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.