campfire in low light. We did get some comments about having real fire in the school. That’s always great!!

Developing My Own Style

By Charles T. Jackson

I had now used “industry standards” to build four 4′ x 8′ canvas flats, and built a rolling set piece through the age old process of “winging it”.  Having very limited space to work in, I was forced to handle the flats much more than I would like to have before they were ready to be put on the stage, but having done that, I discovered that they became less and less stable every time I moved them. At the rate they were degrading, they wouldn’t be in very good shape for the April show. The first thing that I noticed was the fact that the tightness of the canvas on my 12′ flats was pulling the end rails out of level from the rest of the flat. The second and most problematic situation I noticed was that the flats were getting floppy. I found that because I hadn’t used glue on the corner blocks and keystones, the staples were simply allowing the whole flat to get loose. I had held off with the use of glue due to the fact that I wanted to be able to make repairs to the supporting structure of the frame of the flat with to much difficulty. It’s a policy that has paid off when a quick repair has been needed, and I do not use glue to this day for that reason. I decided to make two major changes to how I built flat frames.

Jackson flat

The first was that I was going to abandon the end rails for all toggles. and the second was how I would be joining the corners.

Kreg Jig

For 99$ I got a Kreg Jig kit and and started using pocket hole joinery for my flat frames. I put two pocket holes at each end of the three toggles for an 8 foot flat, and it screwed up in minutes.

Kreg Jig Pocket Hole

Pocket holes and screws make for simpler, faster, and significantly stronger corner joints. The project that I will post next is where I discover that the quality of the wood you’re using makes all the difference in the world toward stability. Thanks for reading.

Having let the Cat out Of the Bag!!

By Charles T. Jackson

Having revealed that I have the ability to both build and paint scenery, the set coordinator said, “Could you possibly make an “Oz Head” for the show as well. We saved the one from the last time we did this show, but we don’t know where it is.” Being a complete “Noob” (as my daughter would say), I said “Sure!”, and added, “Wouldn’t be awesome if the face was animated and had a working mouth?!!” Of course the idea was well received, and I once again had to figure out how the heck I was going to accomplish this great design idea I threw out there. Being a glutton for punishment, I wanted to add an element of light that would represent the fire pots in the original movie.

1 Fire Pit

With two dollar store baskets, an inexpensive shop fan, parts of a clamping work lamp, and some plastic cellophane, I made a “fire pot” for the Oz head set piece. I made two of these and set about the task of making a foundation for these and an Oz head that I had not even started.

Fran Pic 7

I wanted the piece to represent a smaller version of the Oz setting in the movie, and so far it was coming along fine. It was however, at this time I realised that I had a very small, and problematic workspace!!


Just to get started working, the Oz head piece had to come out, as well as all four of the Emerald City flats.

1 Oz Head and Fire Pits

I got the whole unit painted and added wheels, and was very pleased with the end result. The first hint that this was an effective set piece was the fact that the kids really enjoyed actuating the mouth and making Oz say pretty much anything. The second was during a performance where a mother had to rush her very scared child from the auditorium because the scary head was talking!!

Next post I will cover some adaptations I implemented to make stronger, sturdier flats that took up very little space when stored.

My First Assignment

By Charles T. Jackson

Working a rotating shift, and being a father that’s fully active in his children’s lives can be extremely challenging. On many occasions of games and recitals, I would have to work, or sleep because I had worked overnight. But I always did my best to be present whenever I was off.  Early in my kids Youth Theatre involvement, I just watched as a proud parent does. But when I got involved in our local Community Theatre, I thought it would be nice to get more involved, and being an active Composite Artist with an Associate’s Degree in Art I figured I would be able to make a contribution. The upside to my situation was that I had free time during days that most people, working regular hours don’t have. At the wrap of our 2007 Youth Theatre, I told our haggard set builder that I would like to give making a background a shot. He said that he would be glad to have the help, and when the 2008 Spring show was announced, I was asked to paint the background that involved the yellow brick road, and the long view of the Emerald City. I accepted this challenge, and then started to figure out how to do, what I had so valiantly volunteered to do.IMG_1003

I built the  four 4′ x 12′ flats through what the Internet indicated were the current industry standards. I used #3 1″ x 3″ strapping for the rails, stiles, and toggles and stapled on luan corner blocks and keystones to tie them all together. I covered them with drop cloth grade canvas and they tightened up very nicely. All was going smoothly so far.

Fran Pic 2


I transferred the image and started in to getting paint on the primed canvases. I painted just as pictured until my legs started aching, and I had an epiphany!! Hey! I thought to myself, I can lay these down and paint them!! Duh!!. I was learning as usual, the hard way. Having turned my kids play set into a giant easel, I was able to see the progress of the background develop daily. I also discovered that canvas covered frames, standing freely in the yard, are susceptible to slight wind and fall with almost no apparent provocation. The metal of these canvases were certainly tested quite a bit at this phase of the operation much to my dismay!!

Fran Pic 3

Fran Pic 5

I was extremely happy with the visual progression of the background, but what I was noticing with continual handling of these flats, is that they were getting looser and looser with each removal from the garage for painting, and standing for an afternoon view. I felt that I could build a sturdier frame for the canvas.

First Background in Summer 2008

First Background in Summer 2008

When I added the field of Poppies I used a car wash glove dipped lightly in the selected colors and was thrilled with the end result. Having shown some of the parents that had also been active in making the scenery…one of them said with a sympathetic look on her face…”Man are you stupid” or something to that effect!! LOL I’ll reveal why in my next submission!!

Taking the dive

By Charles T. Jackson

Several years back, I became involved in a theatrical production that my wife, son, and father-in-law were in, because two of the staircase set pieces were so heavy that they needed at least three large scale people to get them to move to the right spot on the stage. The set for the production was absolutely spectacular.  It had been constructed using standard construction techniques and for that reason was extremely stable making it a pleasure for the actors and actresses to climb, and do scenes on the 8 foot upper level. At strike however, we discovered that sets built through standard practices in the construction industry, had to be basically destroyed like building constructed similarly resulting in almost a thousand dollars of ruined material. We had to smash apart, or cut the whole upper level apart, and the resulting trash pile inspired me to try and develop a better system. Over the the last four years I have assembled a group of base set pieces that are 100% reusable, store flat, and are safe and stable at 27″, 48″ and 96″!! It started with a small platform and two sets of stairs for our youth theatre, and has expanded to set design foundation system that has saved our community thousands of dollars, and could do the same for any community, or private theatre group. I intend to “blog” the way that my set foundation pieces got started, how they developed, what mistakes I have made, and what hurdles I have encountered and overcome in the process. Thanks for your interest, and taking the time to stop and read!!