Don’t open the door

I’m continually amazed at how often I find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Just like inspiration, which can come from anywhere, different perspectives on a given idea can be found in lots of places if we’re open to seeing them. In this post I’m going to relate an experience I had a couple of days ago.

I’ve been a horror movie fan since I was a kid, but I’m very picky about them: they need to have a real story, believable characters, and a mostly supernatural element. Ghosts and vampires are okay, but I’ll pass on zombies and werewolves, and most certainly on slasher movies. Actually, an item on my bucket list (along with writing this blog) is to produce a horror movie, and I’m already working on a couple of scripts.

Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which I had read maybe twenty years ago. The book is an overview of the horror genre, focusing mostly on movies and stories in the twentieth century, and one of the chapters is on radio and how effective it was in the 30’s and 40’s. And right there, in that chapter, out of the blue, I found a great message for set designers: Don’t open the door.

King’s point was that radio, along with novels and short stories, were more effective at scaring us than movies, because we had to use our imagination. And, as he says often, what we can imagine, due to our own fears, is probably going to be far more scary than what movie art directors can come up with. When somebody (or something) starts pounding on that door, and we have no idea what’s behind it, we get far more scared than if we open it and find out that it’s not that bad. So one of the tricks is to “not open the door” —  don’t show us the monster, but let our own fears and imaginations create it.

If you ever saw Alien, you’ll remember we didn’t see the grown-up critter until the very end: we knew it was killing the crew, but we had no idea what we were dealing with. In the case of The Haunting (both movie versions), we never saw what was bulging the door in Eleanor’s room. A classic example, from the radio days, was Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1939, which scared millions who never even saw the aliens. But so many movies do show us the monster right up front, and it’s often disappointing. It’s not as bad as we imagined, or — worse — we immediately go “gee, is that real or CGI?”

But I said this was a message for set designers, not creature designers.

A stage set can work the same way: it can suggest a location (and a feeling) without being literal, without showing us everything. It’s very difficult to do a “realistic” set on stage: elements and colors need to be exaggerated so they’re visible from the house, and there’s always those annoying sight lines that force angles that you would never see in real architecture. And, of course, the “fourth wall” that we’re supposed to accept and see right through. I’ve done realistic sets, and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Realistic sets are fine as long as the story itself really wants a literal visual due to the subject matter. Two examples that come to mind are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Odd Couple, in both of which we almost expect to see a “real” location. Even so, both plays have been done non-literally — with varying degrees of success.

But lots of plays — and especially musicals — don’t need literal sets. They need a suggestion of time, place, atmosphere, and mood, and that can so often be far more effective. For instance, here’s a concept sketch for The Diary of Anne Frank, which I suggested to a high school in 2015:


I wanted to create a sense of isolation and vulnerability, so I omitted the walls (those ubiquitous flats) and showed mostly the structure of the attic. Everything else was just an empty stage draped in blacks. The window at the back, which was the characters’ only connection to the world, was to be a backlit box which could show us a clear sky, a dark stormy sky, or a night sky depending on the scene. There was no need to show the flats… er… the walls: the audience could fill those in according to their own experiences and create the attic in their own imaginations.


By keeping the four spaces small and crowded, bringing the set right down to (and beyond) the apron, and raking the whole thing, it was possible to create that sense of isolation and vulnerability. The effect was almost like the characters were in a fishbowl — an effect of course enhanced by not having any actual walls.

Something like this — showing us just enough and letting us fill in the rest — can be very effective in a wide variety of stories. It can also enhance the theatricality of the piece, create a more interesting visual, and, as a side benefit, greatly simplify construction.