Technical Director FAQ

  1. You've been signed onto a play. Where do you start?
  2. What resources do you consult? Where do you get your ideas?
  3. Do you read the play? What do you look for in the play to show you what you might need to consider when building the set?
  4. How do you map out your time when working on a play?
  5. How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring?
  6. If your play is applying to get theatre space, what is your job to bring to the application interview? Any tips for handling this?
  7. How do you make your budget? Do you collaborate with anyone in making this? What are things you should consider when making your budget and your wood order? How do you buy things or order things?
  8. Are there any differences between the tech shops of different theaters on campus? If you are working on a production outside the Loeb or Agassiz, where do you build and store things? Do you have to share space with anyone?
  9. What are working drawings? How do you make them?
  10. What are the different types of wood that you use? How do you choose what quality wood to get or use on different parts of the set?
  11. Where can you get materials to use for scenery?
  12. What different types of cuts are best done by the different saws you use? What are the different saws you use?
  13. If you are working in an area that's away from the regular theatres' shops, where do you get tools and where do you store them?
  14. What is the tech requirement? Any suggestions for preparing lots of actors coming in (perhaps never having done build work before) and for using them most effectively?
  15. How do you make a set pierce sturdy yet easily moveable? Any suggestions to make set changes go smoothly? How do you take this into account?
  16. How do you build a basic platform?
  17. Do you make precuts? Are there any time-saving tips you can give, especially when building multiples of something?
  18. Do you use any stock scenery stored in the Loeb?
  19. Do you go to the strike of the previous play in your space?
  20. How do you interact with other plays that are going on around you?
  21. Do you have any advice for transporting materials around campus, or from off campus? Renting a U-Haul, Zip Car, taxi, etc.
  22. What are the different benefits/drawbacks of using a nailgun versus using a staplegun?
  23. Have you worked with metal or plastic? What tools do you use to work with these, and what advice do you have for using these materials?
  24. Staples, nails, glue, screws, bolts: what's what?
  25. How should you deal with building something so it can be hoisted and flown? Rigging?
  26. What safety precautions do you take when working?
  27. How do you brace/secure a piece of scenery?
  28. Have you ever used dry ice/a fog/smoke/snow machine? Any tips?
  29. Do you use vectorworks? Where can you get Vectorworks? If you don't, how do you make technical drawings?
  30. If the director, designer, and you have reached a disagreement about something, how do you work past these problems?

You’ve been signed onto a play. Where do you start?
Once you have signed onto a show, the first step it to meet with the set designer and director to find out what the show is going to be like and to get a general idea of the initial design. For Loeb shows, it is also important to meet with Michael Griggs, the Loeb TD, and arrange for a shop orientation. He can also advise you on what materials you will need and answer questions about how to build scenic elements. It’s also a good idea to introduce yourself to Cindy Lee, the A.R.T. Properties manager, as you will be sharing shop space with her.
Once you have met with people and have a general idea of what to expect, the next step is to read the play. While not absolutely necessary, it helps to get a sense of what kind of action will take place on the set (running, jumping, fighting), what elements may be specifically called for by the text (e.g., is a door or window mentioned by the characters). There may also be clues to more unusual structural features, such as balconies, secret doors, and special effects.
It’s also important to meet with the TD for the show preceding yours (and also the TD for the show after yours, but that can wait) and work out when you can use the shop, and also what set pieces can be recycled from the previous show to yours. Also check the shop for any scrap lumber that you can begin building with before your wood order comes in. Michael Griggs sometimes has excess lumber—usually plywood and lauan—in the racks, which he will sell to your show.
Get started as soon as you can; there’s no reason not to.

What resources do you consult? Where do you get your ideas?

You can get very good advice and ideas from Griggs and other TD’s. You will have to be ingenious yourself – thinking of how to build what’s needed efficiently and cheaply.
The best resources you have are fellow techies. They are usually more readily available than Michael and typically have a wealth of varied experience. A great way to get advice is to send an e-mail to overworkedtechies@theatre.harvard - This is an e-mail list that anyone with an interest in the technical side of theatre can sign up to join. For pictures of past productions, visit the HRDC web site at www.hrdctheater.com. Click on the photos/archives link in the menu to the left. And for examples of technical drawings, Michael Griggs has provided links to the drawings for past mainstage shows at loebinfo.com (www.fas.harvard.edu/~loebinfo/). There is also a wealth of information on the internet. Finally, for quick, basic answers to questions that arise in the shop, there is a copy of The Backstage Handbook in the Loeb tool room.
As different as sets look from the house, they’re all pretty similar backstage in that they are the most efficient structures to accomplish the temporary purpose of putting on a show. Don’t reinvent the wheel. What has worked before, tends to work again—so find out what has worked.

Do you read the play? What do you look for in the play to show you what you might need to consider when building the set?

Answers vary for this one. Some people don’t read the play, and are fine. However, as a general default – it’s recommended that you read the play. Reading the play is a good idea, especially if you’re working with a novice set designer. The unusual stuff tends to be what the designer focuses on, so don’t worry about that as much. What’s really important is to keep track of entrances and exits. This means not only reading the play and writing up an actual, tangible, non-mental list, but also checking this with the director. With many plays, the number of entrances and exits is flexible—make sure you, and the designer, know what the director is planning on. Count the entrances and exits!
It also helps when the director is describing a particular feeling or effect he/she wants and is having trouble articulating it in concrete building or design terms. That way, you have a rough idea of what he/she means.

How do you map out your time when working on a play? (for example, do you start making drawings a month before the opening, do you set deadlines for yourself to build things, receive materials, etc.)?

It really depends on when the Set Designer is finished with the design as well as the requirements of the set. If it's a light set, I might start building a week before. Preliminary drawings are finished about a week before that so that I can calculate how much materials to order (on most shows, that's more or less all you need). For a mainstage, I built for 6 weeks before the show opened (but that was Sunday in the Park with George, which required a lot of painting before Load-in).
Your first task, once your show is picked for a slot, will be to make a rough schedule. Set deadlines for getting the designs from the designer and starting build, as well as marking out the overall build schedule, load-in, and strike. Once you get the final designs, you can start making working drawings for you and your crew to use during build. If you have never made working drawings before, aim to start on them a couple weeks before build. The more time you have to work on them, the more time you will have to review, refine, and make corrections. It will also give you a better sense of how much you will need to work before load-in. This is also a good time to make a list of what you need to build, what you can pull from stock (platforms, flats and large props), and what you will need to borrow, scrounge, rent or buy.
For Loeb Ex shows, build usually starts anywhere from a week to a month before load-in, depending on the complexity of the show. Loeb Mainstage shows, on the other hand, tend to start build about two months before load-in, on average. If possible, try to fill out your schedule with deadlines for the various set pieces you need to build.
Try to finish the set early. You won’t, but try. Very little of the schedule is under your control, but manage it as best as possible. This is particularly true of the drawings. There are often a lot of design changes as different realities are faced, and the sooner the plans are solidified, the better.

How do you prepare for meetings? What do you bring?

The staff will ask you for an update on your progress. You usually will be sitting back and listening to the others during these. Bring a pencil and paper. Or a laptop.
From the moment the staff is assembled until strike, there will be weekly production meetings. As a senior member of the staff, you will be expected to attend these. In the earlier meetings, you may not have a great deal to contribute, but you will be able to learn more about the other areas: set design, lights, sound, props, and, of course, the director’s concept and ideas.
Once things start going with drawings and building, keep track of what you have accomplished and what you have planned for the coming week. You should also prepare questions that you have for other staff members that will clear up issues with the set, prop or light designs. Keep in mind, also, that if you need to make any alterations to the design (e.g., for safety issues), the production meeting is the time to let everyone else know. You can also bring new ideas to the meetings, such as new resources or other things you may have found that help other aspects of the show.
Bring a calendar. Bring whatever plans you have. Bring something to do while the others blather on about things you don’t care about (I tend to work on my plans). The following people need to be listened to carefully: set designer, director, light designer and producers. Everyone else is fair game for doodling time. Ok, actually pay attention to all of the meeting. They’re usually not that long, and you never know when you’re going to here something you need to step in and stop. Case in point, one show I worked on, the characters were supposed to throw flour at each other and the director was planning on actually using flour. The problem with this is that flour is incredibly flammable, especially when it’s in the air (two pounds of flour can blow up a house). I heard this and suggested using nonflammable baking soda instead. Same result, but without the incendiary side effects.

''If your play is applying to get theatre space, what is your job to bring to the application interview? Any tips for handling this?

Sit there and look pretty. No one asks the TD anything (unless your set designer has designed the theatrical equivalent of the tower of babel - NS) . The board just has to be confident in your abilities to be a TD, through your other experiences, like as ATD or on Build Crew, etc. You may be asked about your time commitments.
If you are on staff before your show applies for a slot, you will need to think about what you will say at the interview. It is important to have a good understanding of the overall vision of the production and to be very familiar with the set design. Try to think of any challenges the design presents and how you will overcome those. If you do not have much experience, you need to ensure the board that you are able to get the set built and ready before the opening of the show. Provide concrete examples of how you plan to do this, such as consulting others with more experience. Know what resources are available to you before you go in to the interview. Be enthusiastic and supportive of your fellow staff members.
It’s best to bring plans. It’s always best to bring plans, even if they’re incomplete and far from the final version. Plans show the board how competent and prepared you are, but mostly, you’ll just sit and nod and smile and listen to the producers and director do all the talking.

How do you make your budget? Do you collaborate with anyone in making this? What are things you should consider when making your budget and your wood order? (How do you calculate how much wood to buy)? How do you buy things or order things (do you have to go through the producer, or Griggs, or etc.)?

With the drawings, I add up the number of feet of wood/other materials I need, add 10% or so, make sure it is within my budget, and then order it through Griggs.
Before you begin build, you should have a sense of how much you will need to construct. Make a good estimate on how much you will need in terms of lumber, sheet wood, paint and any other materials you will need (metal, plexi, etc.). Add about 15%-20% to allow for unforeseen issues. Bring your estimate to a meeting with Michael Griggs to get an idea of how much you will need to spend on the set. He buys most of the materials shows need in the Loeb and has a good sense of the budgetary constraints with which you will be working. It is also a good idea to take a look at the budgets for previous shows. Although the producers should make the ultimate decisions about how much money is allocated to sets, you need to have a general idea of how much it will cost.
Fortunately or not, often your budget will be given to you. While you may be able to wiggle and cajole, you’ll probably end up making your plans fit the money more often than the reverse. As of this writing, most of the wood orders at Harvard go through Cliff the wood guy, whose current number is (978)375-1370. You may need a crew available at the delivery time to unload the truck, so be sure to ask.
Note - The Ag has started using a couple of different vendors. If your show coincides with the G&S build, talk to the Ag about getting your wood tacked onto the order, since they've been coming recently from Home Depot, which is a bit cheaper - NS

Are there any differences between the tech shops of different theaters on campus? If you are working on a production that is in one of the houses, or another area that's not in the Loeb or Agassiz, where do you build and store things? Do you have to share space with anyone (like in the A.R.T. costume shop)?

The Loeb shop is by far the largest, but it is shared with the ART Props crew and the other shows going on in the Loeb within the next few weeks.
In the Loeb, student productions have access to the scene shop from 6pm-midnight. There will usually be one other HRDC show working in the shop at the same time as you, so talk to the other show’s TD and work out how to share the space both for building and storing items.
Before working in this space, you will need to meet with Michael Griggs for a shop orientation. This will involve a tour of the space, including the location of the HRDC tool room, lumber, sheet good and paint storage, and practice making cuts on the large saws (radial arm saw, table saw, and band saw).
Besides the large saws, the shop also has four rolling tables that are the same height as the table saw and radial arm saw bench. These can be used as work surfaces, as well as supports for cutting sheet goods.
Since you will be sharing this space not only with HRDC shows but also with the A.R.T. prop department, it is important to clean up after using the shop. Sweep all tables and benches, as well as the floor, and store your set pieces against the paint rack in neat stacks, leaving clear paths for people to walk through.
HRDC usually has the shop all day on the weekends, though sometimes ART has load-in or strike, which can interfere. At the Ag, the only other real shop, storage is even more limited and much more ad hoc. Leave important areas (like doors and specific tools) and walkways accessible. There is some limited storage in the hallway outside the Ag shop as well. If you can, store set pieces on whatever stage you’re using. There are often two shows for each shop, so you’ll be sharing space. Always clean up.

What are working drawings? How do you make them?
Working drawings are drawings of every piece of set that needs to be built, with dimensions for each part.
Part of your responsibilities is to take the set designer’s drawings and use them to create working drawings. Working drawings show the framework of the set pieces, measurements, and what types of materials are to be used. These drawings are made to scale, usually ½”=1’.
The best way to make these is to use a computer-aided drafting software. Most people use VectorWorks, which is installed on the HRDC board computer. A copy may also be available from Michael Griggs or fellow techies. The benefit of this method is that your drawings are pinpoint accurate. However if you do not have access to this software, or need to produce a drawing on the fly, you can use a scale rule to draw by hand. Scale rules have twelve different scales on them, including scale inches.
Working drawings should include all key dimensions (width, height, and, where applicable, angles), correctly dimensioned framework, materials to be used, an indication of scale, and if necessary, special instructions (e.g., notches in the framework for seam catchers).
I’ll just say here that we are doing theater, not making cabinets or clock frames. Whatever you build will be ripped down in less than a month, and it’ll always be a dozen or more feet from the audience. Wood is a very forgiving material as well. Don’t worry about measurements under an 1/8 of an inch and try to keep your angles 30°, 45°, 60° or 90°.
Note - Bob Slates have a good selection of scale rules in the branch near the Loeb. Just make sure you don't do what I did, and end up with a metric one - NS

What are the different types of wood that you use? How do you choose what quality wood to get or use on different parts of the set?
Nearly all sets use 1x3 and/or 2x4 pine lumer, 3/4” plywood for platforms, and 1/4” luaun for facing flats. 1x3 is mostly used for flats, but it can also be used in building stairs and cross-bracing platform legs. Use 2x4 for framing and legging platforms, supporting stairs, and building stud walls. 3/4” plywood, mostly used for covering platforms, are also used to make the stringers (side pieces) of stairs.
While pine lumber is generally of uniform quality (though there can be varying degrees of warping), plywood comes in graded qualities, ranging from A-D, with a letter for each face. A represents a smooth, sanded surface, free of blemishes. B has some minor blemishes, but is generally smooth. C is a little rougher and has some knots. D is quite rough and has a large number of knots. For most purposes, CD plywood will suffice. It is the most economical choice for general building.
I’m actually a big fan of 1x4 over 1x3. It tends to be sturdier and won’t split as easily as 1x3 (which splits easier than a banana).

Where can you get materials to use for scenery? (Hardware stores and Home Depot, yes, any other stores or sources you'd recommend?)
Other than the standard vendor for lumber and Home Depot, there are a number of other places to buy materials for building your set. The hardware stores in Harvard Sq. (Dickson Bros.) and Porter Sq. (Tags) are good in a pinch, but tend to be a bit pricy. For large, unusual items, Harvard Recycling is a good place to look, though you do need to provide your own means of transporting the items. Pearl Crafts in Central Sq. is also a good resource for alternate materials. There are a number of other places for scenic materials that your fellow techies can help find.
You will be buying most of your lumber from Clifford Lumber. Backstage Hardware is also a great resource (it’s in Boston) for almost any material you’ll need.
If you need wood fast, Home Depot is fine for average pine lumber and sheet goods. If, for some reason, you need nicer wood, Home Depot may or may not have it. One alternative is Sterritt Lumber (110 Arlington St., Watertown). They have a good selection of finer quality wood, and you can buy exactly the amount you need. Just be sure you have some means of transportation for it.
When it comes to set decoration, for non-traditional plays, think outside the box. Lots of weird materials can work beautifully (the negatives from the Crimson’s printing press, for example). This tends to be more in the set designer’s realm, but sets don’t always have to be just wood and paint.

What different types of cuts are best done by the different saws you use? (would you not use a particular saw to do a particular kind of cut?) What are the different saws you use?
Radial Arm Saw – used for cutting lumber and long, narrow pieces of plywood or luaun. Makes square cuts only. If you need to make cuts under 4”, use the band saw.

Table Saw – for cutting sheet goods and lumber lengthwise. Do not cut pieces that are wider than they are long, as they can bind in the saw and lead to injury.

Band Saw – for cutting pieces too short for the radial arm saw and for curves.

Circular Saw – for cutting sheet goods, especially when the table saw cannot be used. Always use a guide when using the circular saw to ensure straight cuts.

Jigsaw – used for detailed cuts such as notches and curves where the piece is too unwieldy for the band saw. Also use the jigsaw for cutting metal after changing to a metal-cutting blade.

Compound Miter Saw – for cutting angles in lumber and moulding. The blade adjusts along two planes, allowing for compound angles.

It’s not really a saw I guess, but routers are excellent tools and are great for set decoration. They can trim excess plywood or lauan, cut molding and cut patterns, given a guide. Same goes for RotoZips (if you can find one).

[[#thirteen]If you are working in an area that's away from the regular theatres' shops, where do you get tools and where do you store them?
I have, once, and I brought my own tools. If you’re installing a set built in the Ag shop, you’ll be able to borrow the necessary tools with permission. There are very few shows (any?) that need access to a shop and do not have it.

What is the tech requirement? Any suggestions for preparing for lots of actors coming in (perhaps never having done tech work before) and for using them most effectively?

Anyone who acts in a Loeb show is required to do twelve hours of tech work on a Loeb show, so you can expect to have at least a couple actors coming into the shop to help with build. They may have no experience at all, or they could be experienced techies. Ideally, you will have at least one assistant technical director with prior building experience. Divide up your skilled hands to lead various projects and to direct the non-skilled people. Those without a great deal of experience can help by measuring and preparing materials for cutting, holding and supporting pieces, preparing pieces for assembly (e.g., gluing), and moving things around as needed. If possible, try to create opportunities to let them use the staple gun (assembling flat frames, attaching luaun to flats, and plywood to platforms). Further on in the build process, tech requirement help can prime and paint completed set pieces.
I’ve never gotten many tech requirement actors, and the ones I have gotten weren’t at all trained. Stapling is probably the most complicated task I’d trust them with. What I have done is just had a person stay in the shop and read or do school work while I build. You should never work alone and this is an easy way to make sure you don’t. Tech savvy people are a rare commodity around Harvard, which means that except for the big productions (Loeb Mainstage), you’ll probably be on your own. If you need any advising or assistance, however, there are many resources available, starting with the overworkedtechies email list and the HRDC Tech Liaison.
Let the producers and the HRDC liaison (if you’re working in the Loeb) know that you need helpers, and they can help channel tech requirement people your way. I suggest saving a lot of repetitive work (like putting together platforms/flats) so that you can teach them how to do one and leave them alone to work on other things.

How do you make a set piece sturdy yet easily moveable? Any suggestions to make set changes go smoothly? How do you take this into account?

You focus on sturdy. Moveable is a relative term. Almost anything is movable with enough help. However, the one size requirement for any set piece is that it fits through the soundproof doors/exit that you are going to use to move it in.
While it is difficult to recommend a hard and fast rule about how to make a set piece sturdy but easy to move, since every piece will be unique, there are two things to keep in mind. First, make sure to have adequate framing. Think about how the piece will be used, what kind of stress it needs to withstand, etc. Second, think of what materials are best suited to the piece. Every material has its pros and cons. Wood is easy to work with, is fairly light weight, and is sturdy, but the more weight it needs to bear, the bulkier the piece will get. Metal is stronger than wood and takes up far less space to bear greater amounts of weight, but it is difficult to work with and weighs significantly more than wood. Paper and cardboard are pretty easy to work with and are exceptionally light, but they have little to no weight-bearing capacity and must be flame-proofed. Plastic is fairly light for decorative bits, but is much heavier than wood in weight-bearing amounts, can be somewhat fragile and is somewhat difficult to work with. It is also very expensive.
As for set changes, take some time to list all pieces that need to move, including large props. Track when they need to be onstage and when they need to be off, and look at what spaces are available offstage for storage. Depending on your space, you may have little to no wing space. Be creative. The really creative bit comes once you have your list of pieces and where they need to be at every point in the show. Choreographing set changes is almost an art in itself. While this is most often the responsibility of the Stage Manager, you also need to come up with ideas for how everything should happen to keep things fast, quiet and safe with the fewest number of stage hands possible. Play with ideas about what can be brought on at the beginning of the change, what goes off next, and so on. Until the change is complete, stage hands should always be bringing something on when they enter the stage and taking something off when they leave. If there are any large pieces to be moved on or off, stage hands that have smaller changes should clear the space for the larger items. Run your ideas by your assistants and other staff, or find someone who has had experience with difficult changes.
With trucks (platforms on castors), keep the weight as low as possible—even if that means adding stage weights. Brakes will also be necessary to keep the truck immobile once they are in place, either on stage or off. If you have a really heavy object that needs to swing on a hinge, adding a castor on the object farther from the hinge will take the weight and prevent stress on the hinge that leads to squeaking and creaking. The caster will also help keep the hinges from being ripped out.

[[#sixteen]How do you build a basic platform?

There was a quite long text reply here, but I've cut it in favour of this link: http://www.hstech.org/howto/carpentr/plats/mpplats1.htm (-Nick)

Do you make precuts? Are there any time-saving tips you can give, especially when buildings multiples of something?
Cut all the pieces of a particular type of flat/platform and label them before putting any together (make sure the first one's size is right). This creates a build process much more like an assembly line.
If you need to build a lot of flats or platforms, you will undoubtedly have a lot of boards that will be the same length. A good way to save time is to make cut lists for each piece you will be building. Figure out how many of each length of 1x3 and 2x4 you need to make, measure one, line up the cut, then set a stop block at the end of the board. The stop block allows you to set up your cuts quickly and keep all your boards the same length. Two things to be careful of, however, when using a block: when setting up a cut, do not bang the board against the block; every once in a while, check the length of your cuts to make sure the block hasn’t shifted.

Do you use any stock scenery stored in the Loeb?
As much as possible. It saves build time and money.
For the Loeb: When you get the design from the set designer, try to see if you will be able to use stock platforms or flats. Take a look at the inventory of platforms in the upper airlock and flats in large prop storage. You should also talk with the TD of the shows before you, to see if there are any pieces you can use. If there are go to the strike to help take down the pieces you need. Be sure to store them out of the way so they do not get damaged or thrown away. Against the paint frame in the shop is the best place to store items, but you can also put them against a wall in the theatre as long as it is out of the way and does not interfere with any painting that needs to be done. Above all, treat the other shows with the same respect you would like to receive if someone wants to reuse pieces of your set.

Do you go to the strike of the play that was in the theater space right before your play goes up?
Someone from your play’s staff has to be there (for the Loeb it’s a requirement, for other places it depends, but is usually a good idea). Talk to the TD of the previous show so you can settle if you want to save any pieces from their set, if you want them to leave the stairs up, etc, if you want them to make sure not to damage the chairs you’ve been building for the past week, etc.

How do you interact with other plays that are going up?

You try to stay in each others' way as little as possible. Get along.

Do you have any advice for transporting materials around campus, or from off-campus? (Renting a U-Haul, getting a zip car, taxi, blockmates, etc.).

Occasionally, you will need to move something from elsewhere on campus (or off-campus) to the theatre space. Your first and best option is to check with other staff members and friends to see if you can borrow a vehicle big enough to move the item(s). If you can’t borrow a car, Zip Cars are a good next step. If you need to move large items or a lot of things at once, a U-Haul is probably the only option left. Try to find the cheapest way to move things to the theatre, since the more money you spend on transportation, the less you’ll have for materials.
Don’t be afraid to carry set pieces around campus. It isn’t fun, but it’s easier on your budget than U-Haul.
Note from Nick - But use your head. It is not OK to carry 12 4x8 steeldecks across campus at 1AM...Remember, the Ag, the Loeb, and the NCT are all in residential areas. The NCT is 2 feet away from a frosh dorm.'

What are the different benefits/drawbacks of using a nailgun versus using a staplegun? Which projects are best suited for these different tools?

A nailgun should be used for any framing that is to support weight (like a platform). Only use a nail gun with 2xX lumber. The nails are 3” long, so they work best with materials that are 1-1/2” thick. 1xX lumber splits, so you should not use the nail gun for fastening this type of lumber together.
A staplegun is used mainly for flats and for stairs. In either case, the glue does much more of the work than the little piece of metal shot into it. A staple gun comes in two sizes, narrow crown and wide crown. Use 1-1/2” wide crown staples to fasten platform lids to their frames and to assemble flat frames. Narrow crown staples can also be used for flat frames, as long as you use three to four staples per joint. The narrow crown staple gun can also be used with 3/4” staples to attach luaun to flats. When stapling luaun, be careful not to shoot the staple all the way through.
Nail gun for platforms, staple gun for flats and for skinning frames (air tacker for fabric).

Have you worked with metal or plastic? What tools do you use to work with these, and what advice do you have for using these materials?

You use the same tools, but you're more careful. Always wear goggles when working on these (much more important than with wood, and you're supposed to always wear them with wood). Splinters hurt a lot more too. Always make sure the material isn't moving in a way you don't want it to before you cut it. The only different tool that you use is the metal saw, which works just like the chopsaw.

Metal – difficult to work with. Use a jigsaw with a metal-cutting blade for flat metal stock. Be sure to wear ear and eye protection and, for iron stock, go slowly to avoid shearing/melting off the blade’s teeth. For angle stock, rod and pipe, use the grinding saw (looks similar to the compound miter saw, but has a large grinding disk). Aluminum is a lot easier to work with than iron and can also be cut using the band saw and radial arm saw. You can use self-tapping screws to attach metal to other materials or vice versa. When working with metal, you also have to be aware of fire hazards. A lot of heat is generated, especially with the grinder and the grinding saw, and you don’t want the stream of sparks shooting into the saw dust pile.

Plastic – cracks easily. You can use any of the saws to cut plastic. However, it is very important to keep the plastic from bending, shaking, or vibrating too much, or else it will crack and break. The best way to avoid this is to sandwich the plastic between two sheets of wood. To secure the plastic to your scenic piece, use slender sticks of wood on either side along the edges or pre-drill holes for screws. Do not use drywall or wood screws, as the heads of these are tapered and will crack the plastic.
''Don't forget that cut edges of plastic are pretty rough, and opaque. Plastic also produces fumes...if you're working with it, I'd recommend wearing a proper ventilator. Routing plastic also produces a ton of debris, which being statically charged will cling to you.

Staples, nails, glue, screws, bolts: what types of fasteners are most appropriate for which kind of use/which kind of project? Which are stronger?

Glue is strongest, then bolts, then screws, then nails, then staples. Glue goes everywhere (except between platforms). Bolts should attach all platforms over 7.5" tall and all legs for these platforms should be bolted.
Glue is good and strong, and especially effective with materials that don’t accept screws well, like plastic—just be sure to rough up the material first. Liquid Nails is an effective adhesive that is loaded into a standard caulking-gun and, once allowed to set properly, will hold very strongly. The best glue to use with foam is green glue—it’s a bit tricky to use, so be sure to read the instructions and do a test. There are a lot of exotic glues, like Gorilla Glue and the cornucopia of Super Glues, but don’t discount regular Elmer’s Wood Glue. That stuff is pretty amazing.
Staples – use on wood for assembling and facing flats, attaching platform lids
Nails – use on wood for assembling platform frames, knee walls and stud walls
Glue – use wood glue on joints of flats and platforms, as well as with luaun facing and plywood lids. Also recommended for knee walls and stud walls. Use green glue when working with foam and aluminum flashing.
Screws – use drywall screws for legging platforms under 2’, holding platforms and flats together that are side by side, and for situations where you are using warped lumber for flat or platform frames. If the wood starts to split, it is a good idea to pre-drill your screw holes with a 1/8” or 1/16” drill bit. Use self-tapping screws for metal.
Bolts – strongest fastener available. Use bolts when legging platforms taller than 2’, stairs and ramps. May also be used to attach platforms together side by side. Bolts come in three main head types: hex, flathead slotted (FHSB) and carriage. Hex bolts have a hexagonal head that stick out from the surface they’re bolting and require a washer between the head and the surface being bolted. Use them when you do not need a flush surface and where the bolt will not be seen. FHSBs have a flat head that tapers to the shaft. There is a straight slot in the head for taking a screwdriver, and they should be used when you need a flush surface. Carriage bolts have a rounded head with a short squared bit between the head and shaft. These are good for attaching castors and in situations where you want to make sure the bolt doesn’t spin. For all three types of bolts, use a washer and nut to hold the bolt in place. It is also recommended that you put a lock, or split, washer between the washer and nut to prevent the nut from loosening.
When removing bolts, be sure not to bang them out with a hammer. The steel head will smash the threading on the bolt useless. Place a block of wood between the steel hammer and bolt or use a rubber mallet in order to preserve the threads. When legging platforms, use three bolts in a triangular pattern (you can also leg platforms in compression - see the platform question above - NS)
Screws take a remarkable amount of finesse and practice to handle properly when used with a screw gun. When inserting, start slowly and let the screw get a grip in the wood. Be sure to always keep the axis of the screw gun in line with the direction of the screw, otherwise the bit will strip the head of the screw. This is particularly important and difficult when removing toe screws as some experimentation is necessary before the gun will line up well with the screw. If you have trouble putting in a screw, you’ve probably hit a knot and need to back out and try a new place. If you have trouble taking out a screw, make sure there is no weight on it, then put all your force into the gun (pushing towards the screw) while the gun rotates it out.

How should you deal with building something so it can be hoisted and flown?

You should pass it by Jaie Lozier or Joe (I'm blanking on his last name) at the ART, or tech staff at the Ag depending on your show. Make sure that the whole piece of equipment - including the rigging materials - fits in any slot the piece needs to fit in. if the thing is heavy/dangerous, the ART will rig it for you. Otherwise, pulleys and the grid are your friend.
The first thing to take into account for flying scenery is what kind of flying facilities are in the space. Is there a fly system built in? Is there loft space? If there isn’t a fly system or loft space, where are you going to place your pulleys and run your lines? Should you find yourself working on a show that requires flying, you won’t need to figure this out all by yourself. In the Loeb, Michael Griggs and/or Jaie Lozier will do a lot of the rigging required. Here are a couple tips, though, that you can do without much guidance.
First, figure out how much hardware you will need. This includes D-rings, D-ring plates, bolts and screws to anchor the lines to the set pieces, D-rings or some other item to act as a guide at the top of the piece, pulleys for every turn in the line, cleats for tying off the line, cable, rope and possibly turnbuckles. An experienced rigger can help you figure out what kind of hardware you’ll need. Next, you need to locate your rigging points on the pieces that need to fly. As a simple example, for a flying flat, you will need a D-ring or similar attaching point at the bottom of each corner, as well as one or more evenly spaced along the bottom rail for wider flats. The D-ring plate should be attached with two flathead slotted bolts and two screws, one of each to either side of the ring. Straight up from these, attach some form of guide for the hauling line. A D-ring plate works well for this, but eye screws and similar hardware can serve in a pinch.
Once you have your rigging points figured out, the appropriate hardware attached, and are ready to put the piece in the space, you can connect your hauling line. For nearly all set pieces, this will be 1/8” aircraft cable, though depending on the look you need, rope can be used. A note: tie line should NEVER be used for anything other than very light-weight items. Aircraft cable is attached to the D-ring using a thimble, which is a tear-shaped piece of metal that prevents the cable from kinking/folding. Once cable has a kink in it, it is more or less useless for flying scenery, so be make sure you never have cable going directly around a ring, pipe or other narrow items. Use the appropriate hardware.
At this point, it’s best to let the pros take over, since rigging something correctly is crucial to avoid personal injury and damage to the set.
The swagging kit is in the Ag cage. If you don’t know what a swagging kit is, then you shouldn’t be rigging without expert help. Rigging is inherently dangerous and should be undertaking with the utmost caution. Also be sure to tape up loose ends of aircraft cable as metal splinters really hurt.
What safety precautions do you take when working?

Make sure you know what you're doing, and don't be distracted. Be especially careful if you’re tired.
You and anyone helping you must wear closed-toed shoes when working in the shop and during load-in and strike. Also, anyone passing through a work area (shop, stage during load-in or strike) must wear shoes, since there could be staples, nails, screws splinters, and other sharp pointy bits waiting for a bare foot to poke. When working with any type of saw and the nail gun, you must also wear eye protection. Ear protection is also advisable when working around these tools. Also when working with any power tools, keep your attention on what you are doing. If you need to look away, stop the tool first. Finally, keep your workspace clean and free of tripping hazards. During load-in and strike, there may be times when you are moving large objects with many people. In these situations, it is essential that one person call the moves and that everyone else keeps quiet, unless they need to stop because of a loss of grip or other similar situation. There also needs to be quiet when there is a lot of work being done overhead, as when a large piece of scenery is being flown.

You should also familiarize yourself with accident/emergency protocols. Know who to inform in the event of an accident or injury, and know where to find first aid equipment for minor incidents.

Above all, be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to what is in the environment and to what is happening nearby.
PAY ATTENTION. Failing that, locate the emergency switches ahead of time. In the Ag, there are a couple of squeeze switches that will automatically call for an ambulance (quite handy). In the Loeb, there should always be someone in the reception donut at the front of the building. If you’re lucky, the donuteer will be kind enough to take a minute or two away from building rubber band balls to call 911 for you. If you’re lucky. Bottom line is to know how things work, protect yourself (which means safety gear and having a proper attitude of maintaining your current number of limbs) and PAY ATTENTION.
Try not to work alone. You really shouldn’t, anyway.

How do you brace/secure a piece of scenery?

All scenic walls and platforms need to be secured to the stage, unless they need to move. To secure it to the floor, screw through the frame with 1-5/8” screws for flats or 2-1/2” screws screwed in at an angle through the leg of a platform or through the frame of a knee/stud wall. For walls and taller platforms, you also need to add more bracing.
For walls, attach a jack (triangular brace) or a 1x3 board toward the top of the flat. The other end should be screwed into the floor; if using a 1x3, attach the board to a scrap block of 2x4, which is then attached to the floor.
With tall stud walls and long legs for platforms, stairs and ramps, use 1x3 to cross-brace. Attach one end of the board near a solid anchor point (e.g., where the leg is attached to the floor/platform). Using a level, make sure the leg or stud wall is perfectly vertical, then attach the board diagonally to the other legs in line, starting with the other end of the board. You should use a minimum of two screws per attaching point and try to get the board as close to 45 degrees as possible while also attaching near the ends of the legs, as this arrangement provides the greatest stability. While you can get by with bracing on just one side of a set of legs, bracing in the other direction on the same set is best, if you can do it, creating an X crossing the legs.
In the Ag, there are nailers (strips of wood you can nail, or screw, into) that run all the way around at two different heights—roughly at eight and twelve feet). You can secure scenery directly to these. The Ag also has a number of stage jacks which use hooks and eye sockets in interesting ways to create a removable support. This is good if a set piece needs to be struck from the stage at any point. Another method of creating easily removable set pieces is to secure them with loose-pin hinges. These hinges have, surprise, loose pins that can be removed by hand and allow the hinge to be separated. These are especially good for platforms on the ground. (Note: loose-pin hinges aren’t really designed to work as flexible hinges but as stationary anchoring points.)

Have you ever used dry ice/a fog/smoke/snow machine? Where do you get any/all of these, and what are any tips or considerations for using them?

It can be a bit hazy where responsibility for foggers and smokers lies. Most often, they are the realm of the electricians. I personally have always let the lighting designer or master electrician take the lead on this. Snow machines, on the other hand, are in the realm of the TD. Creating snow effects can take on almost any shape, but there are a few tried and true methods in use.
The simplest method of creating snow is to use a snow cradle. This device consists of a plastic or cloth sheet that is rigged to rock back and forth, spilling your fake snow (bits of plastic, cloth, confetti, etc.) over alternating edges as it rocks. The snow cradle is the easiest method of creating a snow effect, but it tends to result in intermittent deluges of snow, rather than a nice, steady fall.
A step up from this is a form of sifter. Basically, a sifter is a box with holes in the bottom. It is rigged to move side to side, without tipping. This motion acts similarly to a salt shaker, shifting the snow back and forth so it falls through the holes. Hole size is crucial; big enough to avoid clogging, but small enough to keep the snow from falling too quickly. You should also vary the size of the holes and make sure that the edges of the holes are smooth and free of burrs that could snag the snow material.
A more complex version of the sifter is the snow tube. Utilizing sonotube or large PVC piping, the snow tube is a circular version of the sifter. Holes are drilled around the tube at varying intervals and in varying sizes. Rotating axes attach to caps plugging either end of the tube. As the tube revolves, the snow material shifts and tumbles, spilling through the holes. The faster the tube turns, the heavier the snow. It is important to have hinged access panels or some other type of trapdoor in the tube so that you can easily reload the snow. While this device creates a very realistic snow effect, it is also difficult and time-consuming to implement.
With all types of snow machine, keep in mind how you are going to reload it. You will need to either lower it or bring the snow up to it. Figure out how to do this safely and easily. Also, you should have more than one device to avoid getting a wall of snow, unless you just need snow falling outside a window.
Ok, that stuff about snow is pretty freaking cool. I’ll have to try that sometime. Anyways, in addition to the ass-kicking snow, a TD may be responsible for building a dry ice machine, which is relatively simple to do. To create smoke, you introduce dry ice to water. All you need is a container, like a trash can, a container for water, a hopper for dry ice and a fan. The best smoke comes from recently broken up dry ice and hot water.

Do you use vectorworks? Where can you get Vectorworks? If you don't, then what do you use to make techninal drawings.

Vectorworks is a very useful Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) program. It can be found on the HRDC board computer, and copies may be available from your colleagues. Michael Griggs may also have a copy available to borrow. This program enables you to make accurate drawings, as well as to measure drawings with great precision.
If Vectorworks is not available, you can use a scale rule, triangles and protractors to make drawings by hand. Though not as precise as Vectorworks, these tools work very well. If you have access to a drafting table, so much the better, as it helps with squaring up your lines. You can get Vectorworks from Griggs.
A scale rule and graph paper work fine for me, though it’s a bit dodgy to do curves well on paper.

If the director, designer and you have reached a disagreement about something, namely one or both wants something that isn't going to be possible due to time constraints/the laws of physics/other considerations --- if this has happened to you, how have you worked past these problems?

There are different ways of handling this, obviously:

Everyone has their opinion of how things should work; things that they simply must have, no ifs ands or buts about it. At some point in your work as a TD, you will undoubtedly encounter this. The director or designer simply must have sand or mulch, or they want a steep, shallow staircase with no railings or a zip line running across stage, or…or…or. Whatever it is, there are times that you as TD will feel a need to say no. No matter the artistic vision involved, it is your responsibility to actually make the set, and it is also your responsibility to make sure that the actors can move about the set without getting injured. You need to think about the physics (will the set actually support the weight of 20 actors jumping up and down on it at once? Or can it really hold 4 tons of sand?), movement (how fast can an actor take a sharp right turn down a steep staircase without careening off the side and plummeting 6 feet down?), material safety (yes, that iron sculpture looks cool, but let’s take bets on how many times the actors can run that fight scene before someone gets impaled), allergies (who knew cocoa mulch was such a toxic substance?), time/money/skilled labor available (cardboard is indeed cheap and light weight, but when you need to pump out over a dozen pieces and it takes 14 hours or more per piece, it’s time to find another way).

If a disagreement arises about materials or how the set should be built or some other consideration, do not simply say “no.” You need to not only explain the reasons behind your objection, but you must also have some possible solutions or alternatives to present. Diplomacy is a great skill to pick up just for these situations. There is almost always a way to compromise, and sometimes if you just take a moment to take a breath and think about what is presented, you’ll find that you may actually be able to pull it off, even if it does mean a few headaches. About the only time that you really need to stand firm is where safety is concerned. If what the director or designer presents puts the actors at risk, you have every right to shoot the idea down. Just remember, though, to explain exactly why you are disagreeing.

In the end, remember that everyone is doing this because they enjoy doing it. You are part of a team, all working toward the same goal. Keep things professional, and have fun.

HOWEVER, If something can’t be done, it can’t be done. Try to identify these kinds of conflicts early on and save everyone a lot of grief. I don’t care what you learned in Health Class, never just say no. As a TD, you must always suggest compromises and alternatives. Be open and helpful. Be flexible and willing to change. Ultimately, you have control on what is built, yes, but that should not make you arrogant in deciding if something is to be done or not. You’re supposed to work as hard as you can to create what the director and designer want. If you don’t, your days in theater are probably numbered. If you do get into a heated disagreement with the aesthetic side of the production team, bring in the producers to mediate—that’s what they’re for.

'Remember: no plan survives build, no director gives you a straight answer and in three weeks the show will be gone and the set in the dumpster.'