Thursday, July 31, 2008


Dave Vick, assistant carpenter / rigger for the tour of "A Chorus Line" has posted a photo album online chronicling his adventures. Its a definite must see!


Today I stumbled upon a Grapple:

They are for use with truss, primarily joining truss pieces together at perpendicular angles, though they have a variety of other uses.

However, it seems that they could also be used in some situations with pipe as well.

Take a look!

Friday, July 25, 2008


The relationship between sailing and rigging is very clear, and rooted in history. However, I think that it is sometimes forgotten that sailing and boat rigging have undergone advances in technology that is still very useful in theatre.

The series of links below illustrate a variety of sheaves that can be mounted from a stanchion (or in our case, pipe). While a piece could certainly be made by most shops that would do essentially the same thing, I thought the choices where interesting, and at good prices. I know that there have been pieces I have rigged in the past where being able to directly connect the sheave to the pipe, instead of making a bracket would have been convenient.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lumber Resources

The following are a few resources dealing mostly with lumber:

Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material

Wood Web, a resource providing general knowledge regarding lumber. Their knowledge base provides information regarding adhesives, millwork, business, and cabinet making, laminating, wood engineering and many other topics.

Southern Pine By Design FAQ

Article about Warping and Drying in Lumber, and few others if you go a little further back in the directory.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PLC info

Automation Direct has made available on their website a PDF describing what a PLC is and how to choose a PLC. You can download it at:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Technical Direction Question...

There was a question on linkedin that I thought was relevant and interesting. The question was “Can techies be good/ successful Product Managers?” I think that translates well into the carpenter / technical direction debate that often occurs. As is with theatre, Linkedin produced multiple answers.

I think that it is a great question because it makes you think, and there are multiple answers. I think there are a variety of ways to approach the question.

First, the skill sets for the two jobs are not universal. Each location, venue, organization ans so forth may define the jobs differently that will impact the answer. A touring TD or carp has a different skill set than one who produces shows. A road house TD may have another set of skills, and the TD of a grand opera has different skills as well. In addition, the skills sets for each position differ. The TD at a LORT may be more managerial and the carpenter is only a craftsman, or the TD may be in the shop swinging a hammer next to a carpenter. The carpenter may be very skilled and work from designer plates needing little interaction from the TD other than supplies. While there are lots of contradictions I have worked in many varieties of these situations, and the answer to the above question cannot be answered universally.

There is yet another item to mention, and create some base assumptions with. Historically in our industry you had to pay your dues to get into the good positions. A TD had to be a good carpenter. Today, I think it is easier to start very young as a TD in small locations and work your way up too bigger facilities without nearly as much time spent as a carpenter (except as all the times when as TD you were the shop). With advanced technical training becoming the standard for TD’s, more come out of grad school with very different positions than I saw in the industry 15 years ago. Part of this I actually believe has to do with the very question I am discussing.

So to answer the question you must make some assumptions. Let’s say that the TD is more managerial and is not on the floor building scenery, and that the carpenter relies on the TD to provide structure and information. For the fun of it, lets also say that the TD (or perhaps even production manager) manages more than 1 area – whether its props, paints and scenery, or simply manages a carpentry head and a metals head. This puts the TD is the wonderful land of middle management.

Getting to the meat of the question, the TD and the carpenter require different skill sets to succeed. I will not hash out the carpentry skills here, and instead focus on TD skills. I think a good TD has to have a very diverse set of skills: communication, problem solving, team building, time management, fiscal management, collaboration, problem solving, and technical skills. For the technical skills a TD needs to know about drafting, reading drawings, carpentry, metalworking, paints, tool maintenance, engineering, structural design, motor control, pneumatics, plastics, and more. That’s a pretty large list of skills, particularly since most of this skills can be a full job (with advanced degrees) in and of themselves. It makes the position hard to fill.

I think the industry has a culture that expect all of this from the TD’s. I think some are very successful. Yet I think what happens is that the TD sometimes leans towards the shop – their silo, and doesn’t have the same management skill as they have technical skill. Perhaps that can build the fanciest wooden, steel, plastic thingy that spins on cue, but can’t talk to the board of directors efficiently. This, to me, leads to the path of us versus them and creates a separation in the theatre between technical and nontechnical people. I believe that the TD needs to bridge that gap.

I think that the TD needs to know enough about welding to know a good weld from a bad weld. The TD needs to have a good welder on staff. He or she needs to understand the difference in construction that steel and wood need. But they don’t need to be the best carpenter on the floor. If they are, they are wasting their skill by not doing what they are best at.

I think there are very few people that really can excel at every area a TD normally covers. Many will have a few topics in which they excel, and they will work towards increasing the others. And some are jacks of all trades, masters of none. I believe that TD’s today are gearing more towards soft skills, intellectual skills and management skills. They then can fill out their staff with skilled craftsmen. You don’t need to be the best welder in the shop to hire a great welder – you need to know the signs of good welds, and good steel fabrication techniques. From another point of view – I can’t sew very well, and I certainly couldn’t make a costume, but I can tell when one is well constructed.

So to answer the question – sure a carpenter can be a good TD. But, they need to adapt their skill set to the position. The new skills set could include different communication styles, leadership, estimating, maintaining budgets and resources and so forth. If a TD starts in the technical side they are likely to understand what good carpentry and set construction looks like, which gives them a leg up there. The interesting part of the question could be could you take a project manager unfamiliar with theatre into the role of a TD, and would t hey be successful. Then theoretically they had the soft skills, but no knowledge of the technical needs of the shop or scenery. While that is certainly a question for another day, I can easily say that a carpenter has a better chance at succeeding than someone with/out any technical background.

You can check out the question and the answers given at linked in here:

I know this question likely has a variety of answers feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sliding Door Tech

I thought the following article was interesting:

First, because it is a typical tech brief type article that you see in various technical theatre resources. But also because the topic of the challenge was something that is very theatrical. Alright, I know that most sets don't have automated glass sliding doors, but we do sometimes have elevator doors. And we have a variety of other things that need to slide in a small footprint very quietly.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pneumatic / Fluid Power

The Design News Resource Center Special Report this week had a bit about Educational training kits:

"Clippard's Fluid Power Educational Kits are designed to help provide a practical understanding of the basic concepts of fluid power. They consist of many components, the same components used in industry today to provide control and work in thousands of different applications. These kits are designed to work in conjunction with the Fluid Power Education Foundation's standard curriculum which may be downloaded at no charge."

While I am sure that a scene shop could probably build a kit, the prices were not unreasonable. I have to admit that I dream of an automation design / testing playroom in an academic situation where the tools and components are available and focus can be on creating / developing systems and techniques for a variety of automation challenges as opposed to only book learning, or focusing in on one special case (the turntable for x show verses a trap for y show). I feel it is particularly necessary because in the production environment you can't rely on a consistent learning environment.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Live Scribe

I saw this in an add and thought I would take a closer look:

It seems similar to the flypen that I have and use (and love), except that it can also record audio.

They are marketing it towards education - taking notes in class, but mine has been handy in meetings and at conferences. Also it is nice to doodle a sketch for a carpenter (napkin cad if you will) give them the paper and save the image for the job file.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vacuum Forming & Costumes

While searching for vacuum-formed jewels that we could put LED lights into I ran across this resource today:
Its a site mostly geared towards costumes and some prop building, but they did have some resources for do-it-yourself vacuum forming, including a set-up that allows you to use your own oven! While I'm a bit hesitant to say this is entirely safe, It could be a nice trick for a one-off part for a show.

They also refer the used to a book put out by Tap plastics called Do-It-Yourself Vacuum Forming which you can order here:

Center for Creative Leadership

Cleaning out my inbox I came across July's edition of the Center for Creative Leadership's newsletter. It had a couple of interesting thoughts in it.

The first article is a list of good questions. While it makes sense that most time is spent solving a problem as opposed to defining it, trying to solve something that is not the main problem solves nothing. The list of questions will help direct you to the real issues at hand. FYI there are similar exercises in the book Thinkertoys, that I reviewed here last year.

The second article is about thinking like a designer. It is a topic I haven't really considered, but liked the general ideas.

The Center for Creative Leadership can be found at:
They have a variety of resources and information that is insightful and worth a look.

Fog Machines

Roscoe has an interesting bit on how fog machines work on their page. Their article can be seen at:

Fake TV Light

Every year or so someone posts on stagecraft about how to do the effect of a TV onstage.

Recently an off the shelf answer has surfaced aimed at creating the effect for security reasons; to allude to a house being occupied while it may be empty. The object would be an LED flickering device. Check it out at:

Fake Food

The following site was posted on the stagecraft mailing list:
The site will provide PDFs that you can print and a apply to a substrate to create fake food.
It would leave alot up to the skill of the props person applying the print to a substrate neatly and cleanly, but the coloration is very realistic.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rigging Manual

Texas Scenic Company has a variety of information regarding rigging on their site - one of which is a counterweight rigging manual:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trends in Project Management

A question on Linkedin came up about current trends in the industry. One of the answers mentioned that training should come earlier, as opposed to being a University / College program.

I thought this was interesting – and true. Perhaps it stems from the root of the development of Project Management in construction and IT capacities, that it seems to be rigidly defined.

But if you look at what a project is - many everyday things that we do is a “project”. Teaching project management can help people manage planning a wedding, plan a vacation, manage the home buying process, to just about anything else. It’s a lot about how you frame the idea. A marriage isn’t a project (though I suppose someone could argue), but planning the wedding is. Why? You have a deadline, you have a concrete start (she said yes) to a concrete end (while you have to plan the cleanup / “strike”) of the wedding, the wedding has a concrete end. You have budgets, there are deadlines within the timeline to order materials, there is a variety of communication. There are even political aspects (the guest list!). At any rate, since the skills of a project manager are useful life skills – it would make sense to teach it in schools.

Friday, July 11, 2008


One of my pet projects is using toys to illustrate and improve technical theatre skills. Who doesn't like to learn and play at the same time. I use Legos when I teach drafting, and am working with Knex for rigging and automation prototyping. And I really like that you can now use them together. One of these days I will bit the bullet and buy some mindstorms...

Soon (hopefully releasing in dec 2008) is RoBlocks.
They are magnetic blocks that include actuators and sensors and such. Seems like a cool idea.

My general idea is to start to get into ways that automation can be taught in a hands-on manner without having to use pre-built unit (thus assembling and not inventing), and without taking load of time and money. I believe that with the way that robotics is advancing, that we should be able to start learning programming in the class-room to the extent that it will be used in a project, but in a scale that can be done as a lab.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Plastics Information

I cam across this today as I was surfing looking for something new to learn:
Tap plastics has quite a few how-to videos on it's site - some of which are fairly useful!

Online collaboration

Nick Keenan wrote a blog on his site about writing a company bible (link provided below). I thought it was very well thought out and quite useful. I’ll admit that this sort of record keeping and process appeals to me in general. Nevertheless, there are a variety of good points in the blog.
-Distribution of information in a company is always a challenge. Each company creates a preferred working arrangement with preferred techniques. Speaking of scenery – some places only use 1x3, some use 1x4. While this is obvious by walking in a shop there are many subtle building techniques that often differ from one site to another. Where I work now “solves” that with a shop standards book, which is out of date, and only referred to when someone didn’t do it the “right” way. So with multiple project managers and multiple job leads, it sometimes feels like 6 or 7 different companies working under the same roof, all reinventing the same wheels.
-Updating information is another challenge. This requires commitment throughout the organization. I like the wiki idea, because behind the idea is that the information is not really final, just the current revision. The shop standards book here has an air that once completed it was “published and released”. Thus, it is a closed affair and will have a “cost” attached to revise. A company hopefully learns and grows through the corse of their work. Updating consistently allows this happen, and helps to further the growth. Allowing older information to stay through a forum can help newer people to the company get a hold on the history. Documenting successes are just as important as failures – you learn something from both results.
-I love the idea of an online community. Today, more than ever before we are an interconnected society, and communication takes on newer and more varied forms. I am also a fan of transparency. An online forum keeps the group as a whole in communication about all of the topics of the group, and thus can contribute on all of the topics, or at least be aware of the broader picture.
-I see a couple of drawbacks with the system. You have to be of an appropriate scale. If a company is too large, too much time will be spent maintaining the wiki and the forum, and not enough time producing, though I suppose the forum is also a metaphorical water cooler. Too little people in the company and the same thing happens – or there isn’t enough to keep the pieces together and it turns too social. Both scenarios are thoughts I have – and could stand to be corrected. I also would think that the larger the group the more the forum and wiki would tend to be run by fewer people – department heads and not carpenters, which starts increasing the gatekeeper issues discussed by Nick. Also, you have to have buy-in. Belonging in a group such as this would require a bit of work and learning. Entering into a group where it was a clearly established norm, would make new entry easier – but creating the system for a preexisting company may have some growing pains with getting participation.
-An additional comment I would have about writing a manual is that in addition to implementing or revising procedures as being the time to write and revise, I would say that someone new can help to revise. Why? Because they are learning everything for the first time and will often see more clearly the differences between the espoused method in the manual, and the working solution in action. They will also be very aware of questions and gaps where the information is limited.

At any rate, it was a good blog to read, and was full of advice that can be useful. Check it out at:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Problem Solving

I thought the following link had an interesting article:
It reminded me of an article I read in grad school about firefighters. That article discussed how younger people tended to rely on balance sheet / algebra equations, and as more skill was gained, the choices shifted to a “gut feeling” decision. Experienced firefighters would come across a challenge, and would think through the first idea, and then the second, and so forth. The first idea they came to that worked out reasonably well through the current scenario was immediately put into action.

Theatre, of course, isn’t an emergency, despite what it occasionally feels like, and we don’t have the pressure of making decisions where lives are at stake. However, I often see different people approach the same challenge differently, and often arrive at a different solution based on the approach they take. I think that sometimes it is useful to fully think through several different options – building stud walls for platform legs work best in some situations, but not in others. Without reevaluating choices you may get into a groove where the choices are the most efficient for your time or budget, or for the good of the show. Yet, completely evaluating every choice would bog down the process to such an extent that nothing could progress. As with much in life – it is a fine line.

It’s also to think of when you have different factors to think of. There are many theatres where labor and the costs associated with labor don’t impact design or construction decisions. But the places where labor is involved with the rest of the budget can mean dynamically different approaches. Suddenly, it is cheaper to buy something than build it, or buy a different, more expensive material, because it saves labor. In the shop where I work now, the CNC machine is a great example. It saves a lot of time, but building set pieces is accomplished in a very different manor, and with different materials than standard construction.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

High School Theatre Production

Check out this link for a variety of resources to help with high school theatre programs. The site includes a link to the Museum of Costume, an interactive theatre manual, and film resources as well.

Stretchy Velcro

Textol Systems ( has a product called Velstretch. It’s basically Velcro that allows up to 55% stretch. For a production at UMKC while I was in grad school, my fellow TD’s discovered the product during their research for use with spandex panels that made up the background of the set they were working on.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


A topic interesting to me is the overlap between project management and technical direction. Technical direction is a very industry specific way to look at the job. And, granted depending on where you work and the specific shop structure of that theatre the job may vary significantly from someone else with the same title. It is for this reason that I think the term makes it more difficult to generalize duties and needs. While I think that there will always be hammer slinging TD’s in small venues, there are a variety of places, where the TD’s job is much more a management position. Furthermore, A great TD isn’t always the best welder or carpenter, and great welders and carpenters don’t always make great TD’s. Thus, I find it useful for framing a TD (particularly the management style) in a project management frame of reference. Why? Every show is a project. A season is a project – and a series of projects. Here is a definition of a project: "A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result" PMI PMBOK 3d edition.

You may have noticed on my blog that there are a lot of resources for project management. It is for two reasons – I am one, (and a TD), and I believe the above. By framing the job differently I have a wealth of resources that helps teach me how to plan, organize, manage, and other wise develop the many different aspects of the job. It also makes it easier to teach, talk, and think about concrete skills that a TD of any level should have, and ways to scale up and down the projects.

I am working on a session that will develop these ideas for USITT in Cincinnati – and I am sure I will sound off more here about it in the upcoming months. If you have insights, or comments please let me know!