the life and times of a twenty year old designer

Posts Tagged ‘Theatre

journeying through babel: a story of carpentry and redemptive community

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yesterday’s story:
this bookcase had been three days’ work for a team of five. planning, laying out, preparing pieces, squaring each corner, framing the stand, painting and molding. the finished dimensions were over 16 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and 15 inches deep.
at ten minutes after five, we rolled it into the theatre and decided to quickly pivot it from horizontal to vertical so that it’d be ready for the additional work happening this weekend. one final push after a week of working ourselves sick and tired. a weary crew of carpenters gathered around and began to lift.
the scenery began creaking in protestation, but we figured it would settle once it was righted, so we kept pushing.
and magnificently, almost poetically, at the point just before it would tip into place and right itself, the strain became too much. the plywood boxes collapsed into each other like a fragile rectangular card house, and the whole unit flattened itself straight down onto the ground.

everyone walked away uninjured, but you can bet our pride had been put in check. and my mind couldn’t help but wander to the story of the community gathered at Babel.


Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”  And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.  And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Babel is our story. As I watched the towering scenery crumble, stood in the wreckage of the edifice of our competence, I saw how clearly Babel is our story.  But we were never called to end our stories at Babel, the place where we are confronted with the shame which seeps from seeing clearly our hubris, self-centeredness, and idolatry. We were called to journey through Babel. Babel is a place of “yes, and…” where the “yes” of our failed attempts at eternity meets the “and” of our gaze straight into the source of eternity Himself. Afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, the people of at Babel attempted to create their own fortress of power and security. The Lord’s response was to scatter them to the the winds, and remind them that they could not create their own name or hold themselves together. He alone is the provider of rest, strength, peace, and unity, and without Him, we are confused in language and scattered across the globe.

I know this story. Deep in my heart, I have been reenacting this story since childhood. I have built these walls in my life and around my heart. High and wide and deep. Testaments to my strength, accolades to my name, badges which honor collective accomplishments. I have built these walls. For years, every single thing I did with a group of people was only meant to raise my own profile. And I have been so afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, forgotten in the margins of history, unable to account for myself or measure up or matter. I know that I cannot find within myself the capacity to create a beauty that is pure and great and true, but something in me aches to be reunited with perfection, and so I replace attentiveness to the great Creator with working extra hours, taking extra projects, accepting additional leadership responsibilities, and caring for more people so that…at the end of the day, I can feel my time has not gone wasted.

When, in fact, attentiveness to the great Creator is the only worthwhile use of time. I don’t mean that every hour of every day should be spend in silent prayer. I do mean that we are called to be attentive to His breath in our lungs, and pour out our praise accordingly. When we rush and bustle and push the margins of our own strength, building towards the impossible goal of “reaching the sky” we are ignoring the power of the only One who can hold us together. Walking with Him through Babel itself  has re-centered my gaze on the only One who deserves my full attention and devotion. I am seeing my desire to recreate Babel in every facet of life, to center my focus on idols, foolish facsimiles meant to  supplant the Creator.

Growing up, Babel was always a bit of a sad story, but rather odd because it didn’t quite seem to impact me directly. What a tragedy, I thought, that these people spent all of this energy building something only to have to abandon it. I learned this week what I had never understood as a child. The tragedy of Babel is not the loss of the citadel. The tragedy of Babel is the loss of community. These people had a gift we can’t comprehend in modern culture (no matter how we strive for it) – complete unity of communication. No cultural barriers, nothing lost in translation, and a completely common vision. Trouble was, they turned their unity in praise of themselves, and their gifts towards creating a place of certitude and permanence on Earth, a promise Adam and Eve lost when they rejected the Creator in Eden. The utopia imagined at Babel was doomed from the start as it was founded on arrogance and lacking in gratitude and respect. In scattering the languages, God erected a barrier to natural understanding between people. He saw our desire to unite with each other in ways that denied our need for Him, and made certain we would no longer be able to confuse perfect unity with one another with the God our hearts were designed to seek and to serve.

But, the beauty of life after Jesus in the second chapter of Acts is the restoration of community. People from every walk of life had been brought to new life in Christ, and “all who believed were together and had everything in common….and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” The Spirit descended, and speaking in tongues was not a mark of hyper-charismatic spirituality, but a genuine blessing which allowed the disciples to communicate across cultures, creating new families where the generations of divergent cultures had only bred cynicism and distrust, and banishing established dynamics of power and fear. Among themselves, these first disciples saw unity which could only come from a shared understanding of what it meant to once again live at peace with one another.

And He himself is our peace. This incredible unity which once allowed all of humanity to come together on a project through which “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” is once again available. In ourselves, our speech is too confused. There are too many of us, speaking too many different languages. But in Christ, we are not only reconciled to the God we tried to depose in Eden, whose sovereignty we challenged at Babel, and to whose authority we have never submitted quietly. We are reconciled to our brothers and sisters who were standing right beside us as we did so. We who goaded each other on, stacking challenge on challenge, convincing ourselves we could live free of consequence, that we could create our own eternity and immortality. Our actions against God are doubly painful for their repercussions in our communities. When we seek healing in our own hearts, the inevitable consequence is the healing of our communities. And as we learn to center our community life around something outside of ourselves and our own abilities to create perfection, achieve greatness, and support each other completely, our hearts begin to come home. 

I am walking away from the tower I have been building, the places where others keep encouraging me to stack brick on top of brick on top of futile brick in an attempt to reach the sky. I wonder what would happen if we became less intent on reaching the heavens and spent more time marveling at them. If we yielded our desire to control and achieve and perform and stood awestruck at the mere mention of the name that has been whispered directly into our hearts. Hands raised in praise are incapable of doing any competent work. You cannot build a permanent structure with your arms outstretched and your palms empty. But it is precisely this posture of worship into which we must reorient ourselves if we are ever to be a part of the only Kingdom worth building. 


Written by Taylor Webster

November 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

carpenter’s gospel

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This is the story of a table. It was nearing the end of another summer week. And we had been building this table for probably, I don’t know, a week and a half.

And I was Done. D.O.N.E. DONE. When my boss pulled out the sander and asked me to go over it a third time, I just about gave up.

For context: The table was probably the  most complicated thing we built all summer. The top was 3′ x 8′, the legs and lid were each only 3″ thick, there were no center supports, and a person (possibly several) needed to be able to stand on it. It had to be a level surface on a raked stage. It needed to look like the entire thing was carved from a block of solid marble. And it had to be lightweight enough that a respectable team of human beings could move it into place. And somehow, this complicated carpentry project taught me about God’s love in a way that was pure, tangible, and real. This is the story of a table.

Our TD had designed a brilliant structure of interlocking supports, which was light and strong and took about three times as much prep and layout work as anything we usually build.  The skin was triple-glued in place, and instead of our usual RockHard wood putty, we filled all the staples with Bondo. Which. Is usually used to repair dents in automobiles. This is legit stuff. 

We are built strong. Our composition is no mere happenstance – we are the result of careful planning, and every part of us is designed to fit together perfectly. We are not haphazardly nailed together with the cheapest materials available. Each piece of us is lovingly prepared to serve as part of a greater whole. And with the greatest attention to detail, we are built to be strong enough to support much more than we would appear to be capable of.

No matter how tight and clean our carpentry is, we use staples to ensure the strength of  even on the most neatly interlocking pieces. In order to attach the pieces together, we used a pneumatic staple gun, which ensures a firm bond, but also leaves a tiny scar on the surface. We had a couple hundred staple indentations on the face of this table, and each one was covered with a small glob of a repair putty that is designed to dry strong as steel. 

Scars are part of our composition. The layout and carpentry can be modeled after a perfect and strong design, but the fasteners we use to hold ourselves together often leave scars we’d rather not acknowledge. Our souls are covered in tiny wounds where we have attempted in vain to attach ourselves back together. We are convinced that these marks are of no great significance, and that we can carry on just fine as we are. God takes a different approach. No matter how small the scar, He applies balm to our wounds. Using the strongest, most permanent reconstructive adhesives, He applies more than we need, providing abundance where we had only known deficiency.

And then comes the sanding. The first, roughest pass is simply to remove all of the lumps of Bondo that stand above the smooth surface. This can take several discs of 60 grit sandpaper, the kind designed for aggressive removal. For us, this part took the better part of an afternoon.

After he has healed the wounds on the surface, great and small, acknowledged and ignored, there is still work to be done. We cannot simply say “Well, the holes are filled, I’ll thank you for your time and leave it at that!” There are leftovers, pieces we no longer need, remnants from our healing that our now extraneous. No one leaves a bandage on a would that has been long healed – and yet, somehow we are tempted to hold on to these bandages as proof of our healing, rather than allow the roughness of the sandpaper to liberate us from the memories of our wounds.

I thought, “Well, that’s smooth enough. Dinner time!” But my boss smiled, pulled out the 100 grain sandpaper, and told me we were going to go over it again, for finishing’s sake. 

It is not enough to take the quickest, roughest approach. The minute we consider ourselves finished, we are choosing to distance ourselves from God’s work in our lives. We are far too often tempted to give up. To say that we have learned enough, that we have recieved enough love and grace, that we are healed enough, that we are close enough to that glorious marble table we’ve been built to become. In doing so we sell ourselves short, and rob God of his power in calling us into his family as new creations, healed and whole.

Even as I had reached the end of my rope and nearly worked through my patience, I patted myself on the back for completing the finishing. Well. I thought it was complete. Turns out, there are imperfections the first round of finish sanding doesn’t pick up. It then becomes necessary to go over the piece with a damp cloth to raise up the grain of the wood, and finish sand it again with an even finer grain of sandpaper. So I went over the table. Again

The metaphor came to me as I was nearing the end of the last round of sanding, and it was so beautiful I nearly burst into tears. I don’t often hear direct phrases from God. But this time, between passes with the disc sander, I heard quite clearly “Aren’t you glad this is how I have chosen to work on you?”

It’s true. It’s so, so true.  The prophet and savior who spent his formative years as a carpenter knew how to finish tables to the highest standard. And he is committed to going over us again and again, no matter how many times it takes, carefully raising the grain we didn’t even know was there, and gently sanding off the rougher bits, until we are left with a surface that  bears no blemish. Our deepest wounds, the places which required the most Bondo to fill, are now the strongest parts. 
The beauty of the sanding process is that whether you start off with a hunk of driftwood or a 2×4 from the lumberyard, both will require sanding to become smooth as marble. And whether we are a storm-tossed log or a nearly-finished piece of lumber, God will go over our hearts again, and again, and again until His work in us is complete. I asked a co-worker if it was really necessary to raise the grain and do a last pass with the sander. He said “Right now, you’ve got it pretty smooth. If you raise the grain and go over again, it’ll be like glass.” Here’s to never settling for pretty smooth, and to believing in the one that will make us shine like stars.

In the paint shop, several layers of patient faux marble treatment combined with a few good coats of glossy sealer finished off a table that, under stage lights, is indistinguishable from a smooth marble countertop. 

The final step of the transformation is one we were not able to affect without a bit of theatre magic. But I believe that in this story, though our highest ambition on Earth may indeed be to become a beautiful facsimile of a marble countertop, we will one day be pure and clean, finished and whole. We will know why we were built strong. We will see our imperfections fully healed. We will know why it was worth so much effort to continue the work of finishing us. And we will be perfect images of the One in whose image we are made. This may be the story of a table. But it is also the story of us.

“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Hallelujah. And Amen.

Written by Taylor Webster

August 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Goodbye Cachucha, Fandango, Bolero!

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It’s been a while. It’s been an opera. Here’s the conclusion to that particular story:

In my mind, the highest note in Gilbert and Sullivan’s entire opera The Gondoliers, comes with the happy and convenient conclusion. Marco and Guiseppe, the gallant Gondolieri, have discovered that they are absolved of their royal duties and free to return to their lives and wives in Venice.

Once more gondolieri, both skilful and wary,

Free from this quandary, contented are we. Ah!

From Royalty flying, our gondolas plying,

And merrily crying our “premé,” “stali!” Ah!

So good-bye, cachucha, fandango, bolero —

We’ll dance a farewell to that measure —

Old Xeres, adieu — Manzanilla — Montero —

We leave you with feelings of pleasure!

That is much how I feel upon completing this design. Having been thrust from my humble roots into a situation where my qualifications frequently did not match the demands of the task, I now return gladly to the life of a humble but cheerful student. I extend my most sincere thanks to the technical director, the charge artist, and their assorted crews and teams, as well as my design advisor and the opera director for all of their support , and even more so for their incredible patience on this journey.

Here she is! This is the set on the first night of tech rehearsals. I’ll upload the final pictures as soon as I have them

But LOOK at that backdrop…

I learned far more in the design process for this show than I have in any class or on any previous show. Somehow I feel as though I am continually learning by being pushed off of ledges, without having spent months learning how to craft a nifty hang glide or parachute device. The completed set is by no means perfect. But I’m satisfied with the work I’ve done.

Here are some (but by no means all) of the things I’ve learned about design in the process.

  • Backdrops are labor intensive for the designer and even more so for the paint team. Attention to detail is imperative.  They also look pretty snazzy in the concert hall.
  • The designer’s work isn’t over until the show opens. Scenic designers attend technical rehearsals with just as careful an eye as lighting designers and directors, carefully examining the set from all angles to ensure that nothing has been left out.
  • Scenic designers generate a lot of paperwork. A. Lot.  From the basic groundplans of the space to technical draftings of each scenic element to cartoons (line drawings) and renderings of backdrops, floor, and scenery for the paint crew, to research images for every imaginable detail, the information which a scenic designer is expected to supply is vast.
  • Attention to detail is the key to elevating a design beyond the ordinary. My advisor, much to my discomfort at the time, frequently pointed out inconsistencies or weaknesses in architectural motifs, color palette, weight and balance, spatial arrangement, and the general look and feel of Venice. And as I’ve listened to her, and watched the addition of detail shape the set beyond the block shapes I had imagined, I’ve realized just how absolutely right she is. Detail. Research. Detail.
  • Effective communication with the shops is vital. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the technical director and charge artist are great gifts to a beginning designer, but only if the designer has the sense to ask for help and clearly communicate their vision for the show.
  • And finally, design is incredibly rewarding. To see a finished set which looks oddly similar to the awkward computer model you pieced together two months before, to know that your ideas were the basis for creating a world in which magic can happen, and to know that the incredible people who put the show together is an unbelievable feeling.

At final dress, my advisor asked if I would like to try and design another set at CSU. My gut response? “Ask me in a couple months.” This show pushed me to the brink in a way no other academic experience has. It was hard. Difficult. Challenging. Frustrating. Tear-inducing. And ultimately? Amazing.

Never before have I been so acutely aware of just how much I do not know. It was an incredibly humbling experience. I won’t be able to coast through on what I already know. If I want to continue, I suppose I’m going to have to be willing to learn a bit. I think I’m alright with that.

So yeah. Maybe not starting tomorrow. But next year.

Let’s do it again.

Written by Taylor Webster

March 8, 2011 at 2:00 am

Posted in Design

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A Savoy Opera…(Weekly Design Update)

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Oh. Yeah. The design portion of the blog. Well. Here goes then.

One of the key challenges I’m facing right now is motivation. Or time mangement. Whatever it is that gets stuff done. I don’t have it. I’m only in class for three hours on Monday, two hours Tuesday thru Thursday, and not at all Friday thru Sunday. So I’m pretty much in charge of independently arranging my own time. I’m juggling two long-term design projects at the moment. One is an Importance of Being Earnest set for class, due two weekends from now. I’m not worried about it. But I’m also not working on it. So. There you have it.

The big banana is a realized design of The Gondoliers for CSU Opera. This show opens three weeks from today. Here’s a preview of the scenery for the first act.

This is the first Google-SketchUp Rendering I presented to the production team in January. Some stuff has changed since then, but it's an exciting little preview.

It’s a BIG FREAKING SHOW. Generally, the opera sets are cobbled together from bits and pieces of previous sets. This one is being built entirely from scratch. And we’re painting a 35′ x 20′ backdrop of Venice. And we’re laying a masonite floor in the concert hall and painting that too. Lots of detail. Lots of work for a first time designer who has absolutely no formal paint training.

To be quite frank, I’m terrified. That backdrop is going to be painted based off of one of my renderings. We’ve only done one backdrop in the two years I’ve been here, and it was a last minute thing painted over only one weekend. Working on these renderings and draftings has been hard to do because I’m so scared I’ll mess it up.

Some background as to my experience and qualifications. Two years ago I was drafting (if you could call it that) on graph paper in high school and applying to colleges. Pretty much ground zero for a designer. A year ago I had no idea what formal draftings or renderings looked like. I got a basic sense of both in a drawing, drafting and rendering course. I took Scene Design I last semester, where I refined my hand drafting skills but still didn’t get a firm handle on paint renderings. I’ve never been trained in scenic painting. I only have a basic understanding of theatrical construction, which limits my ability to conceive of scenic units. I’m not an expert in Venetian architecture. I have pretty much NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. But by Jove, I’m doing it.

The department also hasn’t had a student scenic designer in two years. So it’s been a challenge at times to find out exactly what’s expected of me, things that faculty and staff designers already know or have always known as far as deadlines and level of detail. They’ve trusted me with this design based almost entirely on the fact that I’m a competent student and have expressed a strong interest in scenic design. But man, does it feel like a lot of responsibility for someone not even two years out of high school.

They really have been wonderfully helpful. The technical director knows how to put things together, and has a lot of helpful suggestions to improve the construction of the arches and the bridge. My design advisor knows absolutely everything about Venetian architecture, scenic painting, and life in general. But it’s come down to something I have to do myself.


Let’s get to it.

Hopefully in twenty four hours I will have produced a backdrop rendering that looks something like this.

Haha. That’s a photograph! But if it looks like that. We (using the royal we here) will be quite pleased.

Written by Taylor Webster

February 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm