The Tao of Thinkdo

The secret ingredient is thinkdo.

by Elizabeth Harper

Being a theatrical designer can be emotionally, intellectually and physically taxing. I’ve been every kind of stressed you can name. But there are steps I’ve taken within my process to ease the pain. There’s a design philosophy called thinkdo that I’ve used for a few years now and found that it applies not only to theatrical designers but all creative types and I wanted to share it.

John Conklin (set designer extraordinaire and Yoda-like in his teaching abilities) introduced me to thinkdo. These aren’t his exact words but thinkdo as I’ve come to interpret it and apply it. Thinkdo is exactly what it sounds like, two words, “think” and “do” smushed together, meant to signify that the two separate words are actually one in the same. Thinking is doing. Doing is thinking. Below I’ve outlined some pretty common problems I’ve had or run into and shown how this philosophy has improved my creative process. 

Problem: You procrastinate.

We’ve all said it. “I’ll think about it.” You can’t do the light plot or the set model yet because you have to think about it. There’s a block that you can’t get past and you convince yourself that if you just sit and think, the work will follow and start to flow. But while you’re thinking, the deadline creeps closer and you suddenly find yourself with quite a bit of work to do in a much shorter period of time.

Thinkdo solution: Think only as you act.

Train yourself to think only an extension of an action. This is the essence of thinkdo. Think while you read a book or flip though pictures or start the light plot. You’re not creating the finished product. What you’re doing is documenting your thoughts and that’s a key step in a collaborative process. The work you do, even while unfinished, is easily sharable and harder to forget as you move forward. It also generates new information, whether it’s discovered via outside research (like reading a book) or experimentation (like doing a sketch). Idle thoughts will only create an echo chamber of what’s already in your head and can close off more interesting avenues.

Problem: You find that your time away from your work is spent worrying about your work.

You were on vacation but you couldn’t enjoy yourself because you were worried about the show. So you checked your email… over and over and over. You feel like you never get a break because there’s always a show that you’re working on (or one on the horizon) that you could be thinking about.

Thinkdo solution: Stop multi-tasking.

Once you’ve committed to thinking only as you act, you’ve committed to focusing on one thing at a time. The afternoon you spent sitting around thinking about the show (but actually just puttering) becomes a lot more enjoyable if you either commit to working or puttering. If you commit to work, you’ll end the day with something to show for it. If you commit to puttering (or baking cookies or going hiking) you’ll end the day refreshed (or with cookies).

Problem: You won’t kill your darlings.

You were stuck until you had a big breakthrough. Now the director (or producer or fellow designer) wants to blow it all up. But you can’t give this idea up. It’s your concept. It’s the one thing that works. How can they take it away from you?

Thinkdo solution: Generate more ideas than you can possibly use.

Not every idea that springs to mind is a great one. The key is to have the dumb ideas, then document them anyway and see where they go, just like the good ideas. Because of the collaborative and ever-shifting nature of theatre, you might find that an idea that seemed ludicrous at the first meeting seems perfect at the third meeting. Or something you thought was too simple or obvious can be taken in a more interesting direction by one of your collaborators. Because you’ve been thinkdoing the whole time, you have something you can instantly share when the need arises. You might find that you have to give up cool stuff sometimes but you’ll be constantly serving the needs of the play, not designing in a vacuum.

Problem: You allow your tools to use you.

The concept gets blown up and on the surface you say “no problem”, but deep down you avoid making changes to avoid damaging or re-doing the beautiful drafting/rendering/model you made.

Thinkdo solution: Get your tools dirty.

For this one I’m going to share a true story that happened to me in John Conkin’s class and was a major milestone in turning my process over to thinkdo. I had spent hours and hours making a realistic ½” scale box set model. The question arose (and I’m not making this up), would it serve the play better if the interior was totally trashed. Like wrecked. I said, “I’ll think about it.” And that was a complete lie because all I thought about was how much I didn’t want to ruin that tiny staircase railing. After much handwringing, I trashed it. We talked about it and we decided it was better untrashed, but with one tiny detail of this new version left in. So I built the model again. It was not as pretty as my original model, but without that step, I don’t think I would have found precisely the right thing for the piece. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important that your tools communicate your intent clearly and concisely. But don’t give your tools power over your design by viewing them as a final product.

The trashed model from class, after the resurrection.

Problem: You turn your eyes off.

You’ve been a diligent collaborator and now you’re sitting in tech. You see a flaw in the design. Maybe something has changed since you turned it in or you’re reacting to a new idea that was added in the space or with the actors. The budget looms overhead and you’re tempted to ignore it because it worked on paper. Or worse, you pull out that old chestnut, “if they’re looking at the [scenery, costumes, lights] we have bigger problems!”

Thinkdo solution: Wipe the slate clean.

When you thinkdo, you discard the phrases “we talked about”, “we wanted to”, and “we tried” when discussing your work. Once you’re in the theatre, none of that matters anymore. There’s only what you did. Tech rehearsals aren’t just about executing a plan, they become an extension of the explorations you started in the first step. Continue to look at what’s in front of you with a critical eye. Kill more darlings if necessary and keep generating ideas to try. Tech rehearsals aren’t the final stretch of a race that finishes with opening night, they’re an opportunity to evaluate and respond to every element in context.

Problem: You find the chaos of real life hard to accept.

You made it through opening but now you dread reading the performance reports or going back to see the show. Everything was exactly how you wanted it by opening night but what if something goes wrong? What if it’s not perfectly consistent?

Thinkdo solution: Embrace the ephemeral and ever-shifting nature of live theatre.

Sometimes we talk about freezing a show but thinkdoers know that a show is never frozen or finished. It can’t be. It wasn’t finished in tech and it wasn’t finished on opening. It’s only finished when every last performance has been played and by then it’s gone. It will never be the same way twice and there is always something new to think about and react to- even if it wasn’t an intentional change. Notice how your perception of the piece changes as the events on stage change and consider how essentially human the theatre is.


Elizabeth Harper is a lighting designer based in Los Angeles. She is a 2010 and 2011 Ovation Award nominee and a member of United Scenic Artist Local 829. 

Elizabeth received a 2010 Ovation Award nomination for her Lighting Design work in The Theatre @ Boston Court production of The Twentieth Century Way.


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