Listen to the script

I mentioned in another post that the script can be a great source of inspiration for a set, and this can go even beyond identifying the rooms and entrances required by the story. Now and then a character will say something that can generate an idea that can help tie everything together. Here are a couple of examples.

The throne

Back in grad school, I was the prop master for a production of Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette, adapted by Guy Bolton. During a scene where the con men are preparing for the arrival of Princess Anastasia, one of them points to a throne in the room and asks the other one where he found it. The guy says he found it in the prop room at the opera house, where it had been used in Boris Godunov.

In a case like this, it’s really easy to say, okay, we need a throne, and go find a throne. But giving that throne the feel of having been really used in an opera can go a long ways towards keeping the audience engaged, and towards making the princess’ dialogue more vivid when she comes into the room.

So I went off to the campus library (this was in the primordial ages before Google) to find photos of actual productions of Boris Godunov–which I didn’t–and then to the history section to find material on the real Boris Godunov. That’s where I found a photo of the actual throne used by Boris. Then I proceeded to draw it up as best I could from the photo and build a replica of it.

Granted, we had the luxury of an excellent scene shop, a nice budget, time before the play opened, and, in this case, cheap labor (me), but the results were worth it. That throne looked totally out of place in the living room and made it logical for the character to ask where it came from. And the response was logical too: it looked like  a piece of furniture from a professional opera. Given who Pricess Anastasia was supposed to be (and also given the stage presence of the late Gail Sondergaard, who played her), it all flowed together and kept the story cohesive.

The Mayor’s Portrait

A few years ago, I designed the set for J.B. Priestley’s  An Inspector Calls, which takes place in the dining room of a large country house during the Edwardian Period. During one scene, Mr. Birling is going on about how he is a Magistrate in the local town, and had been Lord Mayor a couple of years previously. The nature of the character, as well as the way he was played–and the dialogue itself–suggested that it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think that he might have a portrait of himself in the room.

I had designed a large fireplace for the room, so placing his portrait over it was a natural choice. After some research (online this time), we dressed the actor in a Lord Mayor’s outfit, took high-res photos of him, and had one blown up to a suitably impressive size and then framed it. Hanging over the fireplace, just behind the head of the dining table, it looked impressive, but it also gave the actor a nice bit of business as he showed it to his future son-in-law.

Here’s a photo under house lights.


Sometimes small details can make a huge difference in the audience’s experience and enjoyment of a show, and the script can be a great source for these. The trick is to look for them and listen to them. And to have fun doing it.

Beyond the recipe: making a great set

A few nights ago Donna decided to make Beef Stroganoff for dinner. She loves to cook and is always learning, and wanting to improve, and trying variations on recipes, so she spent a little extra time on it. So, when we were having dinner, and she commented that she thought this Stroganoff was one of her best ones ever, I had to disagree: I thought it was her best one ever.

Which was when a revelation hit me over the head like a brick.

That Beef Stroganoff was awesome because she cared about it and paid attention to the details. She bought the type of meat she wanted, at her favorite store for meats. She cut it up, browned it, did the mushrooms separately, and so forth, all the way to the end, paying attention to every step. A little less of this than last time, or a little more of that. Adjusting the cooking temperature or time here and there. Serving it at just the right moment.

How different than just taking a recipe out of the book and following it to the letter without paying attention to why. I mentioned this, and she said that cooking is different from baking, in that cooking gives you more leeway to explore, while in baking you want to follow the instructions accurately.

So, I thought out loud, a script is really like a recipe for cooking a show, although sometimes it’s taken as a recipe for baking a show. She gave me a strange look and took another bite of food, but a second later agreed with me. When producing a play, you have to use the words as the playwright wrote them, but the stage directions, and the set, are open to the director’s vision. We may not need this door just because the original designer put it there, and that huge sofa could often become two smaller ones.

I ran into this a couple of years ago when I designed Lez Miz for a local production company. The drama and power of the story didn’t require a revolve: it just required a way to show the audience what was happening on both sides of the barricade. So we had a barricade that turned on its own without the need for a revolve, and for all the work and time and money required for a revolve. Yet the effect on the audience was the same.

I would have never believed that I would look at a plate of Beef Stroganoff and discover the secret to a great set (must have been the wine), but the process Donna used is very similar to the one we use. We think about the end result, and what we want it to be, and how to serve it, and then, once we know all that, we start working on the details, starting with the larger ones and moving on to the smaller ones.

Right now I’m working on a production of The Music Man, which takes place in a small town in Iowa in 1912. This is a play, not a movie, so absolute realism is not only not needed, but it’s also impossible on this stage. However, the feeling of a small town needs to be there and set us up for the story. A bunch of flats, painted to represent buildings, can look very static and “fake” behind real actors wearing real clothes. So the trick here is to focus on the details that will bring those buildings to life even if they’re not full-size buildings.

At our first meeting, the director and I agreed that the overall look and feel of the production would evoke a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell’s work, especially the early magazine covers, “felt” like Middle America: they weren’t just “folksy,” but “friendly,” and they told us a lot about the characters in the paintings and what they wanted. And the buildings and interiors he painted were a perfect complement to the characters. So here I had two jobs once the overall concept for the set was defined: I not only had to research actual small towns of the early 20th century (and their architectural details), but also take a real close look at Rockwell’s work and understand how and why he picked the details he picked.

We’re not trying to make the set look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but we do want to create that old, friendly, homey, comfortable down-to-earth American small-town feeling: Mayberry fifty years before Sheriff Taylor and Floyd the barber — and in color. That’s where paying attention to the details — the colors, the textures, the millwork, the contrasts, the furniture, and how those buildings would have felt in those days — will make a huge difference in the show without competing with the characters.

And speaking of the characters… when the audience sits down to watch the show, they’ll want to like the characters, to care for them, long enough to watch them go through their story all the way to the end. So giving the characters a town that looks “cared for” will make them that much more likable. It’s where they live and they take care of it.

That set won’t be as awesome as Donna’s Beef Stroganoff, but we want to think that the care and attention to detail will make the show that much more compelling, and the audience’s experience that much more enjoyable.