Standing the Mushrooms

By Charles T. Jackson

My last post covered how I made and displayed the full garden of flowers for the spring 2011 Youth Theatre production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr”. Having done that, I moved on to the mushrooms and Rabbits house.
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I made these 8′ wide x 6′ tall mushrooms much the same way that I made the pharaoh head for “Joseph”. Although it’s a lot of work, it’s certainly a sure way to have a set piece last for quite a lot longer than it would usually. Having worked quite hard to get the outer shape to be realistic, I went ahead and tried to get the paint to make them look like a place an enchanted cat, and pipe smoking caterpillar would like to settle down.
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These being early on in my painting with colors career, I thought I pretty close to the mark and was quite proud to put these on the stage. I then moved on to the Rabbit’s house.
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This cupcake shaped house is roughly the same size as the mushrooms, and is build the same way.
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With nice little sections of fencing, and a tree in the background, you almost expect a rabbit in a big hurry to appear at anytime!!. As the costume Mom’s had no idea what the house was going to look like until I brought it in, I had to make a “really large Alice” costume version of the house as well, modeled here by my eldest assistant and right hand man.
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He’ll be thrilled to see that there. I was not really sure how I was going to stand the mushrooms on the stage, so I decided that I would just lean them against the wall and strap them to the proscenium with 1″ x 3″ lumber. This was of course not the most efficient way to get this done, but I hadn’t made any little jacks yet  so it didn’t occur to me.
Mushroom secured
Well, I had made a little jack, but didn’t realize it at the time. In the illustration I have it labeled “screw down arm”. I just screwed that to the wing wall behind the proscenium, and then secured a piece of scrap wood between the flats and screwed them to the end of the arm. While it wasn’t efficient, it was stable enough that 70 children bumping into it for the run of the show wouldn’t knock it down. The Rabbit’s house I mounted to jacks on a 2′ x 4′ rolling platform/dolly and it was rolled on and off the stage when needed. IN my next post I’ll discuss how I handled the quick change of the doors from big to little, and then back again. Thanks for stopping by!!

From the Drawing to the Stage

By Charles T. Jackson

At this point in my development as a scenic designer, builder, and artist, I had build show specific models, and set piece specific models, but I had yet to draw out an entire set to make a proposal to a director. With the our local Youth Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” looming on the horizon, and a basic list of their setting needs, I went to work.
Alice stage
I made a basic drawing to reflect some of the ideas that the directors had mentioned, as well as some ideas of my own, wrote questions that I needed to ask in th the margins of the drawing and presented it. I found that this was far simpler than just discussing it, or showing them pictures from the Internet. With the connection of the drawn ideas on our stage, it was much easier for the directors to envision, and as a result, much easier to to approve. Now, as always, I had to figure out how I was going to make so many huge flowers, but I had a pretty good idea about how I was going to do the mushrooms, trees, and rabbits house.
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After doing a drive for large scale cardboard, I cut out several different flower shapes, initially in luan so that I would have flower template forever, and then in cardboard. I figured that I was going to need several of each design to get the entire stage right proscenium covered. Fore a period of time, I had drying flowers every where in my garage and yard. It was actually quite a lot of fun.
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I made a lot of flowers, and found that I only made a few to many to be able to get this 16′ flower display set up. The 1″ x 3″ brace and jacks that I made to secure this, my first proscenium piece, would be the foundation of many similarly sized proscenium pieces to come. On the other side of the stage, were the mushrooms.
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I’ll cover how I built, painted, and secured these mushrooms, as well as the trees and the Rabbit’s house in my next post. Thanks for stopping by.

Minimalist Directors

By Charles T. Jackson

With the “Joseph” set done, and the production in tech, I moved on to our High School production of “Guys and Dolls”. It seems that “when it rains it pours” really applies to our community stages because there is almost always shows going on, and as the groups don’t usually communicate, dates sometimes converge. Fortunately on this set I had a director that did not want a load of set pieces moving on and off of the set. She wanted to use curtained sections of the stage, dramatic lighting, and even gobos wherever possible, but there was a bar scene that needed the full magilla. So I was in luck! I had already built a bar for our production of “Curtains” a couple of years back, all I needed were four small bar tables and a “Hot Box” sign.
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It was a great thought, until I went to find that particular bar in out community Theatre’s storage area with no luck what-so-ever. It was as gone as gone could be and with no clue where it could have gone, I had to add the building of a bar while we were in dress rehearsals for “Joseph”, and get them on the stage in the high school while we were doing the shows! So I built another bar just like the one from the above picture, and started on tables.
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This was new territory for me, I was essentially building the furniture for a full bar scene, so I wanted to get it done in a way that the tables could be broken down and reused. The chairs were retired funeral home chairs that I “Borrowed” from my brother.  At the end of this show, I would have all the parts for a decent bar scene at the drop of a hat, and would have no concerns with the bar disappearing because as we liked to do, we funded the build to maintain control over its use and storage. For the “Hot Box” sign, I pulled out the design I had used from the “Puberty the Game Show” sign, and added flames.
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I had intended to raise the name off of the background of the sign body, and string some lights behind it for a back lit effect, but time was quite crunch at the the time of this build so I just turned it over to the director for the students to paint. Upon seeing how large the sign was the director then asked if I could make a way to mount the sign that rolled off and back on the stage. That’s when it occurred to me that this minimalist set had been quite a lot of work. LOL In my next few posts, I’ll be discussing how our Youth Theatre’s spring production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” got off the design page, and onto the stage step by step. Thanks for stopping by!!

Hanging Big Art

By Charles T. Jackson

Our next challenge, and when I say challenge, I mean CHAL-LENGE, was to get this 15′ x 15′ Pharaoh Head hung. While I don’t have any pictures of how we “rigged” it to hang, the below listed image is as close as I can remember. Having served as a Volunteer Fireman for 15 years, and in another Public Safety position for 22 years at this point, I was naturally very concerned for the safety aspects of getting this job done. So in the spirit of how I usually design, I went big!! I believe the cables that I rigged for this hanging could be used for pulling a full sized car up into the fly. The hooks that we used at the bottom of the piece were both hooked under, and screwed to the piece, and each of the cables were under at least four or more guides that were also screwed to the back of the piece. All of the separate panels were connected with 1″ x 8″ planks to assure maximum rigidity when moving into place.
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After being rigged, we had to stand it up and walk it to the bar we were putting in on. After we stood it up, I started to panic because it looked so huge!! But once it was secured to the bar, and weighted properly, it worked flawlessly for the run. The above drawing is not to scale, and the lightly highlighted area are where the 1″ x 8″ would have been. I really do wish I had a picture of this after it was rigged. It was truly a thing of beauty. In my next post I’ll get started on my design, build and painting of the set for our Youth Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” Thanks for stopping by.

Painting a Big Portrait

By Charles T. Jackson

Now that I had figured out how to build the beast, and had gotten it done, The next question was, where the heck am I going to find that much gold paint. The gods of theatre once again smiled upon me and I found that my local Home Depot had stopped selling the Ralph Lauren gold that they had, and the four gallons that they had left over were on sale!! Winning!!
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The whole thing got several coats of gold, and then had to be laid out again so I could draw on the face. Transferring the image was actually quite a bit easier than I had anticipated due to the fact that I had been dealing with this image in blocks of 4′ x 4′ almost from the beginning, so breaking it down to 2′ x 2′ and figuring out where everything went from there was kind of easy. Finding space to paint an 8′ x 8′ portrait however would prove a bit challenging. For a size/scale reference on this piece. In the above picture it can be seen covering mostly all of the orchestra pit, and handicapped seating area!! It’s a big’un.
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Here’s another view as to just how big this piece is.
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I took all the pieces out into the hallway of out theatre, and set the upper two full lats on an easel that I made from a trash picked six foot ladder. I used a dry brush shading technique to get the face features on, and then painted in the eyes.
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After the face and eyes, I added in the perfect “Egyptian” blue, and it was almost done. In the above picture, only half of the flats that make up the whole image are seen.
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When it was finally painted and assembled, rigged and hung, I nearly cried. The scale of the piece was perfect for our venue, and was sure to provide some serious visual impact. Another perspective as to just how big this piece was, here’s what it looked like with actors in front of it.
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I don’t know about you, but when I first saw how the cast interacted with this drop, I just said…wow. I was then, and am still now very proud of this piece. I had to develop so much in the process of just making this one piece, and when I consider that I built and painted this whole thing in two days off I had between shifts, I couldn’t have been more proud. In my next post I’ll discuss some minor props and sign I had to make for our High School’s production of “Guys and Dolls” and then touch on how a design can get really ramped up when your daughter gets the lead role!! Thanks for stopping by!!

Really Big Art

By Charles T. Jackson

After the new year, I had gotten the go ahead for the set of our Community Theatre’s 2011 Winter production of “Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I had already built the downstage stairs, so that was out of the way. All that was left was to build a massive pharaoh head. Having sat down and discussed the design with the director at this point, we decided that it would take up way to much stage to just leave it sitting there. She decided that she would like to hang it from the fly. I said that I would redesign it smaller and get back to her. Well, I made it smaller. I took a full six feet ofo of the original design and presented a 15′ x 15′ pharaoh head design that was immediately approved. As I had become accustomed to doing with sets that I had designed, I had to now sit down and figure out how to do what I had designed. Of  course there were several lost nights of sleep over this one, but I decided that the only way to do it, was to do it. IMG_0629
So I laid all the full flats that the design required out in the driveway, and surrounded the flats with what would become the shaped flats. I started at the bottom and drew out the shape on the right of the full panels.
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I then cut the shape out used it as a template for the other side.
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I did the same to the upper pieces and at this point have established the basic shape of the Pharaoh head. As you can see it was quite cold, and the snow had been quite deep at one point. That’s why I am only now getting this huge project started with only 13 days left until the opening of the show!! I was getting very nervous. I was lucky this day in that I had my neighbor blocked in with this while I was working on it, and she only emerged from the house when I had wrapped up all the cutting. PHEW!!!!
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I laid the shaped pieces onto 3/4 inch plywood, and cut the outer shape out. With the shape now exposed, I used the guide that can be seen laying on the above plywood to trace out a 3″ frame of the shape leaving a 3″ brace in the middle. I then cut out the inner portions of the shape.
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All of this work resulted in a solid frame for the luan that would match the full sized flats, making the fully assembled piece significantly more stable than if I had tried to attach the unsupported luan.
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I was very pleased with the end result, but was not digging working in the snow again. In my next post I will cover how I initially painted, and transferred the image. Thanks for stopping by!!

Having A Model On Hand

By Charles T. Jackson

As I have done in the past, just once, I’m going to take a quick step back and cover something that I think is quite important. When I was in the process of designing the “Urinetown” set for our October 2010 show, I was having quite a bit of difficulty getting the director on the same page visually. I was thinking that were were almost on the same page, but with so many twists and turns in the set design it was hard to describe. So I decided to handle the situation the same way I handled a similar situation I was having with our youth theatre director, I made her a model. 008
This was the initial formation of the set pieces that she was talking about, and once it was set up I totally got why we were having problems getting on the same page. We decided that it would be simplified to a straight 16′ upstage platform, but the discussion was so much easier and faster when we had visuals to manipulate. 003
It was also nice to be able to take some pictures that gave her an idea of what the set would look like in it’s basic  form from different angles.
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I have flipped these images due to the fact that I had originally interpreted the directors staging backwards and set the model up backwards as well.
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Having realized the value of these basic models, I have made a model of each piece that I have available in my collection of foundation set pieces so that when discussing set design with whoever I happen to be with, I can set it up and show them rather than waste time trying to describe it. An incredibly valuable tool that fits into two plastic storage bins. In my next few posts, I will be covering the new design of the Pharaoh head, how I built it, how I transferred the image to such a massive face, and how I painted it. I will probably do a post regarding how we rigged it to hang as well, but we’ll have to see. Hey…if you have read this, can you drop me a line? I’m starting to feel like I’m talking into an empty room. Thanks for stopping by.

Big, Bigger, Biggest!!

By Charles T. Jackson

With some downtime after the Fall 2010 production of “Urinetown” and our Winter production of “Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat” looming on the horizon, I was itching to get some new stuff started. As usual, I had HUGE design ideas for this production. I just can’t seem to help myself when I sit down and think about what I think would raise the production value of a show, and inspire people to not only enjoy the show we’re doing, but to come back to see others. Inspired by the Joesph movie with Donnie Osmond, in October 2010 I sat down and designed a Pharaoh head piece for our production. 001
As usual, I did the drawing, and then did the math. After calculating the height and width on this initial design, I realized that it was going to be 21 feet tall, and about the same wide at it’s widest point. Was this design impossible? Nope it sure wasn’t, but it was certainly going to be a bit unwieldy to stand. The director and I were on the same page with the eyes though, we both wanted them to move. Feeling pretty comfortable with this initial design, I moved on to the levels that I would be needing. My design called for, once again, a set of steps that we did not have, and I had no idea how to make. But that has not deterred me in the past,. So in November I set out to build a set of steps that were pointed. Sounds pretty easy right? Add in a third stringer in the middle and Viola? Nope. This design and build was way more complicated than I had anticipated, but once I got started the sailing was smooth.
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Now, keep in mind I haven’t done anything more than mention ideas to our director at this point!! There was no guarantee that these or anything that I had drawn up was going to get used in the show. But I was losing quite a lot of sleep with how this set of steps was going to work, so I just had to actually build them because drawing them wasn’t working for me. This design called for a standard set of six step stringers, and a custom center stringer. I used 2″ x 12″ for the treads and center stringer, and when assembled was amazingly stable. Now that I had them built though, I had to start concentrating on getting them approved for use in the show. In my next post, I will continue to discuss the platforms and stairs that I used in the design of this show, and will probably get started on how I re-designed the Pharaoh head and how I built it. Thanks for stopping by.

Un-Limiting Your Stage Design Options

By Charles T. Jackson

In my last post I introduced my answer to a less than stable 8 foot level option. In that process I discovered that standard six tread stairs are the perfect height for access to a four foot platform, and as such, the perfect height for the eight foot platform as well. The question was, how to get the stairs to the platform. Having done ”Curtains” back in 2009, I was prepared to answer that question.
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I just built a base for the stairs the similar to the way we had for Curtains, but with some minor changes. It’s a simple base that just extends the frame of the stairs and raises them up four feet and attached on the inside by several corner tabs. They are very stable even while standing alone, but when in place between the platforms are downright rock solid. For “Urinetown”, the director wanted the stairs access at one end of the 8 foot platform, and then at the end of the associated four foot platform. As in the drawn image on the top of the below image. She tried the formation in the bottom image, but found that it cut in on space needed for several scenes, so went back to her original position.
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In this process, the enormity of possibilities really started to hit me. With the eight foot platform option now modular, and simplified stairs options to both, I thought…”Imagine how much faster and easier it would be to have set up that bridge scene when we did Oliver in 2008″. Stairs base options bridge
In a period of an hour or so we could have set that bridge up in a safe and stable format anywhere on the stage.
Stairs base options escape
The stairs options with 4x4x8 platforms are only limited by ones ability to imagine, but having a vivid imagination, I imagined other options that involved a 4x4x4 platform as drawn above, or even a straight escape run of standard stairs that actresses in heels would feel safer on as pictured below.
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This is possible with the addition of a four foot tread addition. Having experienced all the discovery I did in this particular show, my creative juices were really flowing, and I wanted to do something big. The call would come in the form of our 2011 Community Theatre production of “Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat”. In my next post I will be discussing how I challenged my own skills and abilities with an ambitious design, and how I adapted to make the design happen. Thanks for stopping in!!

Eight Foot Platforms

By Charles T. Jackson

In your mind, how high is really “High”. In our production of “Oliver” in the fall of 2008, I realized that 8 feet up, is way up there. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Yep, that’s me crossing over our 24′L x 4′W x 8′H “bridge” in the opening scene of our production of Oliver. I never realized until this show just how high 8 feet is. This was my first lead role, and I was scared by the acting and singing that was required of the “Bumble”, but when I considered the fact that these platforms were standing atop some 4×4 lumber screwed in the corners, it was downright terrifying. I have to say that I never really gave this set up a true “test” by trying to dance on top of it, but I was pretty sure that there was stability problem that could be addressed. Oliver pic 2
One of our regular builders, a guy I have dubbed the standard “build for the run” guy, used what I would imagine are industry standards that get the job done safely on most occasions. Assisting him was an actual construction oriented member who often called the first guy on his use of “sky hooks” to attach supports and stairs to platforms. Usually watching them is pretty funny, but knowing that I (not a small man) was going to be crossing the platforms, and the descending the stairs, I was a pretty in tune with the words “sky hooks” in this build!! The good news in this building style is that there’s very little wasted material at strike. The bad news is that “most of the time” safety is a standard that wanted to improve upon. I wanted the design to be modular so that it would stack neatly when stored, but be easy to assemble, and sturdy “all of the time” when in use. 8 foot platform The above is the napkin design that I threw together. I wanted to be sure that I accounted for the platform height so that the deck of the platform was a true 8′. Not being very mathematically inclined, it was only at this point that I realized that six tread stairs are the perfect match for a four foot platform, and that another set of six tread stairs are the perfect match for the eight foot platform. I know that should have been easier to know by now with all of the experience that I had, but I needed to build the set below, and slide it all together to see it, and believe it. IMG_0423 IMG_0425 IMG_0420 I was very pleased with the outcome of this set, and truly felt that these would be a valuable asset to our collection. Has this already been done far and wide, probably, but it was new to me, and between the new four foot platforms that we call our “7th step platforms” and our newest 8 foot option, I really felt our collection of foundation set pieces was coming together really well!! In my next post, I’m going to continue discussing this set up, but I’ll be focussing on how we set up the stairs. Thanks for stopping by.