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.