Imagine for a moment… you’re at the supermarket, walking through the produce section. There, in a bin, is a display of coconuts.
Now, imagine someone like the late Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, or maybe Kenneth Branagh or Patrick Stewart, walking up to that bin, picking up a coconut, and launching into the Yorick speech from Hamlet. Just out of the blue.
Are you picturing it?
Now imagine an unskilled, untrained (but well-connected) actor, playing Hamlet, insisting that the production company spend $500.00 — or more — on a custom-made, ultra-realistic, perfectly aged skull, good enough for NCIS, Bones, or a museum.
This actor is on stage, on a beautifully designed and executed professional set, with top-notch costumes and lighting. He checks the skull on the prop table before every performance, dusts it, makes sure it’s perfect. But his delivery comes across like he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying — he might as well be reciting the phone book (the white pages) while watching paint dry.
Which would you rather watch? Which one would make you feel something for Hamlet (and Yorick), and which one would make you remember that you have to wash the car? Which one would bring down the house?
I can take a guess.
But this blog is about set design and tech, not about acting. So let’s go there.
Sets can work exactly the same way. A very simple set can do wonders to bring the story alive for the audience. I’ve mentioned this one before: back around 1974 the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep over the Summer. The stage was empty — literally empty — all the way to the back wall. No drops, curtains, tabs, flats, or anything else. No castles or forests, no platforms, ramps, or stairs. But when those actors came on stage and started showing us their stories, they grabbed us and shook us and left us shaken.
That staging was not a decision based on lack of funds: it was an artistic decision based on the director’s (and set designer’s) interpretation of the four stories and how best to get them across to the audience in a powerful, compelling manner. The costumes and makeup were awesome, but the real skill was in the acting: in bringing the characters alive and making us care about them.
I’ll never forget that Summer. It was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had.
On the other hand, I’ve seen sets that upstaged the actors, that made you wonder if you were there to watch a story or admire the set. Sure we designers love to get rave reviews, but really, a set that competes with the story is not doing its job. If the set is awesome but the acting isn’t, a critic will comment on it, and that review will influence other people who may want to see the show.
Competing with the story can take another form: when the set is so poorly executed that the audience keeps finding itself looking at everything that doesn’t look right. Poor construction, poor painting, poor detailing, can all take the audience’s attention away from the actors and the story. Or, when the set is obviously not finished, you often hear people going, “Geez, what happened?”
Good or bad, it’s all part of the audience experience: it’s all part of what they will remember about the show.
Just like the actor in the supermarket with a coconut, a good designer can make a very powerful statement with a very simple set by focusing on what’s really important and avoiding stuff that just sits there for its own sake, or “because we need a set.” Creating the right environment for the story — just like creating a compelling character with a coconut — is part of the creative process that we all live with in theatre.