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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Creating stage sets, Part II (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, despite working on To Kill a Mockingbird and other projects, and I finally decided to “create” a show totally unlike anything I would ever do myself. I figure this way I can be totally objective and think about it from the outside, instead of focusing on my own style and what I like and don't like. At least I hope that's what will happen. Smile

So let's say my client is a performer who works primarily in the school market, mostly middle schools, although he occasionally does an elementary or high-school gig too. His show is geared towards the kids, but he likes to market it as a family show and tries to book it at a time when parents can attend, which usually means early evening or weekends. His show is based on the reality that kids in his geographical area nowadays are often focused – often by their parents – on either sports or science (and occasionally both), but that old-fashioned reading, i.e., the old adventure classics, has generally been pushed to the back burner. Which is exactly why he wants the parents to attend the show too.

In a nutshell, his show is about imagination. It starts off with several references to sports and science, just to grab the audience's attention, but it quickly spins off into the old stories and how we saw them years ago when we were able to read a book and totally visualize the characters and the settings without the benefit of being spoon-fed every detail by TV and the movies. And it pushes the idea that this was actually fun.

My client's persona is that of a modern TV celebrity, an expert in his field who can take complex subjects and explain them in laymen's terms and make them interesting and fun. He wants to give his show the look and feel of a Learning Channel or History Channel series, with a liberal dose of humor and unexpected twists. So the set wants to look like a TV show, but it has to be locked into one locale (the stage) for the duration; no commercial breaks and no location shots.

The show will also include one female assistant (actually more of a co-host), whose role will be to balance out the performer and provide for some interesting back-and-forth, giving the audience two people to watch instead of just one. She will also handle “crowd control” during a couple of effects when volunteers from the audience come up to help. And she will also be the traditional assistant in a couple of illusions.

And of course it all needs to fit into a mini-van and set up fairly quickly.

Yikes... what the heck did I set myself up for?

Actually, what I just did was to describe the show from the standpoint of several people: the director, the star, the producer, and the salesman. It's like I had a meeting with all these people and wrote up a summary of what we decided. So far so good.

Now it's time for me, as the set designer, to sit back and let all this information rattle around in my head for a while. It's waaaaay too soon to put pencil to paper.

Let me repeat that, because it's very important: It's waaaaay too soon to put pencil to paper.

Because if I put pencil to paper right now, I run the risk of committing a cardinal sin in the world of theatrical design: designing a bunch of scenery instead of designing a set.

It happens way too much as it is. And it's very sad. So I want to avoid it at all costs.

What I usually like to do is literally sleep on it. Absorb the information, go back and read it again, think about it, and just chill out for a day or so and let it all sink in. So that's what I'm going to do now.

Okay, I’m back.

I’m going to digress for a minute here, just to show that inspiration can come from anywhere…

I recently designed the set for Woody Allen’s comedy Play it Again Sam, which opens with the lead character (Allen Felix) watching the last few minutes of The Maltese Falcon. The way it’s usually staged, the movie is on a TV facing away from the audience, so we hear the lines, but don’t actually see the film. However, we had a four-minute clip shot by a professional videographer, using our actor to play Bogart, and projected it on the set wall so the audience could watch it along with Allen.

As far as the audience was concerned, the movie was coming from a 16mm projector placed on a low cabinet in Allen’s apartment: the reels were turning and the thing was whirring away contentedly, just like we old-timers remember. However, the movie was actually coming from a video projector placed inside the cabinet, just under the movie projector. It was far more controllable that way.

Digression over.

Now, in thinking about the set for the magic show, and how the performer wants to create a “TV show” type of image, adding a projection screen makes sense, and the idea of using a video projector to simulate a film projector can certainly tie in with a magic effect. I posted an idea for this in the Secret Sessions forum (“A prediction effect using an old movie”).

Anyway, so I’m going to include a place on the set for a projection.

We also need an interesting place for the performer to walk in from (towards the back, off-center), and a different place for the co-host to walk in from. Platforms and levels would add a lot of visual interest to the show, but, due to the venues and the need to travel light and set up fairly quickly, we will just use the stage floor.

However… we will use a small rug to create the visual effect of a separate area, and of course the rug can also help with an illusion.

So a picture is beginning to form here, without ever putting pencil to paper (clicks on a keyboard don’t count). I’m already visualizing an environment that can fit on a school stage or Cafétorium, and that can provide lots of color and interest while traveling in a standard-size van.

Several years ago I designed a TV set for a series put on by the New York State Department of Education, named Tools for Schools. The program was basically a talk show, but they wanted a rear-projection screen or opening for a large TV set, for when they wanted to show a field trip or lab demo; the idea was that the clip would open on the TV set and then go full-screen. So I added an opening, in an alcove, that could be closed off with a panel displaying the show's logo. Then we came up with the idea of having a separate area off to the side, with a changeable themed banner and several cubes that could be re-stacked to display lab equipment or other items related to each individual program. This gave the host a place to introduce each show before moving on to the discussion area.

The cubes are a good visual, but (in our magic show) carrying several cubes in a van, just for the heck of it, is silly. However, since we’re going with a sports/science/imagination theme here, those cubes can actually be the carrying cases for props. They don’t need to be ATA cases (which are very predictable): they can be anything. So there’s another possible element.

Then there's the need for a “table” of some sort: what would a magic show be without a magic table?

A standard magic table wouldn't fit into this concept, so we'll go with something more along the lines of what a TV show would use: a custom-made stand that becomes an interesting item by itself. A flat top with a vertical truss base is the first thing that comes to mind – which is exactly why I'm going to discard it. Truss has been over-used as a design element during the past few years, to the point where there's no “novelty” left in it. But a horizontal surface with a metal tube (or cut-out ply) base could certainly fit into the design. So I'll add this to the pot and keep stirring it.

Which leads to another idea. We have a performer who wants to push the idea of imagination, and we have a co-host who's far more than a standard “magician's assistant.” Now we just added an interesting table to the mix. And we know we have a video projector. So how about if we use the table, with a few kids standing around it, for some close-up effects, and the co-host captures it all with a video camera and simultaneously projects it on the screen...

...just like on TV.

I'm going to let all this stir around for a couple of days and then come back to it.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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