Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Opera Pins"

I heard a term today in the shop that was new - Opera pins.

They are really just large shop-built lift-off hinges. But they do work nicely.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Theatrical Lighting Database

The New York Public Library and Lighting Archive has created an online Theatrical Lighting Database. On this site you can browse the lighting info available for A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and several others. The information includes the plot, paperwork such as magic sheets and cue sheets, and even notes.

Custom / Specialty Steel Shapes

GSP offers a variety of specialty steel shapes, and will do custom work. While expensive to use, it can be necessary in certain jobs. The J channel is something in particular that has been useful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dykes Lumber

On the East, (though I see is everywhere) Dyke's Molding numbers are often called out on designs. Dykes now has their molding catalog available online. They also have flexible moldings available in all of their profiles.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quality and Value

One of the topics I have been pondering lately is how you quantify quality. At the commercial scene shop I work at we are aware that we tend to not be the low bid. We try to provide a level of service and quality that makes our price, through higher, still a good value. But how do you qualify that one of our clients will have an experience with us that is 10% (an arbitrary number) better in terms of service or quality that what they would have experienced with another vender?

On some of the proposals we work on, the client will ask for a price for the pieces as drawn / described, and then allow us to put in additional prices to be added (value added) or subtracted (value engineered). I think this can be tricky.

How do you quantify value added? I think we have value added in our core pricing, which cannot easily be taken out and itemized, because it isn’t optional – it is the way we function. We don’t use inferior parts or materials. If I am buying rigging equipment, I am going to buy the right stuff even though it costs more. I suppose I can buy the cheap stuff, and then change order to the right part, but at the same time, not every client would accept that change order. If those parts are to fail, who has the liability? Did they fail at install, or 10 years later – is it warranty work or a client request? I don’t want to put myself or my company in a possible negative situation by using something that is inferior. Other things that we provide – trial assembly / full unit assembly/ test fitting / testing, are items that we need to do for quality purposes, but are also advantages to the client. We know what it will take to install, because it has already been tested. It’s cheaper to test it in the shop that it is onsite – both for us, and for our clients. We can / and have occasionally, cut out some of the assembly time – and in those instances, at the end of the project, the install labor always more than what it could have been. Since hours are building according to actual hours worked (and in accordance to union rules) this can end up costing our clients more – though when we bid the project we will try to anticipate the increase in onsite time due to the minimal testing or assembly.

I won’t talk about value engineering as much, because I feel that it’s a lot easier to do this. The trick is to make it cheaper without affecting the quality. I can make something out of steel more economically than I can from aluminum, but it won’t be as light. I can use 15 oz velour instead or 21 oz. But if a light is immediately behind the drape, then the 15 oz velour should have a black out liner – in which case the 21 oz velour is more economical. Then there is an option regarding what to price – the 21 oz velour which is ultimately cheaper and the best value – the cheapest option which is 15 oz alone, which doesn’t provide full functionality, or the 15 oz with the addition of the blackout cloth. Proposals with a lot of al a carte options can be tricky to put together – and sometimes end up being more expensive as a package because of the way the time break down works out – Building a bench might cost $500- but building 4 won’t necessarily cost $2,000. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed when value engineering. First, there is a minimal level of what we as a company can / or wants to provide. For instance, locally, there is a shop that in non-union and are basically a couple of guys in a shop cranking out cheap scenery. And if that’s what the client wants – we can’t compete. Something quick and cheap may be exactly what the client wants – but say a potential client sees it and thinks that we can’t build a quality piece – they won’t necessary understand that the set was done “poorly” because that’s what the client wanted. Its better for us to refer the client to another shop that may meet there needs better, and maintain our reputation through jobs that are more in alignment with what we can provide. Secondly, even if we chose to compete against a company that can produce something like that, we can’t really win- the overhead and shop organization that insures a quality product, makes it very hard to push a small job through the shop profitably. In theatre, a shop can produce quality scenery up to a certain scale, but below that is doable down to the smallest piece – profitability isn’t a concern. On the commercial side, the project tends to be a certain scale before it fits into the way we work, and there is a maximum. Point being, now that I have lied about that fact that I wouldn’t talk much about value engineering, is that you can go too far.

I know shops who bid a value engineered version upfront, without description, and then essentially try to change order the client to get back to what the client originally wanted in the first place. So while their bid beats ours in the first round – the final price the client paid may have been higher in the long run that what we offered. I like that we provide a cost that will allow us to meet our client’s expectations without relying on trying to get extra money every time something comes up. We have all been around long enough to know that things do some up. We allow some flexibility – major changes to scope of course require a revised price. This is one way that I think that we positively affect the service that we offer clients.

When you go to an event / or see items that have been built by us or one of our competitors – what is the quality scale? This would be true for seeing theatre as well, perhaps even more so since you are a distance away, and only see one side from an audience perspective. What is quality – automation? Well, that may be indicative of a certain level of money and skill. A believable paint treatment? The use of light affects the end result as well. In most circumstances I think there are two levels – it looks good or it doesn’t. You see every seam – or they disappear. There is a 3rd level, but I think the scenery that is built will not make that level alone – it must be done in coordination with all of the other elements of the production.

In terms of seeing productions – its stating the obvious that seeing a show on Broadway is a different experience than seeing it in storefront theatre or a church basement theatre, or even a regional lort theatre. We have expectations as to the level of quality for each type, and we wouldn’t expect a small theatre to have all of the qualities of a Broadway house. The flip side of this is that there is a cost associated to this. A Broadway show might cost 150 bucks, while a small theater production might cost 20. My expectations are a lot higher when I lay out 300 bucks to go to see a show with my partner. Here in Chicago, I think this question becomes even trickier – there are tons of theatres to choose from. One show may be 20 and another similar 30. Who is to say that going to one is worth 10 bucks more per person (other than the choice of which title you would prefer to see). What would happen in the movie theatre if shows like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and other huge films were $20 and the shows that weren’t rated as well were $10?

A good example I can mention refers to a production that I was thinking of taking my friends to. I had seen the production at a regional theatre in another city and had enjoyed it. Though I am in a different city now, I saw that it was playing at a local theatre when my friends would be visiting and checked on tickets. Tickets were available for 70 each. Having seen the show in a theatre where the tickets were going for 35, I couldn’t honestly answer how this current production could possibly add that much more value. I doubt the directing would be 100% better – or the scenery or the evening would be that much better. The size of the two theatres was slightly different, but not significantly in terms of quality. I ended up buying tickets for my friends at a small little house, and in terms of enjoyment – probably had as good as of experience for a lot less cost.

Plus, frankly, there is a cost versus experience association that affects the value perceived. If I spend 10 for a ticket, I have fewer expectations than if I spend 100. If I spend only a little and the show is good – I get a great value. If the show is so-so and I spent a lot- I didn’t get as much value. For my clients, value is also different – it may be worth spending extra money to get more service. To take that back to seeing a show- perhaps if the 70 ticket provided free parking so that I didn’t have to pay as much to park downtown, then I would see additional value.

But of course there’s a catch – what provides value to me, doesn’t always provide value to others as well.

What do you think? What creates value? How do you quantify Quality? How do you define what something is worth? How does this information affect the way scenery is built?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Science Toys

While looking for solar panels I ran across American Science and Surplus. They seem to have a little bit of everything - from magnets to hobby motors to solar panels. Now Edmund Scientific has a competitor for magnets and hobby motors for when I am tinkering.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


One NYC Stagehand has an interesting blog on the WPA and how Local One dealt with the problems at hand.
"With rising unemployment in it’s own ranks, IATSE Local One decided to create it’s own relief program. With the agreement of the theatre managers, it was decided stagehands would work a five-show week and that unemployed stagehands would make up the rest of the shows. I haven’t determined how the program was administered, though perhaps like our League Strike, we learned to administer it on the fly. When there wasn’t enough work, there were relief stipends, and in emergency cases, there were loans. Sometimes raffles were held to help individuals, often the retired stagehand without a pension, who were having illnesses or other hard times.

In September of 1935, IATSE representatives, Local One business agents and others in the industry met in Washington and New York with Hattie Flanagan, newly appointed head of the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration. In her first Regional Directors Report on Oct. 8th, 1935, Miss Flanagan describes meeting with the various interested parties. After meeting with “National Stage hands Union” she said, "The decision was that we cannot run a union shop, but that preferences is given to union workers because of their professional qualifications".

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tharon Musser

Tharon Musser, legend in the lighting industry, passed away yesterday. A graduate of Yale School of Drama(1950), in 1956 she designed "Long Day's Journey into Night" by Eugene O'Neill. The year 1972 brought her a Tony for "Follies". The use of the first computerized lighting board was ushered into use with her design for "A Chorus Line" in 1975.. The IBDB has her listed for over a hundred light designs - an impressive career by any standard. Over the course of her life she won 2 more tony's and was nominated 7 additional times. Her significant contributions to theatrical lighting and to the theatre itself will be remembered in the theatre history for centuries to come.

The below links will take you to some of the other articles for more information.

Live Design



Friday, April 17, 2009

Welding Resources

The following two links will take you to the Miller welding equipment site where there are lots of resources to help you fine tune your welding skills.
Miller Etraining
Miller Welding Resources

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fake Tree Bark

In theatre the final method of construction of a piece depends on a variety of details. One issue is how labor is paid for. Is it salary, and thus doing something labor intensive is okay? Is it hourly, but out of a budget that doesn't impact show budgets or does the amount of labor used directly effect the budget of a production. In some theatre settings, and in the commercial shop I work in, it is often cheaper to buy something than it is to fabricate it. Thus for a recent project we looked at using flexible bark. The pieces were pricey at about $600 a sheet, but for us to manufacture something similar in house would cost more. Between labor and materials - for us to match the 600 price we would have to be able to mold / carve / paint / and do any sampling for the piece in about 3 hours. There is of course a exception. In the case above we would use less than a sheet. If we were to cover a stage full of trees, economy of scale would probably reverse this. In this case, I would look at it from both directions - the cost of buying premade pieces versus fabricating in house. Once the size is large enough, it makes more sense for us to fabricate. A good example of this is a urethane brick that we have made for some museum exhibits. It's very realistic, and very durable - much more so than vacuform or the wood paneling, and we can easily make it wrap corners. But it was economical because the prototyping, testing, and development was dispersed due to the amount of coverage. All in all, price wise we were right in line with other suppliers, but achieved a better quality of product.

Earth Flora also has a realistic bark for sale, but not as many options and a much smaller size. The question becomes with using these is how you handle seams.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Props Putty

One of the first tricks I learned was using Mortite to keep props on shelves or other surfaces. The other day I was browsing in a local store and saw the Museum putty on sale, and thought it was worth a mention. I like the idea that it is clear, especially now that I have had a couple projects lately with glass shelving.

I have also used poster putty when I didn't have anything else on-hand - though that option isn't as economical.

Museum Putty

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bringing Order to the Chaos

There was one last topic from USITT that I wanted to discuss – the session Mr. Sammler did “Bringing Order to the Chaos”. It was an interesting and very valid session.
-I think the first comment I have is that the session is indicative to where technical direction is going. That the position is becoming more managerial. I think that in today’s age of technical capacity, you can no longer be a jack of all trades as effectively, and that the TD position must be able to pull together the resources needed, not necessarily be able to do everything.
-The key to the system that Sammler proposes is that everyone on the team operates in the same manner. The system must be set up so that budgets are combined for the show and that extra money in costumes goes to scenery or vise versa. If a shop can keep money and use that towards a different show, or for shop improvements or maintenance, then they will be tempted to hoard the money and not be transparent. However, the bulk of the places I have worked provided each shop with a budget, and that money can be used from show to show. I assume that moving around money from department to department is harder for the money people – and I have tended to only see a show based budget work in smaller theatres.
-For the per show budget technique to work, each department must budget, and do so in advance. Many theatres don’t require every department to do an estimate for every show. This is particularly true for lighting and sound. When I have tried to implement this type of system, I found that lighting was a challenge because they wanted till much later in the schedule to determine what they were using. Though I should note that I was working with a Canadian Lighting designer, and that the typical schedules are different (they often do not do a plot until after they see a run through – much later in the process than we do). Without being able to assess the needs of every department, the director can’t make an informed decision about where the money should be allotted.
-I thought it was interesting to hear is views on what a TD should be responsible for. For instance, He stated that it is not the TD’s job to value engineer the set to fit inside the provided budget. The TD should estimate what they feel is necessary to do the design as indicated and communicate those costs (time and materials). At that point director / designer can clarify what they need and where their priorities are to make choices involving all elements, and decide where they want the money to be spent. Perhaps that means that the costumes become simpler, and the scenery budget is allowed as is. Estimates should be tight, but reasonable. An estimate represents the TD’s plan to accomplish the design as they understand it. If the TD must get the show “into budget” it changes the relationship with the team and makes them a “no” person. The 10% contingency cannot be cut from the budget and allows flexibility to achieve the plan.
-It’s easy to budget enough to cover the set.
-Most people under estimate the amount of time it will take to build.
-The TD (or department head) cannot estimate what they don’t know about. If a production manager holds them accountable for things they didn’t know about the Dept. Head will hide money to cover themselves.
-When meeting – it is more about sharing the plan than sharing the budget. This allows everyone to look at what was included, and helps communication between departments – For instance costumes may see that the paint department is planning on texture and that makes a difference to their costumes.

I think that in an ideal work, this is a nice idea. But for this to work there has to be a lot of people who are all operating on the same page. And the production manager / organization has to be open in operating in this manner. And I think that’s a tall order. And practically, if you are in the situation where it isn’t ideal, and you can’t change the whole system to reflect the management system above – quitting your job cause you shouldn’t work in a place like that isn’t really always practical. Though, I suppose, with the rate that Yale churns out students, eventually there is a chance that this way of operating will become more common….

Monday, April 13, 2009

Safety Resources

After taking the OSHA 10 hour construction course for work, I decided to also take the courses offered in the General Industry track for the 10/30 hour courses. While alot of what is presented is common sense, there are many details that we tend to forget about as we get busy and try to accomplish amazing scenery on small budgets. There are lots of places to take the classes online, and they aren't very expensive. My only complaint is that they don't provide resources for you to use in the future other than your knowledge gained. Hence, the following links that provide some similar information.

Safe work
OSHA First Aid
UC Davis Machine Shop Safety This has several pdf's available regarding machine safety (such as drill presses, milling machines, etc.)
Contractors Safety Manual A very comprehensive site.

While there are many resources available online, you should make sure of the applicable local / state laws when implementing practices in your own shop.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Molding Resources

Moldings and decorative elements can be hard to find and specific to the manufacturer. Below are a variety of resources to help locate decorative elements, or can assist with ideas when designing.

Frank Morrow Company has a variety of metal stampings and architectural details.

Decorators Supply has a large variety of wooden and plaster decorative details. While you can order their catalogs (which are great as a resource), you can also browse online and get a variety of CAD downloads.

Architectural Depot

Cast Design Supply

Van Dykes Restorers

Historical Arts and Castings

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Metal Museum

The Metal Museum in Memphis, TN, would make a great visit if you are ever in the area. They also offer classes if you could make your visit last a few days.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Prop Books

These are some of the recommended books that came up in the USITT session on period details.

The Bullfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture

Antique Directory of Furniture

Authentic Decor All books by Peter Thornton were highly recommended.

Period Details - A Sourcebook for House Restoration.

Encylopedia of Furniture

Also interesting in this session was that I learned that the "bentwood" chair, that every theatre I have ever worked at seems to own in mass was #18 made by Gebruder Thonet. As I was looking up the chair I ran across another potential prop sight - the Chair Blog.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Hardware Resources

Sometimes a project seems like a quest for the perfect piece of hardware. The below links will take you to a variety of vendors with useful alternatives.

Weld On Hinges

Lift Off Hinges

Spring Release Hinges (Also available through McMaster Carr)

J Bolts

Block Hinges

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Fabricator

The Fabricator is a free magaizine (subscribe here that talks about metal fabricating techniques. Their website has a variety of information as well that is useful for someone working with metals, like for instance, this article about bending.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Costumer Exhibit

Christian Lacroix, a costume designer, has an exhibit on display in the National Museum of Singapore. The above link will take you too a blog entry that has a few photographs of his work, from his many years designing for theatre and opera. The museums web site can be seen here. They have additional photographs of the exhibit.

While I don't see myself going to Singapore anytime soon, I think it is great when theatrical and opera design work is shown in exhibitions.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I recently did the OSHA 10 hour course for Construction Safety. Much of the course is self explanatory and common sense, but I did learn a little more about areas that I don't work in very often. And, I thought that some of the materials would be good for reference - like the sections on power tools, ladders, and scaffolding for stagecraft classes. The department of Labor has much of the information posted here. They also have a variety of teaching aids.

Hand and Power Tools
Power Tool PDF
Stairways and Ladders
Portable Ladders