2D, or not 2D?

“Previously, on Jeff’s blog…”

When last we spoke, I gushed on about some advancements in design technology — specifically, the use of computer-aided drafting software like Vectorworks and image manipulation software like Photoshop — and how I have enjoyed starting to learn these programs that take my design work to a new level of professionalism and that allow for such easy editing. [Click in the sidebar to read the last blog post, “Old dog, new tricks.”]

But guess what? I still like to build physical models. Despite all of the ways I can now create and share detailed and precise design ideas on a computer, there’s no substitute for walking into a production team meeting with a three-dimensional scale model of a stage and scenery — or of a museum space filled with a newly-envisioned exhibit.

In college theater design classes, we learned to build full-color 1/2”-scale scenic models that showed every proposed paint color and texture, and although I typically stick to white models now (sometimes 1/2”-scale and sometimes 1/4”-scale), I still include lots of details like trim & moldings, representational furniture pieces, and even some textured materials. Yes, this can all be done as a manipulable digital rendering, but that’s just not the same as having a physical model that can be brought to a meeting and discussed around the table.

Often, whether I’m working with a museum staff or a theatrical production team, there are people involved who just don’t have much experience looking at a ground plan and being able to translate those two-dimensional representations into a three-dimensional concept. A model allows me to show and discuss, with less chance of misinterpretation, how each element of the design fits into the given space as a whole, and how each element relates to one another. It gives a clear indication of whether the space feels cozy and intimate, or expansive and grand. When I add teeny little scaled people standing around (or little paper kids running or crawling in my children’s museum exhibits), the designs truly seem to come to life. Then I can also understand (and show others) how many visitors can comfortably enjoy that exhibit space, or how many pit musicians can fit on one platform, or how much space the actors might have for crawling around behind that couch.

And there’s also something magic for me about the actual process of creating the model. It’s a tangible, touchable object that literally takes shape in front of my eyes. Sometimes I just can’t decide how large certain components should be, or what shapes of walls and platforms might work well together, until I cut and re-cut pieces of mat board and strips of balsa wood — and stick it all together with my trusty hot glue gun. The smell of hot glue permeates my basement studio area at times, but that smell means that CREATIVITY is happening!

Yes, I like the tradition, the utility, and the visualization opportunities that this hands-on method gives me over digital renderings. A model can also be put on display for the team or the public to reference throughout the rest of the design and construction period. Digital renderings are a fantastic supplement and have advantages of their own, but for me (for now), the model is still my primary building block and inspiration.

White models are spilling off the shelves of my studio. Bits of foam core, mat board, and string get tangled in the shag carpet. The cat gets startled every time I burn my fingers on hot glue and curse loudly, but I just can’t yet see myself giving up my modeling career.

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Old dog, new tricks

The art of theater is 2+ millennia old, and storytelling is always storytelling … but the theater industry, like any other, is subject to trends and advances in technology.

In the 21 years since I finished my theater degree, it’s no surprise that tools and techniques have evolved. LED lighting instruments, stronger and lighter construction materials, countless new recipes for realistic-looking stage blood, and on and on.

One of the quickly-changing aspects is the process of design itself. When I was learning how to create ground plans and how to develop construction drawings (and it doesn’t seem like that long ago!), everything we did was on vellum paper, drawn in pencil. Computerized drafting software existed, but it was far from what it is now. It made sense to learn the “tried and true” methods at the time.

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Needless to say, drafting/design software and image manipulation software have evolved in leaps and bounds over the past couple decades, but once I had left school and hit the ground running with theater jobs that had me working around the clock and around the calendar, it became really hard to find the time or resources to learn these new-fangled skills and put them into practice.

Luckily, in the past couple of months (thanks in part to a fellowship grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council), I’ve been able to finally start learning Vectorworks, a software package that is used in a variety of design professions and can do amazing things with 2D and 3D scenic/construction drawings, as well as stage lighting design and visualization.

Boom. Mind blown. I still have a lot to learn, but I can already draw a ground plan or construction drawing on the computer nearly as quickly as I can do with pencil and paper — and of course with the digital end-products, it’s much easier for me to be precise, to automatically calculate angles and add dimensions and textures, to quickly add/subtract/move a wall or platform when the production requires a major change, and to share ideas and changes with the rest of the design team (who are very often in another city or state)! When I get really good at this, it will be a great time-saver and paper-saver.

An early ground plan for  Wiley and the Hairy Man

An early ground plan for Wiley and the Hairy Man

It’s even easy to turn two-dimensional ground plans or construction drawings into three-dimensional representations of the stage and scenery. So cool. It allows me to experiment in ways I certainly couldn’t do before. I definitely feel more professional and more on-par with industry advancements.

Model piece and digital construction drawing of wall for  Portrait of a Madonna .

Model piece and digital construction drawing of wall for Portrait of a Madonna.

Yes, technology sometimes gets a high-five and a rock kick … But is it ALWAYS the best approach for getting the job done? Not exclusively, in my opinion… Tune in next week when I explain why I sometimes think a low-tech solution is still very effective, in “2D, or not 2D?” …or “The case of the missing fingerprints.”




25 in the present; 25 in the past

This week on Friday I opened my final two productions of the year (lighting design for A Christmas Story at Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre and scenic design for Dear Elizabeth with Renegade Theater in Duluth), so it feels like a good time to look back on 2018. I know I’m a busy guy, but I’m always surprised when I count up the projects I’ve done in a year.

In 2018, my team and I opened a whopping 25 theater productions (either designing, building, or both), 1 escape room, and 2 major exhibits. Phew! A lot of the design work is done on my own, but there’s no way I could do some of fabrication projects without my team of hardworking BrownKnows Design freelancers. Thank goodness for talented friends without full-time jobs, right?

Besides the 25 theater productions that I did this year, there’s another reason that the number 25 is pertinent… I realized that I’m going into my 25th year of doing theater! Who knew, back at the community college when I was forced to choose between a public speaking class and a stagecraft class, where that choice would lead? I had never been involved in theater AT ALL (aside from Sunday School plays that my mom wrote), but that stagecraft class opened my eyes to a new field.

My own spreadsheet lists at least 300 productions from then to now (and I’m sure I’m missing a few), so that means that I have averaged slightly more than 1 PLAY PER MONTH for each of the past 25 YEARS! And you’d be surprised how few of them have been repeats. Jeez, can I retire yet??

So anyway, best wishes to the two shows that opened this weekend (and continue for the next couple weeks, so check them out)! The opportunity to work with fun and creative people who are passionate about their art is what keeps me going when it all gets too crazy.

I’m already in the discussion and planning stages for at least 10 shows in the first few months of 2019 (as well as an exhibit or two), so you haven’t heard the last of me yet. Right now I’m particularly looking forward to a lighting design residency in Phoenix in late February/early March… Hmm, maybe I need an agent to book me somewhere warm and sunny in the middle of every winter! Best wishes to you all in 2019!

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'Gator Not Pictured (or is it?)

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We can’t truly understand other people unless we have walked in their footsteps… This is one reason why I enjoy travelling to other parts of the country and world, and it’s also one reason why I enjoy theater and museum/exhibit design — the chance to create immersive environments that transport us into a different culture, time period, or set of circumstances.

Earlier this month I traveled to the “Deep South” for both business and pleasure… to visit a friend and also to visit some highly-acclaimed museums and cultural centers. Because I work in exhibit design, every time I see a new museum I am learning from others’ techniques, materials, and methods of presentation, but I also get the benefit of education about such vast topics when visiting these places.

My week began in Louisiana, where my good friend Peter has been Executive Director of Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge for the past couple of years.

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I’m really proud of the work Peter has done at Knock Knock and am also thrilled that he will soon be back in MN as a full-time museum consultant, so we will hopefully get to collaborate on some projects soon!

After a couple of days absorbing the culture of the bayou (where we had close encounters with a Piggly Wiggly store, lots of deep fried seafood, and both alligators and dolphins), Peter, Mandy, and I hit the road to cram in as many museum/cultural sites as we could for the next 3-4 days.

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One of our first stops was the Mississippi Children’s Museum, in Jackson, MS. I have seen 15-20 children’s museums around the country by now, and each one is unique. It’s especially nice to see how they each present their region’s distinct qualities through interactive exhibits.

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While still in Jackson, we took a turn for the more serious with a visit to the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which reside together on the same property.

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Talk about heavy material... I was born in the South (1968 in Memphis, TN, just 10 days before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated right there), but I haven’t spent much time there since I was a baby. Learning about the Civil Rights while you’re actually IN the states that have felt some of the most turmoil (and being old enough now to really understand the significance and see how far we still need to progress) is a very different experience than reading about it in history class in mostly-white Minnesota as a teenager.

The next day, we moved on to Montgomery, Alabama, where we went to the Legacy Museum (located in a former warehouse where black people were enslaved while waiting to be sold, and a block away from one of the most prominent slave auction sites in America) and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The Memorial has 805 hanging pieces of steel that represent the 805 counties in the United States of America where documented lynching has taken place.

Sadly one of those lynchings took place in my current home of Duluth, MN. One section of this National Memorial will eventually be brought to Duluth and erected at the site of the lynchings.

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The last museum on this journey was the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA.

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Wow, that place really takes the interactive/immersive concept to a new level. Each room is full of historical artifacts and video that really transport the visitor to another time. I was fascinated when I started to count how many video projectors and Source Four lighting instruments were in each room — I can only imagine the complexity of maintaining these exhibits.

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In all, I’ve given you just a small taste of what was a very intense and thought-provoking week… I may have started from the goal of experiencing a variety of museum styles and exhibit construction techniques, but I gained so much more from my experiences than just that. Every time we make the effort to understand someone else’s history or stories, we also understand a little bit more about ourselves.

OK, now since you patiently read all the way to the end, here’s my dramatic Louisiana ‘gator picture for you as a reward.

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I’m heading out again next week for nearly three weeks of residency gigs in the Twin Cities, doing a lighting design at Stages Theatre (Mary Poppins Jr.) and both lighting and scenic design at Maple Grove High School (Tuck Everlasting). Feel free to keep an eye on my Portfolio pages for other recent and upcoming endeavors!

Mr. Brown's History Lesson

If you’re starting to feel old and need to put your age into perspective, try visiting Greece. Wow, that place has some history. It’s staggering to realize that the U.S. in official form is only 242 years old, but Greek civilizations were organized into city-states as much as 2900 years ago and began employing democracy not long after that.

Our family made time to visit Greece last month, and there were many experiences that gave us a new appreciation for its contributions to our world: it’s the birthplace of democracyWestern philosophyWestern literaturehistoriographypolitical science, major scientific and mathematical principles, and Western drama, as well as the Olympic Games (thank you for the summary, Wikipedia).

I visited dozens of ancient sites and modern museums and took hundreds of photos, but today’s pictorial history lesson is all about THEATER…

The Theatre of Dionysus still looms on the hill overlooking much of modern Athens.

The Theatre of Dionysus still looms on the hill overlooking much of modern Athens.

In the 6th century BC, the earliest origins of drama developed in Athens, where ancient hymns were sung in honor of the god Dionysus. The City Dionysia festival featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry, and attendance at the festival as an audience member or as a participant in the theatrical productions was an important part of citizenship.

Sometime in the next century the first theater structure, the Theatre of Dionysus, was first carved into the side of the city’s biggest hill (the Acropolis). It underwent rebuilding a few times over the years but was largely unchanged after the 1st century AD.

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When we visited the Acropolis and Theatre of Dionysus, it felt pretty awesome to walk in the footsteps of the ancient Athenians and to give context to a place that I’d only learned about through Theatre History classes!

Check out the high-tech security ropes right behind me, to keep people off of the stage area and protect this treasured site. The guy under the white umbrella blew a whistle if anyone crossed the barrier. That’s it. Greeks seem pretty mellow.

The view from the diplomats’ and priests’ special seating zone.

The view from the diplomats’ and priests’ special seating zone.

Scaffolding for some restoration work that has begun in recent years.

Scaffolding for some restoration work that has begun in recent years.

Remarkably well preserved “reliefs” at the back of the staging area.

Remarkably well preserved “reliefs” at the back of the staging area.

A bit of info about the restoration efforts.

A bit of info about the restoration efforts.

Only about 200 yards from the Theatre of Dionysus is another theater that originally seated 5000 people and is still used today… The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, from the 2nd century AD, was restored in the 1950s and is now home to the months-long annual Athens Festival (Sting was featured this year) and many other major performances.

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About 5 days after we originally visited the Acropolis and these two theaters (in addition, of course, to the Parthenon on the top of the hill), we were taking an evening walk and realized that the “backstage” area of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus was only 10 minutes from our hotel. This is where the public now enters for events, so of course this area has modern lighting and decor that included several plastic “terra cotta” urns.

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Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus were the only two specific theater facilities that we saw in Greece, but I will round out this history lesson with just a few other special sites that were certainly “dramatic”… Enjoy!

Ruins of the Oracle at Delphi (or Temple of Apollo), where for centuries Greeks would pilgrimage to seek answers to their life problems… And a “conduit to the gods” who was under the influence of heavy incense would answer in nonsense terms, which were then translated into a mysterious and non-specific declaration by a team of priests, and which was then left to interpretation entirely by the recipient.

Ruins of the Oracle at Delphi (or Temple of Apollo), where for centuries Greeks would pilgrimage to seek answers to their life problems… And a “conduit to the gods” who was under the influence of heavy incense would answer in nonsense terms, which were then translated into a mysterious and non-specific declaration by a team of priests, and which was then left to interpretation entirely by the recipient.

The huge Arc de Triomph (and its crazy traffic circle) in Paris, which startled us a bit dramatically when we emerged from the subway station near our hotel, not at all realizing that we would be RIGHT THERE.

The huge Arc de Triomph (and its crazy traffic circle) in Paris, which startled us a bit dramatically when we emerged from the subway station near our hotel, not at all realizing that we would be RIGHT THERE.

And no unplanned (but welcome) overnight in Paris would be complete without a walk to one of the world’s most dramatic monuments, the Eiffel Tower.

And no unplanned (but welcome) overnight in Paris would be complete without a walk to one of the world’s most dramatic monuments, the Eiffel Tower.