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The Design Arts of Theatre

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Introduction   ::   Scenic   ::   Costume   ::   Lighting   ::   Activities

The Scenic Designer

Part 1

In making any art, the artist must ask, "What are the important images here that I need to communicate?" If a specific space for a play is an important image, the scenic (or "set") designer will design it. For a realistic play, this may mean creating a realistic-look space with lots of "real" details. If the mood and atmosphere are more important, the scenic designer may go for more symbolic lines or forms or textures.

But it always starts with asking that important question first.

There are several clues for the set designer when she is designing a play. First is the play itself. What does it "say?" What images seem to be dominant? Next, for most professional plays, is the director's concept, which outlines the moods, themes and atmosphere of the play. The designer can also rely on her own imagination, as well as the ideas derived through communicating with other artists.

Let's see some examples (in trying to keep these images small for loading, they aren't as cool as the real thing):

Selkie Beach

The above scenic design for for a production of Selkie , a play about a girl who discovers that her mother is actually a Selkie, Scottish mythological creature—basically a seal who took off her pelt. When she did so, a young man grabbed the pelt, forcing her to stay with him as his wife until the pelt was given back to her or discovered. There are several different space requirements for this play, including a beach, the interior of a house, and actually in the water. Yet there is little time for scene changes. The designer for this play, Sarah Betts, made a space that could be changed with the addition of lights. These are beach lights for scenes that take place on the beach. For the interior of the house, a table and chairs was quickly brought out. The colors she chose worked well with the lights and changed depending on need. Here are the "under water" lights:

The simplicity of the design gives it an atmospheric, mythical quality that would have been driven away with too many details.

Part 2

The following set design was for The Boy Who Drew Cats , a play for children based on a Japanese fairy tale about a boy who could not stop drawing cats. This gets him intro trouble until he enters an abandoned temple, draws a bunch of cats, goes to sleep, and then wakes up to find that the giant cursed rat had been killed. All of the cats he drew had blood red on their lips. Cool!

In this play, the places the boy visits are so many and happen so fast, there is no possible way to have traditional set changes that take minutes at a shot. So the designer opted for materials that could change quickly: fabric. In this scene, the boy and his mother huddle together while a storm rages around them. Using fabric allowed extremely fluid scene changes. Since the play was narrated by storytellers who often described several place changes within the space of a few seconds, this worked magnificently.

Part 3

This design for the play The House of Blue Leaves , requires a much more realistic set. It all just depends on what images are most important to communicate. The set design plays an integral part of this play as it posits the interior of a church. Note how the papers on the floor, sofa and other details add to the sense of place that would be very difficult to communicate otherwise.

Part 4

Once key images have been decided upon, the set designer does research, especially for a play that takes place in a foreign culture or for a period play, which takes place in a different time period. In this play, the designer had to research the styles of the beams and buttresses. In other situations, the designer must know what kind of molding goes around the floors and doors, window treatments, floor and wall designs, to name a few. All of the designers I know always have dozens of books are always stacked up on their desks.

This set rendering, designed by John Stark for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival for Shakespeare's Richard III , looks much more realistic. It is still a unit set (a set that structurally doesn't change all that much), however, and though there are details such as the chains and stone walls, it would probably operate very much like Selkie above. Renderings are usually drawn to give the director and other designers an idea of what the design will look like.

Part 5

Renderings are often followed by small scale models of the set design. Models give the director and others an idea of the sense of space involved. As a director, I like to play with my G.I.Joes on the sets I see! Just kidding. But I do like to move small scale people around. (Just between you and me, I like to talk in little voices as the characters interact).

Models are followed or preceded by ground plans (a floor plan) and then blueprints. That big gate for Richard III? It has to be built, of course, and the scenic designer has to provide detailed plans for doing so.

In sum, the set designer must be an architect, artist, engineer and good communicator. Try it!

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 07). The Design Arts of Theatre. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License