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SET DESIGN: PRACTICE

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SET DESIGN: THEORY

As an eclectic designer I follow different design processes depending on the play, director and work situation. My analysis of the play is deeply rooted in the dramatic action of the text while keeping in mind the directorial interpretation. Some plays call for numerous thumbnail sketches and copious research; some demand exploration of dramatic space through models, while others invite a metaphorical or imagistic approach. I enjoy exchanging ideas, research, and visual images with the production team to create a unified approach to the design scheme. Over time I have discovered that showing the director and the other designers a wealth of images early in the process helps us to distill down the ideas through the images that appeal to the whole team. From this point my process varies quite a lot. Sometimes I begin to with thumbnails, other times I start developing the design from the floorplan, and still other times I begin with models.

A good floor plan is critical to the success of any production. I have found that, when possible, walking the bare stage with the director often allows us to develop a clearer understanding of the movement patterns, kinesthetic rhythms and tempos inherent in the language of the play. This is especially true when working with directors or choreographers who come from acting and dance backgrounds and have little formal training in directing and the visual arts. After walking the stage with the director, the design and floor plan often fly from my thoughts onto my drawing pad and I quickly start developing value study sketches and models.

When I sense the play calls for a more three-dimensional approach I often begin playing with 1/8" or 1/4" paper models. These are crude card stock and Scotch tape "sketch" models that I can show to the director to see if we are heading in the same direction. These "throw away" models can be cut or torn apart and re-taped during our design meetings adding a sense of fun and collaboration to the design process. Once the idea begins to solidify I shift to sketching and drafting out the floorplan and wall units in 1/4" scale. After I have developed these sketches fully I copy them on card stock and cut and paste them together to make sure the drawings are accurate, the scenic units fit, the sightlines are acceptable, and the general composition is working. These small models easily sit on the rehearsal table for reference without taking up too much room. They are also easy to ship to the director when we are working in separate cities. So I view these models as tools for the director to use and refer to throughout the rehearsal process.

I usually take a digital picture of the models, which I print and trace onto drafting vellum so I can begin to draw a series of penciled value studies (I readily admit that I haven't drafted a true perspective sketch in several years due to the use of digital reproduction). These pictures are also useful to the construction crew and come in handy if the model doesn't survive the shipping or rehearsal process. At this point I begin to draft the 1/2" scale front elevations adding details that wouldn't readily appear in the study model.

I rarely have time to do a complete 1/2" color presentation model, so along with the study model I typically paint a rendering based upon the model pictures. If there are multiple sets, I select one key scene for the color rendering and do 1/8" or 1/4" value studies of all the other scenes. With each value study I include a same scale floor plan for reference.

When I'm working in an unfamiliar theater space, the first thing I do is translate the ground plan and section into a 1/4" model to help familiarize myself with the theater space. This stimulates a lot of questions about the space, which I then have to answer before proceeding too far in the design process. This saves a lot of unpleasant surprises during the load–in of the show.

By this time ideas for color are being developed, and it is easy to apply colored papers to the white model, if it is still available, or with colored pencils or water colors on copies of the value studies and 1/2"technical elevations. Some times color ideas just leap from the script while other times I must wait to hear from the other designers. Often for an presentational show, like a Greek tragedy or Elizabethan play, I choose a more neutral palate to allow costumes, props, and lighting to add color and tone to tell the story. Once colors are established I provide paint elevations for the scenic artists along with important images from the design process. I usually have fairly definite ideas on how to paint my shows, but I'm really very happy to work with a seasoned scenic artist who can take my ideas several steps beyond my small elevations.

I am a very prop-oriented designer and do copious research on the styles of ornament, furniture and furnishings for a given period. I provide these images at the production meetings, and, after these are narrowed down to our selected imagery, I share them with the props artisans. These pictures often illustrate accessories not specifically called for or needed in a production, but will enhance the overall world of the character. I feel my acting and character training was very beneficial to my ability to make the scenery and props work with the actors helping them to create their characters. Perhaps the compliment I take most pride in from the many actors I have designed sets for is when they tell me my sets are "friendly," facilitating their characters' inner emotions and physical interaction with the setting.

The research, models, perspective renderings, and technical drawings created by the set designer are like guide posts or maps to communicate the destination of the production. However, like any journey the production may venture in new directions requiring the design to evolve and service the discoveries of the playwright, director and actors. The rehearsal process is a journey of discovery and it is the job of the designer and crew to facilitate these new discoveries along the way. The set designer can't sit back when the drawings are finished but must continue to solve problems as they arise, all the while being conscious of the constraints of budget, production schedule, and personnel. I try to work closely with the director, technical director, scenic artist and props master on ways to realize the director and actors needs without breaking the budget or the crew.


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