Episode 157: Creating An Environment
Teacher Ray Palasz talks about set design and creating an environment. He also discusses a set design project using Sketch Up. You too can include set design in the classroom.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. I hope you’re smashing today. I hope you’re awesome. Are you awesome? Please, be awesome. And thanks for listening!
This is Episode 157.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode157.
So, any time that we can add a technical theatre component to anything we do – whether it’s on our blog or here in the podcast – I think it’s really important to jump on it. I want to jump on it – metaphorically, of course! Because, if I jump on the equipment, I break it and I already bought it. So, you know, that doesn’t help me. I can’t say, you know, “Break it, you buy it!” because I bought it and then, if I break it afterwards, it’s just a pit of sadness all around. So, let’s not break it. Excellent!
Let’s get it back on track!
So, technical theatre, it’s an area I certainly can’t talk about with great confidence and I know that many of you out there are sort of in the same boat but you know you want to add that technical component to your classroom and you aren’t sure where to start.
So, Teacher Ray Palasz is going to be your start as we talk about set design.
Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: All right, I am speaking today with Ray Palasz.
LINDSAY: Ray, tell everyone where in the world you are.
RAY: I am an English and technical theatre teacher at Lake Central High School in Saint John, Indiana, which is about 30 minutes outside of Chicago.
LINDSAY: Oh, perfect! That gives me a wonderful… sometimes, people say where they are and I’m like, “Yeah, I have no idea where that is,” – and here’s my ignorance showing – 30 minutes outside of Chicago, that’s awesome – unless you’re too busy and you don’t get a chance to get up there.
RAY: No, my wife and I, we have season tickets for the Broadway in Chicago series. So, we get up there probably about every six weeks or so to see a musical. It’s a lot of fun.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome!
Technical theatre – tell me about your background with technical theatre. Where does that come from for you?
RAY: Okay. Well, I didn’t really get involved with technical theatre things until I was in college and I had to take my technical theatre class for my theatre major and it was your basic introduction to stage craft type of course and I really started thinking, “This is really kind of cool – to be able to put stuff together and build sets and, you know, have control over lighting and costuming and things like that.”
At the time, I was working in the career center at Valparaiso University and then I asked the technical director who was the teacher, I said, you know, “Is there a way I could get a job working in the scene shop?” And so, the next semester, he brought me in and I started working there for the last couple of years I was in college. And then, when I started working at Lake Central, there was already a woman there who was teaching the acting courses and doing a lot of the directing so I just naturally stepped in as technical director.
And so, really, ever since I’ve been doing a lot of technical work. I do get to direct shows from time to time. I direct a contest show every year but I also work on the technical end of a couple of shows that we do during our season as well.
LINDSAY: It’s interesting that you say that what was really interesting for you – to have control over lighting and costuming – why does that aspect of theatre spark you?
RAY: Well, I mean, I’ve done the acting for many years. Since I was in sixth grade, I always acted in shows. Every once in a while, I would pick up a paintbrush and help painting a set. But I think it was just the fact that I was a creating a character for all these years and, now, here was the opportunity to create the entire environment for those actors and to be able to say, “Well, we need to have this look like a house. How do we make it look like a house?” or “We have to make it look like we’re out in the forest. How do we give that illusion that we are in those different settings?”
Costuming is not exactly my strongest suit but, you know, given a little bit of time and maybe a little bit of prompting, I can make something look good out of a garbage bag, I suppose. But, mostly the lighting and the set and even the sound – I’ve really been into sound with the shows that I direct – just being able to create those environments I think is what really appeals to me the most.
LINDSAY: And I think that is an awesome way to describe what lighting and sound and set and costume do – creating an environment. Also, to create an environment to support what’s going on with the actors. It happens all the time that the actors are the ones that sometimes get the accolades because they’re the ones that we see. But it’s very much a community expression that happens when you put up a piece of theatre. Everything goes to the environment.
RAY: Yeah, and one of the things that I like too is, when I teach the technical theatre class, because I do, you know, during the season, I work with actors as their director and then I also work with the technicians, I’m building the set. But being able to work with them and help them understand that what the actors do is really important when I’m working with the actors. But then, when I’m working with the technicians, helping them understand that, you know, “No, they don’t get to go out and have a curtain call,” you know, their names are in the programme only and that’s about it. But the fact that, when you have the audience come away from a show and they say, “Wow! I was really just sort of sucked into the entire production,” or they really like how the set stood out to them or the costumes stood out to them, that’s sort of what the reward comes to be – when you do such a good job that it makes them take notice.
LINDSAY: Or that it was because of the lighting and the sound and the set and the costume that an audience wasn’t taken out of the world.
LINDSAY: They’re immersed in the world.
Okay. I’m just going to put you on the spot because I love this notion of creating an environment. I know that you’re working on lights for The Little Mermaid. What’s one example of how you are using light to create that environment?
RAY: Well, I’m working actually with three students. So, as a foursome, we’re working on the whole lighting design. We each have different scenes that we’re lighting.
But, for instance, we are looking at, in some of the water scenes, we have these intelligent lights that we’re hoping to be able to figure out how to work because we’re at a brand new space and we’ve never used them before. But using some of the present gobos that are in there to add sort of a wave effect to some of the water scenes. We already have actors who are going to be onstage with long trains of blue fabric, but to be able to add some of the texture on to it with the lighting is one way that we’re looking at doing that.
We’re also looking at how we can take some of the lighting programming in the board and create flashes of light when Ursula is finally dethroned at the very end or when King Triton throws his trident down. We’re looking at how we can take lighting and really hit it at certain moments.
We have this brand new space and we have all this flexibility – and the kids know this, too – the temptation is to just try to use all the bells and whistles that we have right away and I’m like, “Look, let’s show them that we know how to use what we have. We’ll start off with using the basic stuff and then we’ll add the intelligent lights where we think they could have a good impact. We’re not going to try to use them at every single moment because the audience will get tired of it and it’ll take the audience out of the play and they’re going to say, ‘Oh, they’re using those lights again!’ instead of really being moved by how we select to use them.”
LINDSAY: It’s the trap of spectacle over environment, isn’t it?
RAY: Yes, it really is.
LINDSAY: I can totally see how the temptation would be great to play with all the toys.
LINDSAY: How important! I think the thing that is really standing out for me too as you’re talking is that students are involved. Talk about including students and student thought into this technical aspect of putting on a show.
RAY: Sure. When I first started teaching at Lake Central, I was in charge of all the technical aspects of shows. For my first couple of years, I had myself as the set designer, the lighting designer, the sound designer, and not so much the costumes but even there I was kind of trying to see where things fit in and, needless to say, you know, when you’re trying to do all of that as one person and you’re teaching full-time as well, it becomes very stressful, very exhausting.
It wasn’t until after three years in when I first had my first students in my technical theatre class that I started thinking, “Wait a second! There are some really intelligent ideas in these students and their thought processes are there. Why not have them come onboard with me and design something here and there?” And so, what I started to do was become more of a true technical director – overseeing student designers and doing more mentoring of them.
Over the course of a couple of years, I got people who were set designers and lighting designers and sound designers. And then, I worked with them and helped them to learn how to go through the process and make the choices. You know, there were times where they made choices that didn’t work out so well and they learned from them. Sometimes, they were able to fix them before opening night. Sometimes, it was closing night and they said, “Man, you know, if I could go back two weeks ago and change something, this is what I’d want to change.”
Because it’s educational theatre, I want the students on the technical end to be able to have that experience. I kind of liken it to the directors directing actors. You know, the directors will let the actors create the character, write a character biography, do other acting activities that help them to get in touch with who these characters are. You know, the director doesn’t tell them every single solitary thing they should be feeling and doing. Well, why not do that with the technical side as well?
Why not let technicians and designers make some of those choices and, just like actors make choices in rehearsal – and sometimes they can go well and sometimes they don’t go so well and they learn from them – let the technicians and the designers do the same thing?
That’s one of the biggest rewards I get out of doing that – seeing how they grow, especially if they continue to do design work over the years, even if it’s not in the same area – to see them cut their teeth on the different areas.
LINDSAY: Again, as you said, this is education theatre. It’s so important for them to be allowed the choice – right or wrong.
LINDSAY: Is it hard though? Is it hard when you see them and you know they’re going down the wrong path? To not step in? Do you have to really hold yourself back?
RAY: There are times. There are times where I have to just be like, “Okay, let them fall a little bit.” If I can see it’s going to be a catastrophe, I might step in and help them on it but – I hate to say this – I kind of enjoy seeing them stumble a little bit because, when they realize it and then they realize how to fix it themselves or they come to me and go, “Mr. Palasz, what do I do here?” that, to me, says so much about growth as a designer – when they go and seek the collaboration on how to solve a problem or they solve it themselves but also growth as a human being and realizing that, you know, “You’re going to make mistakes and you’re not going to have somebody there to catch you every time. How do you solve these little problems here and there? So that, in the real world, when you get out there and you have much bigger problems to face, you’ll say, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve got some experience in solving problems because I did that when I was working on this show.’”
I do kind of enjoy seeing them stumble – only because I know the long-term effect it’s going to have for them in a very positive way.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s all life is, isn’t it? All life is is problem-solving in all areas of our existence. That’s all we do! I think that’s one of the greatest things the drama class can offer a student. When we have a situation where right and wrong is much more fluid than it is in a math class.
RAY: It is.
LINDSAY: Some choices are better than other choices. It’s also great, I think, that students can figure it out on their own. They’re smart. Kids are smart. If you make all their choices for them, they’re going to figure it out and they’re just going to stop making choices.
Let’s talk about… I’m losing my words! You’ve been great on the idea of including set design assignments in the classroom and also student director and having set designers and student directors and including that in a curriculum. Why are those kinds of assignments important in the drama classroom?
RAY: Well, I think, for the same reason that they’re important in the extracurricular program.
My technical theatre class is predominantly freshmen.
LINDSAY: Really? So, they’re young!
RAY: And not all of them are taking it because they want to do theatre. They’re taking it because they want the fine art credit, it sounds fun. I get students who come in because they’re like, “Oh, I really want to do make-up,” and then they learn that make-up is a couple of weeks here in this semester and a couple of weeks there in that semester because it’s called “technical theatre” – we’re covering everything. But I think it’s important because these students are young and I want them to understand how much work and effort goes into producing a show.
So, first semester is a lot of sort of almost drier, you know, learning how lights work and learning how sound works and learning what costuming is like. I’ve been pretty successful in bringing in some hands-on projects with them.
For instance, when we do lighting, our lighting unit in first semester, you know, they’ve got to take a test where they can identify different lighting instruments and plugs and stuff like that that they need to know. But then, I also make them do a lighting setup, time setup, kind of like they do at the International Festival in Lincoln where they’ve got to get it set up and focused in a certain amount of time in order to achieve a certain grade.
I give them a lot of flexibility. They usually can take it two or three times before I cut them off because we have to move on to the next unit. And so, most of them actually do well because the ones that really want to beat their time and do better have the opportunity to do so.
LINDSAY: Awesome. So, you’re going to get to second semester in a bit. I just want to dive in here and say that I’m going to put in the show notes because I agree with you. Those Tech Olympic or Tech Challenge events that I know and you know from the International Thespians Society, I think they’re awesome to bring into the classroom to add a practical and also competitive element to some of the backstage tasks.
I’m going to put a link in the show notes. There’s a Tech Olympics – uh, the words are not good today – handbook which just outlines what some of them are, prop shifts, and a quick change. And, yes, hanging and focusing on light. I think that, if you are struggling with how to incorporate tech into your classroom, these events are a great idea.
Okay. Back to you! In second semester…
RAY: So, in second semester then, we start doing design in the different areas. Depending on what we have going on in our extracurricular program for the semester, I switch things up a little bit. Generally, I start with set design where they go in, in introduce them to the program SketchUp, we read a short play, everybody in the class reads the same play, they work in groups, they decide what their concept is going to be for the design, they write a concept statement, they work with SketchUp to create the design, and then they present it to the class.
And so, what’s interesting when we do that in particular is they get to see how, even though everybody read the same script, the different ways that students interpret it and what they want to focus on and what they pick as the key set pieces – because I make them pick, like, the five set pieces that, you know, if you had to pick just five set pieces to go on the stage, what would they be? And to see the similarities but yet the differences because they feel certain things are more important to get just right in the set.
LINDSAY: Awesome. I’m going to reiterate a couple of things just because I think this is another great thing for teachers to cone in on – that, if you don’t have a shop, you can actually build sets. Digital is a great way to go and SketchUp. Ray, SketchUp is free, right?
RAY: It is. It’s a free download. If you just Google “SketchUp.”
LINDSAY: I’m going to put it in the show notes, too.
RAY: Yeah, it’s a great download. You can download it to Mac, you can download it to PCs. It’s free. There’s a lot of great tools in there, pre-made set pieces. I even drew a model stage that people can download and then put their own set pieces on. It’s really great.
The kids, after about the first class period of playing around with it and getting a little frustrated at how to use it because it’s very intuitive in what it thinks you want it to do, they really have a blast with it and they really get excited over trying to find just the right pieces to put in their set.
LINDSAY: Well, in this way, you don’t actually have to teach them how to draw.
RAY: No, exactly.
LINDSAY: You don’t have to teach them how to draw a set. While it is an incredibly useful skill to do a ground plan, you know, let’s get into it. 21st Century skills. They all are adept and they are digital learners. This is their environment. If you’ve got students who perhaps are not maybe connecting to the theatre aspect, they’re going to connect to the digital aspect, I’ll bet.
RAY: Exactly, yeah, they really do. They pick up on it quickly.
LINDSAY: I’m going to, like, look at me here. I’m tying it all together. This is how we get students to create that whole notion of creating an environment. Everyone using the same script, you know, have everyone reading the same script and how everyone creates their own environment based on what they see, what they decide, what’s going to be their five pieces of furniture and how there’s no one way to do a particular play.
LINDSAY: You know, what a great lesson to learn from a set perspective because we see so may plays – and more so with the musicals – that seem to have such a defined look to them.
LINDSAY: Do you have that struggle when you are dealing with students and working in set design assignments? That they think that there’s only one way to do things?
RAY: Well, yes, especially if the script that we’re reading has one of those ground plans already drawn in.
RAY: For instance, the one we just did. We read Riders to the Sea. Great short play. You know, set a hundred years ago so they can really have fun looking up how things looked in Ireland at the turn of the 1900’s. But, in the script, there’s a line drawing – a ground plan of the set from perhaps one of the first productions. My students go, “Do we have to recreate that?” I said, “No. In fact, I don’t want you to recreate that. I want you to think about what would you set up on the stage. Just look at the stage itself and go back to the script. What’s mentioned that we have to have in there? What are some things that, based on what you’ve looked at and what you’ve researched, you would like to have in there because it would fit with the time period?”
I still had a number of them that looked very similar to it but Riders to the Sea is an Irish cottage and so there’s only so much…
LINDSAY: There’s only so many ways.
You know, I’ve done – let’s see – I think last year I did a play called Mind Over Matt about a guy who’s kind of ruled by all these personalities in his head – almost like a stage version of Inside Out but a lot funnier.
The set for that show is an apartment and it’s modern day. There was a lot more variety in terms of what was modern for him. Well, some people went really modern! Like, this guy, I think he was a playwright or some sort of writer and so they had him. He’s just living the high life and he’s got all kinds of really nice, shiny equipment in his apartment and stainless steel appliances and everything. And so, a lot of his furniture is kind of rundown and worn out. And so, it was interesting to see the variety that they had with that one.
LINDSAY: Set design tells a story too, doesn’t it?
RAY: It does.
LINDSAY: Sometimes, it’s the first visual that an audience gets when the lights go up. It can be its own character.
RAY: Yes, definitely.
LINDSAY: I think that’s important, too. It’s important for students to know – well, it’s always important for students to know how and, as you’ve been saying – how all these elements are necessary in the putting on, the presentation of a production.
LINDSAY: As we wrap up here, Ray, talk to our theatre teachers who are listening who don’t have a theatre maybe in their school. Maybe they’re doing the ol’ cafeteria thing and maybe they don’t have a shop, there’s not a technical theatre class. They are the one-man band theatre department and yet they know full well that they need to include some backstage stuff and that whole notion of creating that environment. What’s some advice that you would give to those teachers?
RAY: I think, in terms of providing the experience for the students, I think being able to provide as equal time as possible to your technical staff. You know, it’s really easy to get caught up in doing the acting rehearsals and, if you’re doing a musical, the music rehearsals and the dance rehearsals and making sure that that looks really good. But, by the same token, if you don’t have some days where you really sit down with the technical staff and the people who are going to be overseeing your lighting and your set design and work with them and give them the same kind of attention that they would give the actors during a rehearsal, I think that’s going to be the thing that’s going to help those people out because then what’s going to happen is they’re going to feel valued and they’re going to push themselves a little bit harder.
I know, when it’s a one-man person or one-man show, it can be really challenging because you only have so much time. When we do our contest show, even though we have three directors at our school to direct our season, I’m the only person – adult – in charge of our contest show so I’m the director and, in theory, the technical director but, the last couple of years, I’ve had some really good students that I sort of assign that to. But being able to sit down with the technical people from time to time and say, “Okay, what do you need and what can we work on today so that, as we move forward, you can continue to build in your area and make that part of the show polished – just as polished as what the actors do?”
LINDSAY: Don’t forget the tech, right?
LINDSAY: Because, otherwise, we’re all just standing in the dark and no one can hear us and we’re on a bare stage.
RAY: And you’re naked.
LINDSAY: Yes, absolutely.
Thank you so much for talking today. I love these conversations and I love when I hear something that I think that we can ring from the rafter. I just love the notion of using tech to create an environment for what’s going onstage and how important that is and to let every student know who’s working on those tech elements how important they are.
RAY: Yes, I agree.
LINDSAY: Sweet! All right, thank you so much, Ray!
RAY: No problem! Thank you!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Ray!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
If you listened to this podcast and it got you thinking – got you thanking and thinking – “If only there was a place that I could get more tech theatre information or lesson plans or resources, maybe even some professional development – a course or two to help me out!” I’m not going any higher. I’m going to go down.
I have got the place for you – the Drama Teacher Academy.
The DTA is an organization of support and a place of learning just for drama teachers. Everything we’ve got in there is specific to drama teachers, drama educators, drama students who want to be drama teachers and drama educators.
One thing I really want to point out to you is that we know your situation. We know some of you don’t have access to a theatre – let alone a shop to teach tech. We have lesson plans like building stage flats that uses the building process with drinking straws. In Properties & Prop Design, students learn about prop varieties and invent a prop for a show. Use their imaginations.
We have two stage management courses that will give you access to exercises, projects, and assessment tools. We have all this and more!
You can find out more about the Drama Teacher Academy at dramateacheracademy.com – that’s all one word – or you can click on the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode157.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”