Category Archives: Shop Diaries

All Good Things Must Come To An End

I was surprised that, as actors, we were expected to help build the set. It seemed the furthest thing from the job description, in my mind; but building that set took a lot of time, and it would have been much harder if all the actor’s hadn’t pitched in and done their share as well. In restrospect, it seemed quite understandable to me; not just in terms of raw manpower, but because this is the set we would be performing on, and so it made sense for us to get to know it on a more intimate level by helping to bring it into existence ourselves.

I had never worked behind the scenes before, so I was extremely nervous to go into the shop and work. Perhaps that’s why I put it off for so long. I didn’t know what to do and was afraid I would mess up and cause an inconvenience. But in the end it wasn’t so bad; the jobs I had were pretty simple, actually, but they still helped: applying base coats to shelves, sorting out lengths of flooring, cleaning the supplies afterward. They weren’t terribly complicated things, and I felt useful, so I guess it was alright.

Still, the transformation that actually took place was a marvel that I couldn’t even begin to conceive of. Which is why it was all the more heart-wrenching to tear it all down at the end. But I think, in that simple act of striking, we can find a metaphor through Uncle Vanya itself: the notion that things change, that beauty doesn’t last forever, that no matter how much you love something, or how much work you put into something, you can’t always have it; it might not always be there, and you need to learn to let go.

So I tried to let go of that beautiful, amazing, breathtaking set with a smile in my heart. I picked up my drill and loosened its foundations; pulled up every staple and nail that held it all together; ripped it apart and threw it in the trash; and swept away the remains – even those hiding in the furthest corners – until the space was wide and open and empty and fresh. And new. Ready for something else to come and take its place.

I stood in that space and I felt the simultaneous: the gone memories, and the arising potential. I stood there and I looked around for a moment, wondering at how it was all over so quickly; and then I walked out with a smile on my face, the same as I had come in.

– Jaya Z.

Weathered Wood and floorboard nostalgia

All the work I did in the shop ended up involving wood. First David instructed Sam and I to move carts of what he referred to as “weathered wood”.  It was the same weathered wood that would be used to line the inside of the map room and Yelena’s room.  To me the phrase “weathered wood” implies that the wood has been weathered by the outdoors, most likely by rain and wind. However, our weathered wood was to go in the inside of the house. The thought struck my mind that wood could still be “weathered” from the inside of the house. I imagined the rooms of the house worn down by years of boring conversations and the petty squabbles of its inhabitants. This newfound meaning for the description of “weathered wood” helped me to see how the choice of wood physicalized the atmosphere of the estate and characterized the house as old and exhausted.

Then I helped Maddie with the process of nailing the wood panels into the floor by placing them and then staple-gunning. The work reminded me of when I had to perform the same task at home not long ago. This past summer my parents pimped me out for manual labor around the house. I was forced to construct the wood  floors for the basement room with my bare hands and a power-saw. I recall after all the sawing and the click-locking was finished I was saddened by the fact that the beautiful puzzle I had put on place would now be trampled on by my family members. My attitude towards constructing the floors for Uncle Vanya was very different. As we nailed the wood down I imagined the scenes that would take place atop this very floor. Yelena giving in to Astrov. The beginning of Sonya and Yelena’s friendship.  Sonya’s veiled plea to Astrov. It excited me to think that actors would perform upon the floor I was putting in place. Placing the wood for the Vanya set evoked a sense of pride and excitement for the magic that was soon to come.

-Cynthesizer (Cynthia)


Woodworkin’ with Maddy Pron

When I walked into the shop to help out with the set, I was unsure of what to expect. I had had zero previous experience with any type of woodworking or building, and was curious as to how I could possibly be useful. I did not actually think that whatever David would have me do that day would have any real impact on the set. I figured maybe I’d sort nails into a pile, organize tools, sand some wood… whatever. However, I was pleased, surprised, (and in the end quite proud, once I saw the final product) to have been handed a stapler and to have been given the job of sawing and stapling planks of beautifully treated wood onto the floor of what would become the map room. I truly felt my contribution in the completed set.

…Which is part of what made tearing it up during strike so hard! Not just that my own hard work was being torn out, broken, and shoved into a bin, but that the entire beautiful, collaborative project was being destroyed all at once. The lovely painted window in the window room, the grand archway… everything that had been so meticulously planned in the early stages, when we all admired Sonya’s designs from the Clum room before rehearsals had even begun, was being broken down and thrown away. That is the process though, and that’s part of what makes the show so special. It is temporary. You “had to be there.” To witness the beauty of the set, to watch the story unfold. So, just as we closed the play, it is natural that the set should “close” as well. Though—I have to say—I feel really bad about wasting all that wood! I wish we could do a better job of reusing or recycling… All in all, though, a great experience! Yay—I’ve used power tools and built stuff!!!

Dear Diary

I was quite surprised to see someone run in from the shop with a sledgehammer and start smashing up wooden blocks on the set about twenty minutes after the final performance ended. The complete discord and chaos of striking the set provided a stark contrast to Sonya’s usual quiet and controlled procedure within the shop. Construction generally necessitates an intricate plan of action, organized control, and a refinement of sorts. Conversely, destruction can usually be achieved with the brute application of force. Working on the set made me reflect on this law of an expanding universe, of order/chaos and entropy.

Another neat thing about Sonya’s work is her ability to take props and make them look old – to throw on a few layers of rustic paint and thereby furnish them with a unique antiquity. I remember her taking out the lanterns from the prop closet at the end of rehearsal one evening and bringing them back the next day looking like a year’s worth of rust had organically collected upon them. This contributed to the intricacy and detail of the set as a whole. The attention to detail from the production side was admirable.

I have some minimal experience with construction and woodwork, but the notion of building a set with multiple levels goes way over my head. David and the shop workers were skilled in this regard and worked really well with their hands, and I’d like to learn more from them in the future about how to build stuff in general. I believe that helping in the shop goes beyond being able to say that “I helped build that,” or “I painted that.” I think it imparts upon the cast a sense of ownership and responsibility, and creates a more collaborative atmosphere for everyone to work and perform in.



Rekindling My Love Affair

I have always loved creating worlds. I enjoy coming up with ways to visually bring something to life so that other people can experience it and take it further. As a result, I love helping design, construct, and execute the world (the set) that will transport the actors and the audience to another time and place, taking everyone involved on a journey.

I developed this love affair in my freshman year of high school. Throughout my four years, I, along with five of my close friends, built and struck the set of every play and musical that my school put on. Yes, it was gratifying to see my work on stage and yes, the six of us that worked in the shop became incredibly close – helping each other with everything, academic and personal – but it was more than that. What was truly magical was the bond I forged with the set. From the moment my first screw disappeared into the wood, I was all in. The more work I did on a show, the more I became invested in the project and this feeling, the feeling that I was part of it, that my soul was in the wood, the paint, and everything in between, was like a drug. That being said, strike was always a time filled with sadness and mild trepidation, but honestly, that feeling never lasted too long. I was quickly overcome by the cathartic experience of taking apart what had caused me endless frustration and bruising.

I know realize that this love has followed me to college. Everything I felt when building the sets in high school is exactly what I felt working in the shop with Sonya and many other Vanya-ites and I could not be more excited to rekindle this passion.

electronica and paint

Working with Sonya on her set was awesome for (at least) three reasons:

1) The rhythmic precision of staining, painting, and all that fine detail work (even the most meticulous of paint jobs!) is just what a desk-bound, textbook-tied, bleary-eyed college student needs. I mean, sometimes it just feels like the work we do in school is just so unproductive, by which I mean it’s not often that we produce anything. I suppose we crank out essays, proofs, and powerpoints… And we can physicalize these things by printing them out… But sometimes it was just so refreshing to stand in the audience and say, “Hey, I actually painted that part!” Cleaning brushes, laying down painter’s tape, and paint-rolling the underside of a beam underneath the stairs that nobody really was able to see anyways – these jobs are enjoyable because of their repetitiveness, their pleasant tedium.

2) I came into the shop not having a solid understanding of what Sonya’s choices really meant for the production, so having the opportunity to talk with Sonya really cleared a lot up. I thought I was complimenting the design when I said that the various pieces of the set felt as if they were the aged artifacts of a local community theater, repurposed for a production, recycled… But actually I committed a faux-pas! Sonya helped me understand that the set is/was not so rag-tag and jumbled, there’s an internal structure and coherence of color across all pieces. Furthermore, the furniture wasn’t meant to look like the forgotten leftovers of a “community” theater… Rather, they were chosen to evoke the history of all Vanyas past, the changing interpretations of the Chekhov classic. They are still artifacts, but they originated from the deep recesses of a professional theater’s storage unit.

3) I’m big into electronic music / weird alt stuff, so I’m pretty sure I Shazammed (as a verb that word freaks me out) Sonya’s whole playlist. Highlights include:

Stop Talking – Memory Tapes
Medical Insurance – Levintina
Le Goudron – YACHT
So High – Ghost Loft
I Miss You – Bjork
FDB – Young Dro feat. (etc)
Default – Django Django

Sonya’s got great taste all around – in music, theater and set design.

Painting, painting…annnnd, it’s gone.

Okay, this is the first time I’ve ever really worked with an actual set before, so it was all new to me. Usually strike involves putting a few props and costumes away. My experience with Uncle Vanya, was, of course, very different.

When the set was getting put together, I came in, fresh-faced (if scruffy due to that damned beard) and eager to work. Naturally, we were painting. This was good, I enjoy painting. There’s something about that methodical type of work that is soothing and also engaging at the same time. Even though we had to be very careful not to get paint on certain areas of the stairs we were painting, it was relatively easy to get into a rhythm and also be able to hold conversations with others. We sang a few times, or argued about the motives of characters in Les Mis, and all around had a good time in each other’s company, while also getting some significant work done. I came in and painted three times, about 5 hours in total, although it felt like less than that.

Saying goodbye to the set was hard. It had become such an integral part of our performances and of how we worked together that it felt like we were destroying some great monument to what we’d achieved in these past three months. But, the life of the theater is nothing if not ephemeral, and so it had to go to make way for something new. It was a prime example of entropy in the universe: the set that had taken at least a week, if not more, to go up was almost completely demolished in around three hours. It felt like a construction site: we were all scrambling around the woodworks, pulling, hacking, unscrewing, you name it, everything in the name of pulling the set apart utterly and completely. It was intense, and, as I said, actually pretty emotional. I am extremely glad that I had the chance to take part in both putting it together and tearing it down.

Collaboration is the Bomb-Diggity

I always worked behind the scenes on shows in high school. I think it began when I wasn’t cast in a show, and I was left with alternative methods of involvement. But ever since, even when I was acting in a show, I took advantage of the occasional opportunity to do tech. I found that it gave me whole new perspectives on the action that took place under the spotlight. An actor understands how to work with each technical component, once they’ve been involved in the design and/or implementation. And one better understands the people working backstage, gaining a respect and appreciation for their work, once one understands the work that they do: what it is, how it’s done, and what it feels like.

The work I did on this show provided nice examples in support of this tech-savvy actor. At the simplest level, painting the shelves and arch-room walls made me take special note of these elements’ outcomes, probably leading to my acknowledging much more deeply the skill and detail that went into their creation. Had I not worked on the set, I may have turned a blind eye to this detail, whereas an appreciation for the detailing helps me tune my acting to work in-sync with all the other elements presented to the audience. We also had an opportunity to explore new aspects of the show while walking through portions for the hang and focus/cue-to-cue. This gave me a new perspective on moments, not having to perform them the same way I’d been conditioned, instead being able to look at them in a more detached way.

Most importantly, working on tech makes me feel even more like this production was a collaborative effort. The creation of this show was most notable for me because everyone was so excited to work with the group and brought the best attitude, especially important because of the great need for collaboration this show, in particular, required. Perhaps the best kind of environment to work in is one in which you feel that everyone is working whole-heartedly towards the success of the group’s goal.


—Mike Myers

Shop Diary–Faye

I’ve always felt a little guilty as an actor when it came to my relationship with the things I was given—the set and props and costumes so painstakingly and skillfully created or obtained for me to use. Like someone was gifting me with the last pieces I needed to be complete, a puzzle or a robot, or a sandwich. Even if I’d helped paint or organize costumes I always ended up feeling like a houseguest onstage. Wearing someone else’s clothes, using someone else’s hand soap, walking someone else’s floors…in a play like Vanya, it was essential to know the ins and outs of the “house.” Of all people, Sonyechka was certainly not a guest there. Coming in and spending intimate time, looking hard not at just the whole picture but one piece of it for hours maybe. Getting to know a bookshelf intimately, painting every corner. High up on a wobbly ladder, texturing the walls of the arch room. Stepping onto the wooden floors I’d stained was so different from stepping onto magically pre-stained floors. Beyond the spirituality of knowing the set more intimately, I got to bug Sonya about her tricks and how she learned them. Watching a master at work is always a joy, especially when she trusts you to help her out. It reaffirmed my belief that the more time you spend with something, the easier it is to love.

Making and Breaking by Nick Prey

I have always been good at taking things apart (or just smashing them, on purpose or not), but it was only recently (as in my college experience)  that I realized that I could in fact make things as well as break them.  I find making things to be, on the whole, quite pleasurable.  Especially when the “thing” I am helping to make is spectacularly designed set that I will act on.

I came in to my first day at the shop ready to do work and to try not to accidentally destroy any crucial parts.  To my surprise, not only was building and painting fun, but I was actually helpful, and it was so cool.

Perhaps the most fun I had building the set occurred on the third Saturday I came in to help.  There were only three of us, Jamie, Sonya, and myself, and we began putting up the doors in Vanya’s room.  We easily could have used more people, and the work was hard and long, but it was oddly satisfying, especially when we stepped back and looked at the increasingly polished final product.

I don’t know why I haven’t assisted past sets in their construction.  It seems so obvious now.  I have never felt such a deep connection to a set before.  Yes, this is partially because the design was particularly AWESOME, but it was also because I helped make it.  I’m going to miss that set.