stage design

Good stage design comes at a production from the dual perspective of practicality and artistic expression. The best stage designers are able to marry these two essential elements to produce a design that is both believable and emotionally charged.

The Designer is a vital member of the artistic team, it is often the designer’s job to link all the departments. You could say that the ability to conceive a design is just the beginning of the job; managing the realisation of the concept is often a much harder affair.

The Director/Designer relationship

The relationship between Designer and Director is one that merits its own ‘How To’ essay. In brief, within modern theatre at almost every level (from an Amateur company in a village hall to the National Theatre) the Director is recognised as the prime ‘mover’ in a production; it is the director that chooses the play, comes up with a ‘concept’, gathers their team.

It is rare (although not unheard of) for the Designer to lead a process. More often than not a designer’s prime objective is to visually respond to a director’s intellectual ideas or ‘concept’ of the play and for the purpose of this article, I will assume we are working with an existent script; designing for new writing or devised pieces is a different beast entirely. Many directors (being intellectuals who deal with words more than pictures) are a little challenged when it comes to visualising. The designer, therefore, needs to understand a director’s ideas and give them visual shape, form, colour and practicality.

Knowing your history

It is often essential that a designer has a good understanding of period detail, no matter how small or large the budget one works with. There is nothing worse than period details that are wrong. A good designer needs to be a historian when it comes to costume, prop, and furniture detail. If a production is set in Victorian times and requires a chair, then a simple Bentwood might suffice. A modern plastic chair certainly will not, it is better to have no chair at all than the wrong chair! Every aspect of the design in a period-specific piece needs to be afforded the same attention to detail.

In many productions ‘naturalism’ is merely hinted at or perhaps even ignored altogether, often productions go with a more ‘non-period’ style – which was popular at the RSC in the 1980’s. In this world, the role of the designer becomes more slanted towards the ‘artistic expression’ side of the balance. Here colour, light, shape and tone of sets and costumes are manipulated to support a feel or overall ‘tone’ of a production. Lighting can play a huge part here, as well as sound or perhaps projection. One thing remains constant though; a designer creates a space on stage that has its own personality, it has an atmosphere which supports the mood of the play and begins to tell the story before a single word has been spoken on stage!

Studying the script

Looking at the process of design from day one, with a scripted piece, my advice to any designer would be: to begin with the script. This may sound obvious, but it needs to be stressed. When working on a play I like to read the script at least three times before I even talk to the director. This allows me to form my own opinions on the piece.

The first reading I try to read it through in one sitting without making any notes. This is as close as I will ever come to the experience of our audience, witnessing the play for the first time. They hear each line just once and from this, they will form their responses to the piece.

The second time I read the play I like to note down things that interest me, suggestions of period detail (if any), suggestions of the type of mood of the piece, how I think the writer wants their audience to feel. It will be my job to help them feel that way with subliminal direction.

The third time I read the script I do so with my practical head on, I create a ‘script breakdown’ this document records every design-related detail that I can glean from the script. There is a column for ‘setting’ as suggested in any stage directions or dialogue. A column for ‘props and furniture’, a column for any mention of costume requirements (including quick changes and multi-rolling), a column for Lighting, one for sound and one for ‘other’ including such things as film projecting or puppetry. Most importantly there is a column for the number of the page that each item is mentioned on in the script. This script breakdown will become my Bible as I begin the design process.

Research the nitty-gritty of the piece

After the three readthroughs of the script, I will begin my visual research for the play. If there are any specific items mentioned in the script I will research pictures of each one. I will also do general research on location and period. If the play is set in a particular country, area, or type of building, I will find images of these. I will also research fine art from the period of the play or the location. If the place really exists then I will try to visit it (where possible) and take lots of photos. I will be found in art galleries staring at paintings. Art of the period is often a great resource for costume detail, or for the mood/tone of the production.

At the same time as this research period, I am beginning to come up with sketched ideas of my own. On a practical level, the designer has to know the venue they are designing for in great detail. Again, designing for a multi-venue tour is a whole other ball-game. I will be looking at plans, visiting the venue, taking pictures. I like to have a visual concept of my own, with 2D sketches, scene story-boards and perhaps a very basic scale model that I can take along with me to my first meeting with the director. Always in the knowledge that some or all of my initial ideas could be thrown out of the window the moment the Director tells me their plans!

The initial Director’s meeting

That first meeting with the director is so important. The designer needs to react to and support the director’s vision… this may sometimes require a certain amount of manipulation to guide a director away from an ambitious or ridiculous idea that is not possible to deliver, or to persuade the director that the drawings you are showing them are EXACTLY the kind of thing they have been describing all along!

Remember that often the best directors do not trouble themselves with boring practicalities such as budgets and time frames; that’s your job. The designer needs to be a project manager, a troubleshooter, creative and innovative. It helps if you have a working knowledge of every department in the theatre so that when you ask for the moon on a stick, you have a pretty good idea how you can achieve it.

Taking your plans into rehearsals

Once your concept has been agreed, you can go away and work on your scale model and costume drawings which you will then discuss several times before rehearsals have begun. Each department will have their own budgets and as the designer, you need to be a creative accountant and learn to juggle budgets where necessary.

By the first day of rehearsals, you will have a finished model and scale drawings that the workshop can create the set with, costume designs for each character, and a knowledge of ‘makes’, ‘buys’ or ‘borrows’. You will have props and furniture lists that will form the basis of stage management meetings. Most of all you will be able to clearly explain your ‘design concept’ to the whole company so that they understand the general mood and look of the piece they are about to create.

During rehearsals the designer’s time is shared between rehearsals, meetings with the director and other heads of department, costume fittings in wardrobe, and the workshop, overseeing the build and paint of the set. During tech week the designer will write many lists! The job becomes very much like spinning plates in a circus act; with each department vying for the designer’s attention and time.

Whatever happens, the designer needs these people on their side, especially the lighting people! Your set can be made or destroyed with lighting, never forget that. The value of a keen and happy wardrobe department must never be underestimated, I rarely visit a costume department without chocolates or doughnuts!

There will be long hours, probably some tears, hopefully, a lot of fun! The designer has to have the drive, skill and enthusiasm to inspire a team who are usually overworked and underpaid, to produce magic with next to nothing. A good designer knows when to say something is not right, in a tactful way, and must always have an alternative solution!

David Haworth
David trained in technical theatre arts at Rose Bruford then studied theatre design at Motley. He has been designing professionally since 1991, mostly in small-scale rural touring as Associate Director of Forest Forge Theatre Company where he designed over 70 productions. Living in Manchester, he now works as a freelance designer, scenic artist, writer and director.