Tag Archives: design

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Who Made That? A Look Behind the Scenes

Every play is the culmination of a million little pieces made by many hands the audience will never meet. Just like films have crucial, but mysterious roles like best boy, key grip, or B location scout, theatre has its own lesser known heroes crucial to the performance’s success. Whether you just want to know more about your friends behind the scenes, or are looking for the right career in theatre arts, here are some key players to get you started.

Costume Shop: First Hand

The costume shop first hand, has two hands, but is the right-hand man or woman to the tailor or draper. The tailor (specializing in menswear) and draper (specializing in women’s wear) draft costume patterns while the first hand cuts them out in mock-up or fashion fabric, sets up sewing projects for stitchers, and is usually a master at hand-finishing, zippers, and welt pockets. The first hand is a mid-level construction position: sewers begin as stitchers, move into first hand, and then many go on to become drapers or tailors. These are the people you rarely meet, but know they put hours into the precise construction of the costumes you see onstage.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Backstage: Stage Supervisor

The stage supervisor is the MacGyver of any production. While the stage manager oversees actors, blocking, the script, and their ASM, a stage supervisor manages the backstage crew, scene shifts, consumables, and much more. If you’re doing a production of Les Miserables, and a turntable breaks, the stage supervisor is the first in line to fix it. This superhero works closely with stage management, wardrobe, props, and the scene shop to help maintain the continuity of a show, maintain any minimal wear and tear on props or scenery, and keep the show running as smoothly as possible. If you love herding cats, having your hand in many aspects of the art, and thrive off of the adrenaline of fast-paced problem solving, this is the job for you. You also have to be pretty good with an impact driver and hot glue gun.

Sound: A2

Sound is an integral design element to any show (despite what the Tonys have to say about it), but sound is even more important in a musical. For most musicals, their audio engineer has a booth in the house where they can listen to show and mix each actor’s microphone levels live. What you don’t see is their backstage partner, the A2. This second audio position is like the ASM of the sound department. They’re responsible for placing the mic on each actor, changing out batteries or elements when things get sweaty, and often spend the show following actors who have many changes. They are quick on their feet, work well with wardrobe, and are ninjas with a battery.

Scene Shop: Shop Foreman

It takes a village to operate a scene shop effectively. Technical directors translate drawings into CAD, manage the budget, and purchase supplies, but don’t always spend time on the shop floor. This job is left to the shop foreman. The foreman runs the shop floor crew, assigning tasks, dictating their cut lists, and making sure everything runs smoothly. They’re an expert at reading ground plans, safely using all machinery, and managing time. Most shop foreman start as carpenters, and can grow into technical directors, or even production managers when they get tired of working on the floor. Next time you see an amazing set, thank the shop foreman for guiding the carpenters, trouble-shooting scenic difficulties, and making scenic magic happen.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Scene Shop: Scenic Charge Artist

Even the simplest sets need paint, and more than a can of Behr from Home Depot. The scenic charge artist is in charge of all scenic treatments. This ranges from painting back panel steel black to prevent rust, to intricate trompe-l’oeil of bricks, woodland scenes, or intricate wallpaper. They are given a scale rendering by the scenic designer, and enlarge it to life size using a giant grid, often painting by numbers on a giant scale. The scenic charge is an expert in paint varieties, can color mix like no other, and knows more painting techniques than Martha Stewart could ever dream of. This is a job for hard-working, skilled artists who can visualize large scale work, have great patience, and can withstand long hours on their feet—or their hands and knees. They are chemists, artists, and craftsman. Next time you’re watching a production of Sweeney Todd, consider the extensive paint treatment on those old London buildings—before the blood hits, that is.

These are just a handful of craftsmen who contribute to the technical side of the art you see onstage. It’s good to remember just how many artists it takes to put on a play—especially those you cannot see.

Photo credit: Devon Labelle

Barrels, Blankets, and Beyond: Life in Props

Photo credit: Devon Labelle
Photo credit: Devon Labelle

There are so many avenues theatre artists can take behind the scenes. While many educational programs focus on directing, playwriting, and design, few focus on the technical side. Most programs include a sampling of electrician, costume construction, and scenic construction classes, but one profession in technical theater is rarely thought of: props design and technology.

Props are essential to any play. From Desdemona’s hankie derailing the entire plot of Othello, to the gun that shot Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, props tell almost as much of the story as the actors do. Many prop designers start in other aspects of design, or as wood workers, welder, upholstery artists, and all around crafty people. Every prop artist has a different journey to find their place in the props world, here’s an interview with Bay Area prop artist, Devon Labelle.

When and how did you get into props artistry?

In the fall of 2009 had just finished an internship at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the School of Theatre. I had become friends with the staff and one of them asked me to do props for a show she was directing. After that I slowly picked up work. By the end of next year, I will have been a props master/ designer for over one hundred shows in the Bay Area.

What is the favorite prop you’ve ever built?

That’s a tough one. Each prop I make has its own character and specific memory attached to it, a new skill I had to master, a neat effect that people haven’t seen before, a good team of artists to work with. If I had to pick, I’d say something I’m building right now actually. I’m creating a set of puppets for Ray of Light Theatre’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. I have done puppets in the past (some of them with help from you), but the scale of this project is huge. And every puppet has to do something different, but still read as something that is growing from one stage to the next. It is an interesting challenge, and I look forward to working on it every chance I get.

Photo credit: Devon Labelle
Photo credit: Devon Labelle

What does the daily life of a props artisan look like?

From the outside it looks completely random. Some days are spent driving all around dropping things off. Some days are build or shopping days. Occasionally I have research days where I’m not actually building anything for a particular show, but where I’m honing an old skill or learning a new one. Now, especially, these things are all mixed together, I might have a production meeting early in the morning in the East Bay, need to pick up something in another city and then drive across the Bay for tech. A lot of my time is spent in my car moving stuff around. One day definitely doesn’t look like the next.

The perfect props artists are those driven to figure out how things work, and don’t love the mundane routine of a 9 to 5 job. Anyone with a knack for creating, desire to try new mediums, and little fear of fire, stage blood, and cooking are ideal artisan candidates. Problem solving, love of painting, sewing skills, and a good eye for design are all useful prop skills. Above all else, props artisans have to be great communicators, working under scenic designers as well as shopping, building, and collecting props that actors can easily use. The job is three parts craft skills and one part social aptitude.

What are your most coveted prop skills; which do you wish to grow in the future?

I really enjoy being able to look at something, a material, an object, a piece of gadgetry and figuring out how to use it for something other than its intended purpose.

I love mold-making, there are so many materials and options available for every skill level and budget.

I need to learn how to weld, luckily this doesn’t come up much for me, but if I could, the possibilities would be endless.

How would you recommend people get into props?

All you have to do is ask. There are not that many of us around. Are you crafty? Do you like stretching your brain? Can you handle driving around all day? Then send out a resume. There are certainly more jobs than available Props Masters.

What kind of career paths exist in props?

Career paths in props are incredibly diverse. As I mentioned before one can start out as a props artisan and move to become a set designer. Also there are often jobs that open up in regional theatres, to work in their shops. Becoming a Union Stage Hand or Props Master is also an option. Film also has needs for property people and special effects artisans. I wouldn’t even rule out working as a visual effects technician. The opportunities are endless.

Photo credit: Devon Labelle
Photo credit: Devon Labelle

As Devon said, the opportunities in the world of props are never ending, so if you find yourself loving many crafts, working with your hands, hunting for the perfect object and contributing to the overall design of a project, prop design could be just the career path for you.

Check out some of Devon’s work on her website https://giveherprops.wordpress.com

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Costume Fittings: Where Character Meets Design

Whether you’re a chorus member in American Idiot, or a principal in Shrek, going in for your first costume fitting is daunting. You’re vulnerable. This is the moment your interpretations of your character meet the designer’s. It’s the next step in character development, but can be challenging if you’re not prepared. Here are some tips to take you from fitting novice to rock star.

Measurements: Before your first fitting, you’ll likely meet the rest of the costume shop team for measurements. A traditional shop will have a draper/cutter who builds women’s wear, a tailor who constructs men’s wear, and a first hand (or two) who work as their assistants, cutting garments and setting up sewing projects for the stitchers. You’ll likely be measured by any of these people. If not, it will be the shop manager or design assistant. Take the time to learn their names and their positions—these are the people who lovingly craft your costume. You’ll get to know your draper or tailor much more intimately in your first fitting.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Knowing some of your basic measurements will always make a costume shop happy. So men, memorize your suit size, dress shirt size, and pants size. Ladies, be ready to give out your bra size, preferred undergarments, and for a modern show it’s best to know the brands of jeans that fit you best. Costumers want to make you look amazing as efficiently as possible.

When you arrive for measurements, be sure to wear comfortable, close-fitting clothing and remove anything from your pockets. The more accurate the measurements, the easier your fittings will go, and the happier your design team will be.

First Fitting: A week or so after your measurements are taken, you’ll have your first fitting. Come prepared in the right undergarments, and used the restroom before you start. If the costume shop is building your costume, you’ll probably try on a mock-up. A mock-up is a practice garment, often made from off-white muslin, it’s the drapers first pass at creating the garment your designer drew. In this fitting they determine major style lines. Will the dress have a round or square neck line? What sleeve length looks best on your arm? Is there too much fullness in that skirt? These are the many questions that a designer and draper have to sort out in under an hour.

Be patient in this fitting. You will stand for a long time. People will poke and prod at you. They will ask you to look straight ahead while they mark a hem. The muslin mock-up is hard for an actor to visualize. You look like an uncolored paper doll, so when giving input focus on the following:

  • Does the construction impede movement?
  • How easily will it come off in a quick change?
  • Is there anything your designer should know about your character development?
  • What style shoe will offer you the most support and safety for choreography?

The designer will show you swatches or bolts of fabric the final costume will be built out of. Now is the time to bring up any fabric allergies, or aversions to leather. Some actors only wear vegan costumes, and that is okay. This is a great time to offer input, but if you’re skeptical about the designer’s choices remember—their job is to make you look amazing, they have years of training, and they probably know best.

A good designer will want to work together in this fitting, molding your character out of fabric, one fitting at a time.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Final Fitting: You will have one or two more fittings before tech begins. The draper will fit a copy of the mock-up in the fashion fabric. Now, the design elements come together. This is the moment you’ll truly begin to see your character. It’s a great time to discuss accessories, any new developments in rehearsal, and any problems you foresee. It’s always better to mention problems during the fitting phase; there is nothing worse than an actor who doesn’t complain about a costume’s function or comfort until tech. We’re all in this together, so be kind, pay attention, and give honest, constructive feedback. And enjoy the attention, it’s rare so many people will ever put this much love and care into making your clothing.


I Left My Heart in Summer Stock

I learned the greatest life lessons in summer stock theater. For five summers, deep in the redwoods, I bounced between the costume shop, wig shop, and backstage running two to three exhilarating shows a season. It tested my patience, challenged my body, and carved a hole in my heart no theater has been able to fill. I’m a better artist because of it, and a better person too.

Lessons in Patience

Summer stock tends to ask artists for immediate results. Time tables are tight; budgets are even tighter. The notion to rush is instilled on day one. But instead—pause, breathe. Good work takes time; fast work is not good, so find your middle ground. There is only one summer of these shows, these people, and (in my case) these costumes. Don’t rush through the moments just because time isn’t on your side. Be patient, the shows will open, and close long before you are ready. Don’t waste time. Take it all in, and know that whatever lesson the summer will teach you may not be apparent right away.

Photo via Good Free Photos
Photo via Good Free Photos

A Different Type of Design

I love repertory theatre, almost as much as I love outdoor theatre. It challenges the brain and body of actors and designers in a whole new way. Costumes are designed for the elements, long underwear becomes commonplace for cold nights, and outdoor-friendly shoes are your only design option. Clothing must read as regular and regal under the hot summer sun and evening stage lights. Scenic elements are designed for easy change-overs or usability in more than one production. Wigs and facial hair play a crucial role, helping actors transition from one Shakespeare role to another. All elements must stand alone as special, without overshadowing performances. Design is smarter, more versatile, and simple: the audience imagines the rest.

While actors frequently rehearse or learn lines for more than one show at a time, repertory theatre asked them to switch gears multiple times a day. While I’ve carried multiple backstage tracks in my head, for summer stock wardrobe crew, I cannot imagine the challenge of playing Iago in the afternoon and Puck in the evening. Factor in major temperature changes between shows, bugs, and seasonal allergies and outdoor theater becomes an Olympic event for actors.

Listening to Your Body

Whether you’re an intern, actor, or designer, summer stock can wreak havoc on your body. Hours on end sewing, building scenery, running crew, or rehearsing epic swordplay for The Three Musketeers challenges bodies in a way they aren’t used to. Eight shows a week feels like sixteen with morning rehearsals, evening shows, and post-show parties. Opportunities for rest are few and far between, and the fear of missing out can overshadow your body’s needs. Summer won’t last forever, and that’s a hard concept to manage. Just remember, summer stock is one of the many theatrical journeys you’ll enjoy in a career; make it count, but don’t forget to put yourself first.


Matters of the Heart

My first day of my first season, the artistic director told the story of a couple who met years prior at that very theater. They had returned, still in love, still in theatre. This was the dream. But, what I didn’t know, is that summer stock is summer camp for adults. There are summer loves, but often that’s all they are—a fling under the starlight inspired by the romanticism of  Romeo and Juliet and the constant pressure of summer’s end is right around the corner. Years of this tested my heart. There was so much love to give, and love to receive in so little time. I grew to know I value the people over the art any day—the plays were just the vehicle that brought us together. I learned my love of the industry isn’t the work in costumes or hair, it’s the opportunity to interact with like minds as willing the open their hearts as I was.

No Task Is Too Large, No Task Is Too Small

When it comes to the truncated time and team spirit, summer stock taught me no task is beyond my reach. Whether it was simple swing tacks on costumes, crafting turbans for the first time, or helping the prop shop rig a dagger on a belt, I ended each summer with a handful of new skills, and practiced skills I’d nearly forgotten. There is no such thing as projects above or below a “pay grade,” instilling the humbling notion that I am valuable as an individual, but more importantly, I’m a part of the team.

My summers of outdoor theatre fueled my career faster than any class, seminar, or resume credit. I developed a breadth of skills in design, aesthetics, construction, hair, and makeup that I wouldn’t have experienced in college alone. But, most importantly it filled me heart with love and appreciation for every person and every step of the production process.


set model

Break Into the Biz: A Career in Theatre Design

set modelSo, you want to design for theatre? Where do you begin? It’s an odd industry, combining a myriad of skills that apply to other industries, but are entirely unique to our craft. Luckily, the industry thrives on collaboration, evolution, and the spirt of artists both green and seasoned. Whether you’re in high school considering the college path, or mid-career with an urge to see your art onstage, there’s room and potential for everyone.

As with many industries, the easiest “in” is education. Whether you’re just embarking on a design career and are considering a major, either a BA in general theatre with a design emphasis, or a more focused BFA in design and technical theatre, this is a traditional first step. If you’re afraid it’s too late in life to start over with a bachelor’s degree, have no fear, it’s never too late to design a play! I’ve know many designers who chose graduate school after a few years designing low budget theatre. Their majors have ranged from fine art to fashion design. Graduate school is perfect for the serious late-start designers and those out of BA or BFA programs.

If it’s too soon for school, volunteering is the easiest way into the industry. Theatre thrives off of eager volunteers. Once you earn your stripes, companies are also more willing and likely to hire you and connect you with other artists. There are two levels to begin volunteering—community theatre and regional theatre. Both are an excellent start. In a community theatre where musicals featuring large family-friendly ensembles like The Music Man or smaller single-set plays like Steel Magnolias are the norm, you’ll likely have more hands-on experience with design, while a regional theatre usually looks for administrative help. Both situations provide excellent networking opportunities.

There are low-budget, no-budget, and rough-and-tough community theatres everywhere. These are theatres that operate on sheer will and love of the art, and they are always looking for volunteer help. Maybe you have to begin as an usher if you have no technical experience, but just getting your foot literally in the door can open up networking opportunities with designers, and most likely at this industry entry level, people will accept any willing extra hands.

Regional theatres rarely ask for volunteers in their production departments. Often, their craftsmen are union and highly skilled, but if you happen to be a carpenter aspiring to become a scenic designer, it never hurts to get to know your local regional theatre’s technical director. Start by contacting the institution’s volunteer coordinator, or reach out to departments directly, you never know what a theatre needs!

For those in-between volunteer and school phases, internships are an excellent way to transition from enthusiast to professional. Many regional theatres have internship or fellowship programs designed to jump-start careers in technical theatre. If this isn’t an option in your area, try the local community college for design classes. Generally, students are given the opportunity to design or assist designers on shows, while networking with professionals. Brushing up on sewing and drawing skills, or learning CAD drafting and video editing are great ways to develop employable skills.

Once you’ve honed your skills with classes and volunteer experience, then you’ve also met some designers that are always looking for assistants. Assisting is one of the hardest, but most rewarding steps toward a design career. If you have an excellent attention to detail and are great with a scale rule, you’re the model builder your local scenic designer has been waiting for. Do you know some simple hand sewing and are great at organizing receipts? You’re a costume designer’s dream assistant. If you’re patient, eager, and willing, nearly any designer would love your help, and assisting is one of the greatest resume credits. Eventually, designers have too much work for any given show, and often recommend the theatre hire their favorite assistant instead. Just like that, you go from assistant to designer.

There is no simple path to a career in design. Some people find their way into the industry fresh out of college; others discover theatre later in life. Many receive traditional education; others learn on the job. This diversity in knowledge and experience is the life force that keeps theatre innovative and evolutionary. We welcome new generations of thespians with open arms, so what are you waiting for?


News, thoughts, opinions and advice for the performing arts community.