When designing for a theatrical production, it’s important to remember one thing: resources are finite. Delivering a design that stays true to your vision whilst adhering to your specified budget is one of the many hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want to make a career in theatre design for yourself. Here are some of our tips for achieving that perfect balance.

The dream vs practicalities

When designing any production, however large or small, at some point this basic challenge must be tackled: how do I turn my dream design into a practically achievable goal? However hard this may be, when it comes to money and budgets, it is in everyone’s interests that you tackle this challenge from the outset.

Everything has a price

You may have the most fantastic design concept, your director may be getting excited about what you plan to put on stage, but unless you keep your head and stay focused on the costs of what you are proposing, things can go horribly wrong. Clever use of even the smallest of budgets can result in a fabulous, striking and memorable production. Necessity is, after all, the Mother of invention.

Who has responsibility?

Depending on your scale of production, or the staff structure of the company you work for, there are several people who could be holding the purse strings; they may be the producer, or the company administrator, sometimes they happen to be the director. Whoever this person is it is a good idea to sit down with them very early on and thrash out a production budget. Get that figure in writing and from that moment on, stick to it. Be very clear with the purse holder what is and isn’t to be paid for out of that budget.

People sometimes like to shroud budgets in mystery

It is often the case that an administrator has to juggle budgets, perhaps using a little ‘creative accountancy’ from time to time, it is also true that budgets can have a habit of changing. Sometimes there are hidden budgets, only to be used in an emergency. Sometimes people with money don’t tell the whole truth about what is available in case you go and spend it all! This is why you need to be very clear about exact figures you have at your disposal from the very beginning. If things out of your control change, you will obviously have to adapt, but just get a figure and stick to it then nobody can blame you if things go wrong.

Manage expectations

Of course, we all want the best design for our productions, we want to impress our audiences and receive rave reviews about the ‘stunning design that perfectly supports the production’, our director may well want the moon on a stick… BUT we also have to be realistic and keep our feet on the ground. If there is a reasonable but not huge budget, we might need to be selective about what we spend it on, perhaps one wonderful set-piece that will be talked about for years to come, rather than every scene filled with wonder.

Achieve the minimum first

Whether your budget is £200, £2,000 or £20,000, think first about the essentials; how many performers are there? Assuming you don’t want them to appear on stage naked then they all must have a costume. Depending on the period and other design considerations, give yourself a rough budget per costume. You may have enough to have every costume handmade, on the other hand, you may be charity shopping. You may be hiring costumes, or if you’re desperate, asking actors to provide their own.

Sometimes a budget will be split into ‘materials’ and ‘labour’. If so, you need to prioritise what or who you want to spend money on. If you are paying people to create stuff for you, you must get a quote first before you proceed. Once you have costed clothing your actors you can put your thoughts into the space they are performing in.

‘The Boy At The Edge Of The Room’ By Richard Conlon, Designed by David Haworth for Forest Forge.
‘The Boy At The Edge Of The Room’ By Richard Conlon. Designed by David Haworth for Forest Forge.

Set designing to a budget

It doesn’t matter how big or small your budget is, you will probably always wish you had a bit more, a good designer is able to achieve their vision on a bit less. Focus on the basics, materials budget, labour, hires, stock items, size of performance space, length of the tour, size of van, etc. I could give you a load of rough costings for timber, sheet materials, paint, canvas, and so on, but these would be out of date pretty quickly. It’s not hard to find all these things online these days. I would recommend you use companies who regularly service the theatre industry, things often end up cheaper that way.

Cutting corners

There are many tricks and ways of spending less, not all of them lead to a loss of production values…

Let us say you have designed a pretty regular box set (for the sake of argument). You have a builder you trust (more on this later) and they have given you a quote for building it from scratch. It’s a medium-sized set that will take two weeks to build and a week to paint. At the end of the production, you will own it and all that lovely scenery will go into stock (so long as you have storage). Let’s say you are quoted £5,000 for the whole lot. How could you get that down?

What’s in stock?

Are there any items of scenery that your company already owns that might be used or adapted to use rather than building from scratch? Often a company keeps a good stock of rostra or basic shaped flats that can be used again and again. Although this means sometimes a trickier paint job, this is often a compromise worth making.

Beg, steal or borrow

Other theatre companies know what it is like to put on a show with a small budget, consequently, they are often happy to help people in a similar position. This is perhaps easier with props and costumes, where a borrower could save a lot of money. If you are lucky enough to have a keen stage manager they often seem to relish the challenge of bringing in a props list on next to no money, the best stage manager is worth their weight in gold when it comes to getting stuff for nothing!

Some cheaper alternatives are ok

For instance, scenic canvas can be quite expensive, sometimes an alternative such as calico can really save you money and once painted will not look any different, it won’t last as long as canvas but maybe that doesn’t always matter. If you design a piece of scenery that is 2m 50cm wide, it will be much more expensive than if you went for 2m 44cm, those 6 little centimetres make a huge difference if your flat is covered in plywood because they push you over the standard 2440x 1220mm sheet size (8’x4’) so a compromise here could save a lot of dosh.

Hold on to a good builder

Sometimes it’s true that a designer is only as good as his or her contacts. If you are lucky enough to come across a good builder who is reasonably priced, be nice to them! You want to use them again. Some designers always use the same builders because it is just so much easier, communication is easier and there is a trust built. All this will lead to saving money in the long run, don’t underestimate the need for useful friends in the theatre industry.

‘Peeling’ By Kaite O’Reilly. Designed by David Haworth for Forest Forge Theatre Co.
‘Peeling’ By Kaite O’Reilly. Designed by David Haworth for Forest Forge Theatre Co.

Some corners just can’t be cut

There are some things I would call a compromise too far. For instance, don’t try to get around fire regulations by saving money not buying flameproof sheet materials, it could be dangerous, illegal and costly if you get caught. As a scenic artist, I would say don’t scrimp on the paint-job. A good scenic with good quality paints can make any set look a million dollars and it’s worth it. Don’t go tacky with the props unless it’s a design choice. Cheap props and costumes can stand out a mile and spoil an otherwise great production.

A black box can be enough

Remember, some of the best theatre can be seen with very minimal scenery. A great script, brought to life by skilled actors can work anywhere, even in a black box theatre setting. So, ANYTHING you put on the stage MUST justify its existence. A low budget is no excuse for rubbish scenery; better no scenery at all than rubbish scenery. Therefore, be selective, spend your money wisely; only put things on stage that enhance the production.

And finally…

Keep on top of the accounts. This goes back to the original point about getting a clear budget figure in writing and sticking to it. You need to cost everything, get more than one quote if you want (don’t always just take the cheapest) make lists, set targets. If something looks like being too expensive, think of an alternative; always have a plan B. It’s a really tough job to keep on top of the budget but if you become skilled at it, you will find you get a lot more work; people like flashy designs, but they love practical designers that don’t blow the budget!

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.