Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?

Set designers are frequently asked how we come up with our designs, as in  where did the ideas come from? It’s actually a very straight-forward process, although it does take some work. I covered the design process itself in A set design from start to finish, so here I’ll go over some of the techniques and resources we use to get inspiration.

The script

The first resource is the script. As I mentioned elsewhere, a lot of scripts come with stage directions and even floor plans of the original design, but we mostly tend to ignore those. However, the story itself: who does what, who wants what, the time period, the social and economic environment,  the genre (is it a drama, a comedy, a mystery, a farce, a tragedy, and so forth), and the overall feeling we get as we read it, are all a great resource. That’s where it all starts.

Generally, I like to read a script the first time mostly for enjoyment, like a novel or something similar: I’m just focusing on the story itself and not paying much attention (if any) to the set or the mechanics. It’s only when I go back for a second or third reading that I start to focus on the actual physical requirements: the window that Maria climbs through during a rainstorm, the gondola that the Prince arrives in, or the space where Hamlet and Laertes will have their sword fight.

The script can also show you how the show “feels.” Is it dark and oppressive, is it light and whimsical, is it magical, is it uplifting or depressing, and so forth. This, in itself, is often enough to get some creative juices flowing.

The director

The director is another great resource, in that he or she generally has a good clear vision for the story by the time we first meet. Some directors want to start out by telling us what they want for a set (probably because they think that’s what we expect), but I’ve found that the vast majority really enjoy discussing the story, the characters, the themes, the conflicts, and similar subjects, since that’s what they’re familiar with and can talk about.

I’ve even had a couple of directors tell me they were relieved that I didn’t ask them what they wanted for a set, since that wasn’t their strong point. To which I replied that I was relieved I didn’t have to direct the show, since that wasn’t my strong point. Suddenly we became specialists on friendly terms: they did their jobs and I did mine.

For me, a director is a gold mine of information, but, whenever possible, I avoid discussing the set during the first meeting.

The rest of the production team

The lighting designer, costume designer, prop master, choreographer, musical director, and others can be a great resource too. For instance, the lighting designer might say he would love to see a “god light” on Hamlet as he stands behind Polonius with a sword in the prayer scene, since that would really emphasize Hamlet’s conflict as to killing the king or not killing him. This might get me thinking about a cool place for Polonius to kneel during that scene. A lot of creative ideas can come from the team, without the project becoming a “design by committee.”

The venue itself

The stage itself, or the proscenium arch, or some detail about the space, can generate some ideas. Some years ago I copied part of the theatre’s architecture for the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, which really helped bring the audience into the trial, and, the following year, I mirrored the shape of the stage apron in some of the platforms for A Tale of Cinderella. Both of these ideas came after doing extensive research into the stories and the periods, and they worked very well.


Research is extremely important to most of us, but it’s not limited to historical styles. When researching for a set, I will look at the architecture of the location in the period of the show (i.e., Vienna in the 1600s), but I will also look at two or three centuries prior to the period. I will also look at period furniture,  costumes, technology, art, music, and sometimes even the culture and politics of the era. The idea isn’t so much to come up with something historically accurate, but to develop a feeling for that particular time and place, and for the people who lived there.

My recent set for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a good example. We decided up front that we didn’t want to create just another generic day room in a “stereotypical” mental hospital, but that we wanted the space to reflect the authoritative control and the dehumanizing effect that the institution (and Nurse Ratched) had over the residents. So, in addition to researching mental hospitals all the way back to the 1800s, I also looked at a number of “cold” institutional spaces including some WPA buildings and Russian architecture from the 50s and 60s. And, because we wanted the audience to really “see” Chief Bromden’s fear of “the combine” (the institutional system that has total control over people), I also took some ideas from his lines and looked at industrial spaces including generator rooms in dams. The end result was a cold institutional space that transformed into an even colder mental picture of the Chief’s fears.

How did I do all this research? Back in my school days, and for years afterwards, I used the library. I would go over and spend hours paging through books and magazines (“National Geographic” was a favorite) and bringing home stacks of anything that looked promising. And I do mean stacks. I would also go to bookstores, museums, galleries, and anything else that could possibly generate some ideas. And, like many designers, I collected a sizable library of my own.

Nowadays, although I still use the library, bookstores, museums, and my own books, I also use the internet. Googling “Vienna architecture 1600s” for instance, will yield hundreds of photos, and then I can branch out to interiors, palaces, furniture, art, and lots of other subjects. When I designed The Odd Couple I looked at online material on New York City apartments and found lots of photos and floor plans going back to the 20s.

Incidentally, Dover Publications is a fantastic source for reprints of many classic books on art, architecture, design, furniture, costume, and other subjects. The collection is huge and the prices are very reasonable. I found several books on New York City apartments here while working on The Odd Couple, and some of them are now in my library.

Google Earth is fantastic if I want to see places, or parts of a building, or an aerial view, that I couldn’t find otherwise (I used it for Cuckoo’s Nest). I also like to look at set designs for the same show, to see what’s been done and how it works. Wikipedia is great for summaries of many subjects, and the references and further readings listed at the bottom of the articles can lead to many other sources.

I also use online shopping sites when appropriate. eBay has yielded lots of ideas for props and furniture, and I’ve used IKEA several times for very specific items. Furniture company web sites, like Ethan Allen, can provide inspiration for upscale interiors and color combinations, and there are a number of sites where you can create your own color combinations based on specific themes. There are also sites maintained by collectors of things like telephones, microphones and radio equipment, cameras, medical equipment, trunks and luggage, and many other items.

Photography and art sites are also great when I’m looking for a mood or an inspirational image. For The Woman in Black I looked at lots of photos of cemeteries and haunted places, as well as historical photos of old houses and theatres. For A Tale of Cinderella, I spent hours going through photos and paintings of Venice, and for Les Miz I must have looked at hundreds of paintings and drawings of the French Revolution (for historical architectural details and moods) and then at some more for the actual period of the story, which was 1832.

Inspiration, for most of us, comes from everything we can latch onto about a show, starting with the script and moving on through the director, production team, venue, and research. But it’s only when all that material starts rolling around in our heads, and we allow it to roll around and mix without getting it its way, that the really creative ideas develop. For me, personally, this process takes a few days, during which I go back to the script as often as I need to make sure I’m still with the story.

Problem solving: a brick wall with no dutchmen

Back in school, we learned how to “dutchman” two adjoining flats to help conceal the joint: we would tear a strip of scenery muslin about 2″ wide, apply it (with paint) over the joint, and feather out the edges. The idea of using paint instead of glue was that the dutchman would come off readily once the show was over, and the strip was torn, instead of cut, it to create soft edges instead of hard edges. Once painted over, and if done carefully, the joint would be invisible.

Nowadays, the tendency seems to be to use painter’s tape or masking tape instead, although I have seen a few times when duct tape or gaffer tape was used. Personally, I don’t like the heavier tapes, since you’re liable to end up with two visible edges instead of just one.

However, we don’t always have to use dutchmen if we plan ahead.

Some years ago I designed a large brick wall as part of a set for Marc Camoletti‘s comedy Don’t Dress for Dinner. The wall was on the end of a renovated French farm house, and it was about sixteen feet wide by twenty-five high at the apex.

Since painting brick is a time-consuming process, I didn’t want the scenic artist to have to paint the wall vertically after it was assembled, or to have to deal with dutchmen after the fact.

The solution was to plan out the flats (which were built for the show) so they jived with the dimensions of so many courses of bricks plus the mortar lines. Then we went a step further and made the bricks a bit larger than standard modern bricks, in order to save some time (i.e., fewer bricks and mortar lines to paint). So an eight-foot-high flat started out with a course of 3 1/2″ high bricks at the bottom, then a half-inch mortar line, then another course of bricks, and so on until the final mortar line at the top. The flat on top of it then started out with a course of bricks, and the joint at the flats was hidden in plain sight by the joint at the painted mortar line.

The vertical joints were hidden the same way, by sizing the width of the bricks so vertical mortar lines would fall right at the edges of the flats. This meant that every other course of bricks did show a vertical line, but we minimized it with a little extra paint where needed, and the tapestries and other elements helped too.

The end result was that all the brick wall sections could be painted flat on the floor where it was much easier to pay attention to detail and much faster to get those mortar lines right. You can see more photos on my web site, on the Don’t Dress for Dinner page.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we used the same technique with a small concrete block wall for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the mortar lines jived with the horizontal joints on the flats.

Dutchmen are a time-tested and effective technique, but sometimes we can do without them by doing a little pre-planning.

After the show opens: the post-mortem

A post-mortem (in our case) is a meeting of the production team, after the show opens, to go over how things went and what can be learned from it. It’s also a way to formally “close out” the project for the team.

Although the term “post-mortem” is in common use in theatre (just like the term “punch list” in architecture), I’m not sure I agree with it just because of its usual connotation. To most of us who watch TV and movies, a post-mortem is a medical examination to find out why a person died, so we tend to think of it in terms of “what went wrong.” In other words, it’s all about “the past.” The fact that autopsy results are often used in research, to better understand how the body works and what we can do about it, is lost on most of us. In other words, there is also a “future” component to autopsies.

It can work the same way in theatre. A post-mortem can be just a kvetching session, where the focus is on finding out what went wrong and who was responsible. Or it can be a learning experience, where the focus is on what went right (and therefore should be done again), as well as on what didn’t go right, and why, and what we can do about it. We can learn just as much — and sometimes more — from what went right as we can from what went wrong.

I’ve worked with companies that always had a post-mortem and others that didn’t always have them. One or two companies even felt (although they didn’t come out and say so) that post-mortems weren’t “politically correct,” as previous ones had just turned into finger-pointing sessions. Like many other things, having post-mortems or not (and whether they are effective or not) is part of the company culture, which is driven by the company leadership.

Incidentally, I’ve found that most meetings can be more productive, and shorter, if the moderator spends maybe thirty seconds going over the agenda right up front, so everyone knows what’s coming. This is especially useful when new team members (i.e., outside designers or directors) are at the table.

Like I said in A Quick Guide to Production Meetings, the best meetings I’ve attended had three things in common, and post-mortems are no exception. They were the same three things I listed there: they were scheduled, there was an agenda, and they were short and to the point. We can even use the same agenda, with a slightly different focus. For instance:

  • Producer: was the show a success, how were attendance and receipts, what did the critics think, did the show stay on budget.
  • Director: how were the actors, was there sufficient rehearsal time, did the set/lights/costumes/props work out.
  • Technical director: was the budget realistic, was there enough time, was there enough crew, were the facilities and tools adequate, were shop drawings in on time.
  • Set designer: any specific issues.
  • Lighting designer: any specific issues.
  • Costume designer: any specific issues.
  • Prop master: any specific issues.
  • Sound designer: any specific issues.
  • Stage manager: any specific issues.
  • Publicity manager: did the campaign work as expected, did one form of advertising work better than another, were there any interviews or TV spots.
  • Concessions manager: how did concessions do, were the prices adequate, was there a favorite item.
  • Anything else.

Again, a meeting like this can be held to an hour or less, providing someone is moderating it and keeping it on track.

When is the best time to have a post-mortem? Opinions vary. Having it soon after the show opens means everyone is still thinking about the show and it’s all still fresh in their minds, but it tends to remove the “objectivity by distance” component. Having it after the show closes gives everyone a breather and lets them consider the overall response to the show (admissions, ticket sales, concessions, etc.), but by this time a lot of the team members will be off on other projects and focused on them. In either case, scheduling it up front will let everyone plan for it.

A post-mortem can be a wonderful tool for learning and improving a production company’s work; it just needs to be focused and have a clear reason — a clear goal — for having it.