Hiring a set designer, part 2

In my original post on Hiring a set designer I discussed asking questions, reviewing the portfolio, what to watch for, and similar items. In this post I’m going to cover another way of looking at hiring a set designer, primarily for high schools and colleges.

Too often, hiring a professional designer in non-professional theatre is perceived as an expensive luxury: “We don’t need that,” or “Our audience can’t tell the difference,” or “One of our folks has always done it for free,” or something similar. And then there’s always “They charge too much.” But, especially in educational theatre, you can get a lot of mileage out of the expense by setting up the project so the faculty and students can watch the whole process from start to finish and learn how it’s done in the professional world. In other words, it can be an educational experience all around.

For instance, you can set it up so members of the production staff (assistant directors, stage managers, other designers, and even the head carpenter) attend design meetings to watch and listen to the discussions between the designer and the director. I’ve designed three shows for a local community college, and student members of the production staff have always attended these meetings. They have listened as the director and I discuss the show, the characters, the themes, the visual concept, and other areas, and then watched as I presented the design while it was in progress. This is far different from keeping the process in the closet until the shop drawings are delivered.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, most professional set designers use basically the same process, and most of us would be delighted to have students watch and learn. The one danger I’ve seen in these cases is that the conversation too often goes off on the tangent of how to build the pieces, but I’ve learned how to subtly (and quickly) yank it back in the correct direction. There will be lots of time later to talk about how to build the scenery.

This same college has asked me a couple of times to hang out in the scene shop — now and then — and meet the students, answer questions, and generally show them what a set designer does. I have not built or painted the scenery myself — I feel very strongly about this, as it helps separate the “design” from the “build” instead of lumping them together —  but on occasion had a student, assigned by the professor, work with me on a specialty piece. In one case I showed a student (who had no scenic painting experience) how to paint a faux hardwood floor and left him alone, and two years later they were still talking about what a great job he did. I have always found the experience enjoyable, and I’ve been told many times that they did too.

I very rarely work for high schools, but one of them has asked me several times to come in and talk to the cast and crew (everyone connected with the show) about the design process and show them sketches in progress. I have very deliberately avoided talking about scenery pieces, instead focusing on the story itself and the physical environment I’m creating to support it, and why I designed it this way. This is my way of getting them to separate the design from the build in their minds, and to look at each one as its own process.

Along the same lines, several companies have asked me to come over for the cast’s first read-through and show them the final set design, which is usually a 3D model on my laptop, projected on the wall with a video projector. The actors have generally been very excited to see the space they’ll be working in, especially since the blocking and choreography will make more sense during rehearsals before the set is complete. A carefully-detailed, physical 3D model, which is what a lot of us used before personal computers, can have the same effect.

Another way to do this is to video the production meetings and design presentations. If I were a high school drama teacher, I would probably prefer doing it this way for two reasons. First, it would probably keep the meeting more focused. Second, it would allow me to play it back, stop it, discuss what’s going on, and then resume. In fact, I would even isolate the various parts of the video (directing, design, production schedule, etc.) and focus on those segments in various classes as appropriate. If you go this way, make sure that making the video is okay with all the participants.

If you want to use some of these ideas to leverage your investment in a set designer, be sure to bring it up during the interview and hiring process, as designers often work on more than one project at a time and need to manage their schedules carefully. Depending on travel time and other factors, the designer may find it necessary to adjust his or her fee, and this again is something you want to discuss, and agree on, up front.

Over the years, I’ve often come to the realization that the process of designing a set is a closely-guarded secret, with only a few people privy to it. And there’s probably no reason for this, other than the usual “we’ve always done it this way.” But a set designer can be a great source of useful information, especially in an educational institution.

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