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3 Ways to Improve Your Theater Set

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Got Walls... But isn't there more to scenery?

The first impression the audience has of your show is usually its first glimpse of the stage-set. You've heard the gasp as the curtain opens on a fantastic Broadway show, haven't you? Great scenic design can delight us! A polished, professional set promises a quality show but - let's be frank - an amateurish set? Not so much.

So your theater company tries its best: everyone works crazy hard, gets paint in their hair, spends too much money, and yet, maybe, the result looks ordinary. Too many sets end up dull - generic flats assembled in a generic sort of way - not quite the showcase your show deserves.

You can fix that.

The first step - so obvious we won't even count it- is to find the best designer. This "best" designer is probably not a committee: sets tend to turn out better when there is a single artistic point of view, and a build runs smoother with a single decision-maker. This "best" designer may not be the busy director either. Look for someone with energy, interest, and at least some latent talent.

Let's suppose, Dear Reader, you are the designer. (You ARE reading this.) How can you improve your set designs?

Look Homeward Angel - Garland Civic Theatre

Look Homeward Angel - Garland Civic Theatre

First Interruption - Theater Research Books - Where better to start learning?

Okay, this IS an interruption, but a useful one. It's impossible to find everything you need online (even here!) so a few trusty ol' "tree" books are good research sources. These are some of my favorites.

Don't forget to go see as much of other people's live theater as you can. See how the Broadway tour does it. And the local civic theater. Study films and TV. Look at museum "period" rooms. The world is your stage design workshop!

Scenic Poll - What's your version of reality?


How do you feel about theater sets: love 'em? hate 'em? Can you not wait to build one! Or do your dread all that work? Why bother with sets at all?

our basic proscenium theater

our basic proscenium theater

Let's Start Designing a Set

(Some basic assumptions)

Together let's explore ways to design the sets for - pick a number! - three (3) different imaginary shows set in different times and places:

--- A modern-day mystery in a country house

--- A tragedy in 1920s Venice

--- A farce in a 1880's New York City tenement.

Each show is a play requiring a single permanent or "unit" set - a single room, say a living room.

(It so often is!) Now, there are other good choices possible, but, since the plays are realistic, we decide to build "box" sets with more or less realistic walls, three or more doors (farce likes lots of entries and exits), and that window mentioned in each script.

We'll suppose that these shows are being produced by a community theater group with modest budgets (but many talents) and in a conventional proscenium theater space like the one sketched here.

At this point you can make the FIRST big choice to improve your set:

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the shared basic plan for our sets

the shared basic plan for our sets

# 1 - Add simplicity:

Whatever you do, do it as simply as you can. Tattoo this engineering motto on your drawing hand:

"Keep It Simple Stupid" or K.I.S.S.

This principle holds for the whole design of the show: choose to do less rather than more; choose to do one thing well rather than half a dozen things poorly; choose simple over complicated.

"Simple" does not necessarily mean "plain-looking." In fact, a minimalist design can be tough since when there is less on stage, what IS there must be perfect. No, "simple" means straightforward, with fewer elements or moving parts. Simple is well thought-through, so each piece is worth the effort to create it. Bang for buck.

Stylistically, K.I.S.S. will encourage you to design, for instance, one big, well-detailed window rather than three or four slapped together with cheaper trim. It will suggest swagging that window with one extravagantly full curtain of inexpensive - but handsome - fabric, rather than several fussy ones of expensive stuff. By spending less on fabric, you can afford rich tassels as a tie-back (you only need one!). The final look will be bolder, richer, and more effective. More theatrical.

A few materials used generously does tend to look better than skimping. If our Country House living room has a fireplace, instead of a few measly bricks, build a whole chimney mass of brick - enough to really add to the room's character and to give lighting a fun texture to play with. (Wait! This is a country house - instead of brick, let's make that stone.)

Use less furniture too. A set gets more impact from fewer, better-chosen objects or from a MASS of a single thing. So let's give our Country House a wall of books, rather than a few scattered ones. (A Country House Library is traditional for mysteries and as Set Designer you can have fun with that.) And we'll use only a few pieces of furniture, but make them big and as nice as possible. Likewise, a few important pieces of set dressing have more impact than random knick-knacks. So in our Country House let's place a single big wooden bowl of apples (apples are in the script), that family portrait important to the plot, and a deer's head the main character bagged as a kid... Think through who owns the room and how they would decorate it; have a reason and a back-story for every item.

"Simple" means more than crisp design, it also means providing clear directions to the builders, both in drawings or models and verbally. Knowing what you want and being clear and decisive simplifies everything.

"Simple" saves time, money, sanity, strengthens your design, and guarantees that what you DO attempt will be better done.

In keeping with the K.I.S.S. spirit, let's start the basic design of all three of our sets - Country House, Venetian Apartment, and Tenement - with the same plan, sketched here. You'll notice that though the back wall upstage (US) is parallel to the proscenium, the side walls go upstage at a narrowing angle, so that the audience can see everything. Sight-lines! On the left (stage right or SR, just to confuse us) is a big window, upstage are two doors, and at stage left or SL (our right) is another door and a nook which may become a fireplace. Behind every opening is a flat to stop the audience's view.

A simple Spider-Boy, at

A simple Spider-Boy, at

(Oh! For the Simple Life - on Broadway)

I recently attended a Very Cool master class in NYC where Broadway scenic and lighting designers, producers, scenic artists etc. spoke about working on the Great White Way. In any such discussion of, say, Spiderman "simplicity" is not gonna be a big topic!

But after listening to the saga of Spiderman, simplicity sounded... kinda nice.

The complexities of a big ol' Broadway show sound exciting and totally exhausting to me. So, unless you have the same budget of money and time (and patience) and as talented a team of wizard builders available as to a Broadway designer, I'd recommend aiming for something just a wee bit simpler in your designs.

But that's okay. For instance, I know of a very successful High School production of Phantom that didn't even need the chandelier. Even one of the Broadway designers was advocating "less" instead of "more" scenery to her clients, saying that designs get better when they get simpler.

They do.

Making it Simple Poll

It's easy to say, "Keep It Simple, Silly Sally," but it's hard to do. Some shows are monsters! Demanding too much, needing special attention every minute, and having wild mood swings... DIVA shows.

Fast Scenic Fix # 1

Use stock flats and platforms - it's faster and cheaper. Or build new flats to standard plywood size (4' x 8') with 1x4s not 2x4s. That also saves money and it makes scenery easier to handle.

Fast Scenic Fix # 2

Instead of taping and painting wall flats (especially if really beat-up or lumpy), try stapling wide fabric over them. Instant wallpaper! Saves a ton of time and effort. A pattern with the right colors will help coordinate all that mismatched furniture on your set.

Fast Scenic Fix # 3

Use pre-hung doors, either from the theater's stock or from the local home center. Saves more time - and the doors will swing right first time.

Ruskin's Venetian arches

Ruskin's Venetian arches

# 2 - Add truth:

Artistic "truth", more than anything else, raises a set from being mere background to part of the story-telling - sometimes even becoming a character.

As you read the script, look for scenic ways to help the drama. Sets show location and time period, but also hint at subtext. Always think about the set's "owner." A script might call for a Victorian study, but Henry Higgin's study ought to look different from Sherlock Holmes's, and look very different from the White Rabbit's. What would differ in the architecture? What furniture or set dressing might change?

GENERIC IS THE ENEMY. Every set should be a very particular place, true to the nature of its owner and to the play.

Say two scripts each call for "a city apartment." In reading it, you discover that the Venetian play is really about loneliness: perhaps you should set it in a too-empty apartment with high, high ceilings. But you put the pressure-cooker of a family farce into a cramped tenement with low ceilings. Furniture would be spare in the lonely apartment, crowded and clashing in design for the pressure-cooker.

The truth of a set can be historical, biographical, or psychological.

Do research! Don't just look at earlier productions; study the architecture, interior design, and furniture of the play's period and of about twenty years before. (Look around your own living room: was everything bought at once - all new - last week when the building was finished? Of course not.) Find out historic facts and be especially aware of period proportions: Victorian windows tend to be high and narrow, while a bedroom window in a 1950s ranch house might be a short, long one, high in the wall. At some periods furniture is upright and stiff, at others, low and curved. Even colors come in and out of fashion. Discover your play's reality. Maybe the lonely room should be an icy, faded blue, the crowded one a dirty orange-red?

What does the play require emotionally? And how can you translate that into visuals?

Design the Venetian windows as gothic arches looking across a narrow canal to damp, decaying brick walls. Imagine the quiet slap of water and flickering light reflected onto the high, beamed ceiling. What could be more melancholy? Make your comedic tenement look out on dirty brick painted with huge ads (maybe we see only a few letters that spell something odd). There might be more tenement windows and clotheslines crowded with a colorful motley of washing. Quite different settings - yet both scripts might only say, "windows look out onto brick walls."

Before actors even open a door, the set should hint to the audience about what is coming.

Fast Scenic Fix # 4

Do a little research.

What would this set be like in real life? Make sure at least one set element is particular to that time, place, and way of building. Look especially at: fireplaces, stairs, windows, doors, and trim.

Fast Scenic Fix # 5

What character "lives" in this set?

Remember the character who "owns" this set - what can you add as design or set dressing that adds to their biography or psychology? Can you hint at their profession, history, or personality with the objects you choose?

our Country House plan

our Country House plan

Our Country House Set

Which "country" is this anyway? Let's guess America. And we'll get enough of ye olde with our Venetian set, so let's make this one more modern and ski lodge-ish, just for fun.

Taking the plan of our basic set, let's add that wall of bookcases upstage - filling the whole wall except for where those doors cut through. At the big window, let's add a view of a forest and a few actual trees - borrowed Christmas trees and a few cardboard carpet tubes. Maybe paint those to look like birch tree trunks? Add a little ivy peeping over the windowsill. What season is this play set in? Should this be a green forest, an autumn one, or a snowy winter wood?

At stage left, let's add faux stone (carved foam can be easy and cheap) and let's cover the wall from floor to ceiling, corner to door jamb - a BIG fireplace. Stick that deer head there. Just for fun, let's raise the hearth and the whole area at SL so that door enters up a step. A raised platform adds interest to the director's blocking.

Research - Woods View

mixed woods

mixed woods

our Venetian apartment

our Venetian apartment

Our Venetian Set

This time let's cut our big window SR into three beautiful Venetian arches. Upstage, let's add a raised platform so those doors both enter up a couple steps. At the fireplace, we'll add a Renaissance style carved stone "hood" over the fire. (I'll add a picture later so you know what I mean.) To enrich this room, it IS possible to add a whole ceiling, but it's technically trickier, much more expensive, and it tends to make the lighting designer cry, so let's just add ceiling beams (spaced so lights still work). We can get some of that flickering-water light on those beams with more on the walls.

Research - Venice Canals

Venetian canal

Venetian canal

our Tenement set

our Tenement set

Our Tenement Set

Outside the window the "view" flat should have windows with washing lines criss-crossing the supposed alley below. But for our tenement play - which is a farce after all! - let's add another window at the SR US corner and give it a fire escape outside which can act as another entrance. Four entrances are still skimpy for a farce, so let's keep looking for another place to enter, or at least hide an actor. Hmmm - research tells us that apartments here and now often had a bathtub in the kitchen. Let's add one: it's inherently funny; it'll be a nice obstacle for actors to clamber over; with a lid (as it usually had) the tub doubles as a table; and an actor can hide inside it! Perfect! At SL maybe there used to be a fireplace, but our characters shoved their stove there because that's where the flue is. That adds a nice touch of history and lived-in-ness to the set.

Research - 1880s New York Tenement

1880s New York tenement

1880s New York tenement

Interruption the Third - In Theatre it's imagination and research and - - -

From the Author's website

From the Author's website

PAINT! That creates magic. This outdoor set for Shakespeare Dallas was designed for "Othello" and "All's Well That Ends Well" in repertory - various bits and pieces of scenery came out and were clipped to the steel frame for each show. This view is of the "Othello" Venice location REPAINTED (cheap and fast) to turn it into an Indian forest for Junior Players' production of a Bollywood version of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream." So much fun!

Adding Truth Poll

How? I mean, all that research and stuff looks like real work.

Fast Scenic Fix # 6


Clever paint is almost always the Fastest Fix for a problem and usually the cheapest too.

Inigo Jones masque costume

Inigo Jones masque costume

Remedial Inigo Jones - (Like on this sketch?)

Catch-up on Shakespeare too - (and general theater history)

A few good sources of info on staging The Bard. You DO remember Him, right?

The opera Tristan and Isolde, set design by David Hockney

The opera Tristan and Isolde, set design by David Hockney

Here's an example of David Hockney's stage design (a fair-use photo, I believe, borrowed from Berkshire Review). Notice that this set is both modern-sculpture AND painterly.

our revised tenement plan

our revised tenement plan

# 3 - Add Scope

Once you understand what the play needs functionally - entrances, for instance - and emotionally - melancholy perhaps - then you work out the floor plan. Work out sight-lines and entrances. Simplify by designing around stock items as much as possible. The floor plan is CRITICAL.

But it's only the bones of your design - what fleshes it out are the extra not-asked-for-in-the-script ideas you, the designer, add.

Think about views outside the doors. You have to mask off backstage anyway, so do that with flats that suggest a grubby tenement hall, a grand Italian lobby, or a country mudroom filled with coats and rubber boots. What might help set the mood? Our fire escape stair outside the tenement window - is it such a good idea we should move it downstage, where it could be an acting area? Here's a sketch showing that change. An improvement!

Keep testing earlier decisions.

Many productions just put scrim over windows to obscure the view. But a view adds so much! We've already decided to use views: a forest, an alley with washing lines, and a Venetian canal. Woods can be suggested by a sky cyc and borrowed Christmas trees. (Suggestion is powerful: a whole rose-covered cottage can be established by a few roses nodding outside a window - the audience will "see" the rest.) Or you can literally build the view, as with our tenement's alley. Or you can go wild and show more than expected. What if we crumbled away some of our Venetian apartment's walls to show much more canal and historic neighboring palazzos?

What other extras can the designer add - simply?

Among these possible "extras," always consider whether you can or should add levels. Changes in level make the set more interesting in its own right, but also allow - encourage! - the director to create more interesting blocking. In any play with crowded scenes either multiple levels or a rake are the best ways to have all the actors visible. One note though, in MUSICAL THEATER, dancers will trip over steps and singers will waste breath climbing stairs, so make any levels low and their edges and steps clear.

our revised Venetian set

our revised Venetian set

Here's our Venetian set - now crumbled by age and decay and thus giving the audience a much better view of picturesque canal and historic, beautiful (and damp!) Venice. Imagine how atmospheric it could be! How it could illustrate the lonely decay of the main character. With this change to a non-literal set, we can better suggest the play's subtext.

Go for the Extra!

Fast Scenic Fix # 7

Add a view beyond every door. Sure only some of the audience will glimpse it, but it adds reality, adds interest, and proves your theater group is serious - CARES to go the extra mile.

Fast Scenic Fix # 8

Consider window views. You can do a lot of story-telling there.

drafting tricks (read my "Alice" book)

drafting tricks (read my "Alice" book)

Interruption the Fourth

Drafting and Sketching and Models

Drawings at different design stages will be of different types. In early design you produce loose sketches or rough models. Later you make more controlled and complete sketches for approval by the director and distribution at the Production Meeting. These schematic design drawings are called renderings or presentation drawings - drawings or models that show not just the facts of your design but, as much as possible, the feeling. Painted renderings are traditional and wonderfully evocative, but any art medium can work. Personally I find ink drawings with colored pencil flexible in effect, faster, and easier to correct. (There are examples in this Lens.) You'll find your own favorite art media and methods. Models are perhaps the best way of all.

But you gotta have the right equipment for the job: sometimes that's just a cocktail napkin and a pen, sometimes a sketch pad and a pencil, or it could be full drafting gear - for hand-drafting or computer style CAD. A few suggestions follow of tools that I've found handy or know that others have:

Adding Scope Poll

But I don't want to add scope! I have enough to do already!

an illustration from Alice Through the Proscenium

an illustration from Alice Through the Proscenium

My very favorite sketching Pens

Staedtler pigment liners are, as far as I'm concerned, the ONLY drafting pens worth buying. There are others made with the same idea - pens with fiber tips in carefully graduated sizes so that you can reliably draw thick or thin or thinnest lines. Just right for drafting. I like them for sketching too. But the reason I prefer the Staedtler brand is the ink: lovely, truly black, indelible India ink that flows at just the right rate off the pen's tip. (When I'm forced to buy and use another brand I sulk. Really. It's not pretty.) The most useful sizes for me are 0.1, 0.3, and 0.5... occasionally 0.7 when I'll feeling extra bold.

The "Midsummer Night's" sketch above was done using Staedtler pigment liners and colored pencils on white tracing paper. The "Look Homeward Angel" sketch at the beginning of this Lens used the same pens and pencils on yellow trace.

More Drawing Tools

The basics for expressing your designs on paper.

Tracing Paper of Choice - For theater (and architecture too - ALL design)

And here's my fav drawing paper. At architecture school we called this "trash-paper" - mostly because so much of it ended up in the trash as we designed. Love the stuff! It's single greatest (and most obvious) advantage is that it's translucent - you can see through it to trace what's underneath. A HUGE time saver. But it's also a tough, cheap (sorta) paper with a smooth surface that takes both ink and pencil pretty well. As a bonus, it also stands up surprisingly well to the wear and tear of working with it and storage. If desperately crinkled it can even be lightly ironed.

I prefer to use the yellow paper for early design and colored sketches - yellow makes a good not-so-blank-looking background. White I use for construction drawings or particular sketches.

Okay, choose your weapons!

There are lots of ways to explain your design idea to the set builders - but mainly two: hand-drafting or computer drafting.

Hand-drafter? Or Computer drafter?


Country House Elevation

(An elevation is just a flat-on vertical view)

Here's a rough thumbnail sketch of our Country House. In sketching it, it became obvious that - of course! - it had to have a great timber roof truss.