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.