Theater and sports: an editorial

The other night Donna and I were having dinner at our local sports bar. The place has sixteen or eighteen large flat-screen TVs arranged around the room, and I caught myself watching the Temple-Navy game on the nearest screen.

That’s when a revelation hit me.

Granted both schools have very strong athletic programs and lots of money and so forth, but it really struck me how much support goes into one of these teams: the coaching staffs, the support staffs, the logistics, the public relations — and the business end, since tickets to the games are not free. Then, you have the salaries paid to some of these coaches: http://sports.usatoday.com/ncaa/salaries/

Amazing. So I thought I would write an editorial this time.

Why do so many theatre programs in high schools and colleges have such a hard time getting support to do their jobs? I’m not involved in academic theater, but, from hanging out in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) open forum for the past couple of years, talking with some of the teachers, and designing four productions for a local college, I’ve noticed a few things. Mostly, what I think I’m seeing is one or more perceptions among school administrators: ideas that keep perpetuating themselves because no one seems to be challenging them adequately.

In no particular order:

The perception that theater is not a “real” career path.

“The school play” so often seems to be viewed as just a rite of passage.

Theater is very much a real career path: professional theater is part of the entertainment industry. I can totally understand that some administrators, especially in the smaller cities and towns, may not get much of a chance to see professional live theater, and therefore may not appreciate it for what it is. However, they do see actors on TV and the movies, and, if they care to watch the credits, they also see a large number of technical staff listed. Kids who study acting, directing, design, tech, or any other theater specialty in school can very well go on to a career in entertainment if they choose to do so.

Here’s where I can’t understand people having no problem watching professional sports and realizing that their kids are doing basically the same thing in school, and those same people watching a movie or TV show and not realizing that their kids are doing basically the same thing in “the school play.”

The perception that there’s no money in theater.

This is related to the above. We hear of sports figures making millions and movie starts making millions. Yet the majority of — if not all — sports figures started out playing in grammar or high school, just like many top TV or movie stars began acting in high school or college.

Also, of the many thousands of kids who play sports in school, only a small percentage end up playing professionally, yet the schools often provide huge support to the programs anyway. This is no different than the thousands of kids who are involved in theater in school yet go on to other fields, yet so many schools seem to provide little support.

The perception that theater is not a legitimate academic field.

Theater is a legitimate academic field. Many four-year colleges offer bachelors’ degrees in theater, with a concentration in acting, directing, design, tech, and several other areas. You can also earn an MA or an MFA (a terminal degree) in several theater specialties, or go on to earn a PhD in the subject. In fact, most professional designers have at least a BA or BFA, and more and more have MAs or MFAs.

The perception that theater is “just the arts.”

I always get a chuckle out of this one. What’s the difference between doing, say, Hamlet in a school or community theatre and calling it “the arts,” and doing the same play on Broadway and calling it “the entertainment industry?”

Well, for one thing, tickets to the local production can run maybe $10 to $35 or so, while tickets to the Broadway play, with a top star playing Hamlet, can run well over $100. No different than tickets to a high-school game can run $10 to $25, while tickets to a professional game can run well over $100.

Of course (yeah, no kiddin’, Sherlock) the Broadway performance has professionals working it, and costs more, and so on and on. But let’s face it: in this country the arts are always begging for money, while the entertainment industry is making money hand over fist. So why label theater education as “the arts” (with the usual low-rung-on-the-ladder connotation) instead of as “preparation for the entertainment industry?”

The perception that it costs too much money.

This one is easy: compare the amount of money spent on sports versus the amount of money spent on theater (on all the arts, actually). Sure it’ll vary by school, but it may be an eyebrow-raiser overall. Why is one so important, while the other one isn’t?

The perception that one person can do it all.

I see this all the time in the EdTA open forum, where so many teachers indicate they are a one-person department, teaching several classes in addition to directing the shows and designing the sets, lights, costumes, sound, props, advertising, and so on and on. Yet, again from the forum (and from conversations with some of the teachers), it appears that most of them were trained mainly in how to teach acting or directing, with only minimal exposure to the technical areas. From the viewpoint of a fly on the wall, I feel this is totally unfair to the kids, not to mention the teachers. One person cannot possibly be an expert in all those areas, let alone have the time to do it all properly.

As I mentioned to a college faculty member recently, the problem here appears to be that administrators “see” one person doing it all, and therefore think it’s possible to do so. Yet the idea that the kids may be getting short-changed doesn’t seem to come up.

The perception that “that’s just the way it is.”

A couple of years ago, I was hired by a local high school to design the set for one of their musicals. During conversations with the staff before production started, I learned that their previous set designers had been (and I’m quoting here) “kids right out of school who didn’t know what they were doing.” I also learned that a couple of parents had been very instrumental in previous productions, to the point of pretty much dictating what the set was and how it was built.

This being only the second high school I’ve ever worked for, I figured, okay, we’ll get to know each other and go from there. However, from the first production meeting, it was clear that they, and one parent in particular (a retired engineer), were under the impression that all set designers were the same: clueless. The director and I were very much on the same page, so she was very supportive, but, being a regular director at that school, there was only so far she could go.

I could totally understand the possibility that this one parent may have felt threatened, but I could not understand that he just would not let go the idea that I was clueless, even after the set was up and running on schedule. That behavior was so pronounced that it was very hard to not take it personally, but somehow I managed not to. It was not a pleasant experience for me.

I mention this story only because it’s so easy to fall back on “it’s always been this way” and “we don’t need to do anything about it” — what I call “defending the problem.” If administrators don’t notice, or don’t pay attention to, how things are done, and no one takes an active role in changing their perceptions, nothing will change. And here, again, is where I feel the kids are the ones who are being short-changed.

I don’t know what the answer is (heck, I’m not even sure I know what the question is), but I’ve been reading about, and hearing, the same concerns over the past couple of years. Hopefully, this post will raise a few questions that may lead to some positive solutions at some point.

Okay, enough for editorials. The next post will be back to my subject matter.

 

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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.

The Technical Director

The job title “Technical Director” can have any number of different job descriptions, depending on the production company. Some TDs are in charge of all technical aspects of a production, and others handle just one or two. I’ve seen cases where the TD was primarily in charge of lighting or sound, and others where his or her real function was to run the scene shop.

Some companies don’t even use this job title, preferring something like “Production Manager” or something similar. Back in grad school, the theatre department didn’t believe in TDs; they had a Production Manager to supervise and coordinate the productions, plus a full-time Shop Foreman and a full-time Master Carpenter, but each designer had an assistant designer to prepare the construction drawings and handle some of the work normally done by a TD.

In contrast, in college, there was a full-time Shop Foreman, but the TD position was filled by a student for each show, and his or her job consisted of coordinating and supervising the scenery construction, installation, and strike. Often, it also included preparing the construction drawings from the designer’s elevations or model.

In some cases the TD position may be combined with a Theatre Manager position, although, in my own experience, these two jobs require different skills, interests, and mindsets — and the combination may result in more than a full-time job.

To make life even more interesting, the term Technical Director is also used in fields outside of theatre, such as software development, engineering, and film and television, where the duties may be totally different.

Confusing? Sure, but it doesn’t have to be.

As I mentioned in other posts, the important thing is for the production company to define the specific duties up front. Then you can find someone who is qualified and wants to fulfill those duties. Like set designers, TDs don’t all come from the same background or have the same skill sets or interests.

Whatever the title and job description, the position is an important one, and unfortunately it’s too often neglected. The best TDs I’ve seen functioned like architectural project managers, making sure things happened on schedule and on budget, that everyone had what they needed, and that people communicated during the process. They anticipated needs and problems and kept them to a minimum.

In my own case, I learned far more about being a TD during my years in the architectural field than I ever did in theatre school. That’s where I learned that “it takes far less time to prevent a fire than to put it out,” something that I keep in mind all the time.

Here’s a sample list of duties I’ve seen TDs have in different companies, which you can pick and choose from to develop your own job description (I have not included tasks normally associated with a Theatre Manager). In some cases, of course, the TD will need to coordinate closely with the producer, director, or other people. The list assumes that the production company already has a producer and/or production manager to handle the artistic and business end of things:

  • Develop the production schedule, including auditions, rehearsals, design deadlines, construction and installation dates, and a strike plan. Coordination with other folks is critical here. You can refer to The project schedule for ideas on the design and construction phases, and for how to set up a schedule on a spreadsheet.
  • Schedule, attend, and run production and/or design meetings.
  • Attend and coordinate all technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals, working closely with the Stage Manager.
  • Attend the Paper Tech with the Director, Stage Manager, and designers as needed.
  • Hire scene shop staff as needed, including carpenters, painters, riggers and prop builders.
  • Hire additional (temporary) technical staff as needed, including the hanging and focusing crew, sound technicians, and costume shop staff. Coordination with the various designers and the producer is critical here.
  • Supervise and maintain the scene shop itself, including tools and equipment, inventory, and safety equipment.
  • Train any new hires as to the proper operation of power and hand tools, as well as safety procedures.
  • Supervise scenery construction, painting, installation, and strike.
  • Serve as the Shop Foreman for the company, which can include taking care of the shop’s equipment as mentioned above.
  • Serve as the Master Carpenter for the production, which sometimes includes preparing the construction drawings from the set designer’s elevations.
  • Purchase materials and supplies. Some of these can be picked up at the vendor’s place and some can be delivered to the theatre by the vendor. Some companies require that a TD have a current driver’s license and clean driving record as a condition of employment.
  • Review all designers’ drawings to make sure the work can be accomplished on time and within budget, given the company’s resources.

There will always be other duties, of course, but the list above will give you a good place to start picking and choosing — to understanding and defining what your own company needs from a TD.

One thing to consider carefully up front is whether your own TD should be a management position or a supervisory position, and how the position will fit into the current structure. Then you can pick and choose duties, and then, given those duties, you can decide how much of a solid background the TD will need to carry out the job. Knowing all this will help you put together a solid and very clear job description.

 

 

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.

 

The set designer’s scope of work, Part 2

I covered the designer’s deliverables in Part 1, so here I’m going to cover tasks which are expected of set designers (and which they expect to do) as well as optional services.

Expected tasks

In addition to providing the sketches, models, shop drawings, and similar items, set designers are also expected to do a few more things. One of them is to visit the construction shop at pre-arranged intervals to review the construction and painting, answer questions, and provide guidance as necessary. As with production meetings, this seems to work better if the schedule (once a week, every other week, or another interval) is agreed to at the start of the project, since the shop and the designer can then plan their schedules accordingly.

Another task is to attend technical rehearsals as appropriate. Generally, the set designer’s role at these is to make sure furniture and set dressing are correct, that scenery pieces can move in and out easily, and to note any technical problems or items which still need attention. It’s totally possible that some technical rehearsals may have nothing to do with the set, so there may not be any point in having the set designer present. Once again, the designer’s attendance at these should be discussed up front.

Attending dress rehearsals is a matter of choice, of need, and of availability. If the show involves frequent shifting of scenery, or tight coordination between the set and the lights, or something similar, then the set designer would want to be there for some or all of these rehearsals. Otherwise there’s no need.

Optional services

While union rules in professional theatre are very explicit as to the set designer’s scope of work, non-professional companies (especially the smaller ones) generally have no such rules. Some companies expect the set designer to build, paint, provide furniture or props, and/or any combination of these. It’s mostly a matter of “we’ve always done it this way,” and here’s another area where defining and agreeing to the expectations at the start of the project is very useful.

Because set designers are not all trained the same way (and, as I mentioned elsewhere, some have no formal training), they will have different backgrounds, skills, and interests. When I was in school, design and construction were treated separately: we had different classes and labs (and prerequisites) for each one, but, in the end, we were expected to be able to draft and build what we, or another designer, created. Likewise for painting, which was another skill we were taught. However, even then, some of us gravitated more to building than to painting, or to design than to drafting, or any combination thereof. So, even though we all had the same extensive training, most of us ended up with our little “specialties.”

These specialties can be put to use and become a win-win for the company and the designer. A set designer who is excellent at scenic painting, for instance, can contract separately for this work if he or she is available, or the work and its fee can be added to the basic contract. Other set designers may be highly skilled at carpentry, welding, prop making, special effects, or similar areas. It can be additional work for the designer as well as provide the company with a skilled specialist.

The set designer’s scope of work, Part 1

I mentioned elsewhere that the actual type of work generally performed by a set designer isn’t always understood, either by some production companies or by designers who have no formal training in the subject. So it’s time to help out a little bit. I described the design process in A Set Design From Start to Finish, so, in this post, I’m going to focus on the deliverables, i.e., what the designer provides to the production company. Additional (optional) services will be covered in Part 2.

1. Initial rough sketches and drawings.

After one or more discussions with the director about the story, the themes, the period, the atmosphere, the characters, and so forth, the set designer prepares one or more rough sketches to illustrate the design concept. These are usually in pencil and rather loose, and show the overall look and feel, but very little if any detail. These sketches are reviewed with the director and any desired revisions or details are noted.

Personally, I like to let the director take a couple of days to think about these sketches before getting back to me, but I keep finding that more and more of them just have a few comments and we’re off and running.

2. Developed sketches

At this point the designer will develop these sketches to show more detail, furniture placement, plans for different scenes, and similar items. These can be in black and white or color, but still leave room for discussion and revisions. They will be likewise reviewed with the director. Once the director approves the concept, it’s time for the next deliverable.

3. The final design

This usually takes the form of a scale model or a color rendering, although more and more designers like to present a 3D computer model. In any case, this final design spells out each scene and what it will look like, as well as information about how scenery units move or are parked offstage between scenes.  The director will then approve this before the next step.

4. Construction documents

These are the “blueprints” defining the floor plan, elevations, details, and so on, that the shop will use to build the set. Some production companies prefer designer’s elevations, which show views of each scenery element (to scale), with dimensions and other necessary details, but not the actual construction methods. The companies then pass these elevations on to their builders, who work out the construction details. Other companies prefer the actual detailed construction drawings. Either way works, but the form preferred by the production company needs to be specified up front, ideally when the designer is hired. The format and style of these drawings are basically the same as for architectural drawings.

This step also includes painters’ elevations (color drawings showing how the various elements will be painted) along with any necessary specifications. The process of painting a set, and the type of paint used, can vary from shop to shop, so I will cover this in a future post.

Finally, the designer provides photos or drawings of any furniture and set dressing required.

That pretty much sums up what set designers generally deliver to the production company, and what most designers expect to deliver. Additional deliverables can of course be requested as part of the scope of work, but these need to be specified ahead of time so the designer can plan accordingly.

Set designers are also expected, and expect, to visit the job site now and then to answer questions, as well as to attend technical rehearsals and similar events, and I will address this in Part 2.

Now… how about building the set, painting, supervising, shopping for props, and so forth?

These services are normally not part of the set designer’s scope of work (and are not allowed in the professional theatre world), although some non-professional companies may want the designer to provide one or more of them. Again this needs to be discussed up front, during the hiring process, as designers will vary in their interest or availability to provide these services. I have seen some designers contract separately for scenic painting or painting supervision, or for providing props and/or furniture, and this can sometimes work out well if both parties agree to it.

A word about set designers

For a number of years now, I’ve noticed that there are various and sundry misconceptions, mostly among non-professional theatre groups, about set designers and what they do. So I’m going to use this post to try to clarify it, and still keep it (reasonably) brief and simple.

For the purposes of this post, live theatre in the U.S. can be divided into two groups: professional (which includes Broadway and similar theatres across the country, along with regional theatres) and non-professional, which consists of community theatres, high schools, and colleges. There is also a difference between for-profit theatres and non-profit ones, but it’s not really relevant here.

The productions in professional companies are mostly staffed by full-time actors, directors, choreographers, designers, and so forth, most of whom belong to one or more trade unions which require some form of entrance exam or portfolio review. Designers, for example, are members of USAA/IATSE, which they join after passing a portfolio review by a board of established designers. The vast majority of these designers have degrees (sometimes advanced degrees) from professional training programs at universities that offer them, and have then worked with established designers for a few years before heading out on their own. They are generally taught the process I described here in A Set Design From Start to Finish or something very similar to it.

In non-professional theatre, however, there are no unions, entrance exams, or similar things. Community theatres are mostly staffed by people who have full-time jobs in other fields, or are retired, and for whom theatre is anywhere between a hobby, an avocation, or a passion. There is no “standardized” process for mounting a production, so companies have different ways of doing it. Although there are always exceptions, most of these folks have no formal training in theatre: they joined the group as volunteers, learned by doing, and often tried different jobs in the company.

One of these jobs is often that of set designer. Someone will volunteer to help build or paint the set, decide they like it, do it a few more times, and eventually decide they want to design a set. So they do a set and then look around for other companies that need set designers, and, in effect, hang up a shingle that says, “Set Designer.”

Remember, I’m trying to keep this brief. 🙂

Is there anything wrong with that? No. Some of these people have done their homework and turned out nice designs, and in some cases excellent designs, often working as volunteers or for a small stipend.

But it does create some recurring problems and a lot of confusion.

One of the recurring problems is that non-professional theatres often have differing expectations about what a set designer does and how he does it: they’ve been “doing it this way” for years, and seem to believe that that’s how everyone else does it. And this problem only perpetuates itself when these companies hire designers who have no formal training, since the designers themselves often don’t understand the process.

So, some companies want strictly volunteer designers, others pay a stipend, and others pay rates that approach union fees. Some expect the set designers to just design and then turn the drawings over to the companies’ builders and painters; some expect the designer to either help build or to become the head builder and painter; some expect the set designer to do all this plus provide props and furniture; and so on. It varies: one from this column and one from that column. Sadly, this difference in expectations can lead to… ahhh… rather unpleasant discussions and finger-pointing later.

It’s really important that the expectations (on both sides) be clear and in writing before hiring a designer. I wrote about the project schedule in another post, and this too needs to be clear up front, as well as the budget and other variables. If the company or the designer feel the expectations are not a good match, this is the time to either negotiate the terms or to politely turn down the partnership. It’s only business.

One suggestion I would make to young designers is to remember that their name is going to be on the set that ends up on the stage. Any add-ons, changes, short-cuts, construction quality issues, and/or replacements made by someone else will still have the set designer’s name on them. And that set, intentionally or not, will be an advertisement for the set designer’s work.

Educational theatres (high schools and colleges) are pretty much like community theatres in that sometimes they have a professional staff and other times they don’t. Sometimes they hire outside designers, and sometimes the same differences in expectations come up.

To sum up, it’s really just a matter of open communication up front and making sure that the production company and the set designer agree as to the scope of work.