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.


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.”