Updated date:

Theater Set Questions Answered!


Answers to your scenic quandaries

In creating my other Lens on theater set design (look in the right column), a few questions kept popping up from visitors - because I hadn't thought of them.



Here are a few answers to the puzzles that a theater production can present. Check out the outline for the List O' Answers to date. If yours isn't there, please ask and - eventually - I'll try to answer them or find someone who can.

illustration from Alice Through the Proscenium

illustration from Alice Through the Proscenium

QUESTIONS - About Building Sets

Here are some of the questions I've gotten on the practicalities of set building, plus a few answers.

One note though: please remember that, although there are standard approaches to solving many theater problems, you must always check that the standard solution works for THIS specific situation. The safety of cast and crew depend on properly building the set - for the specific situation, uses, weight loading, etc. of each particular production. No well-intentioned online advice can substitute for the wisdom of an experienced theater builder. When in doubt: build it better, brace it more, do it SAFER.

Before we even start though, here are a few Very Useful Books that you'll want to refer to.

A Terrific Practical-Theater Book

Not the very best source for information on set building or design (I don't think the author much likes sets), but THE BEST place to start for all the other stuff - lighting, sound, all the technical aspects of theater. Read it fast!

Set Building Guidebook

This is one of the better, more comprehensive books on physically building a theater set.

But do keep in mind that individual theater companies, technical directors, and lead carpenters will often have their own way of doing things and that particular shows or stages may influence how you go about building.

Theater flats (14' tall) with angle braces

Theater flats (14' tall) with angle braces

# 1 - How to Build Free-Standing Set Walls

Walls of a theater set are generally built of "flats." There are two basic types: traditional stretched fabric flats or Hollywood flats, which have a hard surface instead of fabric. Fabric flats are becoming unusual (unless walls need to be flown so lightness is important) - it's more common to find hard-surfaced ones. They're a bit easier to build, about the same cost, and they don't quiver when a door slams or sag when it rains, so they're usually the better choice.

SOLID-FACE FLATS: For now, let's assume a hard-surfaced flat. The skin or surface is usually 1/4" thick plywood or luann, an even thinner, cheaper plywood. (Because it's made from cheap, thin layers of rain forest, I'm told, it's not too eco-friendly.) This rigid face is usually supported by a 1x4 lumber frame with the 1x4s either laid flat onto the plywood - like a picture frame, but with butt joints - or turned perpendicular to it - like thin house studs. The flat method makes a thinner wall (or "flat"), which is sometimes important. The perpendicular placement makes a thicker, stronger wall and is the usual choice. Use drywall screws and power screw guns for fast, efficient building and strike.

(The picture at the right shows a tall version of this kind of flat, complete with angled braces.)

Just to confuse us, some people give this perpendicular frame method the "Hollywood" name. So make sure, when discussing construction, that everyone is talking about the same thing!

Once the 1x4s around the edges of the plywood are in place, a short center horizontal is added to stiffen things up. Since plywood mostly comes in 4' x 8' sizes, the typical flat is a 4' wide by 8' tall rectangle. Civic and community theaters often have a large stock of pre-made flats: many 4' x 8's plus others of different widths - 1', 2', and 3' wide by 8' high are common - and, depending on the height of the theater, there may be other flats that are 10' or 12' tall. Some stock flats will have doors or windows already installed in them.

To build a set using flats, several are placed side by side and screwed together. If you picture this, you'd see a long straight wall standing by itself, or - - - falling over by itself! Obviously it wants to fall over. Most sets actually have side walls too, making a U shape. These side walls help stabilize the long wall upstage, but still, walls are going to quiver and free upper wall corners are going to wobble. Wherever possible add angle bracing (more 1x4s) attached on the hidden side of the flats, about 2/3 of the way up, slanting down at about 30 degrees to the deck or stage, where they're anchored. These make the whole structure rigid.

FABRIC FLATS - the frame for flats with a fabric face are just like those for a solid surface. The fabric is usually unbleached heavy muslin or light canvas. This fabric is stretched tightly, like a drum head, over the wood frame and stapled in place. (Staple on the back! not the front face or sides please.) Trim excess fabric. If the fabric is a bit loose, it can be tightened by painting it all with a mixture of about 1/2 white glue like Elmers and 1/2 water, which will tighten it somewhat as it dries. Last step, the fabric face gets painted to its finished look.

Sometimes a fabric flat is not part of the set proper, but used as masking to hide the audience's view backstage, say. Black duvetyne (much like black flannel in its fuzzy texture) is good at NOT taking light and works well as the stretched face of a flat. And sometimes you want something sheer or textured as fabric... most cloth can be made to work, although something smooth and slithery like satin can be horrible to work with!

GET HELP: There are good books on set construction - a few are listed below. I recommend reading one, especially if your theater group is inexperienced in set building. Try to find an experienced Technical Director or Lead Carpenter. There is a lot of lore in the theater - on stage and backstage - learned through practice and example, so give yourself that advantage in your lead builder.

On the subject of experience: a real-life carpenter, like a home builder, can be a huge advantage. But they do tend to want to use bigger lumber - 2x4s instead of 1x4s. Now, sometimes this is needed (which is why you want a good TD), but remember that set walls only have to stand up for a few weeks and don't carry any roof or floor loads like a house wall does, so the extra wood thickness may just be adding weight and cost. Weight is a factor when volunteers are getting tired and cost is always important to a theater's budget.

A Feminine Ending at WaterTower Theater... a set that was simply levels

A Feminine Ending at WaterTower Theater... a set that was simply levels

# 2 - How To Build a Stage Platform

The standard way to build a theater platform is to take a sheet of 4' x 8' x 5/8" or 3/4" thick plywood and add to it, underneath, a frame around its edge of 2x4s. These are turned edge-on (like a wall stud) for maximum panel thickness. Then, equally spaced, two or more intermediate pieces of 2x4 are added across the short dimension, for extra stiffness. If this platform is to be raised more than it's own 4 1/4" high, At each corner of this "table top" add 2x4 legs. All this lumber is usually attached to itself and to the stage floor using at least 2 1/2" drywall screws. Make sure all attachments are tight and rigid.

Obviously, as the platform is raised higher, cross-bracing becomes necessary to keep it from swaying and falling. Cross-bracing can be built as an X of 2x4s or as a full panel of 1/2"+ plywood.

Just as obviously, this lightly designed platform in meant for light loads and uses - for a couple actors standing around emoting not a piano or an athletic dancer. Where a platform must handle a more demanding use, either increase the depth of its frame (from 2x4 to 2x6 or 2x8) and/or increase the number and strength of its supports (from 2x4 legs at 4 corners to 6 or more). For very heavy loads or more permanent installations it is common to either build in wood just as heavily as you would for a house or to use steel frames and sometimes steel grids or planks. Pre-made scaffolding can often be an economical way to do this.

A NOTE ON LEVELS IN MUSICAL THEATER: You want 'em - levels look good and dramatic and allow interesting blocking, but keep in mind that dancers are (this is weird) Clumsy and will trip over steps if they can. Also, if singers need to walk up from one level to another, too high a climb steals breath they need to sing. So be careful (and short) when designing levels for musicals.

Video Instructions

This is a beautifully clear video on how to build a standard platform. Watch n' learn!

More helpful how-to books

I own both of these books.

Set Building Tools

Always bring your own tools to a Build - that way you know you'll HAVE tools.

I prefer a cordless screw gun (with drywall screws) for set building because it gives you more freedom than a cord. But have extra fully-charged batteries with you. And sometimes, when you need lots of power, a corded screw gun / drill is still better.

If you own other power tools you might want to have them in the trunk of your car in case they're needed. Ditto a few had tools like screw drivers and pliers. You may also want to have your very own tape measure and a couple pencils.

Put your name on ALL your tools!

Handy Dandy Stapler

For fabric flats and set building projects like "wallpapering" with fabric or upholstering, a good staple gun is what you need.

I prefer the Powershot because the staple is ejected at the "wrong" end of the gun - which lets anyone with small hands get much better pressure on the trigger handle and better control the staple. These staplers can be a little finicky (they all are), but even with that I keep returning to this model as the most useful. Remember to put your name on it - folks will borrow it - and bring your own secret supply of staples.

# 3 -Non-standard Non-Flat Set Walls - Sometimes a standard flat just won't do the job.

"Incorruptible" up-stage elevation

"Incorruptible" up-stage elevation

A Romanesque Window

construction drawings - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries

construction drawings - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries

For some special scenic pieces - here it's an arched window in a Romanesque monastery - the usual flats won't work. You need to build more of a 3D unit. in this show Act I has a broken window (the monastery is poor), in Act II this is replaced with stained glass (the monastery is now rich - don't ask, it's all a scam).

Design and drawings are by set designer Clare Floyd DeVries.

"Incorruptible" - Circle Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas

the Romanesque window as built

the Romanesque window as built

Photo courtesy of Circle Theatre

This photos shows the transformation from a construction drawing to real-life construction. It also shows a great view of fake stone. For this set, stones were cut out of approx 1/2" thick foam and individually applied, then painted in place. The linen-fold paneling to its right is made from plywood, 1x4 lumber for the "frames" and, again, foam for the carved panels. Also painted and wood-grained in place. The carpenters and painters did a fantastic job!

Stage Wagon (and stage forklift used as a wagon!), from Alice Through the Proscenium

Stage Wagon (and stage forklift used as a wagon!), from Alice Through the Proscenium

# 4 - Building Wagons

And Sometimes the Walls Have to Move!

Freely movable units used on-stage are called "wagons." These are often the solution when a setting needs to change: a wagon rolls out to represent the new location; a wagon rolls away to reveal a, till now, hidden set; a wagon spins to reveal another set on the other side.

(I once designed a wagon where EVERY side AND THE TOP was a different setting... for five different sets!) Wagons can be wonderfully flexible.

Construction varies, but usually wagons consist of a standard platform or deck unit with casters underneath. You'll want at least 4 casters - more if the load is heavy - and always, always, always install the best, heaviest-duty casters you can afford. There are two kinds of casters: fixed and swiveling. It's tempting to use all swivel casters, because the wagon can roll in any direction, but if in fact this particular wagon will only travel a straight path, some fixed (properly aligned!) casters will roll easier... less of that crazy-grocery-cart wheel stuttering. This is another area where experience is helpful, so get advice from a good stage carpenter.

How to hide the casters? All you can do is add a "skirt" of thin plywood or luann that covers the edge of the platform and most of the casters, coming as close to the floor as, say, 1/2". The more uneven your stage floor, the bigger that gap has to be, and if your wagon has to go up a ramp, you may not be able to skirt it at all.

A stage revolve or turntable is really just a variation on this wagon idea: there is a central pivot (so the platform can only travel circularly) and all the casters are fixed ones VERY carefully aligned.

To see a great big wagon - a whole Italian villa - being built, check out the Lens below, in the "Stage Adaptations" section. This Liberty University set is also interesting because they use a store-boughten scaffolding system as the support framework for their two-story wagon.

# 4A - Changing Scenery

Many shows require a change of scenery. And there are many ways to accomplish this: drops; wagons; revolves or turntables; revolving walls; doors or flats or panels that hinge open or closed, or flap up or down...

But whatever method you choose - MAKE IT SIMPLE.

The easier to build and to operate, the faster and simpler to change, the better for the show. (And your sanity.)



# 5 - How to Build "Stone" Walls

There are many techniques for creating "stone" walls on stage.

TROMPE L'OEIL - or fool-the-eye painting. This is the traditional method, to simply paint stone or any other 3D architecture directly on to the flat surface of the stage wall or flats. This works best for rather old fashioned productions - maybe a fairytale story or a mock 19th century production. This requires a Very Good Scenic Painter. For the rest of us, there are other ways - - -

VACU-FORM MASONRY - For big-budget productions there are store-boughten sheets of plastic molded perfectly to the shape of bricks or stones. There are joints between panels that must be carefully placed. These vacu-form sheets are terrific, but usually too expensive in the quantity needed. However, if there is a ritzy theater in your town, you may be able to get leftovers from one of their productions. Wonderfully easy to work with.

THIN "REAL" MASONRY - Nowadays most of the stone (and often the brick) that you see at new restaurants etc. are actually very thin slices which could work beautifully on stage. But expensive. However, for a small, important, close-to-the-audience area, it might be possible to get some donated. Could be worth asking.

CUT OUTS - Plywood, Homasote, Masonite, foam of any type, or other materials like cardboard can be cut into brick or stone shapes and applied - one by one - to the surface of the wall. This can look wonderful, but is obviously tedious to do. Paint the wall face dark gray before you start, because it'll be hard to catch all the cracks afterward. Likewise, you may want to base-coat the stones or bricks before applying them, then just touch-up paint once they're installed.

CARVED FOAM - This can either be that thin (1/2" - 1" ) sheet foam used as building sheathing - often pink or blue - or it can be much thicker (2"-6") foam - the white stuff that like for a beer cooler, that sheds tiny foamy pebbles. Choose your foam depending on whether you want crisp edges or rougher, more rustic ones. With the pink or blue foam, a very sharp craft knife can easily cut thin, clean-edged joints and you get (after a tedious amount of work) very crisp looking brick or stone with a flat face. Good for "new" bricks or a more machined look. With the white pebbly foam, use a serrated kitchen knife to cut - you'll get a rougher look and you can crumble-pebble edges further by hand or by cracking off pieces to make it even rougher. This makes good "old" brick or field stone. There are obvious dangers here regarding sharp edges and, you know, copious bleeding etc. so be careful and safe.

FOAM & ACETONE - painted or sprayed onto the white pebbly type of foam, this chemical will eat away at its surface, giving a very coarse, natural stone texture. CAUTION! This is dangerous stuff. Find someone with experience to advise you; follow manufacturer's instructions, especially regarding fire safety, toxic fumes, and skin contact; ventilate the workplace generously; and generally treat this stuff with respect. It may not even be legal everywhere, though it's common in theater. Frankly, I don't use this technique myself because I find the fumes kinda scary - I stick with carving.

DRYWALL MUD - If you never want to use that wall flat again, you can apply drywall mud (or spackle where it won't get damaged) directly to the surface and - - - basically make mudpies, sculpt it into thin - about 1/8" thick max. - stones or bricks. You can lay down narrow tape, then goop, then pull up the tape to reveal mortar joints. I've seen it done with cut-out heavy cardboard templates that lifted away to reveal joints. Tedious and messy, but surprisingly effective.

PAINTING FAUX MASONRY - Your fake stone or brick is always going to look more realistic if you paint the whole wall - especially the cracks - a dark gray or gray-brown first. After that base coat, apply the real brick/stone base color, taking care not to get any in the "mortar" cracks. From there, modulate the masonry color however you wish, but be sure to use a rather dry brush so the paint skims across the rough surface, leaving the deeper, rougher areas showing the brick/stone base color and, in the deepest cracks, that dark gray-brown. At the very end, lightly, lightly skim over the wall with a very dry brush of your lightest "high-light" color and just as lightly, skim over the mortar joints with a lighter "mortar" color.

LIGHTING FAUX MASONRY - After all that work to create texture, make sure the lighting designer places a few instruments so that their light will graze the masonry and create shadows.

Your wall will look amazingly textured and 3D!

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - A (mostly) stone Irish cottage

for Kitchen Dog Theater

for Kitchen Dog Theater

a close-up detail

a close-up detail

Carving field stone

Trying to imitate the texture of natural field stone...

Here the vertical faces of "stone" are carved from thin sheet foam of the sort used as building insulation/sheathing. In the small photo, you can see how carved joints wrap the corner to suggest that (though the sheathing is of thin sheets) the faux stones are realistically fat and 3D!

Below, in the big photo, is another detail. Here the thick stone cap of the wall at the side of our peat fire was a lucky find - part of a polystyrene packing box which was already 3D.

(We also had to fake the peat! But that's another story...)

Notice the painting? Deep inside the joints or cracks is darker, while the faces of the stones are of mixed color, with highlights in the lightest shade. We were going for somber here... Stones for your show might want to be much more cheerful, warmer or lighter in color.

Disadvantages to carved stone? Time consuming! The build has to be careful, with tight joints to not reveal the bits-n-pieces quality of its construction. Carving and painting is finicky and best done in place, rather than before installation. (Ladder work, yeah!) In this example, you can unfortunately still see some of the holes where screws attach our stone to the wood face behind it. These could have been filled and painted... but (look at the size of this set! (the photo shows the small half) by then we were getting... tired.

The other popular method of making fake stone is by "painting" on joints with acetone on foam. The fumes require serious ventilation! (And the stuff's highly flammable too.) More on this method and on scenic painting stone in this blog post:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike AND Stone

A scenic stone how-to.


Favorite (Faux) Stone Carving Knife

This knife is by far my favorite for carving foam into fake stone.

Because of its easily replaced blade it stays sharp - critical - and because of its adjustable-length blade it can have an adjustable amount of flex - extremely helpful for making sweeping, naturally flowing lines of stone. Other knives don't work as well: a mat knife blade, for instance, is short and stiff, forcing you to make short, stiff, straight cuts. A serrated knife (like a kitchen knife) cuts foam well, but is better for hacking away large areas than for controlled or fine cuts like mortar lines. But with this snap-blade knife you can flow and curve or cut small joints easily.

CAUTION: the "snap" part of the snap-blade is so you can break off the blunted tip and use the next one down, but this also means that, if you extend the blade for flexibility, you may set yourself up for a sudden, unexpected Snap! BE SAFE - treat this knife with even more wary respect and care than you would another knife. Not recommended for children or fools.

Stone for the show above was entirely carved with a knife like this.

Fake Masonry - Boy, they got everything on Amazon!

farces love doors

farces love doors

# 6 - Doors On Stage

Ah! Entries.

Sadly almost every set - at least the realistic ones - need at least one door. Why "sadly"? Because they're a pain to get right.

Whenever possible, buy and install pre-hung doors. These save endless trouble. But there will be times when you must hang existing doors, or even build the door. Here's another place that experience helps - try to find someone who's successfully wrestled with doors before.

In general: be very careful and methodical. Be sure your door frame is a true, straight, rectangle with its jambs vertical and its head horizontal. Be sure the jambs and/or the wall is well braced - especially if your show is a farce full of door-slams! And make sure the doors themselves are sturdy ones. (In one of my farces, of 8 doors, only 1 survived the full run.) The same goes for hardware.

It is just amazing how actors - who you'd think would have doors at home - will try to open your set door wrong, push instead of pull, or forget how knobs work, or shut their hands in the HINGE side of the door - - - All kinds of crazy.

# 6 A - GETTING DOORS TO SHUT: There are several methods. The subtlest, and only possible with very clever carpenters, is to very very slightly set the door hinges in the jamb slightly off of true vertical so that gravity gently pulls the door closed if left open. Another way, perfect for screen doors, is to add a weak spring at the door head to pull it shut. A third method is to add a piece of strong, invisible fishing line to the door head and pull this line back to the door frame's head, through a couple eye hooks to behind the side wall, then attach a small counter weight (like a cuckoo clock's) to pull the door closed.

# 6 B - GETTING DOORS NOT TO FLY OPEN: Sometimes the wretched things flap open at the merest touch and crash! against the wall. You can slow these down by attaching a cheap paintbrush on the unseen side of the door so that it sweeps the floor. The added resistance makes it behave. (I've seen a door it took 3 paint brushes to tame.)

# 6 C - THE DOOR'S SOUND: Some shows you want 'em to slam, some you want 'em silenced. A little felt at the jambs and head can help silence - paint the felt to match the woodwork.

#6 D - FREE-STANDING DOORS: If all you need is a door and its frame (or just the frame) well, you'll need more than that. Because opening and shutting that door or leaning - as actors will - against that jamb with cause it to crash to the floor. You need to brace it.

Your choices are either to support the door jambs so rigidly they can't fall or to brace them. To make a rigid door frame, best choice would be a welded steel frame rigidly connected to the floor/platform - probably by bolting welded-on steel angles to a floor strong enough to take the forces involved - preferably more steel, concrete, or heavy timber. This is the serious I-know-a-welder version. But a rigid frame could be built of ordinary 2x4s if the door frame extended down INTO the platform at least 2' vertically and was braced so the jamb was utterly stiff. (Assuming a well-built platform.) This only works for a door raised 2' or more above the stage or where you have a trap to take the door's foundation. That would look MAGIC! Look Ma, unsupported door! The third and most common way is to add triangular (plus any camouflage shape added ) braces behind the door jambs as for bracing a wall. This also works if the door is mounted on a wagon.

Door are Entrances

These trailers are really Doors in disguise.

These trailers are really Doors in disguise.

Farces famously require many (sturdy) doors, but many plays require a number of entrances which are often doors. Here, for The Great American Trailer Trash Musical at Circle Theatre, the many entrances were disguised as the doors (and screen doors) to trailer homes. (A third door here is behind the actress.)

A period correct Medieval door (look! no 6 panels!)

A period correct Medieval door (look! no 6 panels!)

# 6 1/2 - Door Design and a Note on Architectural Detail

A quick word on a huge topic - architectural detail.

Have some.

For even the simplest set - historic or present day - try to have at least one touch of interesting, period-appropriate detail. This doesn't need to be extravagant, just some material, shape, proportion, trim, or other element that is just right for the period of the play's setting. For instance (and this is a pet peeve, sorry, rant coming!) don't always use that same ol' 6 panel door from Home Depot that every one in the audience has at home! Sometimes it's appropriate... but it's so much better to find an unexpected, REAL old door. Or to build one.

At best, this little bit of correct architectural detail is not just added on to a set like a sticker on a kid's sticker book, but is an integral part of the whole design. If a stair is needed, suggest a period stair railing. Or include a fireplace - often not that hard to build and always evocative of a historical period. Make doors and windows the right size and shape for the time they would have been built. And doors... think about the right doors.

After sloppy construction, this issue of period correct detail is one big difference between an amateurish or a professional looking set.

Fixing it means doing some research. (Wahoo! Research is fun.) This used to be difficult without an architectural library, but Google is at most fingertips nowadays. So, if you're designing a set for The Crucible, type "Salem architecture" into the prompt box, eh?

And there still are some wonderfully helpful books out there...

A Guide to Architectural Detail

I use this book constantly! And I DO have an architectural library, full of other resources. But this is my favorite and fastest desk reference. Well, actually, I use its prequel Period Details by Martin and Judith Miller. It's still available. (But Amazon didn't have a picture.) Period Details is organized by architectural item - like "doors" or "windows" - and, within that, by historic period, so it's very easy to use.

Period Details

The first and really, really useful volume.

This book pictured here is the sequel that I haven't got hold of yet, but am going to order Right Now!

One note: this is a British book, so it misses some specifically American (or Chinese or French etc.) styles, but for most of those shows set in the West, this is a very good source book.


# 7 - Theater Sets with Books

The hardest part of the classic English Country House Library set, or others like it, is the BOOKS.

There are a number of ways to handle books on stage.

LOANERS - If you have a lot of folks with strong backs, you can actually put actual books on stage. Be warned: it takes A LOT of books to look like anything. And books are heavy. Acquiring all these tons of books, however, may not be that hard. Talk to your local used book stores. Sometimes they sell books by the yard (you can't afford them), and surprisingly often they may be willing to loan boxes of these books to you. Sometimes give them to you. They might even lend you the bookshelves too! (Thank you Half Price Books.) Otherwise, simple bookshelves are straightforward for stage carpenters to build, though time consuming. Remember to get your lotso strong helpers back for strike and when the tons of books get returned.

STOCK - Most theaters have at least a small stock of real books. The problem with this stock is usually that they look nothing like the type of books your set requires. If these are truly odd, lost, worthless volumes it is possible to paint them - and painted books make a much better background (though it's a bit of a sin).

FAKE BOOKS - Once you've carried a few tons of books, fake ones made from foam become really appealing. These can be made either as separate volumes or as a row of books, with or without depth. Foam books always take paint better and last better if they are wrapped with glued-on muslin before painting. Considering the amount of time building foam books takes, the muslin is worthwhile. It's best to take your time - be sure to add that tell-tale recess where the pages are inset below a book's covers. For rows of books, the joints between them can be easily carved with a craft knife. When painting be sure to vary the colors of the spines or covers as randomly as you can and - if you have too much time! - gold titles and details look fantastic. You'll reuse well-faked books over and over again.

Theater Set Books

Books on sets and their design and designers! (I also own these.)

set designer - Clare Floyd DeVries

set designer - Clare Floyd DeVries

"Charm" by Kathleen Cahill, at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas, Texas.

Alice Through the Proscenium

Alice Through the Proscenium

Questions - About Theater Set Design

Important as all the how-to and technical part of a set is - - - a theater set is only as good as the IDEA behind it.

Take your time, do some research, use your imagination. A brilliant set can elevate the whole production.

Please pop back up to the start of this Lens to find suggested sites for more in-depth discussions of scenic design.

I also recommend the book Alice Through the Proscenium - available at Lulu.com, Amazon, and (as an ebook) through Barnes & Noble.

How about Now?

detail through set dressing - Stage Design by Joseph

detail through set dressing - Stage Design by Joseph

# 8 - How Much Detail Does a Set Need?

It all depends.

In a medium-to-large sized traditional proscenium theater the rule of thumb for detail is the famous Thirty-Foot Rule: if you can't see it from 30' away, then it doesn't matter. This is also phrased as "seen from the back of a galloping horse."

Most small theater groups, however, play in smaller houses, and need greater attention to detail. On some intimate stages, the audience sits so close that you can't get away with anything that wouldn't look good in your living room.

# 9 - How Much Does a Set Cost?

This is almost impossible to answer except with, "It Depends."

It does "depend." A Broadway production will spend millions and millions. A small, poor theater may be able to create a fantastic set for a particular show for little money ($ 35 is my record), if company members are well connected - have access to great borrowings! - with a show that needs mainly furniture and is being performed in a space, of modest scale that doesn't have to be filled with scenery. On the other hand, a new company or amateur group with no connections, no stock of props or flats, an ambitious show, and a huge, demanding space, can spend tens of thousands of dollars.


1) SCALE: Keep the show small and simple. One set is less than half the price of two - every set change adds complexity and thus cost. Likewise a big stage needs bigger sets than a small one. A period setting is harder (more costly) than a contemporary one. Other factoids: a realistic outdoor set is harder than an interior; a "rich" character's house is harder to furnish than a "poor" one's; and the more detail, the more expense.

This does NOT mean you only pick shows with a unit set that is a contemporary, poor person's living room! But it does mean you should consider all this as you choose shows. If you build a realistic Versailles - interior and garden - that switches in Act II to the deck of a sailing ship (also realistic), well, don't be surprised when it costs ya. Do that same show non-realistically? A chair and chandelier replaced by a ship's wheel, all borrowed, and it'll cost just $10 for gas for the truck. See?

2) DESIGN: Smart design can save a lot of money. As you design, make construction drawings, choose materials, and build, always consider your options. When it makes sense - choose the least expensive. For instance, If you know you can borrow an item that will give needed detail or character to your set, design around it: to suggest an elaborate garden, you could spend a fortune on silk foliage and paint an expensive drop... or you could borrow that beautiful statue, add $5 of ivy, and stand it in front of the cyc "sky" you already have, then add a fast/cheap cut-out ground-row with a profile that suggests the shapes of clipped topiary shrubs and, on a distant hill, a Grecian Temple. Cheap. More effective.

Likewise, when you draw up flat "walls," for economy, fit the modular sizes of plywood. Since plywood comes in 4' x 8' sheets and 1x4s in 8' or 10' etc. lengths, a 9' high wall is MUCH more expensive than an 8' high one. A 10' high would cost very little more than a 9' one, and a 12' high wall will cost the same as an 11' high one. Similarly, a 9' diameter turntable costs much more - and will be harder to build - than an 8' one. Keep material sizes in mind!

3) BORROW: Thus cannot be over-stressed. Borrowing is hugely cheaper than buying what you need. And you'll be surprised what you can sometimes borrow: books and bookcases from bookstores; furniture from friends, family, businesses; even wall flats (or anything else) from other theaters or university theater programs. It is vital, however, that you are a Good Borrower. Always make appointments and keep them and return things on time and in good condition. WARNING: things happen on stage - never use anything you cannot repair or replace, never use anything you'd be heartbroken (or bankrupt) over if it breaks.

4) RENT - Ask local scenic studios, fabricators, and indie stage carpenters if they have platforms or flats to rent. This can be much cheaper than building yours new. Ditto major furniture or specialty items. For instance, make some calls to area theaters that recently did your show to see if there might be a Little Shop of Horrors Audrey or a Sweeney Todd barber's chair that they'd be thrilled to rent out. And there is a big business in renting theatrical drops - check online. These aren't cheap and, to me at least, can seem old-fashioned or even cheesy, but may be the best solution for a group putting on a big multi-set show like 42nd Street.

5) BUY CHEAP: When you must buy, buy cheap. Find your local fabric and building supply discount barns, then search their "Bargain Bins" first. Look through the paint store's "Oops" cans in case there are colors you can use. Shop thrift stores. Scrounge! Check the curb before the trash truck arrives. You'll be surprised what good stuff you can find.

6) SAVE: If you can find free or very, very, very cheap storage, then stock-pile flats, building materials, and furniture for next time. Many a set has been painted using only scrap paint.

7) NEGOTIATE: Now and then I get "How much would it cost to..." questions.

Material costs are easy to estimate if you take a walk around your local building supply depot, but labor costs are tricky. If you have capable volunteers, then labor can come as cheap as the pizza lunch. If you pay stage carpenters, their hourly rate will range from minimum wage for lower-skilled carps to perhaps double or even triple that for experienced and highly-skilled ones. Lead carpenters/technical directors often work for a flat fee you negotiate up front. My only advice would be to find an excellent stage carpenter who understands how broke theaters usually are - but then to pay them as much as you possibly can. Because full-time theater carpenters or TDs tend to be even broker than theaters.

Trash Theatre - an ecologically-minded play with a built-from-trash set, designed by  Charbel Samuel Aoun.

Trash Theatre - an ecologically-minded play with a built-from-trash set, designed by Charbel Samuel Aoun.

# 9 1/2 - No Budget AT ALL?

Sometimes this question comes up: How can you create some sort of set with No Money At All?

The answer is Scrounging.

What can you borrow? What can you find at the curb? What scrap paint can you find in your garage - in anyone's garage? (So, it's a little smelly.) Can you whip sheets of a bed and hang them from borrowed string with borrowed clothespins?

This is when theater designers shine! Imagination can make up for a lot of lack-of-cash.

Here are a few free resources available to almost everyone:

1) old newspapers or magazines or sometimes books - ask friends, businesses, and places that sell books-by-the-yard for loaners/gifts.

2) cardboard - from discarded cardboard boxes (refrigerator boxes are kinda cool as-is) talk to appliance stores or talk to box manufacturers about free scrap and discards.

3) plastic or paper grocery bags

4) scrap lumber or building supplies - ask contractors about scraps (don't just take 'em, right?)

5) dry leaves or tree limbs (in season)

6) real rocks - borrowed (but paid for in sweat, believe me!)

7) empty bottles, cans, or bottle caps - ask restaurants, bars, or friends (clean 'em!)

8) weathered/rotten fence boards - from the curb or a fencing company

What industry or business do you have locally that discards waste that could somehow become a set?

Get creative!

Trash Theater

A theater troupe in Lebannon builds a beautiful set entirely from trash for their show about waste and the environment.

Enough Big Picture!

illustration of model building from"Alice Through the Proscenium"

illustration of model building from"Alice Through the Proscenium"

# 10 - How to Make a Set Model

This ia a biggish how-to to fully cover here, but there's a book below that ought to answer all your questions.

The simple answer is that the EASIEST way is to draw the floor plan of your set (to correct scale, of course, 1/4" = 1'-0" is a good size) and draw all the set's walls (same scale). Photocopy these and mount them on a medium weight cardboard like matboard or on foamcore board - which is best done with spray adhesive, but a glue stick also works. After this dries, cut out the walls (a sharp X-acto knife and metal straightedge works best). Stand the cut-out walls up on the mounted floor plan and glue in place. This makes a simple, but useful model to help directors and anyone else understand your design.

The model directly below is of the cut-out-the-drawings type (follow a link in this section to see it painted). The model below that one was made the other way round - model first, drawings later. (Kinda a pain, as it had to be disassembled in order to figure out the drawings.)

The other question, of course, is WHY build a model?

It's a lot of work and time.

Well, a model can really help the design and construction process. A 3D model can explain a set design to the director, actors, and carpenters much more quickly and easily than can any amount of drawing and hand-waving. In fact, it explains it to the designer. (I can't tell you how many times I've caught a mistake or an awkward detail in model.) A model can help you study sight-lines too. And - as with drawing - it's a LOT easier to fix a problem in a model than in a full-size set. Painted models help the painters, taking the place of renderings (also time-consuming things to make). Photograph the model for your portfolio.

A pretty model can look great in the lobby!

Keep in mind that there are really two kinds of models: a working or design model and a presentation model. A working model can be messy, fast, and nasty and still really helpful to the designer and even to a savvy director, while a presentation model is the beautiful one you use to "present" your design to the outside world.

"White" and Painted Models

This post from my Design Diary blog talks about how to make fast, easy "white' models of sets as well as painted ones.

Or if you just want to visit a working set designer's life, here's a link to the blog's homepage DeVries Design Diary

Irma Vep, WaterTower Theater, set design Clare Floyd DeVries

Irma Vep, WaterTower Theater, set design Clare Floyd DeVries

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" WaterTower Theater - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries

a set model the hard way

a set model the hard way

"As You Like It" Trinity Shakespeare - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries

A Book on Theatrical Model-Making

I haven't got my hands on this book yet, but it looks like it should be very helpful. That photocopy in 3D style model described above is useful but crude - theatrical models can be very beautiful.

# 11 - A Fast Word on Floors

The theater stages or platforms - the floor - under the actors' feet turns out to be a huge safety issue. Wherever possible, it's best to provide a smooth, flat, non-slippery surface that is well supported and neither creaks nor squeaks (fixing squeaks, aaaargh!), but that has a certain "give" or spring to it. The best stage floor for most purposes is the classic sprung oak plank floor of a good proscenium theater.

Your temporary platform ought to come as close to this ideal as possible - especially if there is dancing.

For stage combat, that springiness can be adequate (if actors are young, fit, and generally bouncy), but you'll need to provide padding in the landing zones of certain stunts... a padded carpet may be enough or you may need stacked gym or yoga mats or even a true stuntman's air-filled landing cushion. Consult with your choreographers and fight designers!

1811 Richmond Theater Fire, from Wikimedia

1811 Richmond Theater Fire, from Wikimedia

# 12 - An Even Faster Word on FIRE!

Fire is a traditional and very real threat in the theater. All that audience? Exiting in a hurry through smoke, flames, panic? Take it seriously.

For this reason, NEVER EVER design a theater set that in any way blocks exit aisles or doors! You'll also notice that lighted candles etc. are almost never legal on-stage and that sets - particularly fabrics! - are often flame-treated.

Talk with the producers of your show, who usually know the theater's rules for sets. Or you and the producers may need to talk with managers of your theater space and then your local fire marshal (at the Fire Department) to find out the requirements. On some modern, fully fire-sprinkled stages, sets may not need to be flame treated, but usually it IS required. Learn the local rules.

If your set does need flame resistant treatment, this is usually a matter of spraying it during construction with a liquid containing metallic salts that retard flame - a commercial product designed for theater use. This is another area where having an experienced theater master carpenter or technical director helps, because, obviously, this stuff has to be carefully applied.

Here is a fairly typical requirement from a venue for treatment, from the Miramar Cultural Center information guide book:

"FLAME RETARDANT TREATMENT: Draperies, curtains, set pieces, scenery and other similar loosely hanging furnishings and decorations shall be flame resistant as demonstrated by passing both the smallscale and large-scale tests of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame-Resistant Textiles and Films. Acoustical and decorative material including, but not limited to, cotton, hay, paper, straw, moss, split bamboo and wood chips shall be flame-retardant treated to the satisfaction of the authority having jurisdiction. Sample materials may be required for testing purposes. Certificates of Flame Retardency must be provided. Materials, which cannot be treated for flame retardency, shall not be used."

Links to Other Technical Theater Answers

  • Courtney Collin Studio
    A Links page to several tech theater podcasts, videos etc.
  • Miramar Cultural Center - ArtsPark
    Here's the rest of that theater guide book quoted above. It's a nice example of what you'll wish every venue would give you to start designing your set with... all kinds of helpful information and drawings!

More Technical Theater Books

Help you can carry to the theater with you.

Rusty Real Roof

Rusty Real Roof

# 13 - How to "Age" a Set

(I looove this question!)

This can be a ton o' fun. Many stage sets look better - and better fit their play - if they look aged and dirty.

The "aging" process can be a fun, messy playtime for us Techies!

First of all, as much as possible, use genuinely old, nasty-looking furniture, set dressing, and set building materials. It's hard to replicate the genuine look of wear and time on wood or the rusting of metal etc., which can be eccentric and unpredictable. So go for the genuine wherever you can.

Second, "age" as many building materials as you can before incorporating them into the set. If you're going to have a corrugated "tin" roof, new metal panels are way too shiny and new-looking, so dent and bend them before installing them. And dirty them with very diluted paint in shades of gray, charcoal gray, and rust. If possible, do this somewhere you can get soaking wet (like outside). Tilt the roof panel at about the right angle and simply pour dirty paint water onto it - not too much at a time - and let your roof get stained as if really weathered. You can replicate this on-stage, but you have to be less splashy. For wood planks, truly weathered wood is best, but new wood can be washed with watery gray and dirty paint washes (before installing, if possible, so you get more variety of "weathering" from board to board). Where some boards are already painted (this is theater, we reuse stuff), cover inappropriate color with black or dark gray or dark brown, then paint in a sloppy way with lighter weathered grays and even add painted wood graining.

For fabrics like curtains, either tea die them (large bucket o' strong, dark, tea, then dip, dry, probably iron) or sometimes you can spray-stain them with a medium brown colored spray stain. Michaels hobby stores used to carry cans of a fruitwood (I think) stain and Krylon now makes spray stain in a medium brown that ought to work. Apply it lightly for an aging, yellowing effect.

For walls... basically grubby things up! Wash your fresh paint with slops of dirty-paint-water-bucket and sorta wipe it off. Be sure to dirty up around door jambs, door knobs, light swtiches, and anywhere else people touch a room. Invent a roof leak and let dirty gray water drip from that area down the wall.

Furniture (if you're allowed to mess it up - Ask First!) can be antiqued by washing it with juicy dark brown or gray paint - force it into all cracks and corners - then wiping this off, wiping hardest at areas which would get most wear, like table corners. You might even sand high-wear areas with fine sandpaper so that the wood under the finish shows.

An aged set is a fun-to-do set!

# 14ish - How to Build Theater Stairs

After that Baker's dozen of answers, I just happened across this how-to for building on-stage stairs.

It looks terrific! The writer, Ben Teague, has a commonsense attitude I really like and his advice looks very sound. (Though I haven't tried or reviewed everything in it myself. Yet.) This website (a PDF) ought to answer all your questions!

Community Theater Books

Running your theater project better means more success and more fun.

Squidoo Lens of the Day and Purple Star awards

Squidoo Lens of the Day and Purple Star awards

Lens of the Day! Purple Star!

Thank you Squids

It's a little overwhelming - all these new visitors!

I appreciate the honors to this page very much. Thanks.

Links to More on Set Building

  • The Theater Carpenter
    Some good advice from an experienced set builder.
  • Set Design for Dummies
    Links to videos on aspects of set design.
  • Theatre on a Shoestring
    An interesting guide to theater aimed at teachers. This particular page has links to instructions on all sorts of scenery building topics. (I notice that this site discourages the use of dry wall screws as too brittle for structural use in, for ins

Visitor Poll

Pro-Am Theatre

Pro-Am Theatre

If you're curious, you might scroll down through earlier comments. When questions are common I try to add them to this page, but there are some quirkier ones (like how to build a giant Tiki head) that get answered right with the question.

What Question Do YOU Have?

Deborah Carr from Orange County, California on March 31, 2014:

Great answers to common questions. Thanks!

anonymous on March 13, 2014:

Glad to see this special lenses, I think I like it.

cdevries (author) on February 18, 2014:

@ELMcCoy: Stock should work well for you. The double-sided part makes them harder to brace though, except at the free edges. You could build (also stock) braces that have a flat face to screw throughwhere you know an upright stud is - as at the joint where 2 flats meet. Use a single 2x4 as the brace leg (or thick plywood), to that you add a 1x4 or plywood piece to lay flat to the flats... place this exactly on the joint between two flats and screws through it would go into the two edge 1x4s of the flats. This stock brace would also need similar "feet" where it meets the stage floor. Also that you screw through. But the face of the flat will get screw holes that you'll need to mend with tape next time that's the exposued audience-side face. Eventually you'll want to replace that face when it's too scarred.

Hope this helps. Break a (metaphorical) leg!

ELMcCoy on February 15, 2014:

Hi there! I'm rebuilding from scratch and working on a very small stock set of flats for my very small middle school stage. Heh. Storage space is limited, and having the option to repaint a stock set would be ideal. I'm going to be building a few double sided hollywood flats this time around, and I'm looking for the best options for bracing them, if necessary. Any thoughts?

cdevries (author) on January 12, 2014:

@Pamleach: Well, the most controlled way would be to have someone on a catwalk above

drop them. The next way would be to have one or more drop boxes holding

papers, which open on an electrical cue (an electric lock opens, door

opens, etc.) or a simple pull-the-string unlocking mechanism. You might be

able to do the same thing with solonoids that control something like

clothespins - though the white paper might catch the audience's eyes up

there by the ceiling.

Unfortunately, it's hard to predict where paper will LAND as it tends to

paper-airplane around.

Them's my best ideas, but your local theater guru may know a better way.

Break a leg!

Pamleach on January 11, 2014:

Hi. We need to be able to drop lightweight pieces of paper, from above the stage, so they fall gently, a few at a time. Any ideas.

cdevries (author) on November 05, 2013:

@malcolm-ruffle: Very glad it was helpful! Perhaps the easiest way to join platforms - if you can't crawl underneath - is to use very long screws and drill these in at an angle that goes through both platform edges. These can, however, be a little difficult to install and remove. Or, if you're only tying together a few plats, you might consider just adding a sturdy edge board (picture frame-like) around either the plat edges or the legs below that... which would not increase the overall platform size. Break a (metaphorical) leg!

malcolm-ruffle on November 04, 2013:

Hi there

The video clip of the building of stage platforms was most helpful .

How would you join several low level stage platforms together ? as access to joining them from underneath is too restricted.


cdevries (author) on June 09, 2013:

@Cynthia Haltom: It's fun, isn't it? Theater usually has a warm welcome for volunteers - I know I'm always very thankful for help! Thanks for visiting.

Cynthia Haltom from Diamondhead on June 06, 2013:

You have some very clever building techniques, I sometime volunteer to make sets at the local theater.

cdevries (author) on March 25, 2013:

@anonymous: Don't give up on foam quite yet - check to see if your area has a business that cuts foam for builders. It's used to shape "stucco" moldings etc. on the facades of strip malls and banks, etc. These guys can be really cheap!

Otherwise, you might consider things like adding layers of flat foam to create shallow "steps" plus regular crown molding popped out on 2x lumber, and/or foam pipe insulation cut in half for cheap 1/2 round molding... You could (if you find it cheap) mount roof gutter as a big molding! Or, um, kids' foam pool-floaties cut in half. Or 1/2ed sono tubes. Or nice free carpet tubes. Or rope as a trim.

I'd suggest adding some smallish trim at the inner edge of your frame, to make it look finished, then (as you work outwards) show the basic plywood, then add a couple layers of pink or blue builder's foam or white polystyrene (whatever's cheaper) to create a couple shallow steps near the outer edge, the just as big a molding as you can afford or create (with foam, gutter, whatever) on the outside edge. That'd give you a pretty rich picture frame.

anonymous on March 25, 2013:

We're building a 21in wide 10ft by 9 ft Victorian picture frame to go around our rear projection screen for "The Importance of Being Earnest". What lightweight faux material can we use to add depth to the frame. We're not set up to carve from foam.

cdevries (author) on February 28, 2013:

@anonymous: I've never actually heard of anyone renting a stage floor... All the ones I know about were made specially for that production. (Though it could be a business!)

Usually the same scenic painter who does the walls etc. paints the floor, using similar techniques, then often sealing the floor against wear and tear with a non-shiny polyurethane. For effects like yellow bricks, cobblestones, etc. it's common to use either a stencil to help paint or - even faster - to make giant sponge "stamps" on a long stick. For board floors, sometimes the painter uses a chalk line or painters tape to establish lines - especially if the pattern is complex.

If you're allowed to, it's usual to paint the stage floor itself, but if not (or if you need to change some flooring between scenes or relocate the show to another theater), sometimes a giant ground cloth is put down or sheets of masonite are laid down and painted. It's best to attach these to the stage though, for safe footing.

Thanks for visiting!

anonymous on February 27, 2013:

I've seen many productions where the floor of the stage reflects the scene, ie: cobblestone, yellow brick road, brick, snow etc. Are these floor pieces rented or can you make your own and if so, how would you go about it? Thank you for sharing all your knowledge with us!

cdevries (author) on February 18, 2013:

@anonymous: The catwalk idea ought to work well!

anonymous on February 18, 2013:

@cdevries: thanks trying to help out at a high school drama dept. I thought about bridging the steps with aluminum cat walk off of some scaffolding.

cdevries (author) on February 18, 2013:

@anonymous: Well, the easiest/fastest way would be to borrow or build a small platform - maybe 2'x4' or 3'x6', leg it up with 2x4 legs to maybe 2' high, then add step units and either railings or side "stone" walls, depending on the look you want. Just make sure it's sturdy and safe!

Even easier - you might ask around at local theater groups to see if anyone already has a small bridge unit. Anyone performed The Mikado lately? Even Girl Scout troops sometimes build little bridges for advancement ceremonies.

anonymous on February 17, 2013:

ideas on building a bridge for childrens play billy goats gruff. The bridge will need to support 2 people

cdevries (author) on February 14, 2013:

@anonymous: In principle a revolve or rotating stage is just another platform with casters that turn it into a wagon - in this case with a central pivot point (a piece of pipe usually) that lets it only travel 'round n 'round. In practice, this is a somewhat tricky piece of carpentry since the casters have to be fixed ones Very Carefully Aligned and it sure helps if the floor is Flat! Look for an experienced stage carpenter to help if you plan to build a very big revolve. And especially if you want to motorize it. Good luck!

anonymous on February 08, 2013:

@cdevries: Remember an article in either a christian production magazine or arts an entertainment magazine that showed a easy design for actually a large rotating stage. However, unable to locate article; any thoughts there......

cdevries (author) on February 07, 2013:

@anonymous: Glad I could help. Break a (virtual) leg!

anonymous on February 06, 2013:

@cdevries: You're right. Opening offstage would be better. My problem is limited clearance, but I think we can do it. Thanks.

cdevries (author) on February 04, 2013:

@ngallahar: Glad it was helpful - thanks for visiting!

ngallahar on February 04, 2013:

Loved this lens. Thank you so much for sharing these tips with us.

cdevries (author) on January 29, 2013:

@anonymous: Well, I can make a few suggestions, but it would be wise to grab someone with theater building experience to help if you can.

Leg (raise on legs) your platform with at least 6, 2x4 legs per 4'x8' section of platform. Then you'll need an X of 2x4 lumber on two - not opposite each other - sides of the platform. You didn't mention your platform's size, but if it's larger than about 8'x8' in plan then you will need more cross-bracing. Every other bay or about 8' on center is what I've usually seen. When in doubt, give the finished platform a shove and see if it quivers!

Remember to securely screw all legs to the stage floor. And be sure that the platforms themselves are sturdy and have proper intermediate supports.

I'm not sure if you're planning to clad or skirt this platform, but a plywood face would also help stabilize it. The thicker, the stiffer and stronger, so 1/2" plywd. would be good. Be SURE all attachments are tight and secure with long enough screws. When in doubt - just for fun even - add more screws.

When you're done, your platform should hardly vibrate even when fully loaded and should not sway at all. (You'll still have the inevitable hollow sound as actors walk, of course. Carpet, if possible, helps that.)

Break (only a metaphorical) leg!

anonymous on January 29, 2013:

I need to build a platform that will be 8' off of the ground and have staircases leading up to it. I know how to construct stairs. Not sure about the necessary bracing for the platform 8' up. And yes, people do need to stand upon that platform. Any advice would be GREATLY appreciated.

cdevries (author) on January 28, 2013:

@anonymous: Well, one idea might be to get hold of 4 refrigerator boxes. Decorate/paint these to look like box cars and cut out the doors, using the cut out cardboard as the door itself. You could even create a little track so these could slide open. Light, cheap (even free), and easy to move!

anonymous on January 27, 2013:

Hi! I need to build a train of 4 boxcars with doorways that can be moved on stage and off again by little girls. I'm at a loss. It can't be too heavy or they can't move it. They are to hide behind the boxcar and pop out of the doorway when it's their turn. Any help would be appreciated! Thanks, Deb

cdevries (author) on January 26, 2013:

@fuzzy12: A motorized revolve is pretty classic. The homemade ones I've seen use a small motor to turn a wheel with a tire that is flipped horizontally, so the tire "runs" along the edge of revolve, thus turning it. BUT you really, really need to find someone experienced in theater construction to help you with this because both building a large revolve and certainly motorizing it are tricky, expert sorta things. I haven't seen this in a book, but I'll look around.

fuzzy12 on January 26, 2013:

Would like to build a stage that rotates electrically. Any thoughts or suggested books that would guide me. Thx, Mike

cdevries (author) on January 22, 2013:

@anonymous: It would be MUCH simpler to do this if they open off stage. Then you could have, basically, puppet rods and/or counterweights to control them. I'm really not sure how to hide these on downstage opening doors... Maybe if they are attached to the very bottom of the doors? Can you raise the doors on a platform, then cut curved slits in the platform to track control rods from underneath?

anonymous on January 21, 2013:

How do I build a set of double doors that appear to open and close on their own? Doors will open onstage (towards the audience). Thanks.

opatoday on November 29, 2012:


cdevries (author) on November 23, 2012:

@anonymous: This shouldn't be too hard to build. The important part is to remember to brace this well on the back side, so it stands firm and doesn't wiggle or fall over and to give it a strong enough 2x4 frame to make it sturdy - perhaps 2x4 uprights and a 2x6 header. I'd suggested adding a "picture frame" of 1/4" or thicker plywood about 10-12" wide (with mitered corners). Then make that look richer by adding crown molding (or even door casing) at the outer edges and a smaller molding to decorate the inner edge. Break a (virtual) leg!

anonymous on November 22, 2012:

I need to make a light weight picture frame that will sit on stage such that Actors can step in and out of the frame. The script we are using wants the size to be 8 ft by 10 ft. This is for our church christmas program.

cdevries (author) on November 16, 2012:

@montanatravel52: Thank you - yup it's a lot of fun... and a lot of work!

montanatravel52 on November 14, 2012:

Wow, I never knew so much went into building a theater set - very informative and interesting lens, thanks!

cdevries (author) on October 18, 2012:

@anonymous: Such fake boulder are available, I believe, made from hard foam or fiberglass, but I'd expect them to be too expensive for most theater groups. But it would be pretty easy and not so expensive to make them - either from blocks of the white pebbly foam glued together then carved with a serrated knife and painted, or by taking an existing plywood box (most theaters have some) and adding foam to its outside. Either way, make sure to create strong protruding wooden handles (disguised as rock lumps) or cut-out handholds (like crevices) for easy lifting. Have fun!

anonymous on October 18, 2012:

I need a boulder or two on stage, practical enough to sit on, yet light enough for quick (no curtain) scene changes. Know where I can purchase one, or how I might make one? Thanks!

cdevries (author) on October 16, 2012:

@anonymous: Cool project! If anyone's going to crawl/climb over your brick or stone, foam is a Bad Choice. It's damaged VERY easily. And anything actually rough is going to damage your child! So, if you can get a hold of vacuform material, that would probably be best.

The other choice would be a painted finish on something like smooth plywood. The catch is that a camera will probably pick up on the flat 2D fakery of painted-on stone because painted shadows won't always work with the real kid-shadows cast by your lighting. Vacuform may be the only way. You might want to back it with plywood and maybe stiff foam for a little more cushioning effect - and also to support the raised "stone" or "bricks" since they'll look silly if they bend under the actor's weight. You'll still need a good scenic painting to emphasize the 3D-ness of the vacuform.

Be very careful about any surface or edge an actor ever meets. I'd suggest hidden knee and elbow pads too. Break a (metaphorical) leg!

anonymous on October 16, 2012:

Hi! Thank you so much for all your helpful guides and tips! I need to make a garbage chute, like those found in large old apartment buildings, for a child of about 8 to crawl/fall through. I will need the inside to look like old stone or brick and not scratch the kid and the fourth wall needs to be able to open/removable for us to shoot into with the camera. I also need it to stand although we may shoot most of the action with it laying down. The walls will need to be about 10' tall and 18" wide. From what I read I'm guessing I should make the walls and attach foam and paint it. Is this along the lines of what you would do? Should I use plywood for the wall? Is there a lighter but sturdy material? Which foam should I use on the inside and how best attach it? Will it be durable enough for the kid to crawl on? Would it make sense to use vacuform sheets (I might get some donated) and would they be durable enough? Would very much appreciate any tips and insights. Thanks!

cdevries (author) on October 14, 2012:

@WriterJanis2: It's a huge amount of fun! But I bet there's a local theater that'd love to have a volunteer if you had the time. Thanks for visiting!

WriterJanis2 on October 14, 2012:

Great details here. Would love to help make some of these.

cdevries (author) on October 05, 2012:

@anonymous: Since these doors don't need to work, this is fairly simple. Depending on your material budget versus your carpentry skills, there are several ways to go.

Easiest to build would be door frames built from 1x4 or 1x6 lumber. Use full 8' length sticks for vertical pieces and cut (about 3' long) pieces for the horizontals, so that you have two side-by-side rectangles 8' tall by 4' wide. Use metal plates or small rectangles of 1x or plywood on the back to connect them. For the mullions, you could either use wood lath to make a grid of rectangular window panes or - easier - use pre-made wood or plastic lattice, which would give you diamond shaped window panes. Or, depending on the style of your production, if you have a really good painter, you could simply paint the doors on muslin (8' wide or two 4' strips sewn together). This could look very charming (only if beautifully painted!) and could be back-lit. Or, if you can borrow real French doors, you could frame out their approx. 6' x 7' size with elaborate wall trim.

Hope this helps.

anonymous on October 04, 2012:

I would like any ideas on how to build inexpensive large french doors or windows 8 feet by 8feet about 18" off the stage floor, they can be screwed into stage floor as it is wood. Un glazed, non functioning.

cdevries (author) on September 27, 2012:

@anonymous: Basically you build a raised platform where the actors will stand - which will look more realistic if there's a little slope or rake to it. Be sure NOT to make this platform a rectangle... give it curved or wriggly sides. Then there are several methods to create the "slopes" of the hill: if actors walk or climb up one side, make that area another substantial racked platform or irregular steps (curves! think curves). Good ol' chicken wire can help the non-walking parts of the "hill." Create the shapes you want (supported by wood sticks) and drape everything with the thickest fabric you can afford. To suggest rock, cover with paper mache or foam; to suggest grass, with fake grass or carpet, add lots of weeds etc. And real or fake dirt. And dead leaves. Etc. Make sure it's clearly marked for the actors where it's safe to walk and where it isn't!

You can read more about creating a realistic slope on my blog here: http://devriesdesigndiary.blogspot.com/2011/03/wee...

anonymous on September 27, 2012:

how to build a hill for set design. There would be at lest 4 people on top of the set

cdevries (author) on September 22, 2012:

@julescorriere: Thank you! And thanks for visiting.

Jules Corriere from Jonesborough TN on September 21, 2012:

Outstanding content!

cdevries (author) on September 20, 2012:

@JerseyJames: Thanks! Glad you could visit.

JerseyJames on September 19, 2012:

Enjoyed reading your lens.

cdevries (author) on August 29, 2012:

@dahlia369: Thank you. It's kinda fun being the Dear Abby-ish of set building!

dahlia369 on August 28, 2012:

An amazing lens with all those questions answered in detail. You did a wonderful job and I'd like to congratulate you!! :)

cdevries (author) on August 26, 2012:

@Michey LM: Thank you so much! I hope this Lens is helpful.

Michey LM on August 25, 2012:

I am not an Architect, but I love architecture and I am a self educated architect in my soul... this is a beautiful lens pact with information I need... Angel Blessings! and I feature this lens in my Calatrava lens.

Thanks so much

cdevries (author) on August 10, 2012:

@anonymous: Well... "Blending" huh? Is this a very small stage?

First thought - if you don't have to have utter realism - would be to stylize the whole thing. A plywood box serves as sofa and the teenager's bed, another box (or very simple shape) acts as table and kitchen counter etc. Then you rely on lighting to differentiate the settings. Maybe walls could be fabric, so each setting gets a different color shining through the walls, like colored paint! (Or projections of teen posters, kitchen clutter, etc.) That's the most stylized version. Less stylized would mean finding very bland, generic daybeds and tables to double up.

Or you could build clever the-fake-refrigerator-door-hinges-down-into-a-bed sorta tricks. Good fun! But hard to build, obviously. You'd need more time/money and better builders to pull that idea off.

Otherwise, you're kinda stuck with making living/kitchen/bedrooms, each in its proper "real" style, just slammed side-by-side. The big theatrical problem then is that 2/3 of your play has to be acted off of center stage.

Hope this helps. Break a leg!

anonymous on August 10, 2012:

My play is set in 3 different small towns and presents the lives of three separate "couples.". The first set is a high school girl's bedroom, the second is an older married couple's living room, and the third an elderly father and son's kitchen. I want all three rooms on stage at the same time since the action moves from room to room. After a reading of the play, I was told I would have to find a way to "blend all these sets." I don't know how. Any suggestions?

cdevries (author) on August 08, 2012:

@anonymous: A theater set piece right? (Rather than a train model, which has to be more realistic.)

I'd suggest creating a flat (a wall) that's cut to the silhouette of your mountain, then adding cut-out plywood legs (kinda like spider legs) that jut out toward the audience. Cover this with chicken wire, then add either paper mache' or fabric mache' to build the ground surface... cutting out tunnel openings etc. You could also do the whole thing carved from foam.

You might want to get a few books on train model scenery from the library for ideas!

anonymous on August 08, 2012:

How would I go about framing out a mountain? I need it to be 4 - 5 feet tall with two arched train tunnels on opposite sides that will have a child's circular train running through and 2 rectangular abandoned mine openings that will be boarded up.

cdevries (author) on August 07, 2012:

@anonymous: Do you have a lighting designer? Creating "night" is something those wizards love to do! It's a matter of changing the light coming through the window from overhead white/yellow "daytime" color to sunset orange (at a low angle) to bluer dusk to blue night/moonlight. Beautiful! This may take 3 or so traditional stage lights or 1-2 new LED fixtures that change color. (The set would need a cyc or just a white/beige/pale blue fabric banner or even a painted flat placed outside the window to act as "sky." This sky becomes a sort of projection screen.)

Snow could be a moving gobo or projection effect also created by the lighting designer on your cyc or banner, or it could be fake physical snow (often plastic scraps, sometimes soap flakes!) that is shaken from a container above the window.

The most poetically perfect snow I ever saw - for that particular production - was a man-in-black who shook snow from a basket on a long pole... over the head of the character.

Hope this helps. Have fun with it and break a leg!

anonymous on August 06, 2012:

Hey, we are hoping to a play forward on Nov 10, in a theater in Dublin, OH. and i was wondering how to make a window on the stage with effects of night and snow falling outside? am completely at a loss. please help.

cdevries (author) on August 06, 2012:

@anonymous: Well, it depends on what your stage floor is now...

If you can mess it up - or if you can afford to lay down Masonite or a canvas floor cloth - then I'd suggest painting the floor dirt color and scattering straw on it, either while wet or glued later (fairs always seem to have dead grass or straw and mud). If you really have time/money, you could mess it up with something like drywall mud before painting, to create deep "mud". Beware making the floor textured if you'll have dancers though!

That dirt color paint ought to be 2-3 shades of earth color scumbled together, plus probably a spattering of straw and/or grass color. (Look on this page for a link to my painting page.) If you do have dancers, paint is all you can do.

anonymous on August 03, 2012:

hey this is an amazing site! the set i'm designing is to look like an outdoor fair and i'd really like to do something with the floor to make it look a bit more outdoorsy/muddy-any tips?

cdevries (author) on July 16, 2012:

@anonymous: First thought: you've got a kinda tricky problem, so I'd suggest getting the most experienced theater builder you can find to help you.

Second thought: you probably do NOT want casters, since with all those shenanigans, you won't want the windows to move while an actor is using them.

Third thought: you'll definitely want angle bracing (could be disguised as a wall etc.) to help support and stiffen these windows, but probably want to use wood as it's lighter.

Fourth thought: you really do want a good, experienced builder because making operable windows both reliable and safe can be tricky. You might consider using real windows, either without glass, or with plexiglass, that are set into your flat walls.

Break a leg! (But not an actor's neck in the window, right?)

anonymous on July 16, 2012:

Thank you for the great site! I need functional window units, casement, for a touring production. We will not be touring with flats, just the window units. These windows are often opened and closed during the show, and leaned out of on occasion. What is the best way to build them and insure their stability? Do you recommend the steel framing as described above on doors, and would you recommend putting each unit on casters? Many!!!!!!!Thanks!!!!!!!!

cdevries (author) on July 06, 2012:

@anonymous: The only time I built a walk-through wall, we did it by making it a "wallpapered" wall, using old newspapers as the "wallpaper." We replaced the broken panel for each performance. Break a Leg with your show!

anonymous on July 05, 2012:

I need to build a fall through wall.or crash through wall for a set

dream1983 on June 30, 2012:

Nice lens, great job! Thumbs up

LeslieMirror on May 24, 2012:

The lens is really great. You've just opened the theater's curtains for me))

cdevries (author) on May 14, 2012:

@cinefile: Thanks! I really appreciate the offer! I'm not a big Facebooker, but please let your friends know about this lens. Thanks for your kind words and for visiting.

cinefile on May 11, 2012:

Hello! Love this lens! I have friends in the theater world. If you'd like to network with them via facebook, let me know and I'll introduce you. Keep lenses like this coming!

Gayle Dowell from Kansas on May 02, 2012:

Wonderful lens. I'm getting ready to do a beach stage for our churches vacation Bible school this summer. Bookmarking for later.

anonymous on May 01, 2012:

@chezchazz: The following company provides muslin in addition to their main product line of blueprints for set designs for specific plays, if that would be of any help:


Chazz from New York on April 29, 2012:

@cdevries: Thanks so much. It is supposed to be permanent. I am contacting a couple of more established community theaters to learn what they do and who they consult with, if anyone. Greatly appreciate your advice on behalf of this excellent not-for-profit arts organization.

cdevries (author) on April 29, 2012:

@cdevries: A bit more info:

The stage curtain vendors sewwhatinc.com, showworksonline.com, and sktheatricaldraperies.com answer many questions on theater curtains and tracks.

As for books: there's an Introduction to Rigging in the Entertainment Industry by C Higgs that MIGHT help (it nay be more pulleys and less drapes) Even my fav Technical Theater for Non-Technical People only has a few general overview kind of pages.

I'm afraid this is a very specialized area of theater craft.

cdevries (author) on April 29, 2012:

@chezchazz: I'll do a little research and come back with an answer (if I can find it), being not an expert on theater drapes myself.

But - first reaction - if the space is an old church (not a proscenium theater with a high stage house), then most likely you won't have the height to "fly out" backdrops or curtains upwards. You might be able to do an Austrian blind style for the main drapes which pulls upwards (but not for backdrops as too wrinkling). This limits you.

You could have three sets of curtain tracks though, and remove drapes, drops, or scrims off to one or both sides. (Mechanized or hand operated.) Wing space will dictate here, as velvet curtains take up much room!

Does your director realize the budget needed for all this? Velvet is pricey (as you know) but so are the extremely heavy-duty curtain tracks, support structure, and control rigging all this will need. Scrim is costly too.

Is this a permanent installation? Or for a single show?

As I think about this, to do this properly is a MAJOR undertaking involving much money, but also the structure of the building and fire issues... Theater curtains are usually required to have fire resistant treatment. And, if the building is historic, there may be issues there too.

For a permanent installation you'll want to bring in a theater consultant. These firms specialize in drapes, as well as rigging, catwalks, and lighting and sound systems.

On the other hand, if you just want to suggest all this for a single production, then your best bet might be to have legs each side of the stage with horizontal "beams" across the top of the stage which support everything. This structure would probably be rented aluminum trusses (like at a rock concert). From that you could swag a velvet pelmet (covering the metal?) and suspend a curtain track for drapes that open to each side. Ditto with your middle layer. And dead hang the backdrop.

You might quiz the director on whether those "main" velvet drapes really need to open and close? If they could be just token festoons at each side, creating a proscenium, you could save all kinds of cash, complications, and tears.

You'd still need to flame-treat all this fabric, I think. (May need to talk with the Fire Marshall.) The stage truss rental people might have answers to much of this... might even have some treated drapes and scrims etc.

If you have access to an experienced stage carpenter or, better, a technical director I'd suggest buying them coffee and picking their brain.

I'll be back with my research findings...

Chazz from New York on April 29, 2012:

Great lens, as always. Could you possibly recommend a book and/or resource that deals with theater draperies and equipment for hanging/raising/lowering backdrops? Since I am a decorator and sell period appropriate fabrics, they want me to provide three layers of draperies (including the backdrop or scrim track) for a "stage" that is actually an open platform that extends from a wide niche into the main part of what used to be a church (the pews are the seats, the stained glass windows are magnificent) and the director wants 3 layers with a traditional velvet curtain in front to reflect the historic architecture of the church. Thank you so much.

cdevries (author) on April 16, 2012:

@LizMac60: Thank you!

cdevries (author) on April 16, 2012:

@Rangoon House: Thanks, I'd appreciate that. Thanks for visiting.

cdevries (author) on April 16, 2012:

@avgsuperheroine: Thank you!

cdevries (author) on April 16, 2012:

@anonymous: Well, if it can be REALLY cartoon-like, I've had good success with a cut-out plywood built "sofa." Exaggerate the shape and paint on the upholstery and pillows.

Or you could find a very cheap but real thrift store sofa and paint it an unlikely color. Maybe even stripes?

AJ from Australia on April 16, 2012:

This is amazing information. I spend a reasonable amount of time at the theatre in the audience as well as backstage. I will certainly be passing this on to the set builders. Blessings.

avgsuperheroine on April 15, 2012:

great lens, featured on my website's article directory Dramatically Correct.

anonymous on April 15, 2012:

Great article! I stumbled upon this as I was searching articles to print out for my crew of set-building parents that are assisting with our Jr. High musical. We need an oversized couch, almost cartoon-like, for two characters to sit on during 2 separate scenes. Any ideas or suggestions?

Liz Mackay from United Kingdom on April 06, 2012:

Great lens.Blessed

SimplyTonjia on April 01, 2012:

Wonderful lens. Thank you.

TTMall on March 14, 2012:

Very informative lens. Well done!

cdevries (author) on March 10, 2012:

@anonymous: So glad this was helpful. A skating show sounds like fun,

anonymous on March 10, 2012:

Hi: I've been designing the sets for our local figure skating club annual ice show for several years now. Current story is set in a small village park so the discussion on texture and faux bricks was very helpful!

cdevries (author) on March 08, 2012:

@anonymous: Thanks, and thanks for visiting.

anonymous on March 08, 2012:

@cdevries: Thanks so much for your reply- this is a really great site- much appreciated!

cdevries (author) on March 06, 2012:

@anonymous: I think your idea of solid boxes under the window and light construction above makes a lot of sense. The boxes will make great "windowsills" inside and out. (Your actor can knock off stuff as they climb in - funny.)

You're going to want angled braces from the top of the wall and/or window to the floor on the side the audience can't see, to stiffen everything. Or you could have side walls as deep as your boxes to brace things. BE CAREFUL that your window has safe edges and won't slam on the actor. Also that there's no way to break glass.

Break a leg! (metaphorically) with your production.

anonymous on March 06, 2012:

Hi- thanks for all your fantastic tips. We are rehearsing a play at the moment which requires a window- through which someone has to climb, and eventually fall out of... we want to construct a wall with the window set around 30 inches from the floor. We have the window already selected, but we're not sure how best to construct. We thought of going more 3-D for the section of wall UNDER the window, perhaps bracing together several solid wooden boxes to create a 'wall' then using lighter material for the upper part of the wall. What do you think would work? And how would you brace this whole construction? Thanks in advance!

cdevries (author) on March 03, 2012:

@mihgasper: Acoustics can be a bear! Part of the problem, I'd guess, is that too many modern performance spaces are expected to be multi-purpose... so not very good at either drama, musical theater, opera, or musical groups. That and we have so many electrical toys that we depend on them to "fix" things, instead of building an appropriate acoustic space and training actors and singers to project. Still, we can do some cool effects!

Thanks for visiting.

Miha Gasper from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU on March 03, 2012:

Nice set of tips, I am amazed. What about acoustics? I found out this is great problem especially in modern theaters. Is there some knowledge old Greeks had and we don't? I have been in old theaters where sound was better without any electronic equipment than in state of the art theaters with all fancy gadgets...

cdevries (author) on January 26, 2012:

@anonymous: Well, my first suggestion would be to make it as flat as possible - maybe only details like the Tiki's nose and eyebrows jut out. Then I'd try designing it like a tall theater-flat wall with a mouth-shaped doorway. Built it of 1/4" plywood and 1x4 studs - well braced - just as the theater dept. would for a school play. This would probably mean making 2 2' wide "doorjambs" (with an about 4' mouth/door) between 'em). Above those, I'd build the rest of the Tiki's face - maybe 8' wide x 8' tall - with cut-out eye holes. To this you could add a cut foam nose (use bulk polystyrene like a cooler's foam) and maybe eyebrows etc. (Caution: foam melts or burns so beware of flames near this - no real Tiki torches!)

Paint all other details in tropical prom-related colors. Go bold and graphic!

To finish it off... Behind the eye holes you could hang colored paper lanterns with electric bulbs. Behind the mouth, hang drapes or tropical bead curtains? If really clever, you could rig a smoke machine from the the nose!

Get the drama or theater tech teacher to advise you. Enjoy your Prom!

anonymous on January 26, 2012:

For a prom stage thing, my class wants to make a giant Tiki head that we can walk out of the mouth. I'm supposed to design this set. I was wondering, how could I make this head big and sturdy enough to work. I know what I want it to look like, but I have no idea how to make it. Does anyone know a good way?

cdevries (author) on January 19, 2012:

@shaunjay: I've thought about that actually, but I don't know much about the tech end of it. The ambiance? That I understand!

shaunjay on January 19, 2012:

This is really cool! You should do an article on home theaters..I've literally seen actual small theaters in people's homes! They are gorgeous and very magical!

cdevries (author) on January 11, 2012:

@anonymous: Yup. But it may be easier and cheaper to use plain ol' masking tape - the wide kind. Better still, use gaf tape. Gaf takes paint better and will look flatter (because it spans little irregularities better). But if you use any tape, be sure to use "flat" paint. A texture like scumble will hide the seam best. Here's a Lens that explains scumbling: https://hubpages.com/living/decorative-scenic-pain

Break a leg!

Related Articles