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Scenic Construction for the Stage: Key Skills for Carpenters.

Scenic Construction for the Stage: Key Skills for Carpenters

By Mark Tweed

The Crowood Press, 2018; 224 pages Paperback $27.10, E-book $13.49

Mark Tweed has written a book that we have been missing for many years. Scenic Construction for the Stage is a manual of scenic carpentry that works through the fundamentals of how to put a set on a stage, from raw lumber to finished, albeit unpainted, units. Scenic art is rightfully left to other authors. To those who have an interest in the literature of technical theatre, this will sound like a work they have seen before, for there is an intermittent canon of stage carpentry spanning back many years. Readers may well remember the names of authors past--Raoul, the Gillettes, Burris-Meyer, and Cole, to name a few of the exceptional examples. However, unlike most treatises on stagecraft, with this book, Tweed earns his own place on the shelf among these works through his admirable focus on craft.

This is a skills-focused book. It begins as it should, with an introduction to the overall process that provides useful context to just what scenery is. Tweed briefly explains the role of the production manager and the designer. He offers slightly longer treatment to drawings and the model box, but it is clear that Tweed does not want to dwell here. Where some other stagecraft manuals would begin the slog through the different forms of the theatre and the history of the deus ex machina, Tweed has already moved into common theatrical hardware. Here, again, he limits the discussion to bare essentials and a reference to an authoritative catalog on hardware. Rather than listing every widget available, Tweed focuses on the essential concept that, as a rule, scenery must be built to be taken apart and reassembled quickly, accurately, and durably.

After giving the reader some context for what is accomplished in the scene shop--in about as bare bones a fashion as possible--he slows down to focus on craft. The third chapter, Key Construction Skills, is really where the work begins. Tweed is the head of construction at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and has clearly spent his share of time teaching novice carpenters. The work progresses as a student would be shepherded--from the basics of tool use to general competency in the construction of typical scenery elements.

The third and fourth chapters constitute the second act of the book. The scene having now been set, and quickly, too, Tweed covers the essentials of tools and materials in steps, along with the essentials of good workmanship. "As a professional carpenter in the workshop environment, there is a universal code of practice that is expected of you, but is not often taught to you, and which is learned largely from experience," Tweed writes. While this is a technical skills book, the human element is never forgotten. Tweed's sense of humor is his most effective tool on this front.

Having laid out the essential skills, the primary tools, and the common materials, the third act of the book employs them all in increasingly complex projects. The author breaks down projects into recipe-like steps. Whereas some earlier chapters lacked some important images--the concept of developing surfaces in drawings, such as with raked decks, gets no drawing--each of the projects here are well complemented with accompanying pictures. The projects focus on the most common elements of scenery: flats, stairs, doors and windows, platforms, and typical architectural details. We all know that no one book will capture all scenery. Scenery is quite often designed to be unique and unprecedented. However, were a student able to efficiently and accurately complete each of the 10 projects in this book, we no longer would call them a student, but rather a professional scenic carpenter.

There are quibbles, of course. While a traditional mortise-and-tenon flat is project number two, the Broadway-style flat hardly even gets mentioned. Of course, nearly every other book on scenic construction seems to focus far too much on the Broadway flat, so in the larger context the exclusion is perhaps more refreshing than galling. Still, it is an essential method of construction and deserves, at a minimum, a picture in a book on how to build scenery. There are other omissions that range from the radial arm saw to pocket-screw joinery. Some of these feel rather regional. In general, however, reading a U.K. book from a U.S. perspective was more rewarding than off-putting. (This is true in general of British books on stagecraft, of which there are many excellent works, several of which Tweed references.) Using the metric system versus American customary units shows itself to be more of a brouhaha than a serious impediment. This sort of superficial difference actually highlights the more essential and common truths. Some new terms have to be learned, such as rostrum and arising, but not so many as to tip the scales from interesting to annoying. The biggest omission is the almost total neglect of metalworking. Tweed is clearly a skilled woodworker, but the truth remains that metalwork has become an essential component of modern scenery. Modern practice demands that scenic carpenters need to know the basics of metalwork.

Scenic Construction for the Stage is not a textbook attempting to wrap its arms around the entire act of producing theatre. Rather, Tweed has written a worthwhile, focused description of how to build scenery well. It should serve all those who do the same, spread out across the world as they are, whether it is their first week or 40th year in the shop.


Reviewed by Ben Clark

Ben Clark is a project manager and technical designer with ShowMotion Inc., an entertainment-based contracting company primarily working in the Broadway market. He has previously worked as a fabricator for regional theatres, television, universities, and summer stock theatres.
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Author:Clark, Ben; Guay, Erika
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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