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Architects of the stage

a character pulls the rope of one of three large bells on the stage
The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Nevada All-State Thespians

By Mike Lawler

In many ways, the theatrical scene designer is much like a conventional architect. Like the architect, the designer must be adept at visualizing that which does not exist, and must be able to transfom that vision into a conceptual image that can be shared with other members of the creative team. The designer must also, like the architect, balance the aesthetic and structural needs of the work, simultaneously developing the scenery as an interpretation of the world of the play and as an engineering project. Like architecture, the work of a scene designer requires attention to two distinct areas of creation: the real (with its limitations of space, budget, and the laws of physics), and the imaginary (such as the conceptual ideals of the production team, the demands of the text, and the conventions of the style the designer has chosen to work in).

The difference, however, is that scenic designers create environments for the stage, and must accept that their work has a brief lifespan. Scenery, like much architecture, is art, but it is art that is made to be torn down.

As the architect of scenery, the scenic designer often provides the conceptual foundation upon which all other designers will build. The lighting, sound, costume, and perhaps projection designers will work to complement and highlight the environment created by the scenic designer for the world of the play, musical, opera, ballet, or virtually any kind of live performance. The stylistic choices of the designer, developed in concert with the director, and often in pursuit of the director’s original and unique approach to the work, provide a physical space in which the performers can tell the story and develop the alternate reality of the stage.

“The theatre allows designers to tweak reality into a more artistic and abstract environment,” explains Robert Morgan, a freelance scenic designer based in San Francisco. “The result,” he says, “is a kind of artistic ride for the audience: stepping into a theatre, seeing a life-size sculpture onstage and saying to themselves, ‘this should be interesting.’” This initial impression is created in large part by the scenic designer, and can be an essential part of a production’s success in conveying the story, and certainly of its visual scale.

“The set designer has the biggest canvas, or broadest palette,” says Bill Forrester, a freelance designer and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, speaking of the fundamental differences between scene designers and other theatrical designers. “You have basically an empty space, and you’ve got to do something to it,” he says. “The set designer has the broadest range of possibilities of any of the designers,” he says.

Taking the lead

“The beginning is always the best part,” says Christopher McCollum, a freelance designer based in Austin, Texas. “When the first conversations are happening and everyone is exchanging ideas.” In an ideal situation, McCollum and his colleagues will sit down with the director and the other designers to hash out ideas for the production. In practice, however, this is not always possible due to the demanding schedules and far-flung careers of most designers and theatre artists. So scenic designers generally lead the way, with other members of the team taking their initial design cues from the scenic concept.

“I sometimes feel like I’m out there alone, and everyone else is waiting for me to do something,” says Forrester of this common practice. It is understandable, however, that in situations where entire design teams cannot meet and swap ideas, and may have limited access to one another, that they might wait and use the ideas for the scenery to give them a reliable starting point. The choices the scenic designer makes will in most cases establish the physical environment of the piece, which is the foundation for the lighting, costume, projection, and even sound designs.

This isn’t to say that scenic designers are not collaborative in their efforts. In theatre such a thing would be nearly impossible. “I think the collaboration is what keeps me doing it,” Forrester says, fully aware that even under often fragmented circumstances, the collaboration among all members of the production team is essential to the creative process.

Aside from working with the director and fellow designers, the scenic designer must also work closely with many different technical staffers. “I have tremendous respect for the tech staff,” says Judy Gailen, a freelance designer based on the East Coast. With a varied background in art and theatre, Gailen considers working with technicians one of the best parts of her job.

There are three crucial working relationships that scenic designers must forge in technical departments: with the technical director, with the props department, and with the scenic artist. More than anyone else who works on the production, these people will be responsible for the quality of the finished scenery. Designers have an acute understanding of how vital it is to have competent, talented, and hard-working tech support. A design can only be as good as the people who build and install it, Forrester says, and “if you have a shop that is not very interested or not very competent, then it just becomes a big pain in the butt.”

The most vital connection may be between the scenic designer and the scenic artist. Peter Beudert, a scenic designer, professor at the University of Arizona, and the co-author of Scenic Art for the Theatre, says this about the collaboration between a designer and painter: “There is a bit of responsibility on both ends. Part of what helps the process is that the scene designer needs to understand a little bit how the scenic artist may ultimately work on something.” Thus it is useful for designers to acquire some training and experience in the art of scene painting.

Paths to a career as a scenic designer

“I think a good liberal arts education, serious studies in drawing, painting, and sculpture, and life experience is the best start for a designer,” says Gailen. She considers herself an abstract or minimalist artist, focusing on “metaphorical things,” and is thus driven by the concept of a production. “I feel that no matter how great you may be technically or how much technical resource you have, if the idea is uninteresting, the work will be uninteresting.”

McCollum, who spent years assisting the international theatre artist Robert Wilson, also emphasizes flexibility and a wide range of skills, which qualifies the designer for different kinds of assignments. (Most scenic designers working in the American theatre are freelancers; that is, they are self-employed, accepting assignments one production at a time from theatres around the country.) “Because I’ve never had a teaching position, I don’t have any stability,” he says. “One takes whatever work is available, which is why I’m glad I have lots of practical skills, and why I think it’s important for young designers.”

Morgan, who has taught design at the Art Institute of Colorado, the University of San Francisco, and most recently for Webster University in St. Louis, has a simple standard for students of design. “I [want] them to be the ‘yellow bloomers in a sea of suits,’” he says, believing this to be an ideal for which all young designers should strive. “It’s a strange type of employment,” he says. “You don’t make widgets, and your client can’t actually touch what it is they’re paying for: your talent.”

Forrester, who taught design at the University of Washington for thirty years, offers this straightforward piece of advice to hopeful designers: “Avoid it if you possibly can.” I laugh, and he quickly deadpans, “I’m not kidding.”

Forrester believes that a plan to become a professional of any kind in theatre must begin at a point of necessity. That is, a student must (a) be suited for such a life; and (b) have the talents required to both find and execute the work; and (c) feel compelled to follow his or her heart into design. If those conditions are met, Forrester will offer some follow-up advice.

“A graduate degree is not necessary,” he says, “but it can be a helpful shortcut into the business.” According to Forrester, a good graduate program can be hard to find, yet it can teach you essential skills needed to find entry-level work in design. “It can also teach you, we hope, an approach to work which will serve you when you sit down with a director and try to envision a play.”

Regardless of the degree that a scenic designer brings into the marketplace, his or her education never stops.

“I feel like if I don’t learn something on every show I do, then it’s probably a waste of time,” Forrester says. “Every time you go into a production, it’s a slightly—or sometimes a wildly—different set of circumstances and it has a different goal, and so you are continuously trying to solve new problems. That and working with people who have skills that you don’t—like the technicians and scenic artists—that’s what really keeps it interesting.”

By way of example, Forrester recalls working on the Empty Space Theatre’s production of Rebecca Wells’s Gloria Duplex almost twenty years ago. “I was brought up with the idea that you should prune, and be careful in your selection of color, and just be careful and be tidy, so that the audience wouldn’t get confused,” he says. For Gloria Duplex, though, “we wanted the audience to feel like they had truly walked into a strip joint in New Orleans. Well, we just pulled out all the stops, and made a complete mess of the place.” he says. Even though that approach was contrary to everything Forrester had been taught about design, he knew it was right for that play.

“What it taught me was that if you throw enough stuff into the mix, after a while it forms a kind of texture, and with decent lighting the performance can indeed happen, the audience’s eyes will go where they’re supposed to go, and it will work,” he says. “For me, it was an eye-opening experience.”

a man stands on the top deck of ship on stage as streams of ribbon give the effect of water
Disney’s The Little Mermaid | Troupe 4982 | Bradford High School | Kenosha, WI

Sidebar: a job description

The conceptual leadership provided by a production’s director is vital to the scenic designer’s work. While the designer’s initial ideas will be drawn from the text, early in the process the director will communicate the themes and conceptual underpinning of the work from his or her point-of-view. The director’s concept may include a different time period, specific visual cues, the mood the production is expected to evoke, and textural ideas.

After several readings of the script, the scenic designer will begin a thorough research process. The shape of the research will vary a great deal depending on the particular production and the designer’s personal approach. Typically a scenic designer will gather dozens of research sources, including material found on the Internet and in books and magazines, information on architecture and furniture styles, photographs and drawings depicting everyday life in the period of the production, and collections of images or objects that convey the color, texture, or mood that the designer has in mind for the production.

Having compiled the appropriate research and developed a design concept, the designer will then commit the ideas to paper. Sketches, paintings, collages, and clippings are all used to communicate the concept to the director and the other designers. Once the design ideas have been tuned and agreed upon among the production team, the designer will move forward with the more concrete aspects of the work, planning how to translate the ideas into something that can be built. This step involves the preparation of technical drawings that detail how scenery is to be constructed and specify what materials will be used. Decisions about colors and textures are made, and the designer (or an assistant) will build a scale model of the set to assist all members of the production staff with visualizing the end product and bringing the design to life.

Throughout the build process, the designer will usually be available to the technicians and artisans creating the scenery in order to assist, troubleshoot potential design problems, and answer questions that may not be clear on paper. During the painting phase, the designer will also be available to verify any samples that the scenic artist has created to ensure that they have mixed color and texture as the designer has envisioned it.

Being present for the tech process is also a vital part of the scenic designer’s job. This is the time when any complicated scenery movement or unforeseen technical difficulties will be addressed. It will also give the designer the opportunity to see the scenery in complete form at full scale and make any necessary adjustments before the show opens before an audience.


Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.


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