I was sent an email from someone recently asking how I design a set for a play. I’m sure I’m no expert, but figured, it wouldn’t be that hard to explain how I do it, and rather than sending them an email, I thought I would explain it here.
One of the first things I do is the read the script. I don’t like to look at photos of other sets and productions of the play because I like to form my own vision. Usually while reading it I will get some ideas of how I think it is going to look. I also mark, or take note of things like doors, windows and furniture. How important they are in the play and how important it is for them to be in certain places.
Once the play is read then I start doing some drawings and working out stuff in my head. Usually that is the time to also talk to the director and find out if they have any specific requests for the set. Sometimes they might want, say, levels, so you will have to take that into account when you are designing it. I don’t tend to do the final drawings and often leave those to the set people to draw them, and when they are done then I approve them and then the building begins.
The play will always dictate what type of set it is going to be. If it is a strong play and you know the actors will be good, then you can get away with a more conceptual style set, or a minimal set. If the play is something like a farce and has many doors and windows, then you usually can’t do too much conceptually and a standard box type set has to be built. You have to fulfill the requirements of the play, if they play has lots of stuff in it, then you have to live with that.
One important thing to remember: THE ACTORS ARE THE STARS, NOT THE SET, if you design an outstanding set that outshines the actors, then you haven’t done your job properly, I don’t think. If the audience are sitting there looking at your set, then either the play is very bad, or you have not designed a good set for that play.
It is good when you get a play that is strong and you know the actors will shine and be brilliant, then you can design something for them that will be brilliant and allow them to shine, but still have something great for yourself. I had that when I designed the set for dinner, a reminder of that set is to the right.
When I designed this set, all I knew was the director wanted a minimal set, she wanted to use the revolve, so that when the guests were seated at the table to revolve would move very very slowly. The floor was what I came up with first. I designed it so when the revolve went around it wouldn’t upset the pattern on the floor. It wouldn’t matter where it stopped. I thought it would be good to do a completely black and white set, so that the only colour on the set would be the actors and the food. All the props were either black white or silver. The lady who was hosting the party, or giving the party was dressed in bright red, also my idea, that way she took control of the set, and it didn’t matter where she was on it, she would stand out. It was a great experience, and I got so much attention and congratulations for that set. I haven’t really experienced anything since.
I have only designed for amateur theatre and have no idea what it is like for professional theatre, but amateur theatre is like banging your head against a brick wall, everyone else always knows better.
I have stopped doing it now and am concentrating on my own art practice. Hopefully this will be my final blog post on this subject. I think I might have got rid of my final job at the theatre and can be free of the place. I will always look back on the 12 years I spent there with regret and my memories won’t be fantastic. I have met some great people, but there are too many prima-donnas and too much ego for me. I just wanted to be artistic, in a way I thought I would good at, apparently I’m not.