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Topic: Creating Stage Sets
Message: Posted by: George Ledo (Dec 16, 2006 01:28PM)
My thanks to Ron Jaxon for the inspiration for this column. I hadn’t written one for a while, so when I saw his post on stage scenery this morning (in the Illusions section), I said, aha!

This is probably going to be a long column, not because I believe for a second that I can “teach” how to design a stage set in one article, but because there are so many popular misconceptions, so much specialized thinking involved, and so many facets to the process. So I’ll address these first, and then, in subsequent posts, get into a basic step-by-step approach.

First, it’s important to understand what a stage set is and what it isn’t.

The purpose of a stage set is exactly the same as that of a TV or movie set, a dark ride at an amusement park, a high-end shop or department store, a courtroom, a church, or any other space where people go to do something specific. It’s an environment that sets up a very precise mindset in those who see it -- a mindset that supports the purpose of the space and gets people involved at an emotional level.

In the design field, we sometimes refer to this as “creating anticipation.” Think of the sets in the Star Wars movies, or the entrance to Disney’s Haunted Mansion, or similar places. They gave you a sense of what was going to happen before it ever did.

So, a stage set is a space that evokes the feelings and themes and conflicts to be explored in the story, and that helps the audience get into a receptive mood. A set for a Neil Simon comedy has a totally different “visual feel” than a set for an Arthur Miller drama or a set for a Verdi opera.

A stage set is not -- and I emphasize this -- a collection of flats, steps, doors, windows, columns, ramps, and other scenery pieces placed on stage to represent a room or a garden or a castle, and decorated accordingly. The term “represent” is not a good one for a designer’s vocabulary… and neither is the term “decoration.” These terms too often lead us astray.

Unfortunately, and sadly, a lot of college theater design programs totally miss this point, with the result that a lot of kids coming out of these programs know how to design scenery, but not how to design a set. I’ve seen far too many sets that looked anywhere from amateurish to gorgeous, but that had nothing at all to do with the story. Some have even conflicted with the story or overpowered it.

It’s one of the paradoxes of this crazy way of making a living that if our design for a given production is perfect, it often goes unnoticed -- it feels right, so it’s just “transparent” to the audience. We can only hope that the critics notice, ‘cause we sure like those good reviews! :)

In my next post, hopefully this afternoon, I’ll look at some of the popular misconceptions.
Message: Posted by: George Ledo (Dec 16, 2006 02:49PM)
Okay, so let’s take a quick look at some of the popular misconceptions about stage sets just to get them out of the way.

1. “Everything has to be realistic.” This is far more important in the movies than it is in a stage set, since in the movies we are made to feel like we’re right there in the middle of the action. When we go to the theater, we accept certain conventions, such as the “fourth wall” and the “willing suspension of disbelief.” On stage, it’s far more important and effective to evoke a feeling of the environment than to try to duplicate reality.

2. “All sets are made of flats.” Not necessarily. A flat is a piece of scenery that was created long ago for a specific purpose: to represent a flat surface such as a wall. Many stage sets don’t have flat surfaces, and therefore don’t need flats.

3. “Paint it black and nobody will see it.” Baloney. This principle is used in black art, but black is very intense, and, generally, something that’s painted black looks just like what it is: something painted black. Scenic artists rarely use black by itself unless there’s a very good reason for it in the design, and almost never for shadows.

4. “The audience won’t notice it.” Ha! Audiences can be very forgiving, especially when going to a high school or community theater, where they don’t expect things to look professional. But they [i]will[i] notice it. When presenting something as professional, please don’t think this way; I guarantee you they will notice everything you put out there, and it will all reflect on you.

5. “You have to fill the stage with scenery.” Wrong. You need to create a picture, but it doesn’t have to consist of scenery pieces. I was trained as a set designer, and the best set I’ve ever seen was at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-on-Avon, one summer when they were doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep. The set was simply a raked stage, from the footlights to the back wall of the theater. That was it. No backdrops, no flats, no masking, nothing. We literally saw the back wall of the theater and all the line sets at the side of the stage. But when those actors came out, they grabbed you and shook you and took you on an incredible journey. I’ll never forget it.

6. “I can paint it myself.” As I said above, audiences can be very forgiving, but you don’t want them walking out of the theater talking about that awful paint job on the tree... especially if you’re billing yourself as a professional.

In the next post, I’ll talk a bit about how set designers think.
Message: Posted by: George Ledo (Dec 16, 2006 05:28PM)
Set designers are just like a lot of other professionals: they are trained individuals who have their own personalities, interests, specialties, good and bad points, and so on. Throw a show -- any show -- at six set designers and you’ll get six different designs. Yet, if these are good set designers, all six designs will have a lot in common.

The major thing that the six designs will have in common is that they will all support the show. Let’s pick a show, one we are (mostly) all familiar with, or at least remember from high school or college: [i]Hamlet[/i].

The play starts out on the parapets of a castle, right around midnight, and progresses through various locations at the castle, including the Queen’s bedroom and the graveyard. There are several scenes that have specific requirements, such as the murder of Polonius behind the curtain, the play-within-the-play, the gravedigger scene, and the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes at the end. But yet, if we allow the six designers to do what they want, they will handle these requirements differently.

One designer will do a traditional medieval castle (okay, okay, there’s always one in the bunch). But we may also see versions done in a futuristic society, or in an underwater world, or a la Orwell’s [i]1984[/i], or in a Western ghost town, or at a software company’s headquarters.

For that matter, what would Disney do with it? Or George Lucas? Or Woody Allen? Or Mel Brooks?

But they will all have an interesting place for that opening scene where we first hear of the ghost, they will all have some way for Hamlet to stab Polonius in the Queen’s chamber, they will all have a way for us to observe Hamlet observing Claudius during the play-within-the-play, and they all will provide for some exciting swordplay at the end. None of these designers will just create a generic castle (flats painted grey with black lines to separate the stones) and then decorate it so it looks like a castle; each design will support the action in the story.

This is where set designers often get stuck -- that thin line between creating a work of art that stands on its own, and creating something that [i]supports[/i] a work of art. Good set designers can straddle that line: they take all the requirements of the show, and the director’s ideas, and the budget and other realities, and then come up with a creative visual statement that stands on its own without competing with the larger work of art it supports.

It’s an interesting way of thinking, seeing yourself as an artist who supports another artist’s work. And it’s even more interesting when you’re working on a “heavy” theatrical piece (say an opera) at the same time as you’re working on a corporate show or a theme park set, which are more like commercial art.

How does this tie into magic? Easily: a set for a magic show needs to support the show. It needs to create a sense of anticipation, of excitement, and of something wonderful about to happen, without making so much of a statement by itself that it competes with the magic.

To create something like this, we need to understand the show -- everything about the show. I’ll go into this in the next post.
Message: Posted by: George Ledo (Feb 14, 2007 08:07PM)
Yikes... it's been two months since my last column here! To this day, I don't have a clue where 2006 went!

Anyway, back to designing a set...

I said previously that, in order to design a set for a show, you need to understand everything about the show, and this is just as valid in magic as it is in theater, the movies, theme parks, and so forth. Right now I'm working on a design for [i]To Kill a Mockingbird[/i], which opens in May, and so far I've had three meetings with the director, where we discussed the characters, the period, and just about everything else about the show – [i]except the scenery[/i]. But she and I are both very clear on where she wants to go with the show: she wants us to experience the story through the eyes of a little girl who grew up, very suddenly, before she knew it was coming. This production will not be about the trial, or the language used, or even the mentality of a segment of the population; it will be about loss of innocence.

Besides of course reading the script, I've watched the movie twice, and am beginning some in-depth research into Alabama during the Depression years. All this before ever doing a sketch. I'm letting images roll around inside my head, and something is forming, but it's too early yet to put pencil to paper: I need more information.

A magic show works the same way... and here I'm going to go on the premise that you are reading this because you're interested in creating a setting for your own show: a small-to-medium show presented for general audiences (aka “lay people”) at typical magician venues such as schools, auditoriums, or possibly fairs and festivals. I'm going on that premise simply because if you wanted to go on the road or to Vegas with a fully-produced show, you'd have the resources to hire a designer. I discussed this in my column on Working with a Designer.

But let's go back to a small-to-medium show with adequate but limited resources. Let's say you already have the show laid out: which effects are in it, the sequence, your stage persona, and so forth. Now it's time to look at the show from the standpoint of a director.


Yes, I said a director, not a designer. If there's one thing a good director has when he or she directs a show, it's a clear vision of what the show will say to the audience. My director on [i]Mockingbird[/i] has such a vision, and it's very clear-cut and straightforward. Everything she will do on the show (including selecting the cast) will follow this vision. There will be no guesswork and no “because that's what the script says.” When I try “selling” a design concept to her, she's either going to buy it or not buy it based on how it fits her vision, not on whether she likes the scenery and the colors. Actually, I've already done a little (verbal) pre-selling, and we seem to be on the same page, but I want her to have a chance to digest my ideas -- especially now that she's auditioning the show and “seeing” her cast -- before I go any further.

So you have this magic show... what do you want to say with it?

It's not enough to say, well, I want to amaze and entertain the audience. That's like saying, I want to do [i]Hamlet[/i] because I like the gravedigger scene and the duel at the end. Too many directors do that in school and community theater, and the results are painfully obvious. When a question pops up during the production (“What's Hamlet really doing during the gravedigger scene?”), the only answer is “reciting the lines in the script.”

That's not theater, any more than pulling a rabbit out of a hat is magic. Why should anyone care if you pull a rabbit out of a hat? Okay, so it's a novelty, a momentary wow. So what?

Why are you really doing it? What do you want to say to the audience?

An exercise often used in creative writing classes is to distill your novel (The Great American Novel, of course) into one sentence. One sentence. Books on screenwriting often tell you the same thing: write down your blockbuster movie in one sentence. Commit to that one sentence; make sure you like it and that that's your story. Then go from there and expand on it, keeping that one sentence in front of you all the time. If an idea fits with the sentence, you can use it; otherwise get rid of it.

So think of a lay audience and ask yourself what your show is saying to them. If you can't tell what it's saying... well, maybe it's because it's not saying anything. That's when you need to put on your director's hat and come up with a clear concept, something that will tie the show together. One way to come up with this concept is to ask yourself (still wearing your director's hat), who are you? Why are you doing this? What's your motivation? Why is it important? Why should anyone care?

Because, like it or not, agree with it or not, buy into it or not, your audience will see everything you do as one entity (your show), and [i]it will have your name on it[/i]. As I said above, I'm talking about doing a show for general audiences -- the same people who watch other types of entertainers and who have a point of reference.

Dariel Fitzkee said something along these lines in [i]Showmanship for Magicians[/i] over fifty years ago, and it still holds true. A general audience will perceive you in the same light as they do other types of entertainers. Audiences at magic clubs or magic conventions are a different story altogether.

Want a slightly different take on this? Turn on your TV and watch several current cooking shows. They are as much about the cook as they are about the food. Emeril Lagasse has a live band, and the camera often turns to them just before a commercial break. Who ever heard of a live band on a cooking show? Julia Child, the Frugal Gourmet, and the Galloping Gourmet didn't have one, yet they had their own unique on-stage personalities and made their own unique statements. So does Emeril. Otherwise, great chefs or not, they wouldn't be on TV.

So put on your director's hat and think of a clear vision for your show. In the next column (which will appear before two months – I promise :) ), I'll start with a vision and discuss how to develop a design to support it.