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4.4: Process

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  • As for even the most casual reader, a set designers first experience of a new play is usually in the reading of the script. From this encounter, readers invariably find that their imaginations begin to create the world inhabited by the characters and events of the play, to a varying degree of detail and specificity.

    Site-specific refers to theatrical works presented outside traditional theatre spaces. A straightforward use of this technique is to transplant a play to a setting suggested by the text (A Midsummer Night's Dream in a forest, The Pirates of Penzance on a ship, etc.). Performances devised specifically for a found space are capable of more complexity. They can allow the environment and the play to be reconsidered at the same time and can challenge the boundaries between actor and audience.

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    A 2007 production of Waiting for Godot (featuring T. Ryder Smith, J. Kyle Manzay, Wendell Pierce, and Mark McLaughlin; directed by Christopher McElroen) presented in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Seating was set up for five hundred, but hundreds had to be turned away. Photo courtesy of Christopher McElroen.

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    This set design for the 2012 production of the opera André Chenier ms built on Lake Constance, Austria, for the Bregenz Festspiel. The design is based on the famous painting The Death of Marat, which depicts the radical French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat murdered in his bathtub. Photo by Keeko/Fliekr.eom.

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    The 2010 We Players production of Hamleton Alcatraz Island. The site of the former prison highlights Issues of justice and punishment. Photo by Katie Hatey.

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    The 2006 production of Roam at Edinburgh Airport, a eo-produetlon between Grid Iron Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland. It was billed as an "Imaginative journey through,
    In and around the possibilities of air travel"; audiences were moved to a different location for each scene, from eheek-ln to the departure gate and eventually baggage claim. The production was nominated for a Scottish Critics Award for Best Design. Photo by Richard Campbell,

    The role and artistry of the set designer, though, lies in transforming the images that arise in the imagination into concrete tangible forms that will fulfill the requirements of the text within the reality of performance. The skills employed are diverse and various, but first and foremost, a set designer must be good at script analysis, able to dig into the text for the details of the characters’ environments, and the individual details about each that are expressed by their environments — their economic status, their occupations, and their relationships with one another. The set design may be required to convey information about location, time of day, time of year, and era. Together with the director and other designers (costume designer, lighting, properties, and sound), the set designer creates the dramatic world of the play. And the world thus created must also be one inhabitable by the actors, be affordable and practical within the constraints of budgets and schedules, and comport comfortably with the architectural limits of the theatre itself.

    Though each set designer has his or her own approach to these tasks, some common elements are shared by all. Among these are the establishment of time and place; the materialization of a setting that elaborates details of the characters’ lives, circumstances, and relationships; the creation of mood and atmosphere appropriate to the production; and the relationship between the audience and the performance itself.

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    Using the tools of the craft, which will be discussed next, the set designer — more than anything—helps to tell the story, through visual metaphors, and so facilitates the dramatic action. Starting with the premise that the audience will “read” every aspect of the visual manifestation presented on the stage for significance and symbolic meaning (even if only subconsciously), the set designer is responsible for myriad details and decisions, each of which contributes to the overall theatrical experience and telling of the story. Along the way, there are many decisions driven by pragmatic concerns, such as how the design ideas are communicated to the technicians charged with realizing the design and the selection of materials, arrangements, and finishes applied to the scenic elements. A set designer is, in short, a scholar, researcher, sketch artist, draftsperson, model builder, and communicator.

    Many of a set designer’s objectives can be considered under the broad heading of “telling the story.” While the set designer, like all of the artists involved in mounting a play, forms initial impressions and understandings from the first readings of the script, these immediate reactions do not lead directly to the creation of a set design. Rather, the set designer shares these personal responses to the script with the rest of the creative team, especially the director. This is one of the first steps in the design process, and such discussions are often built into a production’s schedule as design meetings or design conferences. The decisions arising from these meetings both form the agreed-upon vision and understanding of the play and the production and establish a clear set of standards for the individual artists involved to measure their work against.

    In addition to “artistic” considerations, design meetings also bring to light specific needs or preferences that the set designer will probably have to address. Such needs might include the number and locations of the entrance and exit pathways the director can expect to have available for blocking the actors’ entrances and exits. Similarly, particular items of furniture may be required, and their placement is critical to the “stage pictures” intended for the show. The design meeting is not just about identifying and finding solutions to the problems presented by the script. The participants also talk about their individual understandings of the script and share the visual images each developed during their readings of the text. It is not at all unusual for everyone involved to come away from a design meeting with new insights and interpretations of the story, the characters, and the play itself.

    Building on the design discussions, the set designer develops a design concept, which in effect expresses the production concept as a complete plan for realizing the decisions and choices made. The set, in other words, becomes a visual metaphor for the abstract ideas discovered through the deep analysis and thoughtful deliberations of the text, in concrete symbolic form. Jo Mielziners classic design for Death of a Salesman, for example, captures the claustrophobic closeness of the Loman household through its multiroomed interiors. Standing against the backdrops of a eityseape or the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, the tightly connected rooms or the small backyard garden plot also helps to convey the sense that the world has passed Willy by, leaving him out of date and out of touch—with his professional life, his family, even his lost brother. Mielziners design sets a tone, a mood, a sense of place and time, and provides a wealth of suggestions about the characters’ lives and the emotional journey they take over the course of the play’s action, and so helps to tell the play’s story.

    The set establishes the style and tone of the production through the colors, arrangement, and qualities of the scenic elements. In today’s theatre, this process begins as the audience enters the theatre and takes their seats. A common practice is to leave the act curtain —the main drape that separates the stage and audience —open, so that the set is in full view of the audience.

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    Rendering of the original 1949 production of Death of a Salesman by Jo Mielziner. Courtesy of Bud H. Gibbs.

    The audience, therefore, is free to make assumptions about the play before an actor walks on stage or a line of the play is delivered. Heavy, dark, and somber elements might suggest tragedy, for example, while a lighter, brighter, and airy environment might bring comedy to mind. Consider how a set design for Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar might present a different view of Rome than that used for the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

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    Style, in its most basic sense, means how something is said or done; style can also refer to a specific, almost codified combination of distinctive features (color, shape, arrangement, and texture). In this latter use, style often carries a specific label that encapsulates particular combinations such as "realistic." However, such labels should always be considered broad descriptors rather than as a tight set of criteria. A set described as "realistic" might be a highly illusionistie setting in which walls of a completely furnished room are recognizable, but it might also describe a more theatrical setting in which some carefully selected practical objects only suggest the full environment.

    Other style choices, such as expressionistie, absurdist, epic, or postmodern, also foster a greater degree of abstraction in the design and directing choices. Ramps, levels, geometric or symbolic objects or shapes, or hanging bits of fabric can create an environment in which the actors can carry on in artificial or exaggerated ways, such as directly confronting the audience in their performance. Style also reflects the dramatic genre. The colors, shapes, and arrangements appropriate to a tragedy or serious drama typically are different from those appropriate to comedy. Thus, the set visually introduces the audience to the type of drama they will see and helps them prepare for the dramatic experience.

    Whether realistically detailed or suggested abstractly, the set becomes the world of the characters, and so must visually convey the social, political, religious, and economic rules under which it operates. It also conveys important information about the people who inhabit it and provides insights into their tastes, personalities, and occupations, as well as their education and class status.

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    The 2010 production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Old Globe Theatre. Directed by Seott Schwartz, set design by Ralph Funleello, lighting design by Matthew McCarthy, and costume design by Alejo Vietti. Photo by Ralph Funieello.

    Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, set in the mid-rçjos, requires a set that reminds the audience of the economic hardships the central characters face during the Great Depression, heightening the characters’ hopes and aspirations for better days to come. In a realistic style, the set might show worn but eared-for furnishings and distressed carpets or wallpapers, yet also show the attention paid to keeping up the house and making it as pleasant a home as possible; together, these two aspects of the picture tell the audience that the family living in this house is down on its luck financially but held together by bonds of love and trust.

    One of the set designer’s first tasks, once the production concept has been agreed on and the design concept begins to take shape, is researching the particulars of the play. This research may include a traditional review of written material on the play and playwright, the era and culture in which the action is set, and the lives of the characters (if they are historical figures) or the people of the time and place in general. But set designers also perform a kind of visual research, seeking out images of all sorts—photographs, prints, paintings, and drawings —that represent the architecture, décor, and fashions of a particular time and place or convey the production concept. This visual research often begins even before the design meetings, and the set designer may use it in the discussions with the director. As the old saying puts it, “A picture is worth a thousand words”—this is accepted wisdom in the theatre.

    During the research process, the set designer must be open to several different types of information. On a factual level, attention is given to the objective details of the play, especially when the production concept involves a degree of realism. Questions on topics such as color schemes or construction methods and materials must be answered accurately if the set is to represent, say, Paris in the rçjos authentically. In the course of researching, the set designer will often encounter images that express more subjectively the ideas of the production concept or that spur inspiration in a new direction.

    In many instances, plays from earlier eras are “updated,” that is, set in the familiar present time and place; a production of Molières classic comedy Tartuffe might be set in the American South, for instance, rather than in the plays original seventeenth-century Paris. The set designer is thus obliged to research both periods, looking for the “feel” of the original and ways to express that feeling in contemporary terms. And every time a set designer undertakes this sort of research, the discoveries are filed away in a collection (files, folios, boxes) known as a “morgue”; this collection is often the starting point for the next project.

    As the actual design coalesces from the contemplation of the results of the research, the set designer begins next to consider the design in concrete terms: questions of shape, scale, and color are paramount, of course, but so are such considerations as budgets, schedules, and personnel as well as pragmatic questions such as the theatre architecture within which the set will be located. The design process is now focused on identifying problems and devising practical solutions. While each set designer has personal ways of working through these problems, it is common to begin sketching, representing the design ideas graphically along with the limits or restrictions —wall placement, door size, and such — constraining the design. These sketches can also be shared with the director and other designers, and can be modified or adapted in response to feedback from these colleagues. If the play includes numerous scenes or different sets ( especially common in musical comedy ), the set designer may also storyboard the design by presenting a series of sketches that show the sets changes over the course of the performance.

    The set designer employs, in many ways, the same tools as any other visual artist: line, mass, color, texture, space, and composition.

    Line—vertical, horizontal diagonal, straight, curved or spiral, line helps to define the edges of masses on the stage and to create feelings of movement or distance;

    Mass —literally, the size of scenic elements on the stage, or the amount of space they occupy;

    Color—in addition to the “hue” (what is often meant by “color”: yellow, red, green, pink), color also deals with the saturation or depth of hue (deep or pale);

    Texture—qualities of smoothness or roughness, as well as variation of materials, patterns, or colors;

    Space —the three-dimensional volume of the stage can be divided into positive and negative spaces, with the scenic elements occupying the positive category, leaving the empty negative space free for the actors; and

    Composition—how the scenic elements and the open space between them are arranged within the height, width, and depth of the stage space.

    All of these tools work together, as well. Different masses of color can be arranged to complement or contrast, for instance, and the arrangement of the elements can create a composition that is symmetrical or asymmetrical, balanced or unbalanced. These combinations help to convey mood and emotion. Vertical lines, for instance, are often considered “imposing” (especially when the actor’s body is part of the visual composition), and certain colors carry distinct emotional connections —red, for example, suggests passion or anger. Yet none of these values is innate; they are learned cultural responses. A set designer is always on the lookout for such cultural connotations and the best way to interpret them.

    Though it is actually the responsibility of the technical director to determine the appropriate materials and methods of construction for realizing the set designer’s creation, most designers are intimately familiar with both the catalogue of scenic elements and building techniques. Among the more common scenic elements available in most theatres are the following:

    Flats — two-dimensional panels, often made of either stretched canvas or thin plywood attached to a wooden frame. Flats are commonly used to create interior or exterior walls or other vertical expanses. They may rise from the stage floor or be suspended from overhead and can be joined together to increase the size of the mass;

    Platforms—large horizontal units, typically composed of heavy plywood on a frame. Platforms can create various levels. Depending on the height of its elevation, a platform can suggest a raised floor or a second story; spaced far apart, platforms can suggest different locations within the same scene;

    Wagons—essentially platforms on casters, wagons permit the movement of different levels around the stage space. This movement may be integral to the play, like the one used to transport the dead bodies in a production of the Greek tragedy The Oresteia, or it might answer a more practical question such as a quick scene change;

    Turntable, or Revolve—a special kind of circular platform, the turntable pivots around its center, revealing different aspects to the audience at different times. It is a handy scene-change device, and some older theatres have turntables built into their stages;

    Step Units and Stairways—short flights of steps or full-height stairways, providing access to or from different levels of platforms;

    Drops —large fabric panels filling the entire vertical expanse of the stage behind the performance area, drops can be of the following types:

    о Backdrops—usually made of canvas or muslin and painted to represent almost any locale, backdrops are typically created to meet the particular needs of a play and may be painted many times.

    о Cyclorama—often fabricated of special seamless canvas, a cy- clorama, or “eye,” is typically white or light blue. It is commonly used, in cooperation with the lighting designer, to create a “sky” behind the set or to present washes of color.

    о Scrim—large loosely woven expanses of fabric, scrims have the ability, because of their weave, to appear opaque when lit from the front (audience) side, yet fade into transparency when lit from behind.

    In todays theatre, a set designer might also have available some amazing technology, including projections, lasers, and automated mechanics. Indeed, many Broadway hits probably would not have been possible without recent technological innovations.

    The set designer’s penultimate step in the design process is recording and communicating the myriad details that comprise the design to the technicians and artisans who bring it to life. This can be a rather large set of information and may be communicated through many channels. Among the most important types of information are the spatial arrangement of scenic elements in the stage space, the kinds and dimensions of the scenic elements, their colors and textures, and any changes in the set over the course of the performance. But a set designer must also provide details on the furnishings and decoration of the set.

    Some theatres employ a props designer, and part of that job involves assisting the set designer, but in many eases the set designer must also include the selection of furniture, carpets, draperies, and lighting fixtures, as well as decorative items like paintings, kniekknaeks, books on the shelves, and “memorabilia.” This last category of prop often affords the set designer great opportunity to help the audience understand the characters’ lives. For example, a college pennant on the bedroom wall might recall happier days as a football hero for the character of Brick in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

    No single channel can communicate all of the details comprising a set design, and so a designer employs several. The sketches mentioned earlier may be refined, with adjustments made to accurately convey proportions and placements, and color can be added to the sketches. In a finalized form, such sketches become renderings and these become the guide for building and finishing the set. Some of the detailed information, though, is quite technical —the dimensions of individual scenic elements and their precise placement on the stage, for example —and is best conveyed in mathematical terms. This information is best conveyed by a more formal type of drawing. Whether they are drafted by hand using a straightedge and pencil or digitally through software like AutoCAD or VeetorWorks, these mechanical drawings provide accurate measurements that can easily be transferred to the materials in use, as well as particular details about an object (a rounded edge on a piece of wall trim, maybe) or its placement on the stage.

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    Set rendering for The Woman in the Dunes, Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, 2011. Designed by Mi hai Ciupe.

    Two special types of meehanieal drawing are predominant in the theatre: the groundplan view, which represents the stage or object as if looking down on it from above; and the elevation, which represents the stage or object as if looking at it directly from one side. These two types of drawings always include the dimensions of each aspect of the object or space, and they complement one another; a single object may require two, three, four, or more drawings to convey all of the information relevant to it.

    Imagine a simple cube. To represent it by meehanieal drawing, a set designer might offer a plan that shows the top of the cube. This drawing would be accompanied by four elevation views —one for each of the four sides. Finally, a special inversion of the groundplan view (called a reflected plan) would present the bottom of the cube. Because the meehanieal drawings are fundamentally a channel of communication, though, the set designer can use some obvious shortcuts. In the ease of the cube, for instance, a plan view and one elevation might suffice, if the set designer includes a written note stating that the bottom will be a mirror image of the top, and that all four sides are the same.

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    Example of a groundplan. Designed and drafted by Jason Myron Wright.

    Of the two, the type of drawing most used is probably the groundplan. This bird’s-eye view shows outlines of the walls of the theatre building, the stage, and the audience area. It also represents the outlines of the scenic elements that make up the set, including the furnishings. When appropriate, the ground plan also illustrates the storage locations of scenic elements not in play during a particular scene, along with the most efficient route these elements should follow during the set change. The set designer’s groundplan is also valuable for the lighting designer, who uses it to determine the placement and uses of the lighting equipment, and to the sound designer, who relies on it to plan the installation of microphones or speakers. Certain elevation drawings, especially those portraying the surfaces of scenic elements that will be visible to the audience, can be colored and used as guides for applying the proper finishes to the set. Called paint elevations, these drawings usually convey not only the final “look” of the set but also details on the number of different colors that might be used, how these should be applied, and special application information.

    The set designer might also build a model of the set, which provides a three-dimensional rendering of the scenic space that is often especially useful to the director. With a model, blocking problems can be worked out, stage pictures can be planned, and a virtual sense of how the performance will appear to the audience can be imagined. A full model is completely and accurately painted, furnished, and decorated just as the actual set will be and can take many hours to complete. It is not unusual, therefore, that either the set designer or the theatre company keeps the models as part of a portfolio or archive. And one final use of the set designers sketches, renderings, and model might be by the marketing department, as images to be used in advertisements or posters.

    While the set designer might be intimately involved in the realization of the design as a finished set, once the design has been recorded in prose, graphically, or as a complete model, it becomes the responsibility of the technical director and a group of skilled technicians and artisans to bring it into being. The technical director oversees all aspects of engineering and fabricating the scenic elements and installing them on the stage in accordance with the set designer’s intents. The technical director, additionally, oversees the operation of the scene shop, where much of the construction takes place. This work is performed by the scenic carpenters, usually led by a master carpenter, and it includes every step from the selection of raw materials, such as lumber, through the dimensioning and shaping of the materials to assembling the parts into completed scenic elements. Scenic carpenters often employ metalworking skills, such as welding and shaping metals, as well as molding, carving, and easting plasties and synthetic foams in todays scene shops as productions adopt new technologies. The constructed scenic elements are finished by the painting crew, often under the guidance of charge artists. These artisans are skilled painters, of course, as their crew name suggests, but their purview also includes applied finishes, such as textured plaster, powdered metals, and carved foams.

    Together, all of the artists, artisans, and technicians discussed in this chapter collaborate to create the theatrical world in which a play lives. The set designer is the theatre artist directly responsible, of course, but at every stage there is an ongoing conversation—between the director and designers, between the designer and the researcher, and between the designer and the technicians and artisans —informing and shaping the set design’s intentions, style, and shape. Throughout the process, and across all of the conversations, telling the play’s story and making the telling as clear and comprehensible as possible is the prime objective. As the most solid visual aspect of a production, the work of the set designer is an embodiment of the production concept.

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