Set or Scenic Design for Theatre

Set Design for a Play or Musical

From page to stage:
The journey from the first reading to the drawing board and finally to the stage.

Picture it. You’re the set designer. The script contains a scene in which a person asks to buy a dozen glazed donuts. Your job is to design a donut shop. Yes, it’s that simple. The event? Buying donuts. The place: Donut shop. Go to one, have some coffee, buy a dozen donuts and share with the other designers. Sit at a table and draw pictures of the place. Or, perhaps you’re not that confident with your drawing skills yet. Take photos. This may make some uncomfortable. Easy- take pictures of your friends in the donut shop, but get as much of the shop in the background. 

Scenic Design Research:

What would you do if you had to design a visual environment for a play set in a high school student’s bedroom? Go home and draw your own room! Easy, right? Your own room would be considered primary research. This research would fully support your ideas and design. Well, what if you have to design the set for a play set in an 1890s home? If you live in a house built around that time, drawing the room layout might work, but the furniture and wall colors wouldn’t work. Not to mention that several renovations may have been done years before you were born. What would you do? You will need to complete some research. Yikes! Yes, I said research. Sorry.

Types of Research:

We have two types of research; primary and secondary. Basically, what you experience yourself via seeing, hearing, touching, etc. vs. what you learn by other peoples telling you what they saw, heard, and felt.

What is Primary Research? 

Primary research is when you see the info firsthand. Or, you see the info from a first-hand source. A photo of a room is a first-hand source. A painting may not be as paintings are the artist’s view and interpretation of what they’re looking at.

What is Secondary Research?

Secondary research is just what it sounds like. Info from second-hand knowledge. A painting is a second-hand type of research. The artist looked at the subject and painted what his/her eyes saw. You are trusting that the artist didn’t make a change to the subject. Don’t trust this. Artists were hired to paint portraits of people who had money to pay for them. Would you have them do it if you paid somebody to paint your picture and they could skip the zit on your upper lip? Of course, you would. So would I! They did too.

Sources of Primary Research:

Where do I find primary and secondary research sources?

I use plenty. The library has a vast array of references. Books with photos of endless subjects. Photo archives and magazines are plenty. Museums! Many museums have actual rooms set up so that you can see them up close. Yes, the real thing. New York has the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have several rooms that have either been taken out of buildings before the buildings were torn down, or they have rooms that have been painstakingly re-created. Taking every detail into account.

The Brooklyn Museum also has several rooms set up. Both museums and libraries have references to the art of the times you’re researching. Currently, I am designing a production of Candide. The director wishes the production to take on a look based on the paintings of an artist named Hogarth. So, I pulled books from the library that contain reproductions of Hogarth paintings. I also looked him up on the internet.

If I wish to see the paintings in real life, I go to the museum. One of my Stage & Set Design class assignments is to design the show “Harvey” by Mary Chase. The play has two locations. One is the Library within the Dowd Mansion, and the other is the Doctor’s Office at Chumley’s Rest. The play is set in the early 1900s. Well, a mansion from the early 1900s is not something I grew up in. Neither have any of my students. So to help discover the visual elements, I assign a project requiring a museum trip.