Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Ha! Artisan Exchange: Erin Chesnut

I'm Erin Chesnut and I've been a scenic carpenter at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the past 7 years. I started working at OSF when I was barely out of college. At the time, I had one year of carpentry experience in a tiny theatre company that numbered 15 people from the artistic director down to me, the carpentry intern. Going from that to OSF, a company of hundreds of talented theatre professionals, was quite the culture shock.

We've been talking about an exchange program for artisans since I've been with OSF. When the talk became reality with funding from an A Ha! grant, I leapt at the chance to spend some time out in the world. I wanted to see how another large company builds their scenery and goes about the business of theatre. I've just spent 4 weeks working in the scene shop of The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, helping build the last show of their season, Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

During my time in DC, I have paid attention to the work organization and storage systems. They are a revelation. There are many similarities between The Shakespeare Theatre’s physical space and OSF’s new production shop in Talent Oregon. Both are large, located across town from the theatres and built on a concrete slab. This is opposed to OSF's current shop which is near the theatres, too small, and on the second floor of an older building. The DC shop is in a pre-existing warehouse space. It's a little bigger than our current production space in Ashland but with fewer than half the people working in it. It has high ceilings and a concrete floor that can accommodate a forklift. It has been enlightening to learn the difference a forklift makes in the storage options and work flow. Here's a picture of their newly restocked pile of stock flooring - that's 80 4'x8' platforms, 2,560 square feet of flooring stored in a 72 square foot footprint.

That is more than twice as efficient as we can manage by hand in our current shop. Much of the odd sheet goods and random accumulations of gear that breed in a shop are stored on high shelves, preserving floor space but still easily accessible with the forklift.

One of the big floor space debates we have at OSF is about work tables. We don't have any, and we don't have the room for them in the current space. But in the new shop... Here in DC, there are 4 carpenters and each has a set of two 5'x10' work tables. Here's a picture of mine.

There are a couple spare tables which the bosses use for smaller projects and their sawhorses are the same height as the tables. There are dedicated carts for moving material around the shop. These carts do no leave the shop and are not used to store scenery. Carpenters use them to collect and move lumber from the racks to the saws or work spaces. These two simple carts are my new favorite tools.

The biggest surprise of this trip was delivered by the pedometer app on my phone. I've had it running in the background for months and thought that I would set records on it during my time in DC; all that sightseeing, living without a car, etc. Shockingly, my highest count days in DC have been the same as an average day in Ashland. Turns out walking 2+ miles and through the entire Smithsonian, or working 10 hours each work day and walking to the metro, neither one can hold a candle to the amount of walking I do on an average work day in the OSF shop. I've often joked that I spend a lot of time  at work walking in circles. It turns out that I really do. I don't walk as much in this shop thanks to the giant work tables and lumber carts. Instead of doing endless laps carrying lumber and fetching tools out, I can gather what I need, wheel it all to my table, and work. I always knew work tables and carts would save our knees and backs, but I had no idea how much it would affect our mileage. This exchange has given me all sorts of great ideas about storage and setup options for the new shop. Now to get home and start planning our new reality in that big, shiny, new building. 

I have never spent time in the northeast, so this exchange was a great opportunity for cultural exploration. The sheer number of museums in the city is overwhelming. I've gone through 10 or so and still have more I want to cram into the last days of my trip. My favorite bits thus far have been the First Ladies exhibit in the American History Museum and Julia Child's kitchen. The Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum is also incredible. If I lived in the district, I would come back to the Portrait Gallery as often as I could manage, stopping in to say hello to the presidents. The Air and Space Museum is staggering and the Mars rover photography exhibit is stunning. The main hall holds nearly every spacecraft I've ever heard of.  I was happy to see a familiar name on the wall: "SpaceShipOne, a Paul G. Allen project." From the first private manned spaceflight to the oldest Elizabethan theatre in the United States; what wonderfully diverse hobbies you have, Mr. Allen.

My trip coincided nicely with the cherry blossoms. I now  understand why they are such a tourist draw. The tidal basin is so densely planted with them that the petals carpet the ground for days. They resemble the all-too-recent snow that district residence spent this winter cursing. Word to the unwise traveler: they'll set off allergies you never thought you had.

To end my explorations, I'm currently on the train to New York City to see OSF's freshly Tony-nominated Broadway endeavor, All The Way. I'm curious to see the difference between a Broadway-budget set and the version I helped build a couple of years ago in Oregon. Then back to work at home, to finish up the last 5 shows of our season at OSF!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Artisan Exchange: Matt Wolfe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I've come to Ashland Oregon for the A Ha! Artisan Exchange program and it is absolutely beautiful here. There's a mountain that looks over the town; at least I'm calling it a mountain. I'm not sure if it's tall enough to qualify or not, but it had snow on it on a day when the rest of the town was warm and sunny, so I'm calling it a mountain. I can't get a good picture of it. I keep trying, but the camera can't capture the scale. Photos do not show how it's in the background of everything you do in town, or how the light shifts on its hills throughout the day. I need a time lapse high definition video.
Ashland is beautiful, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is right in the heart of it. Everything in this town seems to be based around OSF. Every other store has a name that's taken from a play or a Shakespeare reference: Puck's Donuts, Stratford Inn, Oberon's Tavern. The town is designed to cater to out-of-town theatre patrons. It's a one-themed tourist town, but that doesn't aggravate my anti-touristy buttons the way a normal tourist trap would. I think it's because everyone here is so laid back and isn't constantly trying to sell you something. There is a West Coast, laid back attitude and an abundance of hippies. There are more street musicians here than anywhere I've ever been. Well maybe not La Rambla, but it's certainly close.

Someone told me this statistic: Ashland has a population of 20,000 people and 300,000 people descend upon it each year just to see theater.That's glorious and gratifying for someone working in this industry, but also crazy.

I was able to fit right into the scene shop. There are some things they do differently due to the repping of shows, but the basic premise and tool use is the same. I've been getting to use some of their cool machining tools and have played with some of their automation equipment, but I'll get more into that in a bit.

The biggest difference in the construction of scenery here is that everything is built to be light. The stage operations crew takes apart and reassembles shows up to 120 times during the season. Our shows generally move once, and then sit still for three months. Everything here is designed to be lightweight and easy to install and shift. Platforms are built out of 1x, they use 1/8" Maso to face everything and even the metal pieces are made from an extremely light gauge steel (which is difficult to weld without blowing through when you're used to the thicker stuff.)

I got to watch the shift for A Wrinkle in Time to The Tempest. The OSF stage ops crew is a machine. They went from this:
to this:

to this 90 minutes. That was cool to see. A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I got to do the load-in for this show and am so excited to see it this weekend.

We are working on three shows at once, which is a change for me. The show I've been working on this most is Richard III. It's a fun show and I'm sad I won't be around when it goes up. I'm hoping someone sends me pictures of the finished set. I'd like to see how it changes the Allen Elizabethan Theatre (also known as "The Lizzy"), which is a very cool space:

Some neat things about the Lizzy: The Tudor facade looks like it would impose restrictions on scenic designs, but it is actually very malleable. Most of the trim can be removed and replaced by custom trim designed for a given show. Everything is built to be coffin locked together so it's easy to take apart. Many of the openings have automation built into them. The walls on the sides of the "center below" slide away; the center below arch can track on and off stage separately from a slip stage; the slip stage can track to front of the stage or retract to reveal a trap room beneath. The slip stage even has a track built into it's modular parts, which operate off a push chain. That's all cool, but the coolest thing I saw was a Snowy Owl that lives in the space and hunts pigeons. If there is anything I regret about this trip, it's not getting a good picture of her, she was gorgeous.

The OSF scene shop is cramped, but I got a tour of their awesome new production facility. Most of the shops will move over there this summer. It's huge and will be amazing space to work in.

There is a full-size version of the Angus Bowmer Theatre trap room built into the floor, so they can build and test scenery in the shop without having to load it into the theatre. I was also impressed by the 1/2 ton capacity beam with the chain motor overhead. It can move on x and y axis AND it has wireless remote control. Oh, and there's two of them.

I've been working with the automation team for the last week and their system is very different from ours back home. It's hard to draw parallels because of the major differences in set up, but it is certainly cool to observe. I'm particularly impressed by the modular belt-driven lift towers.

These are built to fit the trap room's specific height, but can be spaced around the room to create different size lift beds as needed. When ganged together, the four tiny motors can provide an impressive amount of force.

The biggest tool I'm learning to work with is the metal lathe in the machine shop.

It requires an intense level of precision, such as measurements of 5/10,000 of an inch. It's a slow process and often messy, but I ended up making some very cool things.

With that, I leave you with a picture of standing stones outside of a gas station:

....because this town is full of hippies. And I love it.