Stage & Candor


Chasing Stages

Set Design 101 - June '16

Written by Gennie Neuman Lambert   
June 1, 2016


I’ve been involved in theater since 2006. I became brave enough to pursue it professionally when I graduated college at Minnesota State University Moorhead and then enrolled in graduate school at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University). Since 2012, I’ve been designing professionally as well as snagging some artistically quirky side jobs. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, but I recognize that I also have more to learn and I’m hoping this column will allow me to pass along what I know while also sharing my current creative challenges.



Design for the stage, in this case set design, is the process that takes us from the words in a script to a physical experience in a theater. The phrase “page to stage” is often used to describe this journey. I hesitated to use the term “journey” simply because the term is clichéd… spiritual journey…. fitness journey …..creative journey…..2016 Dodge Journey. However, there is no better way to describe what happens between the first design meeting and opening night.

Even if the play has been done 1000 times, each production is unique. Telling the story changes everyone involved. You end in a different place than where you started, and therefore design is truly an emotional, intellectual, and (given that you may travel for tech rehearsal) very often a literal journey.

For new designers, this journey can easily turn into an acid trip of conceptual and technical demands. However – if up for the challenge – you can create something truly beautiful by working collaboratively, and be a part of something bigger than you could ever accomplish on your own.

For those of you considering a career in set design, it will be important to develop a production process. Remember, there are infinite ways to approach design. Many designers use similar processes while others do things differently – which is fine. Most importantly, set designers must clearly communicate their ideas to the director, other designers (costumes, lights, sound, projection, ect.), and technicians within the established deadlines. As you learn, focus on developing your own process and professional skill set. Your process is your recipe; the skill set is your kitchen. You will use these two things in every design that you whip up.

1. Understand the Script:
Thoroughly understand the story. Read the play once with no agenda. Keeping a clear mind can be difficult, but a solid first impression of the story will help you filter your design choices. Most writers are concerned with ideas, not the exact placement of the couch on stage. Don’t worry about those things yet. Story first…furniture later.
In addition to the script, read about the playwright, setting, time period, and history of the play itself. If the script is challenging, this will help you find your footing.
While designing my first show, Fen by Caryl Churchill, I was staying with my sister, and was eager to jump into my first realized design. Always the good student, I found the play on a dusty corner shelf of the empty university library. No one had checked it out since 1993. Alone on the fourth floor between the stacks, I read the play. Then I panicked. I went back to my sister’s apartment, ugly cried and drank all her wine. Sometimes it takes more than a skim through to really know the play. Once I read a few books about Caryl Churchill and what she was about, the play clicked and I was ready to discuss ideas with the director.
Dos: Read the play multiple times and gather good research.
Don’ts: Drink all of your sister’s Arbor Mist. This is a procrastination technique that could have given me diabetes. (The best way to cure dread is to move forward and do something useful, even if it’s small, like reading more books.)


2. List the set requirements
Strap in! Now it’s time for furniture! This part is every type “A” personality’s fantasy. You finally get to focus on the details! Go through the script again, this time through the lens of a scenic designer and write down what is required to make the play work. I like to organize the requirements by acts, scenes, or locations.
Keep this list broad at first. Does the play mention things like an upstairs? Do you need a phone? Is there a bar? What about doors? Does anything happen outside? What time of day is it in Act 2? What season are they in? Once you organize the major requirements, start a props list. Make a list of mentioned set pieces and how the characters interact with them.
Dos: Highlight requirements in the script, make lists, start a folder on your computer, or make a physical binder.
Don’ts: Skip this part and accidently forget to design a scene. Try explaining that to a director.


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3. Set up a meeting with the director
Chat with your director after you’ve done the script work. The director guides the production conceptually and ensures the actors are on the right track (by the way, this is a whole different article). In a formal process, this meeting may be scheduled, but usually it’s up to the two of you to connect. Send a friendly email reminder. The sooner you get started, the better.
Listen well and ask the director questions. S/he may have a lot of ideas about the concept or s/he may be just getting started. Be accepting of new ideas, ask clarifying questions, and have a voice. If the other designers are present, bounce some ideas off of them. This is the fun part – the time to dream! So start dreaming and get to work!


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4. Gather image research and start sketching
Now that you have a solid direction, research images. This can be anything that will help form your design. Set designers collage shamelessly. There is no such thing as a new idea; you can only make new juxtapositions. Some typical sources are art history, decor magazines from the period, architectural references, illustrations, advertisements…the list goes on and on. The internet really comes in handy. I like using Google Images, Corbis, and New York Image Library, but print references are also good resources that you shouldn’t overlook. Art libraries are a wealth of unique historical images that other people haven’t found by using the same generic keyword. Once images are gathered, examine everything overall to create an atmosphere. This stage is intuitive and poetic – some images may be emotionally-driven while others may be historical references, but everything you pull needs to advance the story and tell your audience what kind of world the play lives in.
You may be curious, but don’t look at photos of other productions of the same play. This is like a song writer trying to compose a new love ballade when Whitney’s version of I Will Always Love You is playing in the background. No good will come from this.
Once an atmosphere is established, begin sketching thumbnails to weave the emotional and physical elements. I draw small so I don’t commit to an idea simply because the drawing is nice. Make multiple thumbnail sketches then enlarge two or three for the director.
Now the director can review the images and sketches and discern if the design is headed in the right direction. Don’t take it personally if you need to start over. Change is a part of life. If the director loves what you did, totally take that personally because you’re awesome!
Dos: Collect lots of images and make several sketches.
Don’ts: Cling to just one sketch and limit your director’s options.


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5. Models and drafting
Articles about set designers usually feature the designer standing in front of his/her model looking stylish or posing “in-process” while drawing at a drafting table. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but there’s more to a design process than these two stages. We’ve reached the cream filling stage of design, the part everyone looks forward to – the scale model! However, nobody takes ownership of the constant emailing and choppy skype calls needed to plan the design.
Although models can be beautiful, they are essentially communication tools. Set designers in the United States do most of their work in half-inch or quarter-inch scale (about half the size of a doll’s house”¦then half of that). First, make a box that resembles the theater’s architecture in scale. Most set designers will then build a white model, which is a quick way to determine if an idea will work within the context of the theater space. On clean white paper, walls are taped together, rough platforming is made, and tiny paper furniture are used to start defining the playing space. This will help you decide if your brilliant sketch was indeed brilliant, or if it will be a disaster in real space. The technical staff usually doesn’t see the white model. This is a quick way to help the designer and the director make important choices. After the director approves the white model, add the details and begin working in color.
Color brings personality to the design. It’s the strongest element of art with the strongest psychological impact. Color is a true diva, and that’s why it’s brought in last. Color does, however, distract from the space, form, and texture, so make sure those elements are going in the right direction in your white model first.
To make a color model, I take scale drawings from my drafting software and export them into Photoshop. I then digitally paint the drawings, print the drawings, glue them to illustration board, cut them out, and put them together. Models answer a lot of questions for the whole creative team. They are especially necessary when the designer is not on site, and they are tremendously useful to actors in rehearsal. They can speak in three dimensions, unlike sketches and computer renderings.
Once the model is finished and approved, you and your brilliant idea can go public. The drafting package is the scale drawings the technical staff uses to make the set. Although drafting comes easily to some, it is still an acquired skill. The best way to learn is to take a class with someone using technical drafting in the same context, or assist another designer. You can also find a helpful books or online tutorials to help you get started.


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6. Communication!
The best way to communicate your set to the technical director, props master, and paint charge is to finish your model, paint elevations, and drafting on time. This is easier said than done, but it is the best way to ensure that your ideas will be taken seriously and completed at the highest level of craftsmanship. Visit key rehearsals and pass along changes to the art departments. Theater is in a constant state of change and that’s what makes it exciting! The scenic departments take great pride in their crafts. They are your most helpful allies so give them respect and be responsive to questions and feedback. You will likely need to scale back part of your design to make something more doable. When these discussions happen, go back to your requirements and core concept. As the designer, people look to you to discern what is needed to visually tell the story. Make sure cuts are not part of the set’s essential concept or the story’s plot. Suggest other ways to work with the constraints of the situation. This is where experience with stagecraft will serve you well. Always strive for a finished look but meet people halfway when possible.
Dos: Finish your materials and answer your phone.
Don’ts: Be a mysterious and unavailable (help the whole team make good choices about the final design).


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7. Tech rehearsals!
Technical rehearsals are the last few rehearsals designated to fix the technical elements (set, sound, lights, etc.). Tech is stressful, but seeing all the elements come together is very rewarding. For set designers, it’s a time for final touches, working out scene shifts, and making sure things are finished well. In smaller theaters, set designers may need to complete the final touches on their own. It’s a luxury to have a full set department, so use their powers wisely when you have them.
While most of the set designer’s work is complete, designers working on lights, sound, and projection do the majority of their work during this time. As these individuals add layers to the production, conversation in meetings becomes less about the set and more about other production elements and the actors.
Dos: Go to tech rehearsals. Be available to help and discuss issues that arise.
Don’ts: Disappear for a long time. (Many busy set designers will send a capable assistant in their place if they need to leave tech, and that’s responsible. However, try to be there. No one knows your design better than you.)


8. Opening Night!
Enjoy the show”¦you and your collaborators have earned it. A good show is worth celebrating. Write thank you notes to everyone who helped you!

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9. New Beginnings
When you’ve completed a project, it’s time to start the process all over again with a new one!

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