Hiring a set designer

Over the last few days I’ve been putting together slides for a workshop on set design I’ll be presenting at a conference in September, and it occurred to me that a few thoughts on how to hire a set designer might be useful here in the blog

I’ve already discussed the set designer’s usual scope of work, as well as how we’re trained, in other posts, so I’ll go right into the interview process. It can be very straightforward and painless and let you make sure you’re hiring the right designer for your needs.

Ask about background and education

Generally, you want to know if the designer has formal university training in theatrical set design, or if he or she just picked it up on the go. It’s also possible that he or she was trained in something else, such as architecture, engineering, interior design, industrial design, studio art, or graphic design, and decided to branch out into set design. There’s no specific “right or wrong” about any of these, but you want to know where the designer is coming from, because it does affect his or her approach to designing sets, as well as to working with a director and production company.

Ask to see a portfolio of recent work

This is a must, and too often falls between the cracks. You need to see what type of work the designer has done elsewhere, because what you end up with will fit right in with what you saw. The portfolio should include drawings and renderings, of course, but also photos of completed productions. If you’re interviewing somebody right out of design school, you may not see much in the way of produced work, but the portfolio will still give you a very good idea of the type of work you will receive.

Personally, I like to show a few samples of how the design developed (i.e., research, preliminary sketches, developed sketches, and maybe a 3D model on a computer), right along with the finished design rendering or model, to help explain how I work. I try to keep this very brief, but often find that the producer and director are fascinated by the process.

As you review the portfolio, feel free to ask questions: Why did you choose this approach? What did the director want to do with the show? Who built it? Who painted it? How did the set work out for the show? And so forth.

Nowadays, most of us have our portfolios on our own web sites, so it’s really easy to look through several and decide who you want to invite for an interview. The web site will not only show you the designer’s work, but also tell you a lot about him or her. Mine, for instance, is at www.georgefledo.net.

Ask to see some design documents

These are the “blueprints” the designer will produce after the final design is approved. They can take the form of designer’s elevations, which show what the pieces look like (in scale and with dimensions and notes), or they can be full construction drawings, which show how the pieces are built. In general, these all look like architectural or engineering drawings. In addition, there will be painter’s elevations showing how the pieces are painted. Asking to see these is important, since these are what the set will be built and painted from, and they need to be very clear.

In general, professional shops and those with a technical director or master scenic carpenter tend to prefer designer’s elevations, as they have lots of experience in building scenery and can make good choices. They just need to know exactly what the designer wants the pieces to look like. On the other hand, community theaters and high schools sometimes tend to prefer construction drawings, since they may not be all that familiar with scenic construction.

Ask lots of questions

This is your chance to get to know the prospective designer, not only from the professional and creative standpoints, but also from the personal standpoint.

One question I would ask a prospect is, “Once you’ve been hired, how do you approach your first meeting with the director?” My own answer to that, which has been the same for years, is to ask the director, “Why do you want to do this show, and what’s your vision for it?” That tells me immediately where the director is coming from. This gets the conversation rolling in a direction where we can focus on the story, the characters, the conflicts, the physical action, and so forth, instead of on the set itself. It also tells me, as we continue the conversation, what the director finds important.

Discuss the scope of work

As I said in other posts, some designers (as in professional theatre) just do the design, while those in academic or community theatre sometimes also do the actual construction drawings, help build, help paint, and so forth, and you want to be very clear on this right up front. You also want to be very clear as to the format of the design documents: either designer’s elevations or full construction drawings. There are many options here, but you want to make sure that you and the prospective designer are on the same page on this. Don’t assume anything. If necessary, make a list as you talk, or have a list of exactly what you need before the interview, and be ready to negotiate.

Once you have agreed on the scope of work, including the design time frame, scenic budget, construction schedule, and resources, you can discuss the designer’s fee. You may want to check out my posts on the project schedule here, along with How long does it really take? for ideas.

Have the correct people at the interview

One thing I’ve seen  over and over, which I can’t understand, is that so many theatre companies interview prospective designers with only the director and producer (or business manager) in the room. If you have a technical director, shop foreman, or master carpenter on staff (even if it’s a part-time position), he or she should be at the interview also. This is the person who’s going to work with the designer and the construction documents, and he or she will have some very good questions and comments from the technical side. Ideally the prospective designer will also get a tour of the scene shop or construction area to become familiar with the tools and resources; this will reduce the possibility that the designer will create something that the shop can’t build.

Check references

This is always a good idea, although it totally depends on who the designer is and how you feel about what you saw and heard during the interview. If you want to check references, ask for a couple of directors and tech directors the designer has worked with recently, and give them a call.

Now… how long should this interview take? In my experience, a good solid interview like this can take an hour, or even less. So, if you interview, say, three prospective designers before making a decision, that’s three good hours you will have invested in the production.