In this corner, the designer…

A few weeks ago, browsing through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick. As I was flipping pages, one statement jumped out at me, to the effect that engineers are interested in things in and of themselves, while architects are interested in how people interact with those things. The author did not elaborate, but, for me, he didn’t need to: after my fifteen years in the architectural field working with architects and engineers on a daily basis, I could totally relate to this.

But I could also relate to it from the theatrical viewpoint, where there is often an undercurrent of… shall we say… competition between set designers and technical directors, carpenters, and shop staff. The set designer wants his pieces to “look” and “function” as he intended, while the tech people often want to simplify the construction by using stock pieces and materials. In my experience, this desire for simplification is generally attributed to budgetary reasons such as not enough money or not enough time. And sometimes that’s a valid point.

The sad part, however–and I’ve seen it many many times–is that sometimes simplification is viewed as an “us against them” statement. It gets personal. It becomes a win-lose situation, where either the designer “wins” or the shop “wins.” But one of them, by definition, “loses.”

The solution: a win-win-win

Back when I was working at a major scenic studio and estimating jobs sent in by designers or production companies, we often came up with a price that was higher than what the client had anticipated. Sometimes it was a minimal increase, but other times it was a huge difference. The way we dealt with it was to sit down with the production company (often the technical director and designer) to review the drawings and point out where the problems were. It was totally business. We made suggestions as to where expenses could be reduced, and the tech director and designer responded, often with their own suggestions. In the end, sometimes after two or three hours (or several sessions), we arrived at solutions that served the production itself, the design intent, and the client’s budget.

It was a win-win-win. The production company wanted a gorgeous set and got it; the designer wanted a portfolio piece and got it; and we were able to build it on the client’s budget and schedule and still make a profit, so we too got what we wanted.

But what made it work was that communication process where everyone came to the table with the same goal in mind. We were all on the same page. We all wanted to do our best work and have something to show for it.

In the end, that process would have never worked in an environment where there’s no leadership: no one to say, look, we are all on the same team here. It’s not “In this corner, the designer,” and “In that corner, the techies.”

A set design from start to finish

As I said in another post, we never had the opportunity to watch our professors go through the entire design process (although we did participate in production meetings and other areas), so here I’m going to discuss how the process works. It’s very similar to how an architect works when he or she designs a building: discussions with the client about the intent, preliminary concepts, final design, and construction documents. Plus, of course, the budget and schedule.

I will be doing play-by-play postings on a couple of future set designs, but, in the meantime, I’m going to use a show I did in 2008, titled An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. The play is set in England in 1911, during the Edwardian period, and concerns a suicide by a young female factory worker and the subsequent investigation. However, the story is really about how the upper classes of the period tended to isolate themselves from any social responsibility.

Step 1: Pre-design

My first step in the process was reading the play and doing some preliminary research on the Edwardian period: the history, the general mentality, the class structure, and the architecture. I also watched the movie – made in 1954 and starring Alastair Sim – knowing full well that it went beyond the story in the play itself.

Then I met with the director to discuss the story, the characters, the themes, and the period, and what she wanted to say with the play. It took about an hour, and I don’t recall either one of us mentioning doors or entrances or platforms or any technical stuff. Instead, the term “isolation” kept coming up. I walked out of there with a much better understanding of who these characters were than I had before, and a good sense of what kind of house they would have.

Here I went over the script again, this time to get a sense of what was going on physically: who came in, who left, what they were doing, and so forth. The entire story takes place in the dining room, after a formal dinner to celebrate the daughter’s engagement to a (rich, of course) young man. Now I was getting a sense of the traffic patterns, but that theme of isolation from the world kept coming up over and over.

Step 2: Conceptual Design

Now I grabbed my sketchbook and a pencil and spent some time trying to visualize this sense of isolation. We had a nice big stage to work with, so my first impulse was to create a smallish dining room in the center of the stage, not connected to anything, floating in a sea of black. And very close to the audience.

Below are a few of my initial sketches, from an 8-1/2” x 11” sketchbook. At this point I’m thinking about the shapes that will help develop the themes in the story – the architecture, the traffic, the characters, and the fact that theater doesn’t have to be literal. There’s no way I could have been this loose at this point with anything other than a pencil. Besides, I was sitting comfortably in my living room with a mug of coffee.


After a fair number of these sketches, I put down the notebook and went off to do something else, leaving those shapes to rattle around inside my head. Later, I came back and looked at them again, realized they worked, and decided to go in that direction.

At this point I wanted to see how this concept would fit on the physical stage. I already had a CAD drawing of the stage, so I decided to just go for it instead of sketching it on paper. Notice how loose the drawing is: I’m just focusing on the size and placement and angle of the set, and not on the details. Even so, it took a good couple of hours of tweaking and adjusting the proportions and angles, and the placement, before I was happy with it. It was at this point that I decided to “float” the set off the stage floor, but that’s another story.


Now I sat back, looked at it again, made a few more adjustments, and imported it into SketchUp to develop it in 3D. This, by the way — this point right here — is where so many people immediately start thinking about flats and platforms. And it’s exactly the point where you don’t want to get hung up on flats and platforms. There will be plenty of time for that later: right now you’re wearing your designer hat, not your builder hat.

A few more hours and more tweaking later, and the result (below) was a computerized version of what we call a “white model.” This was what I showed the director at our next meeting, right on the computer, so I could “walk her” around the set. I find directors and choreographers love being able to see the set from different directions while it’s still a work in progress.

Inspector 1

Step 3: Final Design

Once she and I agreed to go in this direction, it was time to develop the white model into a finished model. At this point I did more research, this time into architectural details, interior décor, and furniture. The sketchbook came out again (below) as I worked out some of these details.


Eventually, the SketchUp model was done and ready for another meeting. This time there was enough detail to show the floor, walls, colors, furniture, and artwork, but not to excruciating, photo-realistic detail. SketchUp was intended for use as a conceptual design tool, not as a rendering tool, and I find this is fantastic for my work, since the rendering (or the model) is just a means to an end, and not the end in itself. It’s very easy to get so carried away with the model or the rendering that the time and the money are gone before construction begins. The final rendering is shown below.

Inspector 2

Incidentally, I showed this to the cast at their first rehearsal, again on the computer, and they loved being able to “feel” the space and walk around it. On subsequent shows, I’ve used a video projector, plugged into the laptop, to project the model onto the wall so it’s larger and easier to see, especially for a large cast. It’s the same effect as the old days, when I used to make a physical scale model and show it to the cast, but now I just need to carry the laptop and the projector.

Step 4: Shop Drawings

Finally, it was time to prepare the shop drawings, including finalized floor plans, elevations, sections, and details. This is the point where we start thinking about those things we call flats and platforms. One of these drawings, for the fireplace details, is shown below; I did all these in 11×17 format, just for convenience, instead of the more common 24×36 size.


I also blew up some of the architectural details (below) and printed them for the shop crew so they would be able to visualize them better. The fireplace ended up being painted to look like stone, but there was no need to show it on this drawing.

Inspector 3

So there it is: a set design from start to finish. There’s nothing sacred about the steps and the sequence, but most of us follow this general format. It’s also the format used by architects and lots of other designers, and it works well. For a lot of us, it’s a mantra: start with the forest and then get into the trees and the branches and the leaves. Do the research. Understand what we’re trying to do, and have fun with it.

I love SketchUp

Ever since another set designer introduced me to SketchUp back around ’06, I’ve been using it almost exclusively for my design work. SketchUp is a 3D visualization program that comes in a free version and a professional version, and is being used more and more by set designers, architects, engineers, and others.

Besides being very easy to use and very flexible, SketchUp has a world-wide user community that’s always coming up with extensions, add-ons, material libraries, collections of components, and even RUBY files for creating custom short-cuts. The professional version comes with an add-on, called LayOut, that you can use to prepare complete shop drawings from the 3D models. I used AutoCAD for years for my shop drawings, but recently I’m using LayOut more and more. I’m not giving up on AutoCAD yet, but so far LayOut has worked just fine. There are even third-party rendering programs that allow you to insert lights in your SketchUp models.

The caveat, though, and I’ve run into it over and over, is that SketchUp was created as a schematic visualization tool and not as a design tool. One of the things set designers do when creating a set is to draw a number of very small, loose sketches (known as thumbnail sketches) to get the overall look and feel out of the way before moving on to the details. Architects and other designers often do the same: it’s a way to see the big picture first, to define it and refine it and play with it until it’s right. Some of us do dozens of these “thumbnail sketches” before arriving at the look we want. And by small, I mean small: a sketch for a set on a 40 foot wide stage can be as small as two inches across. The sketches go fast and are disposable.

I’ve tried doing these directly in SketchUp, but it doesn’t work for me. Even using a stylus on a touch tablet, I find I get hung up on the primitives (the squares, circles, arcs, and such, not to mention the various tools) very fast and my sketches look very mechanical. For me, a pencil is much freer. So I use my sketchbook or the back of an envelope first, the sketches getting larger and larger, and only move onto SketchUp when I know exactly where I’m going. Even once I’m using SketchUp, I often go back to paper and pencil to study and work out details.

Like many other computer programs, SketchUp is a tool. You need to know what you want to do before you can use the program to do it. There is a learning curve (especially with LayOut, which requires some knowledge of drafting), but most users I’ve known have been up and running in a short time. Even after years using it, I’m still learning new techniques.

Since things change very fast nowadays, I’m not going to include a link to SketchUp here, but you can look it up in your favorite search engine and go right to their current site to download the free version or purchase the professional version. You can also see some of my own set designs, using SketchUp, on my web site, at

Problem solving: the barricade in Les Miz

One of my favorite things to say to young designers and techies is to avoid going with the obvious. It’s almost like saying, think outside the box, but without resorting to the cliché.

Case in point: a production of Les Miz I designed for a theatre group in Newark, CA. This group plays at the local high school, which has a nice auditorium, complete with stage, lights, control room, a shop right behind the stage, and so forth. However, the stage was designed more for choral concerts and dance recitals than for theatre: the proscenium opening is about forty feet wide by fourteen high, and the stage is twenty-eight feet deep. There is wing space on the sides, but not much. You get the idea.

The director of course wanted a huge barricade, and I had to agree: anything less than huge on that stage would have looked like a postage stamp. And of course the barricade has to revolve to show both sides. An early idea at a production meeting was to rent a 12’ revolve, but I nixed it, both from the standpoint that it would be too small and that it would create other problems. The barricade ended up being twenty feet wide (which was dictated by the amount of open space) by about seven high when covered with stuff, and four deep.

After a long discussion with myself while looking at the floor plan, I agreed that the barricade had to split in half, with one side stored in each wing. There was no other way. Then came the fun part: how to get it onstage, how to connect it together, and how to make it revolve.

The solution turned out to be simple, but I did have to get rid of all pre-conceived notions of “typical” revolves and wagons.

We installed a trailer jack (from Harbor Freight, which was right down the street) on one of the halves. There were two crew members inside each half, who pushed their halves onstage to meet right at a preselected spot. Then the trailer jack, which had a small piece of ply with a non-skid mat on the bottom, was cranked so the ply sat securely on the stage. It didn’t take much pressure to create a secure pivot point. Finally, the two halves were attached together with large C-clamps at the horizontal braces. The onstage end of each half was covered with rough brown burlap to hide the crew inside, and the top was left open for ventilation.


What the audience saw was the two halves rolling on stage on their own (no one was visibly pushing them), come together, and revolve on cue. Then the two halves (each with eight dead bodies on it) separated and rolled back offstage. I didn’t take many photos of this show, but you can see a few on my web site, at

I make no claim that this is an original solution, but it worked well and was relatively simple.

Urban legends

There are a number of misconceptions about sets and scenery which keep coming up over and over, so I’m going to use this post to address a few of them.

  1. “Everything has to be realistic.” — This is far more important in the movies than in a stage set, since in the movies we are made to feel like we’re right there in the middle of the action. When we go to the theater, we accept certain conventions, such as the “fourth wall” and the “willing suspension of disbelief.” On stage, it’s far more important and effective to evoke a feeling of the environment than to try to duplicate reality.
  2. “All sets are made of flats.” —  A flat is a piece of scenery that was created long ago for a specific purpose: to serve as a flat surface such as a wall. Many stage sets don’t have flat surfaces, and therefore don’t need flats.
  3. “You have to fill the stage with scenery.” —  You need to create a picture, but it doesn’t have to consist only of scenery pieces. The best set I’ve ever seen was at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-on-Avon, one summer when they were doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep. The set was simply a raked stage, from the footlights to the back wall of the theater. That was it. No backdrops, no flats, no masking, nothing. We literally saw the back wall of the theater and all the rigging, pipes, and everything else back there. But when those actors came on the stage, they grabbed you and shook you and pulled you right into the story.
  4. “The audience won’t notice it (aka the five-foot rule).” —  Audiences can be very forgiving, especially when they know it’s not a professional production, but they do “notice it.” They will see everything on that stage as it is, not as how you think it is.
  5. “Paint it black and nobody will see it.” —  Black paint doesn’t make stuff invisible. If it did, a lot of us would be in federal prison just for knowing about it (and never mind writing about it). The “black on black” principle works for specific applications, but, generally, an object painted black looks just like what it is: an object painted black. Scenic artists rarely use black paint by itself unless there’s a very good reason for it in the design, and almost never for shadows.

Learning set design: looking back

I had some very good professors in college, all of whom were preparing us for professional careers in theatre or film. However, knowing what I know now, there are a few things I would have done differently if I had been the professors.

One is that set design classes typically start on the drawings very fast: here’s a show, design a set for it. I would have spent more time studying good sets in theatre, opera, and dance as well as film, and discussed them in terms of the stories they supported. We would have studied sets from the Greek period (when they were a permanent part of the theatre building), through medieval mystery plays, to the Renaissance, Restoration, the 19th century, and the various “isms” of the 20th century. We would have also watched movies, from the early silent films through the expressionist movement of the 30s, to the moodiness of the 40s, and finally to today’s computer-graphic-intense offerings. And then there’s television: the early sitcoms of the 50s through the sets used today.

Why? Mostly for the same reason medical schools start off with a gross anatomy class, where the students dissect a cadaver so they can understand the entire body and how it works before they get into the details. My students would understand what set design is before I ever asked them to design a set. But I would also do it to help the students decide if this field is for them, or if they are really more interested in the technical end than the design end. We spent a lot of time in the scene shop all throughout school, so we had to learn all the technical stuff too, but the design classes were always separate.

A second thing I would have done differently is to require at least some drawing and drafting classes (or skills) before starting to design sets. Drawing and drafting are just languages used to communicate ideas, and you don’t have to be an artist to learn drawing or an engineer to learn drafting. I probably had an unfair advantage in that I was drawing from a very early age, and then took mechanical drawing in junior high (which broke my heart because I wanted to take wood shop), but it’s so difficult to express what’s inside your head if you can’t put it on paper because you don’t have the skills. Worse yet is the danger of letting the pencil drive the hand instead of the hand driving the pencil.

A third thing would have been for the students to watch me go through the process of designing a set, from the first production meeting to the research, preliminary drawings, discussions with the director and tech staff, and all the way to the shop drawings and follow-up. I never had the opportunity to watch my professors do this, and, although they did tell us about doing dozens of tiny little sketches and tossing them in the trash before settling on a design – and being a young student – I wasn’t sure I believed it. I got frustrated many times because the design just wouldn’t come, and it would have made me feel a lot easier if I’d been able to see my professors’ wastebaskets full of crumpled-up paper… not to mention maybe adding some choice language to my vocabulary.

One thing I would do the same, however, would be to have separate tech theatre classes and labs. When I was in grad school, undergrad theatre majors had to take a semester each of scenery, lights, and costumes. The scenery class, which I taught for two years, consisted of two half-semester units. The first half was classroom instruction, with a textbook, on aspects of scenery construction, rigging, and such, and frequent hands-on demos in the shop or elsewhere in the theatre. The second half was drafting for the theatre, using the same textbook. The “lab,” which consisted of actually working in the scene or costume shop, or on a light crew, was totally separate. I’ve seen too many “tech theatre classes” where the students basically just help build the set, and there’s very little if any classroom instruction. Granted some colleges don’t have the resources to do separate classes, but, from my experience, it makes a huge difference in how the students turn out.