Friday, December 30, 2011

Physics Games / Aps

A long time ago I posted about physics related games. As I have been loading up my IPod with games (I don't really use it for music, but got it just before teh I-Pads really came out with a splash), I, of course, have been playing a variety of physics based games. App Advice has a good lists of games to try out. I have played some - and some I have played on their computer based counterparts - so I will be looking forward to trying out more of these.

Also, I would add Cut the Rope to the list as well as Tiny Wings (my current additiction). While I guess you could argue that tiny wings isn't really the same, you have to time the speed height, etc of the bird just right to gain the highest score &/or meet the objectives, making it close enough for me.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Scrim Effects

I just came across this video. Pretty amazing what a series of scrims can do. Take a look, its worth viewing & thinking about new ways that we could use traditional materials.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Prop Source

I came across Dino Rentos Studios while looking for props for a recent event. (Somehow you always find things you aren't looking for when you don't need them, and have problems finding the item you really do need. The item of need at the moment had been handheld confetti cannons, which seemed very common until needed more immediately). At any rate, this shop had a couple props I hadn't seen before (fake cinder blocks for instance) and thought it was a good addition to the list of potencial sources for the future.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

J Molding & Screed Channel

For a current interior project we are using J Moldings to finish off the bottom edge of teh wall. approximately every 1' we are also installing an aluminum screed channel, giving a nice effect to the wall. There is also a wide variety of channels, inclucding v-grooved channels, curves and other hardware for finishing off all of the assorted angles and cuts necessary for installation.
It always seems that one of teh age old problems with scenery in any form is how to deal with seams. These channel options allow the edges to be designed in to the overall look.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Museum Audio

Alcorn McBride has a brief how to on a way to set up audio and lighting activated by a switch for exhibitry.

Perhaps impractical, it makes me wonder if you could use this to mimic scenes and lighting in models.

For what I am currently working on, I am pricing the "telephone" audio playback that so many museums employ - where to hear specific audio content, a guest picks up the phone and listens to the audio file.

Museum Tools is probably the way that I will proceed, and I will use the handset as a contact closure.

Friday, September 23, 2011

New Arrival

This is my current project.
Kalynn Mackenzie
9.9.11 at 12:21 AM

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wood Balls

Seems like I am often in search of teh most random things. Todays quest - 3" wooden balls. Premier Wood Products has them up to 18" in diameter. Don't expect it to come cheap that large though - the cheapest (pine poplar or mapple is $683, and other woods can run up to & over a thousand. They have other items - appliques and overlays, corbels and brackets and columns and pilasters among others.

Casey's Wood Products also has a wide varity of items, but they tend more towards game pieces, starts and craft cutouts than architectural details.

Woodworks, ltd. has a wide variety of wooden shapes & also sells wooden kitchen utensils.

Bear Woods has turnings, including balls, as well as clock parts and other craft items.

Craft America has a crazy assortment of wooden items acrylic items, as well as much more. It's an odd collection of craft stuff.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fabric, Webbing & Fasteners

Looking through the current issue of Specialty Fabrics Magazine, there were a couple vendors that carried equipment that could be put to use theatrically. The first, Cole Tech carries an assortment of Marine rigging hardware, mostly rings, webbing adjusters, and hooks. While they don't have alot of a selection, I think that it would be an interesting or helpful practice to use triangle "rings" instead of normal "D" rings. This is one of the good points of the "delta" hangers that Mutual hardware sells.

The second, Lowy, carries webbing, a variety of fasteners, hot cutters, and robes, including bungee cord.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Status of the TD in colleges

I ran across a set of articles today by David R. Batcheller. The first, published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in December of 1962 was called “The Status of the Technical Director in American Educational Theatre: A Survey”. The second was a follow up article, published in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol 25, No 4 (Dec. 1973), was called “The Status of the Designer / TD in American Educational Theatre, 1961-1971.
From the first article, my first, immediate, reaction was curiosity that the title of technical director was offered up as the second position hired after the position of Director, and that most of these people were not only responsible for the execution of all technical elements, but also for their design. My previous research indicates that the person after the director is usually the designer (after the “director” position was established).
Perhaps the other interesting takeaway is that not much has changed over the years. Production space, help, and the arrangement between teaching versus production work are all still issues. Getting tenure is still an issue – in the 1962 article Batcheller says “The nature of the technicians’ work frequently is misunderstood”. And that “No policy on rank and advancement for technicians has been generally adopted.”
Another notable thing was that in the second article showed that over the course of the decade there was a rise the occurrence of doctorate degrees in the Technical Director position. Previously there was a mix of M. A. and M. F. A. degrees only. As a M. F. A. is “terminal” degree in theatre technology and design, a doctorate is unnecessary and even unavailable unless you switch fields. Achieving tenure should not be an issue with an M. F. A., and certainly would qualify you for a teaching position. It makes me wonder what these Doctorate degrees were in and the purpose behind them – an attempt at tenure? Or someone taking a technical job as a way to get their foot into the program at large.
I make the last statement because even 50 years ago, the position of the Technical Director was viewed as a “young man’s job”, and most of these positions were transitory. Where these young men went afterwards, I don’t know, but there are still many many colleges out there where the TD tends to only stay a few years, teach only stagecraft (if that) and are more of a “staff” position than a full faculty member.
At any rate, it is fascinating to see a viewpoint on Technical Direction from 50 years ago.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Superior Studio Specialties

Speaking of resources, Superior Studio Specialties is one to keep in your back pocket. From Giant Christmas bulbs, to LED lighting, Spaghetti lights (faux neon?, Bamboo, thatch, palm trees & cactus, Fake birds (including several that would be good Into the Woods options, as well as a variety of other props. They aren't the cheapest place out there, but they have a unique variety of stuff.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Acyrlic Spheres

On a number of occasions I have needed to research plastic spheres / globes - either fully round or just half, and upon needed to find yet another, I have realized that I have never included any of that information here.


If your looking for small balls 1/4" to 3" in diameter you can check out tap plastics.

Rosebrand has clear plastic ones, with a large seam, from 4" - 36". They are pretty reasonably priced, if you can deal with the seam.

For a variety of options you can try Plastic Balls. they have a wide range of materials, but tend to be small.

For some custom manufactured globes, try California Quality Plastics. While I am looking for a frosted globe, this is my current best option as I need a 18" globe.

Barnard Ltd. also has large spheres and their pricing is good. This place has a varity of theme decor that is not available at Rosebrand, so it's worth a peek. The artifical drinks and food could be especially useful for props. has a variety of sizes w/ seams and without.

JMK Displays offers small balls and cubes, but also offers acyrlic scrap priced by the pound. This would have been fun while in Grad school, to have ordered a couple pounds and experiment with engraving & lighting, frosting, sanding, gluing and so forth since there are tonsof techniques out there, and they give a variety of effects.

Delvies Plastics has small balls and cubes in qty that are polished.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The other day I was tinkering with a Snaptoggle in the shop. Made by Toggler, this is a beefy version of the common drywall toggle hardware. While this version of hardware has never been my perferred type, these are specified to hold well over 300 pounds in 5/8" drywall, making them a nice option for hanging TV's or other heavy object in your wall when you can't tie directly into the studs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Flex Chrome

While looking for some options for flexible chrome trim I ran across this
site. Flex Chrom is geared towards customizing hot-rods. I ordered the sample kit and was pleased by the selection. There is a wide variety - and all pieces adhere via VHB tape. Many profiles also bend in multiple ways, which can be tricky with molding.

Outwater also has some flexible metallic t-moldings, which are nice because you have a better anchor.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Commodity Items

The last lecture of my PM class (it went fast, and there are items I am still absorbing, so I am sure I will post more, but I do wish the class was more thorough – but I suppose there is much more to project management that you can gain from 10 weeks) discussed a variety of contracts / contract management. Of course while discussing this and the procurement process, awarding work based on the lowest bid came up. In the lecture – it was stated that this really only works best if it is a commodity. But I think that is a little too basic.
This would work if you were requesting bids, for example, on Dutchboy paint, Duraclean, Satin, Color “X”, 1 gallon. It is a specific product, with specific qualifications – and at that point the lowest price would be fine. But you can’t just say buy the cheapest paint you can find in “X” color. Obviously there are many cost differences – sheen, quality, binder, warranty. Sheen price differences occur even within the same brand. And the $9 a gallon paint just isn’t as nice as the more expensive stuff. It doesn’t cover as well, it doesn’t “flow” the same, its more chalky, it doesn’t clean as easy…. And if paint isn’t a commodity…..
There are thousands of examples – Dove Chocolate verses a Hershey bar. White Castle burgers versus epic burger or Max and Ermas. Papa John’s pizza versus my favorite pizza from Waldos in Kansas City, Mo, in which every time I make the 8 hour drive back to KC is the first place I visit. Freud may have said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but he obviously wasn’t purchasing one.
Plus, none of my above comments really deal with anything except for the product. Service for example is hard to quantify. It’s hard for a company to sell, it’s hard to “see”, and its something that you don’t want to pay for except for when you need it. For instance, the last time I bought tires for my car I went to a cheap place. Ever since then I have gotten crappy service – and when I replace my tires this time around I will probably go someplace that has better service.
Where I work now as a project manager, this discussion is relevant to me because my price for a “product” (a set, exhibit, etc) can’t really be compared based on price alone. The specifications are never thorough enough to look at my companies price, and another shops price and assume that both are not only apples, but granny smith apples from Michigan, picked at the best time of the year, shipped carefully, and free of pesticides.
From the theatre side, there are two different viewpoints. Some TD’s are purchasing their scenery (opera, ballet, broadway etc), and thus need to understand what goes into the bid & the qualifications to be able to evaluate the bids. The more specific the request is the better. But even for the average shop guy, its worth remembering that sometimes things are cheap for a reason – and sometimes that is okay, and sometimes it’s not.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Design and Performance Specifications

One of my PM class lectures discussed design specifications and that the buyer assumes the risk because they have specified the equipment. On the other side, if the buyer defines the performance desired, the contractor assumes more risk. An IT example was given where all of the IT parts were specified, but perhaps the system as a whole didn’t work well because of unforeseen conflicts.
I mostly receive a combination of the two when I need to provide pricing. The client may provide a variety of design specifications (almost always in terms of how something should look, unless we are doing the design, and sometimes with actual pieces of equipment), but also include the performance expectations. Awareness of performance expectations is inescapable since we are often providing labor to make an event happen or to install a working exhibit.
Almost always in most RFP or RFQ’s is a statement somewhere that despite any owner suggested products, it is the shop that is responsible for fully meeting performance expectations.
First, this can be tricky, because sometimes it isn’t evident that something that was owner specified won’t work until significantly into the process. At that point, a lot of various resources have been consumed. Many times when this happened it was a project that has a decent portion of R&D. When I worked on the Sunlight part of the Science Storms at the Museum of Science and Industry, the owner specified a specific light fixture hung in the ceiling to focus on solar panels on the main floor. In the advent that the day was cloudy, these lights would turn on, allowing the solar panels to operate and allow slot cars to race along a track. The exhibit had a variety of performance and design characteristics, and a lot of R&D to determine what would work. Since the area where the solar panels fit where part of the design, this wasn’t easily changeable. While the sun easily powered the cars through the solar panels, the lights at 70’ (ceiling to panels) would not. This led to the eventual repositioning of the lighting instruments on the lower part of the exhibit. This required a compromise between us as the fabricator and the museum, and was based on the fact that despite best intentions of how something could work, this was what it took to make the exhibit function as required. While we did get an eventual compromise, getting to this point was a costly endeavor.
The above example was a learning experience for both my company (and myself), and for the museum. However, sometimes we see projects come in where the design specs and the performance specs do not integrate. I think these can be the most challenging to bid. You can’t ignore your knowledge, but if you price the project based on what you know will need to be done to make it function – the price may likely be much higher. Perhaps the simple option is to not bid. The other option is to care with the client the issues – but here the risk is that you are potentially sharing proprietary knowledge. I have seen a number of cases where we come in with a technique that is proprietary, only to see the client share that information with other bidders to gain a price advantage.
Finally, while we have taken on projects were we have offered the client what they asked for – and given them a product that was what they purchased, in the long run, no one exited the project happy. We didn’t make a product we could feel proud about, the client paid (what they felt was) a lot of money for an end product that met design specs, but not performance spec. Inevitably the client wants us in the end to take care of the poor performance because it has to be our fault – it couldn’t possibly be their design. Sometimes we can do a change order, and at least minimize losses, but that will still make the client unhappy.
Thoughts about how to manage the conflict between these two types of specifications or how you have dealt with it in the past?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mathmatical Decision Making

It may or may not be clear in my "blogger identity" that I am / can be a compulsive planner. This could / can be a negative - but can also be a positive, considering that planning part of my responsibility. i am also very interested in problem solving, and the techniques/process involved in solving problems.

Thus, it was interesting when an article called
Weighted Averages Method of Problem Solving came up in my project management class. I have used alot of techniques, but not this one. When planning vacations / expenses / budgets / shows, I often use hard numbers. Some problems warrant using the first, best option, then a re-evaluation as the problem evolves. Obviously problem solving is different in the planning stage than the doing stage.

But when planning, and using hard numbers - I have often been faced with a scenario where the numbers don't really tell the whole story. For instance, when going to USITT how important is it to stay at the conference hotel, versus another hotel in walking distance. A hotel in driving difference? That means weighing driving versus flying (I've looked at buses and trains, but they never seem to be good options for me). If you fly - and want to drive- then there is a rental car involved. How does that weigh in? All of these variables have costs which I can determine fairly accurately (I know the price difference in hotels, an estimate of gas & mileage, airfare, etc). What can't be calculated is the gut feeling or importance of where you stay. Staying further away adds a commute. perhaps having no transportation in a city w/o a good public transportation system will suck. Perhaps you have friends to visit, or want to see other things. Perhaps you want to entertain in your room or hotel. Perhaps there are evening events. There are situational issues to be considered above and beyond the mere cost.

In a production, a price point might point you in one direction of fabrication, but perhaps another alternative has better benefits that aren't financially apparent - perhaps it is more "green" or recyclable, or able to be reused in future productions.

While using weighted averages seems an obvious way of sorting this all out, I had never thought about it before. The article above gives a good introduction and explains how to use the process.

The second article,kepner tregoe Decision making offers a fuller approach to problem solving and also used weighted averages, and is worth the read also.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum is the 70% Rule:

This Rule states that if you have 70% of the data and have completed 70% of the analysis and if 70% of your gut feeling or instinct is in agreement with the first two, then go ahead and make your decision. In other words, you have a greater likelihood of making the best decision by using the 70% Rule than you would have had, if you had not used the 70% Rule.

While this is used in a military context, when lives can be at stake, and what we do is rarely life critical, we will often operate in situations where we don't have all of the necessary information, and must make a decision and move forward before it is possible to completely analyze every scenario.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Budget Conversations

In my PM class, one of my classmates shared a link about How to Finesse Budget Discussions. While as a TD in a theatrical situation, some of these options don't fit, the situation is still ripe for a scope to creep beyond the budget (time or materials) allotted for the show. It happens with the best of intentions - we all want the show to be a success. The range of options and the sampling I think could be effect techniques for theatre.

By giving options you can show how increasing the level of detail increases costs. However, we still have to be careful - a current production I am working on includes a caboose (a whole train really) - the caboose has vertical stripes. (the bigger story is that I interpreted the striped as engraved groove & my coworker thought they were dimensional (proud) trim - two different scenarios). It was offered that these could be painted instead of dimensional. If they were proud dimensional trim strips, you would save material costs by eliminating the trim. If they were grooved you would save time making the grooves. My vote is for grooves though - the cnc router can cut the panels to size and groove the plywood in 15 minutes. If they were painted only the painter would have to measure everything out and mask off the surrounding areas & ultimately spend more time than simply following the groove with the brush. Even the difference in proud trim versus paint is a marginal trade-off to me. If the lines weren't regular, or weren't prefect allowing the use of a paint stick. This leads into sampling - item A perhaps is a straight edge with brush stroke, item B is a groove and paint, and item C is an applied piece of painted trim. Each one of these would have different cost implication, especially once extrapolated into a square foot cost over a large area.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pert Time Calculations

Pert Charts are one of the tools PM's or TD's can use to track projects. While usually used for large and complex projects (For instance Disney could use this system while designing a new ride through implementation and final opening). Pert charts (as does critical path charts) focus on time, not cost as a project driver. Once all activities are entered, with time durations, and predecessors or successors, you can easily see the length of the project by seeing the critical path through the activities.
The critical path will be the path through the path that is the longest duration. There may be a variety of projects that need to be complete prior to project close, but sometimes they do not directly affect project length. There is a lot of information amount PERT charts, CRM, Gantt charts and network diagramming on the web, all of it much more thoroughly written then this so I would encourage you to do additional research.
When doing a PERT, Optimistic time (the minimum time needed) Pessimistic time (Worst case scenario) and Most likely time (best guess) is estimated for each task. What I just learned was how that gets translated into the Expected time duration:
Expected time=(Optimistic Time +4 X Most Likely Time + Pessimistic Time) / 6
Thus, the weighted average of the times creates a realistic duration. Since I usually do all of my estimating in excel workbooks, setting up these PERT calculations would be fairly simple (though perhaps tedious) to implement. It would be an interesting exercise to see if this ultimately leads to an increase in accuracy large enough to account for the additional estimating time.
One can argue that historical data and experience alone lead to better estimates, and to a certain extent that is true, but there are many variables that can affect the actual duration of any task.
Where I currently work we base our hours estimate on skilled labor doing the work. In many cases it is skilled labor that does the work, and the estimates can be fairly accurate. If the shop is full of work, and additional crew is hired, unskilled work (or lower skilled workers) may be put on the job, but their labor rate is also lower – so while the hours calculation will be wrong, the assumption is that the total amount being billed for the hours would work out due to the differences in labor rates. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not. Historically we used to estimate based on who was slated to be assigned to the work. This lead to specific estimates based on the jobs leads capabilities. These estimates could be a little more specific, but were not generalizable, and were more time consuming. And despite being more specific were not any more accurate in the long run. Since we track the hours estimated vs. used, as well as the cost of labor estimated vs. used, it is interesting to see how these numbers can play out.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Unmanila Rope

UnManila Rope is a product I am using on a current project. While it will degrade under sunlight, it was important to look like authentic nautical rope, without splintering like hemp or manilla. While I wouldn't consider this for rigging, and it great for decoration, and it comes in a variety of sizes.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Project Management Skills

In many ways, the lists are similar from being a TD to being a PM. Since I am a management focused TD (as opposed to a master carpenter style TD), my views are skewed accordingly…

The largest differences I see is that dealing with clients is different (in some ways) than dealing with designers (or internal clients, as a PM text would say), and the need to write a proposal or scope of work that clearly defines what you are providing to your client and for what price.

In terms of technical skill there are some differences. I have always believed that the TD, by nature of their responsibilities and skills, is a management position, and therefore should understand all of the technical areas, needs, safety requirements, and so forth (and have the appropriate certifications), but they aren’t & shouldn’t be the best welder in the shop. You can’t spend 40 hours a week on a diversified set of job tasks and be better than someone who spends 40 hours a week welding. In project management, I feel like this is the same, but even more so – the department heads, have been doing their jobs longer than I have, and have very specific skills. I have a generalists knowledge – I have to rely on, trust, negotiate and motivate them to seek out the most efficient processes, and to innovate as needed.

Otherwise, there are the typical skills: drafting, drawing, communication (verbal, written, illustrative), problem solving, time management, stress management, budgetary, computer literacy, adaptability, flexibility and versatility.

Also, there are management skills: conflict resolution, negotiation, planning, human resources, legal issues (fair employment, sexual harassment, osha requirements, life safety codes), organization, and so forth.

Finally, there are leadership skills: being able to see details, yet see the large picture. Being able to forecast what’s coming and prepare. Manage change. Motivation of those around you. Create a culture of trust, respect, innovation, planned risk, and celebrate success. Provide an organizational structure that works, a humane place to work, meaning in the work place, and navigate office politics.

Of course the above is my opinions, and abbreviated at that. Many books are written about much of what I have stated above. What are your thoughts?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Project Management Organization Style

I am occasionally asked about the differences between being a PM and being a TD. There is a large difference that I usually don’t discuss, but that it important.
In a traditional TD position, the ATD, Forman, and crew are either directly hired by the TD, or are hired with input from the TD, and report to the TD as their direct supervisor. Even in a scene shop were multiple shows are being built at the same time, the TD balances the load between the shows needs and the staff directly. It depends on the theatre if the TD also controls paints or props, etc, or if that falls to the production manager, but it is a fairly linear chain of command.

As a project manager I don’t have direct control of the shop. There is a director of production, as well as department heads in Carpentry, Metals, Paints, and electrics. When I have a project that is in process the department heads assign me a job lead, chosen based on the type of project, shop schedule, availability, and so forth. This project lead reports to me, but also reports to the Dept. Head. Technical solutions are developed with the PM, job lead, and the department head. While the crews are committed to get every project done successfully, the department heads have to balance all of the jobs on the floor, not just mine. That may mean that while I would like item A to get built on Monday, if there is a more pressing need on a different project, my crew might be pulled off to help another job.

There are multiple things to consider here that is affected by this set up. First, multiple people (PM, Dept. Heads, job leads) need to be in on decision making, and kept aware or schedule updates, changes, and other information. Secondly, you may need to negotiate to get someone on your crew, or the job lead the help they need to complete on time. This is particularly true if the ship or installation date is far in the future as the shop can sometimes focus on the next show out the door. It also affects your leadership style as you can’t micro manage the shop floor, and you have don’t necessarily have direct authority. While the PM is not “powerless”, the PM’s management style, influence and reputation makes a difference in how willing people are to work with you and to work collaboratively.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Success versus failure

When I was in grad school there were often discussions about being allowed to fail. Or rather, that more is learned from trying and failing than playing it safe and succeeding. Therefore, we should be allowed to experiment and fail. But failure really wasn’t an option.
I have also heard this discussed at USITT. Those conversations were usually a bit more academic. If a teacher sees a student failing – what do they do? Let them fail? Intervene? If they intervene, at what point? Late enough that the student understands the failure, but early enough for the show to succeed? How does this vary depending on the type of failure? Failure of scenery causing safety issues is very different than a set looking ugly because the students tried a unique painted treatment that didn’t work out very well – or was a bad color scheme.
But what is success and what is failure isn’t really discussed. Is a successful set one that the designer is satisfied with? What about the audience, the designer? If all of the above have different expectations what takes precedence? Can it be a failure to the set designer, but a success to the director? Can the audience be disappointed, yet internally everyone be satisfied? Technically, beyond meeting the client, designer, director (etc.) expectations, the set should be done on time and within budget. The third parameter, quality should be met, but is often most associated with meeting designer expectations. Further there are times when a project might ask for 100%, but 80% realization is still enough to make the project a success in the eyes of the users.
Secondary results of a successful project can mean future work, references, awards. Technically it can mean accomplishing it within OSHA requirements, safety codes, and with a high efficiency or effectiveness.
With failure there are three types:
Planning failure: the difference between what was planned and what was accomplished. In some cases, the project inherently fails because the initial scope is too large.
Actual failure is the difference between what was achievable and what actually was accomplished. This type of failure occurs due to poor performance.
Lastly, perceived failure is the net sum of actual failure and planning failure. If you plan a project that is too large, then a planning failure occurs. If the performance fails on top of that, and there is an actual failure, these are added together to create the perceived failure. The differences in perceived failure can be large depending on how those variables factor out, and are important. Theoretically, increasing planning skill, eliminating or minimizing planning failure can then minimize actual failure. Risk Management can help to eliminate planning failure by helping to identify potential problems in advance and by planning alternatives.
Regardless – unless the failure are captured and considered, real learning doesn’t occur and can’t be passed on. As an industry, we continually reinvent the wheel because past learning technical concepts and methodologies are irregularly kept, and not available. Examples: I know of more blood recipes than I can count – which one is best? I know of 15 ways I can build a rock or a tree or carve and coat foam. Which is best? What does the best alternative depend on? Cost? Time? Materials? Sometime I wish at USITT someone would build 30 rocks, all different and put them on the expo floor- and after 3 days we could analyze the results. Capturing the lessons that are learned, and teaching others those lessons are fundamentally important. But it also helps to realize that these lessons are often viewed from different perspectives.
*Definitions are from Project Management by Harold Kerzner

Friday, April 15, 2011

Changes & Risks

The second chapter of our PM book had a significant section change management. I thought this was interesting because I don’t really think of project managers as being change agents. In both theatre and with the projects I manage (theatre scenery, museum exhibits, TV, and tradeshows) change happens frequently. Projects pop up, go away, get reinvented, change scope, etc. all of the time. Technology changes. What we can do changes as we continue to develop skills. So, it makes sense for PM’s to consider change management as part of a skill set that is necessary to develop.
While our PM book (Harold Kerzner's Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling. 2009.) discusses the basics of change management (recognizing that change is hard because of fear of the unknown, loss and how to move change forward with enthusiasm, building comfort, finding positive opportunities and incentivizing change), my favorite book that talks about change is Hiefetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line. They talk a lot about change, but also about leadership dilemmas, of which I have occasionally found myself in.
The other topic in Chapter 2 (other than the history of project management which is interesting, but not relevant) that we don’t talk about in theatre management is risk management. I think that theatrically this doesn’t get thought about because in most cases the risks are low. There are automation and rigging risks, we have all certainly heard about industry accidents, but more often than not I think the most common risk in theatre is an ambitious design / construction plan that is unattainable. But these smaller risks should be considered. What happens if we can make a lift work the way the show wants it to work? What are the other options? As TD’s we solve problems, and risk is inherent in that process. Sometimes I think it is worth thinking about a little more actively instead of just proceeding full stream ahead.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stop Gates & Check Points

One section of the PM overview that I thought was interesting was the use of stop gates or checkpoints. I have a variety of thoughts about this.
First, I think instituting standard periodic progress reviews is good, and something that should be done more often. Theatrically, most of the review process happens when the show is bid, and casual reviews maybe done for production meetings, but it isn’t a formal process. With the projects I do now, the formality differs on the job, how large it is, the time span that the work occurs over, as well as other variables. But it is not a very formal process either. Perhaps the two most formal attributes would be the initial estimating process, and then the final punch list items.
I think one of the issues with checkpoints is that things often move through the shop so quickly, that the PM has difficulty keeping up. One project manager may have 3-4 (or more) jobs on the floor. The job lead assigned to each only (sometimes) has that one job to worry about. Also, the fast pace often means that a project isn’t fully developed, drafted, items ordered, etc. prior to being given to the shop floor to build. Thus logical transition points for checkpoints become blurry.
The other thing is that in many situations where I work, and in theatre, while keeping tabs on process is critical, the choice between moving forward or stopping the project isn’t realistic. Where I am at now, once we have won the bid, and accepted the award, there is no stopping the project. Monitoring progress is critical, making steps to maintain schedule / scope, and quality despite changes is important, but the point of checkpoints is to maintain those items, not to determine whether to proceed or not. Occasionally there are internal projects that could be subject to internal review and possible elimination (Should we re-engineer the kabuki system? Should we build more winches? ). But it is a critical difference to compare the two, when one process will allow a project to stop, while at other times, the only resolution is how to maintain or regain progress on a project that MUST move forward.

Finally, it is interesting that officially, the project manager working on the project can't make the decision to proceed at a formal checkpoint or stop gate. While this might make since for internal projects that need to be sanctioned by someone higher in the company, it isn't something I encounter either in theatre or in my pm situation. Progress reporting and realligning project goals to maintain schedule scope and quality is a continuing process, of which I am responsable. There are situations where I would need approval (needing additional resources or overtime) but there are no formal points in a typical project process (one the bid is accepted) that I work in where the project must be reviewed by my supervisors to proceed. I think needing to do this would be very challanging in the project environment here, mostly due to the fast pace that most jobs have through the shop.

Monday, April 4, 2011

PM Overview

If you read my blog, I am sure that you know that I am a believer that Technical Directors are very similar to Project Managers. A typical show, by definition, meets the definition of a project in a variety of ways, but there are some differences as well. I am currently taking a formal class on project management, so I expect I will (hopefully) have a number of comments to make about what I learn in class and from the text versus the theatrical point of view and even my point of view coming from the specific types of projects that I am currently managing.
The formal definition of project management requires that projects must cross functional lines. I think theatrically there are a couple ways of looking at that. Obviously, where you are in the organization matters- as the lines that you manage are different. The production manager would be managing the “functional lines” of props, costumes, scenery, lighting and sound. The Technical Director would be managing the heads of carpentry, metals, automation, and paints.
A project would have one project manager and a variety of assistants, if the project was large enough to need them. Viewing the TD as a PM, in a theatre that has a Production Manager may appear to be a conflict of interest as in some ways they can both be viewed as project managers – they are just managing different aspects of the project – or mostly closely monitoring a subset of the work, under which the Production manager more globally manages.
Project managers know a lot about managing a project, communication, dealing with all of the different types of people working on the project and managing, defining, estimating and achieving deliverable, but they may not have the technical skill to actually make the product that they manage. Also, they defer to the department heads (or line managers) on how to accomplish a task, as long as the department head achieves the task according to the expectations set by the project manager. This is very different from my project management experience and my experience in theatre. While the TD may not be the best scenic painter or welder, they can usually perform the task, or teach the task to someone underneath them.
Another point is that PM’s generally don’t have official authority over those assigned to their project. They can’t fire people, or demote them, or give them pay raises or promotions. As a TD I had this control over my crew. As a PM, the department heads control the purse strings, and my job lead may be assigned too many other projects besides my own. Thus in the situation where there are multiple projects taken place, and priorities are always changing, you have to negotiate for time on the floor and resources to build your project. As a TD, even when there were multiple shows to be built, I had control over the flow of all of the work on the floor.
The triangle exists in project management (time, cost, quality). However, all of these objectives happen inside a circle that is made up of the “project stakeholders”. While there are several different ways that you can define project success, you must satisfy these stakeholders for any version of success. This is true in theatre as well, we just don’t think about making management happy, or the board members, or even the audience as we go about our day to day activities.
The class gives 4 main tasks for project managers:
Represent the project – promote the project within the organization, negotiate for resources, establish expectations. This isn’t necessary for theatre as much, because the mission is to produce the plays. Unless perhaps you have a graduate show in a professional shop, or the black box production, negotiation and promotion isn’t necessary. However, promoting communication and expectations still are important activities.
Plan and oversee project workflow; from procedures to targets, monitoring performance and corrective action, these happen in both situations.
Facilitate the efforts of those working on the project also occurs in both.
Manage Project Risk by identifying and developing contingency plans. Some theatres take little production risk (in scenery). Others push the envelope and try a lot of new things.
As defined by the book, a technical director would be an example of an informal project manager where trust, communication, cooperation and teamwork are important and the tasks of management revolve more around methodology, life cycle phases, and core skills.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Velstick has a variety of products that could be very useful in theatrical applications. I am using Velstick, itself for a project, to hold some vinyl mattresses into place. It is appealing since it can be anchored with fasteners above just the sticky back adhesive and staples. However, the corner mold, studs, u-clips, and valance corner pieces all seem very interesting. The above link has large minimum's, but it is available at other sites with small minimum orders.

Monday, February 28, 2011


Normally sitting at the doctor’s office waiting for the doctor isn’t my idea of a good time. However, my office now does everything on a computer – so while you are in the room and waiting, a screen saver flashes a variety of documents and graphics portraying the values of the organization and offering clever mnemonics to improve communication, effectiveness and problem solving. Ironic as it may be to find applicable information in a doctor’s office; there are a few of the ideas that are worth presenting.

Situation: the current problem at hand
Background: review of pertinent information
Assessment of urgency, options, and course of action to take
Recommendations for proceeding

The 4 P’s
Plan: what happens next
Purpose of Plan: What is the desired effect and why
Problems: What are the known complications that will occur within the plan
Precautions: Expected or possible complications

One was about in taking information:
Qualify: is this accurate?
Validate: Does it seem right?
Verify: Seek independent reliable source

The last reminds us before doing a task to:
Stop & focus
Think about what we are doing
Review – was this the right thing to do.

In the SBAR example I like the reminder to think about urgency. Some things must be dealt with right away, other don’t. Tasks expand or contract (to a certain extent) to fit the available time. If you are really busy, you may just need to “get it done” and move forward – for example, you sand the piece but stop at 100 grit paper. When you have all the time in the world, perhaps you would continue to sand through more grits ending in 200. There are some things that you need to do “correctly” because if you don’t you will likely end up doing it a second time. But many times good is good enough. The key here is knowing the difference.

In the 4 P’s I like including the purpose of the plan. While the purpose may seem obvious, I can’t tell you how many times two people can read the same email or look at the same drawing and have two different ideas about what they read, how to proceed, or what they end result is. Today I ordered 2 white globes. I had originally asked for “frosted” as per design specs. When the price came back much higher than what was originally estimated, the answer was the white was estimated – not frosted. There is obviously a difference between the two, but in this case, on stage, 50’ from the nearest audience member, with dancers in front, white was close enough for the desired effect. In fact, it is possible that the frosted piece would have showed too much of the internal workings. Sometimes the true literal translation isn’t really what is needed. In this case white was cheaper, and possibly more effective.

In terms of qualifying and evaluation information I think it can be important to test your assumptions, but also run new information by your own gut response. In the globe example above this process was essentially used because when I heard the pricing for the frosted pieces my gut reaction was “no way, these should be a ¼ of that”… I sought more information and worked out the best solution.

As for the last item, occasionally I find myself half way through a project when I realize that there is a better way of doing something. Perhaps working through each step before the first step could avoid this. I also like the process of review as this is an essential step for learning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hardware Hangers

While looking through a trade magazine, I found some hardware that looks useful. The "Pick-N-Hook" works with corrugated plastic - you insert it into the opening between the ribs, and you can tie on fishing line, string, or whatever your cable is. The "Twist-N-Hook" works on foam board or gator foam. Seems like it would be useful for temporary displays, portfolio presentations and so forth.

Please note that these hardware units are not rated, are not approved "rigging hardware" and should not be used in any situation where the item hung could pose a danger to someone underneath if it fell.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Past Year

Cleaning up the blog a little and saw that I never finished this post... Nothing like being 8 months late...

Speaking of reflection... though it is past the start of the new year, it is still appropriate to take a look back and how things have went.

-Work has been slow, even though I have taken over rentals where I work in addition to the normal project management jobs. There's been a little theatre, alot of museum work, a little film / TV stuff, and of course a variety of industrial.
-I started on another Masters degree. This one in Interdisciplinary Studies, where I can design my own curriculum. I enjoy learning, and I enjoy teaching and I firmly think that while theatrical knowledge is important, that knowledge from a wide variety of sources is also important. While I concentrated on Technical Production / Leadership & Non-Profit Management & theatre history during my MFA, this time I am expanding into administration, HR, Marketing, Psychology of learning, and curriculum design. One of these days I am going to pursue learning German, because one day I would like to get a doctorate in theatre history (with a focus on the history of stagecraft).

Currently, as of August 2011, I can add more:
-My partner and I are expecting a little girl in a month.
-Owning a home and becoming a parent are dangerous endeavors to technical minded people. We know how to do just enough that the home improvement projects never seem to go away because we know we can make something better....
-that ironically the class I took on the psychology of learning was perhaps the worst class that I have ever took in my academic career. One would think that if you are teaching a course like that, that you would follow the dictates of what you teach.
-I have learned alot in the past year and a half though:
-human development (babies & about how people learn)
-How to tile, do flooring, and other home repair that isn't common theatrical carpentry skills

Life is a mix of continual self improvement (I try..., taking more and more steps to solidify my family (house bought check, daughter on the way check) and burn out. Its hard to work full time, have a fun / busy outside life, see all of the family scattered around the country, keeping up with scattered friends, keep up with routine chores & redo most of your house. Unfortunately, I don't keep up to date as much as I would like on this blog.

The blog is a tricky thing - on one hand I use it as a depository for all of the random buts of knowledge that I find. I often come and search my own blog to find the resources that sells balls or game pieces or fake rivets.... Sometimes searching my blog and not finding a resource leads me to sourcing it on the net & recording what I find here. A goal of mine is to write a book about technical direction, and I am sure that I will mine my thoughts from this sight for that as well. I hope to start focusing a little more on theatre history as well & document that here. So some of my motivation is personal.

The flip side is that I recognize that our industry doesn't do well at recording documentation what what we learn - individually or collectively. I see it in the industry at large and even where I work. While judging and editing the tech expo entries it inevitably comes up that an entry isn't unique, but also not recorded. Ideally, the tech expo - Yale Tech Brief's, the Answer box section of Stage Directions all would only showcase new innovative techniques. But what really is new and innovative. Something that is new and innovative for me might be old news to someone else. How many steps away from "common use" must something be before it is "new and improved". And where does the "common knowledge" get stored. No one is going to read every stagecraft book - and while most contain the same basics, often each author will bring something different to the table. And a stagecraft book only teaches the basics, and often can't or doesn't reflect individual preferences. Do you wrap the muslin on flats or cut the edges? Wrapping can cause bad seams - cutting can allow the fabric to peel up. Many people have a strong preference. I think it would be interesting to see USITT do a rock exhibit where you create a fake rock and explain / document your process. from foam to chicken wire to cnc cut whatever - to which kind of covering you apply, I'll bet you could have a 100 different rocks all made differently. And sometimes one choice would be better than another - smooth or rough textures might be important in one production but not the next. A touring show may need a robust urethane hard coat, while another could get by with white glue / water and muslin cover. One might be the fastest, one might be the cheapest. One might be cheaper in material but be labor intensive, one might have pricey materials but need less labor. Each shop, each production, each use could mandate a different technique. But whats best? It's personal opinion based on your previous experiences.... and that means that everyone has a different answer. How to pool all of this information and make it user friendly, easy to use, to find, and relevant?

I mentioned our failure to document a project where I work to our electrician the other day. The project involved an interactive that had various parts of an animals body light up based on which button was pressed by the guest. One button lit up the intestines, one the reproduction systems and so forth. We tried 4 or 5 different items, and the end result was a very simple one with individual sockets and light bulbs & the LED's were completely eliminated. But we didn't document the process. Why did the product not work - what did it look like, and could it be used in a different situation? While theoretically the people involved in the project know those answers, time changes your recollections & things are forgotten. Remembering what doesn't work is as important as know what does. My coworkers defense was that he remembered the project and what happened and what everything looked like. Yet, I talked to this same coworker about a different project a few days after that - and I asked him to set up two roll drops the same way we did for job X, and though he did the work the last time, he had no recall of how it was done. Hence despite his argument for the lack of need for documentation, he demonstrated the need. Not to mention the issue that comes up when he isn't around to answer a question about a past job.

Ultimately theatre, like some other trades, teach skills based on a cognitive apprenticeship scheme. A mentor takes in younger apprentices and teaches them what they need to know. However this ultimately is based on the skill of the mentor and the available opportunities for learning that the mentor can place the mentoree in. For instance when I was young, many of the places I worked in didn't do a lot of automation, and hence, I wasn't able to play with and learn automation until I was older. While I like the concept of this approach, there are obvious flaws in the system. Plus, technology and the Internet & social networking introduces a vast new way of teaching and learning in today's world. Hopefully, this blog has a place in that new world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vygotsky & Theatre Training

I have been doing a little research lately on Vygotsky. Particularly with regards to scaffolding being used in mentoring relationships to help with increasing problem-solving skills for ill-defined problems. One of the articles I have been reading (Cognitive Apprenticeship in Educational Practice by Vanessa Paz Dennen) has been pretty interesting. I found the following particularly interesting:
Teaching and learning through cognitive apprenticeships requires making tacit processes visible to learners so they can observe and then practice them...
Modeling... the demonstration of the temporal process of thinking
Explanation: explaining why the activities take place as they do.
Coaching... the monitoring of students' activities and assisting and supporting where necessary.
Scaffolding... support of students so that they can cope with the task situation. The strategy also entails the gradual withdrawal of teaching from the process, when the students can manage on their own.
Reflection: the student assesses and analyses his performance
Articulation: the results of reflection put into verbal form
Explorations: the students are encouraged to form hypotheses, to test them, and to find new ideas and view points.

I find this relevant to the way that we educate young TD's and theatre technicians, because I think we skip a few important steps in the process.
First, I think that both modeling and explanation can be lacking. For instance, when I was in grad school, there were students that believed that 1x3 couldn't be used to build flats because the shop we worked in used 1x4. There were particular reasons that the shop chose to use 1x4 instead of 1x3, but most students didn't think about it and "learned" that all flats should be build with 1x4.

Secondly, I think we skim on true reflection and articulation of performance. There has to be an allowance for things not going perfectly - it is academia after all, but there seems to often be an attitude that failure isn't an option.

With the number of MFA students that continue on to teaching future theatre students out there - I often wish that there was a little bit more focus on how to teach instead of just content.