The script, the set, and stage directions

This post was re-written, with new information, on 1/31/17

Most published scripts include some information besides the dialogue itself. It could be as simple as “Enter Ophelia” or more detailed, like the character “picks up the knife and crosses 3 steps DS to sofa, then sits down.” Generally, this information is collectively known as “stage directions.”

There has been some controversy over the years, however, as to whether this additional information was put there by the playwright – and is therefore part of the script – or whether it was put there by the stage manager as a record of the first production of the play. To further confuse things, the term “stage directions” is usually applied to anything besides the dialogue, which means that it can refer to material put there by the author as well as by the original stage manager. But mostly there is no cut-and-dried way to tell the difference.

When I was training as a set designer, we were always taught that the bulk of the stage directions – especially complex blocking – was put there by the original stage manager as a record of the first production, but that things like entrances and exits were usually put there by the playwright to cue us in as to what happens next, or to show a character’s motivation. We were expected to have a good idea of which was which by careful study of the script and the story, and, mostly, we ignored complex blocking notations as well as detailed descriptions about the set and furniture placement.

But, having listened to a number of arguments about this over the years, I decided to write a note to Samuel French – one of the major and oldest play publishers – to ask if they had any historical references that could clarify why so many scripts have all this additional material.

And I received a very nice response from Garrett Anderson, which I’m quoting with his permission:

“Most older plays were published for the sake of replicating productions which is why scripts were often copied from stage managers’ or directors’ prompt books. The scripts were used less for being read or taught, and more as tools for regional theaters or touring houses to reproduce a play. I believe there was even a point in time in which Samuel French offered rental set pieces and makeup kits along with scripts to help theatres outside of New York and London produce these shows.

“There was a point within the past 35-ish years in which writers took back stage directions as a way to express themselves and add some tone to their plays. Again, I believe this to be a result of scripts being read, taught, and regarded as literature as opposed to just being used for production. That being said, there are playwrights today who do both. Some of them are fully aware that their plays are being produced by smaller community theatres strictly for the sake of performance and feel the need to dictate blocking and set pieces and other production based directions in their scripts.”

So what does all this mean? It means there’s no clear-cut answer. However, the FAQs page on Samuel French’s web site offers a good response to “Do we have to follow the stage directions?”

“You are not bound to the stage directions but take care not to alter the author’s intent. There are exceptions to this and in the case where stage directions must be followed explicitly, you will be asked to sign an additional rider to your licensing agreement which explains the requirement.”

Dramatists Play Service is another major publisher of plays. Their web site goes on to say:

“Stage directions are hard guidelines rather than strict rules. A certain amount of flexibility is allowed because theatres and set designs vary from production to production. It may not be possible, for instance, for a character to enter stage left, even if that’s indicated by a stage direction, if the physical limitations of space or design prevent it. Any stage directions that are crucial to the plot of the play or illustrate something about a character should certainly be followed.”

That middle sentence makes a lot of sense to directors and designers: it may not be possible, for instance, to go by the entrances and exits if the physical stage, or the design, prevents it. A play done on a thrust stage, or in the round, will have differences in how space is used as compared to the same play done on a proscenium stage. A set built for a few hundred dollars will have limitations compared to the same set built for several thousand. Yet the story itself – the thoughts and motivations of the characters as they encounter conflicts and try to resolve them – can be exactly the same.

Not being locked into the stage directions in the script, or the set as drawn, frees us to be creative and to focus on the story and the characters instead of on “detailed instructions.” As a set designer, I’ve often had to remind directors that so-and-so can’t (for instance) slam that door because we’re doing the play in the round and agreed that we didn’t need doors. So the director and I (and often the actor) can work together to find another way for the character to express himself, based on the character’s motivation. It often results in a richer, more compelling characterization and a more interesting production.

The set designer’s scope of work, Part 2

I covered the designer’s deliverables in Part 1, so here I’m going to cover tasks which are expected of set designers (and which they expect to do) as well as optional services.

Expected tasks

In addition to providing the sketches, models, shop drawings, and similar items, set designers are also expected to do a few more things. One of them is to visit the construction shop at pre-arranged intervals to review the construction and painting, answer questions, and provide guidance as necessary. As with production meetings, this seems to work better if the schedule (once a week, every other week, or another interval) is agreed to at the start of the project, since the shop and the designer can then plan their schedules accordingly.

Another task is to attend technical rehearsals as appropriate. Generally, the set designer’s role at these is to make sure furniture and set dressing are correct, that scenery pieces can move in and out easily, and to note any technical problems or items which still need attention. It’s totally possible that some technical rehearsals may have nothing to do with the set, so there may not be any point in having the set designer present. Once again, the designer’s attendance at these should be discussed up front.

Attending dress rehearsals is a matter of choice, of need, and of availability. If the show involves frequent shifting of scenery, or tight coordination between the set and the lights, or something similar, then the set designer would want to be there for some or all of these rehearsals. Otherwise there’s no need.

Optional services

While union rules in professional theatre are very explicit as to the set designer’s scope of work, non-professional companies (especially the smaller ones) generally have no such rules. Some companies expect the set designer to build, paint, provide furniture or props, and/or any combination of these. It’s mostly a matter of “we’ve always done it this way,” and here’s another area where defining and agreeing to the expectations at the start of the project is very useful.

Because set designers are not all trained the same way (and, as I mentioned elsewhere, some have no formal training), they will have different backgrounds, skills, and interests. When I was in school, design and construction were treated separately: we had different classes and labs (and prerequisites) for each one, but, in the end, we were expected to be able to draft and build what we, or another designer, created. Likewise for painting, which was another skill we were taught. However, even then, some of us gravitated more to building than to painting, or to design than to drafting, or any combination thereof. So, even though we all had the same extensive training, most of us ended up with our little “specialties.”

These specialties can be put to use and become a win-win for the company and the designer. A set designer who is excellent at scenic painting, for instance, can contract separately for this work if he or she is available, or the work and its fee can be added to the basic contract. Other set designers may be highly skilled at carpentry, welding, prop making, special effects, or similar areas. It can be additional work for the designer as well as provide the company with a skilled specialist.

The set designer’s scope of work, Part 1

I mentioned elsewhere that the actual type of work generally performed by a set designer isn’t always understood, either by some production companies or by designers who have no formal training in the subject. So it’s time to help out a little bit. I described the design process in A Set Design From Start to Finish, so, in this post, I’m going to focus on the deliverables, i.e., what the designer provides to the production company. Additional (optional) services will be covered in Part 2.

1. Initial rough sketches and drawings.

After one or more discussions with the director about the story, the themes, the period, the atmosphere, the characters, and so forth, the set designer prepares one or more rough sketches to illustrate the design concept. These are usually in pencil and rather loose, and show the overall look and feel, but very little if any detail. These sketches are reviewed with the director and any desired revisions or details are noted.

Personally, I like to let the director take a couple of days to think about these sketches before getting back to me, but I keep finding that more and more of them just have a few comments and we’re off and running.

2. Developed sketches

At this point the designer will develop these sketches to show more detail, furniture placement, plans for different scenes, and similar items. These can be in black and white or color, but still leave room for discussion and revisions. They will be likewise reviewed with the director. Once the director approves the concept, it’s time for the next deliverable.

3. The final design

This usually takes the form of a scale model or a color rendering, although more and more designers like to present a 3D computer model. In any case, this final design spells out each scene and what it will look like, as well as information about how scenery units move or are parked offstage between scenes.  The director will then approve this before the next step.

4. Construction documents

These are the “blueprints” defining the floor plan, elevations, details, and so on, that the shop will use to build the set. Some production companies prefer designer’s elevations, which show views of each scenery element (to scale), with dimensions and other necessary details, but not the actual construction methods. The companies then pass these elevations on to their builders, who work out the construction details. Other companies prefer the actual detailed construction drawings. Either way works, but the form preferred by the production company needs to be specified up front, ideally when the designer is hired. The format and style of these drawings are basically the same as for architectural drawings.

This step also includes painters’ elevations (color drawings showing how the various elements will be painted) along with any necessary specifications. The process of painting a set, and the type of paint used, can vary from shop to shop, so I will cover this in a future post.

Finally, the designer provides photos or drawings of any furniture and set dressing required.

That pretty much sums up what set designers generally deliver to the production company, and what most designers expect to deliver. Additional deliverables can of course be requested as part of the scope of work, but these need to be specified ahead of time so the designer can plan accordingly.

Set designers are also expected, and expect, to visit the job site now and then to answer questions, as well as to attend technical rehearsals and similar events, and I will address this in Part 2.

Now… how about building the set, painting, supervising, shopping for props, and so forth?

These services are normally not part of the set designer’s scope of work (and are not allowed in the professional theatre world), although some non-professional companies may want the designer to provide one or more of them. Again this needs to be discussed up front, during the hiring process, as designers will vary in their interest or availability to provide these services. I have seen some designers contract separately for scenic painting or painting supervision, or for providing props and/or furniture, and this can sometimes work out well if both parties agree to it.

A word about set designers

For a number of years now, I’ve noticed that there are various and sundry misconceptions, mostly among non-professional theatre groups, about set designers and what they do. So I’m going to use this post to try to clarify it, and still keep it (reasonably) brief and simple.

For the purposes of this post, live theatre in the U.S. can be divided into two groups: professional (which includes Broadway and similar theatres across the country, along with regional theatres) and non-professional, which consists of community theatres, high schools, and colleges. There is also a difference between for-profit theatres and non-profit ones, but it’s not really relevant here.

The productions in professional companies are mostly staffed by full-time actors, directors, choreographers, designers, and so forth, most of whom belong to one or more trade unions which require some form of entrance exam or portfolio review. Designers, for example, are members of USAA/IATSE, which they join after passing a portfolio review by a board of established designers. The vast majority of these designers have degrees (sometimes advanced degrees) from professional training programs at universities that offer them, and have then worked with established designers for a few years before heading out on their own. They are generally taught the process I described here in A Set Design From Start to Finish or something very similar to it.

In non-professional theatre, however, there are no unions, entrance exams, or similar things. Community theatres are mostly staffed by people who have full-time jobs in other fields, or are retired, and for whom theatre is anywhere between a hobby, an avocation, or a passion. There is no “standardized” process for mounting a production, so companies have different ways of doing it. Although there are always exceptions, most of these folks have no formal training in theatre: they joined the group as volunteers, learned by doing, and often tried different jobs in the company.

One of these jobs is often that of set designer. Someone will volunteer to help build or paint the set, decide they like it, do it a few more times, and eventually decide they want to design a set. So they do a set and then look around for other companies that need set designers, and, in effect, hang up a shingle that says, “Set Designer.”

Remember, I’m trying to keep this brief. 🙂

Is there anything wrong with that? No. Some of these people have done their homework and turned out nice designs, and in some cases excellent designs, often working as volunteers or for a small stipend.

But it does create some recurring problems and a lot of confusion.

One of the recurring problems is that non-professional theatres often have differing expectations about what a set designer does and how he does it: they’ve been “doing it this way” for years, and seem to believe that that’s how everyone else does it. And this problem only perpetuates itself when these companies hire designers who have no formal training, since the designers themselves often don’t understand the process.

So, some companies want strictly volunteer designers, others pay a stipend, and others pay rates that approach union fees. Some expect the set designers to just design and then turn the drawings over to the companies’ builders and painters; some expect the designer to either help build or to become the head builder and painter; some expect the set designer to do all this plus provide props and furniture; and so on. It varies: one from this column and one from that column. Sadly, this difference in expectations can lead to… ahhh… rather unpleasant discussions and finger-pointing later.

It’s really important that the expectations (on both sides) be clear and in writing before hiring a designer. I wrote about the project schedule in another post, and this too needs to be clear up front, as well as the budget and other variables. If the company or the designer feel the expectations are not a good match, this is the time to either negotiate the terms or to politely turn down the partnership. It’s only business.

One suggestion I would make to young designers is to remember that their name is going to be on the set that ends up on the stage. Any add-ons, changes, short-cuts, construction quality issues, and/or replacements made by someone else will still have the set designer’s name on them. And that set, intentionally or not, will be an advertisement for the set designer’s work.

Educational theatres (high schools and colleges) are pretty much like community theatres in that sometimes they have a professional staff and other times they don’t. Sometimes they hire outside designers, and sometimes the same differences in expectations come up.

To sum up, it’s really just a matter of open communication up front and making sure that the production company and the set designer agree as to the scope of work.

A quick guide to production meetings

Production meetings are an important part of the production process, as they keep everyone focused on the goal, which is to present a cohesive, engaging, entertaining story to the audience. But they can also be long, boring, and unproductive. In my experience, the most useful production meetings have had three things in common:

1. They are scheduled on a regular basis

By setting up your meeting schedule at the beginning of the production period, everyone on the team can plan ahead for them. Whether the meetings occur every week, every two weeks, or less often, they will become part of the regular routine.

I have often seen these schedules set up at the first production meeting: “Can we all meet every Tuesday at 1:00? No? You can’t? Okay, let’s see here… how about every Wednesday at 3:00?” and so forth. There will always someone who can’t make a meeting or two, but these will be minimized.

2. There is a standard agenda

By writing down the agenda and distributing it to everyone at each meeting (or emailing it ahead of time), you will be in a better position to keep the meeting on track and productive. The printed agenda is also a handy place to jot down notes and highlight important dates or issues. Also, if the agenda follows the same format every time, people will get used to the routine and plan to use their allotted time effectively.

Here’s a simple, sample agenda:

  • Producer’s update (schedule, budget, other issues)
  • Director’s update (auditions, callbacks, casting, rehearsals, similar issues)
  • Technical director’s update
  • Set design (progress of design, presentation of research material, sketches, schedule, other issues)
  • Lighting design (same as above)
  • Costume design (same as above)
  • Props (same as above)
  • Sound (same as above)
  • Stage manager (rehearsals, schedule, other issues)
  • Publicity (progress, ideas, deadlines, other issues)
  • Concessions (new products, ideas, other issues)
  • Anything else
  • Confirm date & time of next meeting

Meetings like this, with six or eight people at the table, can easily be kept to an hour or even less, as long as somebody (generally the producer or technical director) is chairing them and keeping them on track. In many cases, there will be nothing new to discuss or report in one or more categories, but at least this way nothing falls between the cracks.

3. They are short and to the point

People do fall asleep at meetings; it’s not just a cartoon joke. One way of keeping meetings short and to the point is to use them to discuss only those items that apply to, or involve, everyone (or almost everyone) present.

For instance, a production meeting would not be a good time for the set designer and technical director to have a lengthy conversation about how to cantilever a platform or whether to use lumber or metal to build a tower. It would also not be a good time for the lighting designer and director to discuss each of ninety-six lighting cues, or for the prop master to go into detail about sixteen props.

What does work is for these parties to bring up the subject and then set up a time to discuss them separately. I have been at many production meetings which have been immediately followed by ad-hoc discussions to go over detailed technical matters: the set designer and technical director head off to the shop, the director and publicist head off to the office, and so forth.

Production meetings, however, should not take the place of ongoing communication on specific issues or even routine matters, whether it be by phone, email, texting, or in person. Since opening night isn’t going to move, you don’t want to wait for a production meeting (often a week or more) to bring up a question or issue.

Regular production meetings can be a very useful way to keep everyone on track and focused on the same goal. They just need a little pre-planning if they are to be effective.