How to read a script like a set designer

This post was inspired by some recent projects, which in turn made me think about older ones and the people I worked with, and how they approached the process of designing and building a set.

One of the things that has really stood out for me over the years is how so many designer/TDs in non-professional theatre seem to look at a script in terms of “okay, so we need to build a such-and-such.” A few years ago, one of them didn’t seem interested at all in how the scenery units helped tell the story or how they worked in context with other units: he was just focused on the construction of individual pieces. And I found it surprising because he was also a good director and actor who paid close attention to the actors and their characters and motivations in the context of the story.

So how do we look at a script from the viewpoint of a set designer?

Start by understanding the story itself. Stories are about people, three-dimensional people who want something but can’t get it because there are obstacles in the way, so they have to figure out how to get past the obstacles. Whether it’s a play, a musical, an opera, a movie, a sitcom, a “reality show,” an election, or a sporting event, it’s all the same: somebody wants something and has to figure out what to do about it.

A set is nothing more than a physical environment in which the characters in the story show us how they approach getting past those obstacles. So the set not only has to make it physically possible for the story to take place, but hopefully also wants to give us a sense of the overall mood of the story and present us with a logical place for it. Watch your favorite TV show or movie and notice how characters’ homes and workplaces “fit” the characters and the nature of the story. Some years back there were snide comments about the lifeguards on Baywatch all having homes that nobody could afford on a lifeguard’s income. It was probably done to enhance the “glamorous” nature of the characters portrayed, but, still, it was distracting.

Here is where good set designers read the script two or three times before starting to draw anything. The first time is for the story itself and the other times are to understand what the story really requires in terms of the physical space and how it all works together. I covered some of this here in several previous posts.

The danger, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is that by thinking about scenery units (or props and furniture) out of context, they just become generic pieces. I’ve heard it many times: “We don’t have to build a staircase – we have one from last year. It’s about the right size and has a nice railing.” What can be (and often is) missed here is that last year’s staircase was from Willy Loman’s house and this year it’ll be in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

While reading the script, we also look for things like genre and mood. Is it a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a horror story, or something else? Is the mood happy, sad, tense, poignant, scary? These, and the nature of the story itself, are what clue us in as to whether the story wants a “realistic” set or a “non-realistic” set, a.k.a. a representational set or a presentational one.

These are some of the things I discuss at my first meeting with the director because I want to find out how he or she is approaching the story, and why. Too often I’ve seen a new director want a realistic set for something like a musical or a Shakespeare play, where realistic sets can come across as static and unimaginative. On the other hand, plays like Neil Simon comedies or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, can “feel” better in a “realistic” space.

For instance, here’s part of a set I did years ago for David Lindsay-Abaire‘s play Rabbit Hole, which is about a young couple who lost their four-year-old son to a car accident. The director and I decided that we wanted the audience to focus on the sadness of the story, so we would avoid any theatricalism and create a fairly realistic space. The show was done in a black box.

On the other hand, here’s my set (under work lights) for J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which is about an investigation into the suicide of a young factory worker and takes place in England during the Edwardian period. Here we wanted to show the wealth of the family who lived in the house and their isolation from the common people, and also pick up on the story’s sense of things being out of balance.

In both cases the research led to authentic period detailing, but the sets themselves had totally different feelings to jive with their stories and their characters.  You can read more about these sets on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net. And, for a good short intro to how we approach research for a set design, you can read my post here, at Research is an investment, not a luxury.

Once I have a good sense of how we want to approach the story, I can go back to the script to start defining the physical space. Many scripts include detailed stage directions or even floor plans, and there is an ongoing debate as to how much of this was included by the playwright and how much is just a record of the original production. A couple of years ago I contacted a few publishers to get their take on this, and the consensus was that, unless the contract specifically states otherwise, there is no requirement to follow any of it. You can read about this at The script, the set, and stage directions.

So, basically, that’s how we read scripts: start with the story, make sure we understand it and the director’s intent, and then delve into the details that we need to create a compelling physical space. As I mentioned above, several readings are usually necessary to get a really good mental picture of what kind of space will best serve the story. And I often keep referring to the script as I make design choices, looking for hints about the characters’ intentions.

Many times the characters themselves (not the actors, although that’s a separate conversation) will tell us what they need, but we have to be open to listening to them. For instance, in the set above for An Inspector Calls, the head of the household, Arthur Birling, loves to tell people that he used to be Lord Mayor of his town; he considers it just one more symbol of his status and importance. So I decided we would have a formal portrait of him, in full mayoral regalia, hanging over the fireplace. That way, when he tells the Inspector about his former title, he can point to the portrait. The director loved the idea, as it would help show his pompous personality.

If you’d like a little more on the design process itself, please check out one of my original posts here, A set design from start to finish.

 

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Don’t put the cart before the horse

Every now and then, at a first production meeting, I hear something that reminds me of this:

I’m sure you’ve heard it too: “Let’s get (or build) a revolve.” “We have a cart we used last year.” “We have that staircase from [name a show].” “We can use periaktoi.” And similar comments.

Granted these ideas are all intended to be helpful, but it’s so easy to home in on one of them and let a piece of scenery drive the set design. I’ve mentioned this one before: a couple of years ago I was at a first meeting for Les Miz at a large community theater, and of course the barricade came up right away. Someone immediately suggested borrowing a 12′ revolve from another company, and several heads nodded in agreement. At which point I brought up two things: one, a 12′ barricade on a 40′ wide stage would not have looked very impressive, and, two, we didn’t need a revolve just because the barricade turns around. So they looked at me and asked what I would do instead, to which I replied “I don’t know yet; this is our first meeting and I haven’t started on the design.” Not what they wanted to hear at that moment, but it had to be my answer.

In the end, they had a much more impressive barricade that turned just fine, and they didn’t have to deal with a revolve. You can read about here, at The barricade in Les Miz.

It’s fine to keep stock pieces in mind, and they can certainly help with the budget or the schedule. However, it’s so much better — in terms of the audience experience — to create a solid, compelling design first, thinking about the story and the characters, and then (and only then) look for stock pieces that fit into the design. A staircase, for instance, built for one show may not work for another show due to size, style, or some other consideration. Ditto for doors, windows, and lots of other items, and the same holds true for furniture and accessories.

By the same token, popular and frequently built scenery pieces — like periaktoi — are not always the best solution to a design problem. What I’ve seen happen often (too often) is that these items become a construction project that drives everything else. You can end up deciding to build three or four periaktoi right up front, before considering the overall set, and then find yourself painted into a corner: “Okay we have them, now what do we do with them?”

If you want to consider periaktoi as problem-solvers (which they are), and not as short-cuts to designing a set (which they are not), you may want to check out my post on them, at Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works.

Take your time. Study the script, the characters, the period, and all those other things that make up the story, and come up with a physical environment that supports it in the most creative, theatrical manner possible. Then feel free to see what pieces you have that fit in perfectly or that can be modified.


I love that photo above, BTW. It’s like the horse is breaking the fourth wall to ask us, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

When a pencil meets technology

Back in 2007 I designed a production of To Kill a Mockingbird for a local theatre. At our first meeting, the director and I agreed that it would be really simple to just say, okay, we need a few houses and a tree, and call it a day — and immediately decided that that was exactly what we didn’t want to do. After some discussion, we agreed to borrow an idea from the novel, and that’s how I came to combine a pencil, a scanner, and SketchUp.

In the novel, the narration is pretty much provided by a grown-up Scout (Jean Louise Finch), based on her recollections of “the old days.” So the director and I said, what if Jean Louise had done some pencil sketches of her old town and we saw the play through those sketches. We liked that, so the houses, the tree, and other elements would all be large pencil sketches. We deviated from this for the trial scene, but that’s a different story.

The first step here was to research period houses in Alabama, and there was plenty of material available online. I also bought a book, A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester, which was great not just for the photos but for the drawings and descriptions. It was a huge help.

As usual for me, I then did a number of rough pencil sketches sketches to get an idea of what the set would look like. This was also how I sold the concept to the director:

Mockingbird 1

Once we were in agreement, I fired up SketchUp. Another set designer had been trying to talk me into using it, and this time I decided to give it a go and see whether I liked it. I already had an idea as to what the houses might look like, so now I developed them some more, in 3D, based on each character’s personality. The houses were mostly facades and roofs, since that’s all I would need. Here are four of them:

Mockingbird 3

Then, going back to my original concept sketch, I turned each house (in SketchUp) to get just the angle and view I wanted:

Mockingbird 1

Now I printed each one out, placed a sheet of colored tracing paper over it, and traced it in pencil to get a “pencil sketch” look:

Mockingbird 4

This took a few tries, since I was also working on the drawing style I thought Jean Louise would have used. I could have sketched out the houses in pencil to begin with, but SketchUp gave me the ability to turn them until they were “just so,” instead of having to re-draw them several times.

Once I was happy, I scanned each sketch, did a bit of work on it with Paint Shop Pro (a product similar to Photoshop), and imported them into SketchUp for the final “assembly” into the town:

Mockingbird 5

Two of the houses needed a real porch, so we added them while still keeping to the pencil-sketch look.

The tree worked out the same way. I looked at numerous live oaks online, found one I liked, modified it some, sketched it, and imported it into SketchUp. I was also careful to place the knot hole at just the right height for Scout and her brother:

Mockingbird 6

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of the set, but here’s one under work lights:

Mockingbird 7

To create the actual scenery units, I printed out each house for the scenic artists, and they then gridded the printouts and transferred the designs to the full-size pieces. They also mixed a background paint exactly the color of aged newsprint (from an actual sample) and then a lining color that looked just like pencil graphite.

You can see a few photos of this project on my web site, at To Kill a Mockingbird, and more on how I use SketchUp right here on the blog at I love SketchUp and A set design from start to finish.

I’ve used this same technique a number of times by now, and I really like it. It gives me the ability to draw something freehand just the way I want it and then import it into SketchUp to develop the set design and the renderings. Once the designs are in the computer, I can transfer them directly into the shop drawings and even home in on some of the details, since they’re already there. It’s a creative solution and a time-saver at the same time.

 

Revolves don’t have to be round

My first year in junior college we built a revolve for a show. It was a huge affair with three different scenes, one of which had folding panels to change the setting quickly. In the center of this revolve was what we called the “delta unit,” which was a triangular space that led to each of the three scenes. I kid you not: it was easy (and known) for people to get lost in the thing.

That was my first revolve, and of course it was round. And, of course, going by the textbooks, we built up the floor around it so the whole surface would be at one level and the turntable wouldn’t be visible. It worked beautifully, but, being the first revolve most of us worked on, it also gave us the impression that revolves have to be round.

Not so.

Your typical revolve, out of a textbook, is a round turntable in the middle of a built-up area. The backs and sides of the set, and the structure on it — and of course the dimensions — can be anything, but the basic idea is the same:

Revolve 1

Now and then we see a revolve without the built-up area around it, which looks like a round platform:

Revolve 2

Nothing wrong with this, as long as it fits visually into the overall design.

But it doesn’t have to be round. Years ago I designed a small, non-round revolve for Equus, which was about six feet on a side:

revolve-3.jpg

But it wasn’t square: the edges were ragged, so it looked like a rough wooden platform:

Revolve 4

We can also take this idea a bit further and stack several levels on it, creating a sort of revolving hill or rock formation:

Revolve 5

And here’s another way to look at a revolve, from a set I did for Shrek:

Revolve 6

For this one, we used half of an existing 12′-diameter round revolve and built a square piece on the other side to create a tilted stand for a huge book:

Shrek book

So the revolve had the fairy-tale book on one side and Fiona’s bedroom on the other. You can see more on this on my web site, at Shrek.

Then, of course, there are those pieces that we think need a revolve, but really don’t. The barricade I designed for Les Miz, for instance, was a free-standing structure that turned all the way around but didn’t sit on a “typical” revolve. This photo shows half of it, from the “rebel” side. The complete unit was twenty feet across:

Barricade 2

You can read more about this unit at Problem solving: the barricade in Les Miz.

Revolves can be wonderful tools to help tell a story, but the real trick is to think in terms of what the story needs to say, instead of what the physical piece of scenery “should” be.

Drawing Ideas

Donna and I were at one our favorite weekend breakfast places in Berkeley this morning, and, as usual, afterwards walked a few doors down to Builders Booksource, a small bookstore specializing in architectural and design books, as well as building codes and other construction resources. Every time we go there, I find something interesting, and this morning was no exception.

So often I hear set designers or TDs in non-professional theatre start discussing a set in terms of scenery: “What are going to build?” “Can we use stock?” “Can we re-use part of the last set?” and similar questions. I’ve written several posts here about design, inspiration, research, and similar subjects, so this time I’m going to mention a book I found at the store this morning — one of many on a similar subject — that many of us find very useful when designing… well… just about anything. It’s titled Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach for Better Design, by Mark Baskinger and William Bardel. The blurb on the book describes its purpose very well:

A primer for design professionals across all disciplines that helps them create compelling and original concept designs by hand–as opposed to on the computer–in order to foster collaboration and win clients. In today’s design world, technology for expressing ideas is pervasive; CAD models and renderings created with computer software provide an easy option for creating highly rendered pieces. However, the accessibility of this technology means that fewer designers know how to draw by hand, express their ideas spontaneously, and brainstorm effectively.

This book has nothing to do with stage design, but delves into drawing itself as a design technique, which is why I’m writing about it. As the blurb above indicates, computer software nowadays makes it easy to create very detailed designs quickly,  and I’ve written about my use of SketchUp repeatedly. However, the problem is that it’s so easy to draw, say, a flat or a platform, that we can get caught up in drawing a set that consists only of flats and platforms. The creative process of thinking about the space itself, looking at options, sketching spontaneously, and developing an idea into something more interesting, can too easily drop between the cracks. I’ve been using SketchUp for years, and I still can’t use it for initial concepts: I have to figure out where I’m going with a design before I ever turn to the software — and believe me, I’ve tried.  🙂

As I mentioned above, Drawing Ideas is one of many books on basically the same subject: developing a creative design in terms of form and function and space before we start worrying about the materials. They are all very useful in learning how to develop compelling sets that will not only support the story but also greatly enhance the audience experience. It’s definitely worth the price.

BTW, I can hear some of you here in the Bay Area asking, okay, so what’s the place you went to for breakfast?   🙂   It’s Bette’s Ocean View Diner.

Start by asking why

A friend loaned me a copy of Start With Why by Simon Sinek a few years ago and created a monster. The book is about leadership, but more to the point it’s about how people and companies have inspired legions of followers by simply and clearly letting them know why they do what they do. Businesses examined in the book include Apple and Nike, as well as others which haven’t been so successful. I liked the book so much I ordered my own copy.

Chapter 3 starts with a simple diagram that makes total sense to me. It’s three concentric circles; the outer one represents “what,” the middle one “how,” and the inner one “why.” The author then goes on to argue that so very often, when trying to sell a product or a concept, we focus on the “what” and the “how,” but tend to ignore the “why.” In fact, “how” sometimes takes over to the point that the process becomes an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

I see this all the time in theater companies as well as various online forums. Someone will ask “How do I do this or that?” and the answer, frequently, is “You do it this way or that way.” But so often I want to ask — or I do ask — “Why do you want to do that?” Which is just a way of asking, “Do you know why you’re doing it?”

For instance, take Man of La Mancha. The original set, designed by Howard Bay, had a staircase that lowered from above whenever someone entered or exited the dungeon. That staircase was there for a reason: to show, visually and dramatically, the isolation and helplessness of the prisoners and the power the inquisitors had over them. But how many productions of this show include that staircase “just because it’s there?” We end up with staircases, all right, but not with ones that make the powerful statement of the original one. I especially find it amusing when the show is done on a stage with a low ceiling (like many high school auditoriums) and the staircase ends up being too small to say anything.

Another example is The Nutcracker, where the Christmas tree “grows.” And so often it grows “just because it grows.” If we look at that scene in the context of the story, we realize that the tree doesn’t grow: Clara shrinks down to the size of the Nutcracker doll, which is what makes the dream sequence make sense. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the tree growing that it turns into a technical project instead of a means to advance the story. I remember watching a performance of the ballet and hearing a mother telling her young daughter, “Look, sweetie, the tree is growing!” I wanted to reach over and ask her why the tree is growing.

Okay, let’s do this in threes. A third example is a production of The Woman in Black I designed a few years ago. The story takes place on the stage of a theater that the protagonist has rented to rehearse a play he wants to do for his family and friends. The only scenery and props used are what’s already there on the rented stage, including a table and chairs and a large trunk which becomes a desk, a horse cart, and a bed. We had a large old road trunk on casters which I thought would be perfect for the show; it was moved around several times, so the casters were great. But the technical director wanted to build a skirt around the bottom of the trunk to hide the casters, because “that’s what you do with scenery pieces.” I finally convinced him the casters were totally in character, but it took some doing.

So what to do? In the first two cases, asking “why” before “what” and “how” could have resulted in very creative and theatrical choices. In the first case, asking why that staircase was there in the original production could have resulted in a design solution that worked better for the space and still added a highly dramatic visual impact to the story. In the second case, knowing that the tree doesn’t really grow (in the context of the story) could have resulted in a lighting scheme that focused on Clara’s dream — better advancing the story — and not on the tree.

In the third case… well… why would a theatrical road trunk need a skirt to hide the casters?

At the risk of indulging in shameless promotion, I’m going to suggest that Start With Why should be read by designers, tech directors, and directors. It’s a short book, reads fast, and gets right to the point, unlike so many others that pad the pages with words just to increase the page count. It’s available at bookstores or at Amazon, and you can also order it through my SD&T Bookstore.

The revolve in “Hamilton”

Revolves have been around for a long time and can be very effective, but so often they are used simply to change a setting quickly, or they become construction projects that take on a life of their own and serve mostly as toys for the more engineering-oriented members of the shop crew. This morning I found a great article on the revolves used in Hamilton and how they are used to help tell the story.

Even more interesting, reading between the lines in the article, I started getting ideas for how other pieces of equipment or scenery can also be used to help tell the story. But, as detailed in the article, it takes some serious collaboration between the director and the set designer — and, in the case of Hamilton, the choreographer —  to fully develop the idea. One comment I especially liked was to the effect that the revolves and the action and choreography were so tightly integrated that you could not tell where one left off and the other took over.

The article is in the USITT archives as a publicly-available portion of the Winter 2017 issue of Theatre Design and Technology. I don’t know how long USITT will keep it available to the public at no charge, but here’s the link:

http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/hickmanbrady/tdt_2017winter_public/index.php

Enjoy!