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How I Design a Theatre Set

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.

Putting it Out There

Last week I went to Cafe Racer to hang some of my prints.  I got four of them framed and hung them up there.  I hope some of you will go and check them out.  I think they look good.  I don’t have any photos of them hanging up yet, but will go back and get some.

Cafe Racer is in St Kilda for those that don’t know.  It is on Beach Road near Luna Park. I am planning an exhibition there in July and should have a whole heap of work available by then.  I am working on quite a few new things.

I am also hoping to enter some of these prints in competitions for prints as well.  I better get onto that.


I photographed the Men’s and Women’s Omnium on the weekend and got all the photos up on website by Sunday night.  I was really pleased with that.  If I can do that sort of thing more often, then it leaves me more time to work on my art.

On Tuesday I went to the city again and saw the cake display at the Hopetoun Tea Rooms again.  It looked even better.  I took another photo, with my phone this time.I still think it would make a brilliant painting.  One day maybe I will do it.

I have also, this week, been trying to make sure I do more on my lino.  I did the main face yesterday and I think it is looking quite good.  It is the biggest lino I’ve done and in the beginning I’m sure the size put me off doing it, but now that I’ve started, I just do it bit by bit.  Like I have done with all of them.

It is really nice to see it coming together.

I have tried using the hotplate and it does heat up the lino, but then I find it a bit to crumbly for the fine detail, and I end up take away more than I mean to.  I think the heated lino is good when there are large patches to remove, but for the fine detail work, I work with the lino cold.

The City

Last week I went into the city both of my girls.  Briony needed to go to the dentist and the plan was while she was in the dentist, Klara and I would go exploring and take photos.  Well, Klara was in a bad mood and I didn’t really want to do anything with her.  Also, it was raining, so that left us with few options to take photos.  I carried my camera around everywhere and almost wrecked my neck.  I took almost no photos and my plans were destroyed.

I did get one photo of something that I’ve been trying to get a photo of for a while, but whenever I go in there it isn’t usually as well displayed as it was that day.  Often have the cakes are gone, or there are empty spaces.  On this day I must have got them just when it had been stocked up.

It is the display window for the Hopetoun Tea Rooms in the Block Arcade.  If you are a woman and you live in Melbourne somewhere, you would probably know this place.  It is a tea room that has been operating for over 100 years.  I’ve been there a few times, but not recently.  I always wanted to go there because of its history, but it isn’t that special, and is quite expensive.

I always thought that the window would make a great painting.  I know I will never get around to it, but I like the lighting and the way all the cakes are on display.  The different levels.  Combined with all the colours that cakes are decorated with.  Just gorgeous, and looks very nice for eating as well.

As a side not ff you want to go somewhere for an amazing afternoon tea experience, of course the place to go is the Windsor Hotel.  They used to do the best, of course, it will also cost you a lot of money, but worth it, I think.  If you want full service, and more than you will ever be able to eat, but given an opportunity to try many things, then go.  I haven’t been there for about 10 years, would love to go again, but can’t really spend the money.  So if anyone is thinking of giving me a really nice treat one day, then can I say, afternoon tea at the Windsor please.

Finished Work

If you want to see some of the prints I’ve finished go to my website where I have put up about 9 that I have completed so far.  Sorry the photographs are not great.  I need to work on photographing the work.  The paper is a soft white colour or just white, not the gradual tones you see in the photos.

Working on the Lino

I have been trying to work on the lino as much as I can, but new problems seem to keep arising.  One is attemping to heat up the lino.  I know it is much easier if the lino is heated, and it does make easier to cut.  I thought I could use the sun, you know put the lino outside in the sun, but seriously, we haven’t seen the sun much over the last few days.  I know the sun is hot enough to do it, but it has to shine first.

I had been thinking at one stage of buying a small hotplate, like you can get for the kitchen.  I figured it would be good for doing quite a few things, putting hard ground on copper, warming up my lino, and possibly could be of use when I’m proofing etchings.  I had lunch with my friend Kate the other day and we went to Good Buys.  We saw a few, initially I was only going to get single hotplate, but the double ones were only $20 more and it seemed to make more sense to get the double, also it was on special.So, not the fanciest thing in the world, but it works well.  I have been using it for the lino and it makes a massive difference.

The next problem is that I’m finding it hard to see what I’ve cut and what I haven’t.  With the vinyl tiles the top part was green or blue, and when you cut the lino the bits that were cut were black, so you could see more easily what had been cut.  I had to find a way to make it so I could see what I’d cut.

At lunch I spoke to Kate and she said that she put a very thin layer of gesso on hers when she used the silk cut.  I had been thinking of something similar, only I wanted it to be darker.  The tracing stuff I use is white and it needs to stick out, so gesso wasn’t going to work for me.  I also thought that if I used some watercolour paint then it wouldn’t be permanent, or maybe I would be able to remove some of it from the lino.

I got the black watercolour paint and a wet cloth and wiped it over the grey lino.  Once it was dry I tried tracing more if the image onto the lino and it works.  I also cut a little and it is easier to see.  Hopefully now I can just get on with cutting and getting it done.  Though I think I might need to get a couple of new lino tools, a knife for doing some of the trickier cutting and maybe a really fine U shape tool.  I also wouldn’t mind getting a new V shaped tool, one that is deeper.  With this lino I’m finding my V is too shallow and I end up taking out more than I intended.  The ones I want are expensive, so I will have to wait for a while and make do with what I have.  Perhaps I can get them one at time.

Summer Days

The weather is getting hotter and now with January here it will get even hotter.  My studio has no air conditioning and no real ventilation so it is impossible to work in in the summer.  Small periods of time is all I can last for.  So, I’ve had to bring some work inside.

I’m also happy to report that I have started working on my art again.  The lead up to Christmas was too hectic, and then with the Christmas Carnivals and then the Bay Crits, I haven’t had a lot of time to just sit and work.  It is so nice to get involved in a new project.

I have had to start working on silk cut lino, not my favourite, actually that’s not fair to say, I haven’t really used it before and therefore I don’t know how I will go with it.  I do find it crumbly, but perhaps I should have started on a smaller project first and got used to it a bit first.

This is also the largest lino I’ve attempted so far, and I hope it doesn’t do my head in too much.  With the others I’ve done, I have just worked in patches and not tried to do the whole image as once.  I think that works best and will do the same with this one.

Next step is to do some work on my paintings.  I need someone to give me a shove and make me get out there.  I know the real problem is fear, I’m worried that I can’t do it.  Which is so silly because I also know I can.  Our brains can be such silly things.