When doing a period piece (prehistoric to futuristic and anywhere in between), we want to make sure the set, furniture, costumes, props, and everything else fit visually into the period of the story. That’s when we turn to the internet or the library to find sources on period styles. Sounds pretty straight-forward, but there are a few guidelines that we often use for maximum dramatic effect.
Say I’m doing a show like Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, where we have an American house sometime in the mid third of the 20th century, and say we want to play the show pretty straight instead of stylized. And say the director wants to place the play in, say, 1945.
In these two cases, defining the approximate year is important because of clothing styles, because we want to make sure the costumes reflect the actual period. However, the architecture, furniture, accessories, and so forth don’t necessarily have to fit into that specific year. They just can’t be any later than the year.
Unless George and Willy just bought brand-new houses and purchased brand-new furniture and accessories, chances are that they have at least a few pieces that were inherited, or passed down, or otherwise obtained before 1945. George’s desk, for instance, may have belonged to his father or grandfather, or to Martha’s uncle. That bench by the front door might be a German antique from the 1700s. And the clock on the mantle may be French from the early 1800s. But nothing wants to be post-1945.
This can not only simplify obtaining pieces for the play, but it’s also a great way to further define the characters. Why is George using a desk from the late 1800s? Why is Martha’s easy chair a Stickley piece from the early 1900s? They have a nice sofa from the late 1930s, but now sit in their own separate chairs. Why?
The same goes for the accessories (aka the set dressing). Does Martha collect teacups, and what does this say about her? George is a history professor. Does he have maps or even a globe somewhere in the room? Or an old military sword on the wall?
This idea can be used in multiple ways. For instance, a poor family might have very old and worn furniture, but the condition of the furniture (neat and clean or beat-up and dirty) can say lots about them. Or a character might have a radio that just came out last month. What does that say about him or her?
The director can be a great source of information on the characters. Actually, some directors I’ve worked with have “discovered” things about the characters while we talked about the furniture and accessories. They told me about the characters and I picked the furniture.
There’s a lot more leeway when doing a play that’s not set in a specific period, or where the period is purposely ambiguous, or where the story is done in a “presentational” style instead of a “representational” style. But here also we want to think of the pieces as helping define who the characters are. The chairs in Waiting for Godot, for instance, can indicate an indefinite period of time or bring the story home to today’s high-tech office.
It’s all a matter of really thinking about the characters who are telling us their story.