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.