Inspiration, part 2: a simple, clear statement

I covered some of our usual sources of inspiration for a set design in another post, and here I’m going to add one that I especially like but which I didn’t think of at the time. Maybe I had a senior moment.

A set for a TV station

Back around 1998 I was asked to design a set for a TV news program. This was a new venture for the station, and they wanted to be taken seriously as they inserted themselves into a market that already had several news programs. During my first meeting with them, we were basically feeling each other out as to how we worked and how to get there from here, and after a while I asked the news director, “Is there something specific you’d like to say to your viewers with the show or the set?”

She didn’t hesitate for a second.

She said, yes, we want to tell them that they’ve been inviting us into their homes for years, so now we’d like to invite them into our home to see how we do things.

That statement led right into a conversation about inviting people to our homes,  and where we entertain them (living room, dining room, kitchen, family room), and how they’re made to feel, and so forth. We decided we wanted an informal, friendly feeling for the show, so I suggested eliminating the usual style of news desk, which forms a visual barrier between the anchors and the viewers, and instead having a rounded shape reminiscent of a kitchen or dining table. Then we decided to have a few other places on the set where the reporters could stand to present a story.

A news desk usually has a window on the top, through which the anchors can see themselves on a monitor, and we had two anchors, so we needed two windows. So I thought of placing four additional (fake) windows around the table, to create the look of placemats. That way, when the camera showed a mid shot on the anchors, it looked like you were at the table with them. The rest of the newsroom was visible behind the anchors.

That set received quite a few positive comments at the time, and the station was really proud of it for years until it was time to update it. I don’t have a good photo of it under studio lights, so here’s a quick one under work lights. That spiral staircase, by the way, didn’t lead anywhere but was a source of conversation for months.


My Way: a Tribute to Frank Sinatra

The same type of conversation occurred again a few years later when I created a set for My Way, which is a musical revue featuring the work of Frank Sinatra. This time I asked the director if she had any specific mental pictures for the show (not for the set), and she said she could picture it taking place in “the type of venue Frank would sing in if he were performing today.”

That took us into a discussion of elegance: an elegant night club. The two male singers would wear tuxedos and the two female singers would wear formal gowns, and there would be a three-piece band featuring a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano. The director also wanted a bar, since it provided places to sit, stand, group, and pose, and I suggested a couple of small tables reminiscent of a night club.

As the set developed, we added Art Deco wall sconces that changed colors, a curtained background that also changed colors, a projected moon, and several other ways of changing the mood quickly. Here’s a shot, and you can see more on my My Way page:

Inspiration for a set design can come from lots of different sources, and, for me, a simple, clear statement is often a great starting point. The trick is to start off by thinking about the story and totally disregarding the scenery. There will be plenty of time for flats, doors, platforms, ramps, revolves, and all that other stuff once the idea is solid.

Filling the stage with scenery (or not)

Every now and then I get asked to design a small show on a huge stage. “Small” as in only a few people in the cast, one location or two, and a feeling of intimacy. On the other hand, I also get asked to design a huge show on a huge stage, where the production company doesn’t have the resources to build a huge set.

And, of course, there’s always the huge show on a very small stage, but I will cover that in a future post.

So what to do?

Back in set design classes, where we didn’t have to worry about budgets or limitations, we loved to come up with these grandiose schemes; after all, we were in training, we were studying the work of great designers, and we were expected to develop our design skills. So, once we had to do a real show with real limitations, we just did what we had learned in class: we designed a grandiose set. And then we got frustrated when it didn’t come out the way we wanted. My first real set design in grad school was like that.

But (hopefully) we learn from experience, and later on I realized that a set doesn’t have to be grandiose, or even to fill the stage, as long as it serves its only purpose for existence, which is to present a physical environment that supports the story and the director’s presentation of it. Back when I was in architecture, we called it “putting ten pounds in a five pound bag,” and that’s when we went to lunch, talked about it, laughed about it, and came back to the office and hit the drawing boards with a vengeance. We had a problem to solve, and, by gosh and by golly, we were going to solve it in a creative way and make the client happy enough to hire us again.

As much as I don’t like the term because of its over-use, it was a “challenge,” and we jumped at it.

In this post I’m going to go over a couple of these cases, where creativity, and focusing on the real job at hand, worked well.

Small show on a big stage

I described the “typical” set design process in A set design from start to finish, so I’m going to start there. That play, An Inspector Calls, takes place in the dining room of a large English house during the Edwardian period, which was from 1901 (Queen Victoria’s death and her son Edward’s accession to the throne) to 1914 (the start of WWI).

Now, from TV and the movies (i.e., Downton Abbey), we are used to the idea that “country house” dining rooms in stories of that era were huge–and some were–so we sort of expect that. And here I had a stage forty-two feet wide. A set designer’s dream, right?

Except for three little things: there were only six characters in the story, most of the action happened right at (or close to) the dinner table, and the budget, though adequate, was not enough to do a luxurious “Downton Abbey” type of set forty feet wide.

So I used the sense of isolation that the director wanted to bring out in the characters as a starting point, designed a dining room that was luxurious but small, and placed it down close to the audience, on a bare stage draped in blacks. There were no side walls on this set: just the upstage wall with the fireplace and the hallway beyond it. I don’t have a good photo of the set during a performance, so here’s one a couple of days before opening, and before the real chairs were placed around the table.

What this approach did was to focus the audience’s attention on the characters instead of on a huge empty room. And, because the set itself was fairly small, we could afford to spend time and attention on the architectural details and make them look really nice and adequate for the period. We also had a very good lighting designer who made very subtle light changes during the play to help set and back up the mood of specific scenes.

You can see more photos of this set on my web site, at An Inspector Calls.

Big show on a big stage (with limited resources)

The same year I did the show above, I did Kiss Me Kate for the same theatre company. We had that same large stage to work with, and an adequate budget, but wanted to get away from the usual run of sets for Kate, which often involve multiple physical scenes and lengthy set changes. For one thing, the director and I agreed that the set changes should happen quickly, to keep the momentum of the story moving, and, if possible, with no blackouts.

My first task here was to take a good look at the story and see what it told me. The musical takes place in a theatre (a road house) where a company is doing The Taming of the Shrew, and includes a few scenes from the play. So we have dressing rooms, a hallway, a roof, and backstage areas, plus three locations from Shakespeare’s play. But basically it’s all either backstage or on stage. There is a large cast, with production numbers backstage and crowd scenes onstage.

So the idea of using a unit set came up. A unit set is a space that can serve as several different locales with minimal or no physical changes; the concept has been used in Shakespearean and Jacobean plays for many years because of its flexibility, but it goes back to Greek plays, where the only “set” was the permanent skene on the stage.

Here’s where the fun came in, along with a real understanding of the venue itself. The theatre has seating on three sides, with a nice big proscenium stage (over forty feet wide and twenty high), along with a large apron that comes out into the house and is bordered by the orchestra pit. There’s also a reasonable amount of offstage space.

DMT plan

The idea, then, became to use the part of the stage behind the proscenium arch for the “backstage” parts of the show, and the apron for the “onstage” parts. The two would be divided visually by a drop which came down as needed. This helped separate the backstage areas, in the audience’s minds, from the onstage areas, making it clear where the action was. The two areas were also lit differently to further emphasize a “backstage” look or an “onstage” look.

The backstage area was an open two-story structure, with the upper level being dressing rooms and the lower level being everything else. There was also a large, scissors-type staircase, which became a good acting area for several scenes. The structure was originally going to be totally backstage, until we realized we could extend it forward, on each side of the drop, for use as the balcony scene in Shrew.

Another design decision was to paint the apron floor to coordinate with the drop so it would present a continuous scene, further tying the picture together. Then, to enhance the feeling of theatricality, we rigged the drop so it would always be visible: when out of the way, it resembled a ship’s furled sail. When it needed to come down, a cast member went to a pin rail we installed on the back wall and lowered it in full view of the audience.

The final result was a set that worked well for both the show and the show-within-the-show, that “filled” the stage without three truckloads of flats, and that allowed for very quick scene changes in an interesting, theatrical manner. The back wall of the stage was painted to give the impression of old brick, without being literal, and we even had several lighting instruments visible over the structure.

You can see more photos on my Kiss Me Kate page, along with a stop-motion video made (mostly for fun) during the three-day installation process. The page also describes how the components were pre-fabbed offstage so they could be assembled quickly.

Problem solving: an arched bridge

A few years ago I designed a production of A Tale of Cinderella, by George David Weiss, Will Severin, and W. A. Frankonis, which is a different spin on the classic tale, and set in Venice. Most of the action in the musical takes place in and around a piazza, but there are also interiors, side buildings, and a gondola. And, of course, being Venice, it had to have a bridge.

After doing a lot of research on the city and its bridges, I decided the show needed a bridge that looked and felt like a Venetian bridge, with its long and graceful curves. Since the stage was over forty feet wide, there was lots of room for it, so the bridge ended up having a clear span of just about twenty feet. Now the question became how to build it within our budget and time frame, considering the rest of the set was huge.

Bridge 1

With something like this, the first reaction is usually to look at theatrical scenery textbooks and see how someone else did it. However, in this case, I went back to how the real Venetian bridges were built. Those bridges have been in place for hundreds of years and are still structurally sound, mostly because of the secret: the arch. If anchored properly, an arch is an amazingly strong structure; in fact, some Roman structures built with arches are still standing after two thousand years and counting.

So we started with the design itself…

Cinderella bridge_1

… and broke it down to its basic shapes:

Cinderella bridge_2

The bridge was anchored at one end (near center stage) by the platforms, and at the offstage end by securing it to the stage floor. That little curb in front was there for cosmetic reasons, not structural.

Cinderella bridge_3

The basic structure consisted of three separate arches, each made of two layers of 3/4″ ply screwed together. The shop guys took their time laying out the first arch to make sure it was accurate and true, and then used it as a template for the other two. Between the arches were wood spacers to hold them in place. On top went two four-foot-wide platforms, securely screwed to the arches. The treads and risers went next, and finally the bottom was skinned with 1/8″ lauan. The main concern as it was getting built was to make it into a solid, tight, safe structure, each piece securely attached to something else to avoid any movement.

Once completed, that bridge was a very solid structure and a nice complement to the set. It went up reasonably fast and came down even faster, and we stayed within our budget.