Set design follows the needs of the show. But within the confides of the number of exits needed (exits are the location where the acts come on and off stage), and the number of locations where the show takes place, there is much room for creativity.
Each set designer brings his or her own vision to the show. This is part of why no two productions of the same show look alike.
This season, BAT’s resident set designer, Albie Clamenti, designed the first thee sets of the season; The Addams Family the Musical, Christmas Twist, and In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Maggie Larrick, BAT’s own managing director, designed the set for BAT’s final show of the season, The Letters. Over the course of the season, I got a chance to talk to both about how they design.
Each designer starts by reading the script and getting their vision of what the show needs and how they see each location in the show. For a period piece, that is one set in a specific time, research is done to see what that time and place looked like. For The Addams Family, time was spent watching old television shows. Even though The Addams Family was not located in the TV house, we still wanted the “Addams” feel.
Set designers try to bring the audience into the show. While theater can, and sometimes, is done without a set, the set’s role is to enhance the theater goer’s experience. Over time, I have discovered it is the little things, often barely noticed that distinguishes a great set from an adequate set. For example, snow on the windows in the winter; plugging the vibrators into to the light sconce because in 1889 there were no wall outlets; or getting the wall treatment to look like it would have at that time.
Of course, key to any set design is to come in within budget. At BAT our budgets are small. What you see has much more to do with the creativity of the designers than money. One key way to keep the budget low is to use stock pieces as much as possible. Re-use, recycle is the way of good design. If you have been watching closely, some set pieces have been in every show. They are repainted and altered as needed.
Albie told me a story of another designer who was saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to build everything new for every show?” Of course not. There is not enough time or money in the budget to build new. To Albie and Maggie that designer’s comment was a sign that the designer did not fully understand the needs of small theater.
Some sets are huge. The Addams Family spanned the entire front wall of the theater. While The Letters takes up less than the full proscenium. While A Christmas Twist used the stage to create a number of locations, The Letters put the set off to one side of the stage to let the audience know something was off center in the show. Location and design help take you to new places.
Once the set is designed, the design is presented to the director for approval. The set is to support the directors vision of the show, after all. Sometimes the set designer brings detailed drawings. At BAT, Sketchup seems to be the drawing program of choice. But at times, the drawings as still by hand on paper, on occasionally the drawings are on one of BAT’s chalkboards.
Once the director signs off on the design, it is shown the the actors, so they can get an idea of the world the will be living in while on stage.
Looking at the season’s sets, which one(s) do you like the best? Which one help move the story forward the best?