The World on a Stage: Designing Sets for the Theater

March 23, 2006

It starts with a vision − a vision that first exists only in the designer’s mind and later becomes an entire world on the stage. It is into this world where performers and audiences are transported. And it’s made possible through scenography.

Scenography is the art of creating the sets for a theater production. While it’s the technical director’s job to evaluate the set designs and manage the budget and crew, the concepts for the scenery are created by a designer.

The Set Designer in Europe and in the US

In Europe, one designer, also called a scenographer, is in charge of designing all of the visual aspects of a production from the sets and costumes to the lighting. State subsidized arts funding allows for a long pre-production time and for designers who work on a yearly or seasonal salary. As a result, there is ample time and money for set design and construction for each production.

In the US, however, pre-production time is squeezed because of limits on funding. The funding comes mainly from corporate and individual sources, rather than the government. So, design responsibilities are often divvied up among a team of specialists hired as freelancers for each production.  Collaboration among the technical crew and designers is key to bringing about unity in the design and quick construction of the sets.

Regardless of where a production is presented, the designer is also expected to incorporate the director’s vision and the needs of the performers into the design.

The Process

After getting a solid grasp on all the elements of the performance (such as the text, dance, music or story), the designer creates construction drawings, models, renderings, and/or paint elevations to guide the technical crew in building the sets.  The drafting of plans are aided by the use of computer software such as AutoCAD.

The designer also attends rehearsals to see how performers interact on the stage and to test design ideas. The designer uses the information to refine the plans.

The crew then takes the models and begins to develop them into huge sets that cover the stage. In construction there will inevitably be disparities between what the designer envisioned and what is possible to build. In other words, the designer might have a beautiful concept that leaves the carpenter scratching his head trying to figure out how to build it. The process is a creative collaboration between the designer and the carpenter. If the set can’t be built, the carpenter may go back to the designer for revisions to the design or ask for a new plan all together.

The Finished Work

Though vitally important to a performance, scenography is simply one part of the production as a whole. Theater productions are costly undertakings that require the work of numerous people behind the scenes, substantial funding and a strong commitment from all involved in order to be successful. That said, a designer’s work is not complete when the set is built, but when the curtain is raised and the performers step onto the stage.

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