Decide Your Style
Directors usually have a good idea of what type and style of scenery will be required for a production, based on the type of play and the acting area. For a traditional theatre with a proscenium arch most plays will be performed with a box or composite set. A box set is basically a representation of an interior made from scenic flats, a composite set will represent several rooms, perhaps a lounge, hall and kitchen for example.
- Example of a typical box or composite set
Scenery is not always required, but instead you may use platforms, boxes and steps to represent different locations, and use lighting to vary the appearance. Some stylised plays may need no scenic flats at all, but use smaller set pieces, a doorway or perhaps a wall. For quick scene changes you may even use a stage truck already set with furniture and props. Musicals and pantomimes especially may have a large number of different settings, so often a basic set design is used and locations suggested with extra simple add-ons or different lighting.
Sometimes the director will have decided to perform on a thrust stage. In this set up some of the acting area projects into the audience, like a fashion show catwalk. Most of the scenic elements will then be in the upstage area, representing perhaps several interior and exterior locations. A variation on thrust is "in the round", where the audience sit on all four sides of the stage. Almost no scenery is possible so again a lot has to be done to represent the settings using steps, and other smaller set pieces.
Designing the scenery requires careful attention to the style and period of the play. Make sure you have read and understand the requirements of the play - does it need doors, windows and other features in particular places?
Research the period playing close attention to the styles of decoration and furniture. Consult the director and people responsible for costumes and lighting to make sure what you have in mind will not conflict with their requirements. Some productions do not need a naturalistic setting, so you might use screens with different designs or silhouettes to represent your locations.
Measure up the area you have and fit in the required elements. Try drawing a scale plan of the stage including features like the furniture. When you are happy with the layout make a scale model. This will help the actors too, because they will have to rehearse without the set until very near the actual performances.
Colour is important on stage as it is often used to influence the audience and develop the atmosphere.
- Suggestions on using colour
The Stage Manager will usually be in charge of the team (or simply responsible for) making the scenery. Sometimes you will already have all you need so the main task is transporting and erecting the set. More often you will find that you need a special set-piece or purpose made flat.
Actually making scenic flats is much easier using ready measured and cut kits of woodwork. They can take a variety of forms, from plain flats that are fully canvassed to those having openings for a door or window. The dimensions can vary to suit the height of your stage, be sure that none of your scenery is going to foul on lighting bars of any permanent features of the building.
Set-pieces are unlikely to be re-used, so you can economise on the construction materials. Cut-outs and other profiles can be manufactured from hardboard or plywood with wooden reinforcement and braces.
All stage furniture, curtains and scenery must be properly fire-proofed. If you receive a visit from a Fire Prevention Officer and he is not satisfied with your fire-proofing he can and will prevent the production for going ahead. Ensure all materials on stage are fire-proofed using professional products. There are many home-made "recipes" for fire-proofing but they are not guaranteed to work. Consult your Fire Prevention Officer for advice.
copyright Leigh Graham 1997-2010.