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.